The Best Jobs Are in Government. No, ReallyOctober 24, 2019
In her memoir, Becoming, Michelle Obama describes making the transition from a fancy job in a Chicago law firm to working in Chicago’s City Hall. She writes that the lobby was “alarmingly and upliftingly packed with people,” including couples getting married, people lodging complaints, babies in strollers, and old ladies in wheelchairs. She was enthralled by the “clunky, controlled chaos.”
A few months ago, I spoke with Brett Goldstein, the new head of the Defense Digital Service. An old Chicago hand, he remembers the lobby’s chaos the same way. “There were people all over the place, and I walked around the ground floor completely confused.” Goldstein, who was Chicago’s first Chief Data Officer back in 2011, found that the energy and tumult made the idea of public service enormously attractive—just as it had for Obama.
Today Goldstein works in the Pentagon. The Pentagon is no Chicago City Hall: “Everyone is in uniform, and they tend to walk in an organized, methodical way,” Goldstein pointed out when I visited him there. The geometry of the place is challenging, but there’s a way to get anywhere in the building within seven minutes. “I have become the master of navigating the Pentagon,” Goldstein said, a bit proudly, leading me up and down staircases and through diorama-lined corridors.
Goldstein looks a bit out of place among the uniforms, with his thick beard, jeans and polo shirt—until, that is, we arrive at the office of the digital service. Goldstein is the second leader of the operation, following its founding director, Chris Lynch. The service was created in 2015 to be a kind of quick-action startup to solve the military’s trickiest tech problems. Everyone in the cluttered, open-plan room is wearing T-shirts and hoodies.
Goldstein, who studied both criminal justice and computer science, helped launch Open Table before taking the unusual step of joining the Chicago police department. Following 9/11 he read an article about “big city police recruiting white collar professionals,” he says, and “I’m like, ‘Oh, I could do that.’”
He was a beat cop and then ran the department’s predictive analytics operations. When he moved to City Hall, he focused on weaning the city from its dependence on proprietary data platforms and packages, while finding ways to open up previously siloed data. The successful WindyGrid project he spearheaded in 2012, for example, pulled together data from many different departments and displayed it spatially using all open-source tools. Law enforcement and other groups could get a real-time view into what was happening in any part of the city without having to pay a vendor. That 2012 project felt very personal to him (“I worked on the West Side of Chicago,” he says. “I learned about homicide that way.”)
After leaving city government, Goldstein started an investment fund. Now he has brought his Chicago-style thinking to the Department of Defense. Some things are different: his work in Chicago wound down by about 7:30pm every day, while work in the Pentagon feels 24/7; his devices run at all times. But looking at hard problems, “learning the real world,” as he puts it, and, importantly, avoiding unnecessarily expensive systems, still drive him.
This time around, though, he’s got unparalleled resources, and his mission is to make the work of fighting war less painful and save people’s lives. He sounds a little giddy as he tells me he’s been to Afghanistan three times since May. “I’ve never been in a combat zone before. I’m sitting here, saying to myself, ‘I’m wearing a ballistic vest and a helmet. I’m in a Black Hawk helicopter and I’m over the terrain in Afghanistan.’ I’m like, ‘No kidding. This is really happening.'”
One of those trips to Afghanistan was at the request of the Navy. New flavors of unmanned aerial systems (which I’m just going to call drones) are being deployed constantly, they’re getting cheaper, and they can do all kinds of nasty things to American forces. The Navy needed a flexible, continuously evolving method for sensing their presence.
The DDS has about 20 projects like this running at any given time. Most of them run for two years with fulltime DDS staff, but a handful—perhaps three—are staffed by six or so technical experts from across the DoD landscape who spend six months focusing intently on a single project. The six-month projects are called “Jyns.” (A Star Wars reference: Jyn Erso was the courageous lead character in Rogue One who helps the rebel alliance. Thick with Star Wars references, the DDS is.) I met the drone group in late August, and the impressive team included a skilled drone pilot, a software developer, a cyber warfare engineer, an “aircraft hacker,” a user interface/design expert, and a physicist/electronic engineer, all of whom would be going back to their regular DoD jobs at the end of December. Goldstein referred to the group as an “ad hoc A-team,” and I was told that all obstacles to their work that might exist in other parts of DoD—like access to funding, hardware, software, storage, connectivity, or prototypes—had been removed.
