On 18F: past and future

Disclosures: at the time of this writing 1) I work for the U.S. federal government. 2) several former colleagues currently work at 18F 3) my perspectives are decidedly civil and not defense

18F is a digital services delivery team within the U.S. federal government General Services Administration (GSA), recently celebrating its 1 year anniversary.

Since inception, it’s created or strongly promoted several public applications and initiatives, including Hub, Midas, Analytics, HTTPS initiative, and much more. 18F publicizes its project statuses on a dashboard. I know first hand how hard it can be to get things done in federal government IT, and 18F’s accomplishments in such a short amount of time are quite impressive.

These applications and initiatives are important, and they have been built transparently and in the open. The manner in which this work gets done is also encouraging: agile, perhaps even lean. I don’t see year+-long projects comprising large teams and costing millions of dollars. They appear to be greenfield, relatively small applications that will likely not require considerable resources to maintain over time.

Importantly, we know about all of this because 18Fers are vocal about their work and successes, rightly so. They blog frequently and tweet, a lot. They market and promote their work, and they do so consistently. Considering the government’s general risk aversion, message obsession, and concern about “optics,” 18F’s prolificness in writing about their work is, again, impressive.

I do not know first-hand what it’s like to work at 18F. But it sure does seem like a good place to spend part of a career in technology.

That, right there, is in my estimation the most important thing that 18F has done: 18F has made working in government seem like an attractive option for talented people.

In this regard, they are not the first. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has for several years drawn incredibly talented designers and developers through its design and technology fellowship program. Likewise, Presidential Innovation Fellows (out of which 18F was born) and HHS Fellows. Even those more public successes are standing on the shoulder of many giants, the hundreds of thousands of dedicated, thoughtful federal IT workers who for decades have been heads down, gettin’ it done. But right now, 18F are far and away the best marketers.

If 18F were doing all this great work, but not promoting it and using it as a recruiting vehicle to bring more people into the federal government, the 18F organization would not be as important. Their impact on the world is not primarily the dozens of projects they’ve already built and touted publicly. Their effect will be on the talented, dedicated, persistent, optimistic humans they bring into the federal government to work on much harder problems… women and men who otherwise would be working in the private sector.

I suspect most folks coming to work at 18F will be working on applications for other federal agencies. Look at the Dashboard and see the “Partner” label beside the projects. And know this: working in federal government is hard damn work. It’ll be on those partner projects where mettle is tested, and impact is greatest.

It’s in this role in Federal IT — as a project delivery team for other agencies — that I’d like to see even more transparency from 18F, because that’s where its impact and challenge will lie.

Projects such as USCIS, FOIA modernization, and so forth… how are they doing? 18F’s GitHub contains 100+ repositories, but the Dashboard shows only a dozen or so projects. For those projects, what’s it like to work on them? How are these project teams succeeding despite the difficulties of working for federal clients? What innovations are they bringing to bear on these problems, and how are they spreading these innovations across government to enable even more federal IT workers to be successful? What challenges are they facing and how are they overcoming them? How are they exploiting their unique role to multiply effectiveness and joy for other federal workers?

That’s a lot to put on their fledgling organization, I admit. I also know they have recruited amazing people, and they are up to the challenge.

I want to read more blog posts about the really hard projects they’re delivering for other federal agencies. I want to hear about their challenges, their failures, their frustrations, the shitshows — all the gnarly stuff. I want to hear about mistakes, what they’re learning, where they still need help. I want to hear more about the human side of software delivery and how the great people at 18F are getting things done.

Over the past half decade, the winds have slowly been shifting about the idea of the federal government being a great place to build amazing, meaningful, high quality software, particularly in the public-facing space. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, with its focus on user experience and design aesthetic, has helped tremendously, and you see similar initiatives and conversations in other federal agencies.  Agencies are talking about UX, design, DevOps, agile, lean.

These are necessary, but not sufficient.

Talented people are motivated by challenge. I want to hear more about 18F’s challenges, and I speculate that being as transparent and vocal about those challenges is the next step toward recruiting even more great people into the federal government who otherwise would have gone to work in Silicon Valley or New York unicorn companies.

Happy 1st birthday, 18F. You’ve done well. You’re doing good work. You have amazing people whom I deeply admire. I am excited for your future, and keen to see how the work you’re doing affects the lives of other federal IT workers, both current and future. Your most important work, and most difficult, is yet to come.

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