The group, which described itself as “in very deep” with the drone community, had begun its work with a monthlong “discovery” process that took them into the field—including in Afghanistan—to talk to servicepeople, technicians, civilians, vendors, and other experts.
After the month of discovery was over, the group had decided to focus on creating a “cheaper box”: a piece of hardware that would contain allow sensors to be inserted–it was unclear to me what form the hardware would be taking– that could listen from wherever it was placed for the presence of known and unknown drones, tied to software that would allow different databases of information about drones from disparate sources to be overlaid more easily. The idea is that these functions will result in spatially displayed data about the drone environment nearby—reminiscent, actually, of WindyGrid, and similarly vendor-independent. New knowledge about increasingly weird drones carrying dangerous payloads can be added on the fly. Other people will decide whether a given drone is actually dangerous; the Jyn team is helping to ensure that assessment is based on as much useful data as possible. As Owen Seely, a designer on the team, put it: “We’re not going to try to do threat analysis. That’s a whole other thing. But if we can just get more data together in a cheaper, quicker, more real-time way, that adds a lot of benefit.”
It’s called Project Holocron, another Star Wars reference. Seely (who sports a beard that puts Goldstein’s to shame) patiently explained to me that holocrons hold ancient wisdom from a Jedi that can be holographically displayed. “So, we thought, we have a box, and it will collect information, and hold all the counter [drone] wisdom for you, and display that to you,” he said. When I asked whether I’d be able to walk through the display—was it actually a hologram?—he demurred. “Right now it’s your conventional kind of mapping software [display].”
By the end of 2019, this Jyn hopes to demonstrate that it’s possible to make a cheap, flexible system for detecting drones (and learning about new ones) and deploy it across the entire government. As Goldstein puts it, “A win for me is to show the DoD, and whomever else, that there is a better integrated way to identify [drones] and be thoughtful about it.” They have two more months to get this done, and they feel pretty confident they’ll be successful.
I met the Jyn team at about the same time I read Michael Lewis’s “The Fifth Risk,” a look back at the disastrously bungled Trump transition effort (such as it was) following the 2016 election. Lewis’s book, a quick and terrifying read about people who distrust even the idea of government taking the reins of giant federal agencies—agencies responsible for, say, keeping track of nuclear material and providing accurate weather predictions—provides harrowing glimpses of, in his words, “a mentality that everything that government does is stupid and bad and the people in it are stupid and bad.”
The Fifth Risk is a good reminder of the wholly nonpolitical nature of most government work, the essential role of government in keeping us safe, and the very high caliber of people who work in public service. (If you’re curious about the title: the top four risks the Department of Energy confronts, according to former Department of Energy OE chief risk officer John MacWilliams, are nuclear accidents, North Korea, Iran, and America’s electrical grid. The “fifth risk” is an absence of high-quality project management. Go read the book.)
Goldstein made progress opening up data and deploying it smartly in Chicago. Now he’s working on hard problems for a department almost three million employees. And Goldstein wants to let everyone know that he’s hiring. So if you are a Silicon Valley engineer or designer who is interested in working for government in an unconstrained, useful way, Goldstein is looking for you.
Not everyone in Silicon Valley will want to work for the Department of Defense—even indirectly, as Nitasha Tiku’s article “Three Years of Misery Inside Google” made clear. But there are many parts of government. Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service told Michael Lewis that working in government gives you a unique perspective. “When they leave they say, ‘This was a really hard job, and those are the best people I’ve ever worked with.'” The government provides services to everyone—supports the collective good—in ways the private sector can’t or won’t, and that mission draws good people in. Goldstein has found that, too. The people I met at DDS during my field trip to the Pentagon told me it has been the greatest privilege of their lifetimes to work there. Those people, it seemed to me, were the bulwark against that fifth risk.
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