The gulf between tech and government is legendary. In the 2010s, tech talent flocked to startups and big platforms where they could move fast, break things, and get people to click on ads. Venture capital flowed freely as firms jumped further and faster to stake a claim in businesses that prized user acquisition above all else. With the exception of a handful of firms, the single easiest way to NOT get funded during those boom years was to list government as a market in your pitch deck. Too slow, too uncertain, too irrational.
By 2024, tech’s distaste for government will have transformed into a healthy appetite. Talent has already made that shift. Thousands of engineers, product managers, user researchers, and data scientists have been flocking to government tech job fairs. Execs have been taking leadership key roles at agencies. Layoffs in the tech sector will get the credit for much of this migration, but a closer look at where these people are going suggests that desire for impact is the key driver.
Technologists shocked at the nation’s Covid response have joined the US Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention (CDC). Desire to help Ukraine and prevent a showdown in Taiwan has attracted talent to the US State Department and the military. In states that have authorized paid family leave, computer engineers are raising their hands to help implement these programs. Many are looking back at their careers and wishing for something more meaningful.
Institutions are shifting as well. Venture capital is already pivoting to much greater collaboration with government, focusing on problems typically addressed by governments—health care, defense, supply chains—which require larger capital commitments, longer time-horizons, and more public-private collaboration. In the US, we won’t follow the Chinese model, where the government explicitly directs where capital can and cannot go. Instead, the government acts as a signal, shining a light on areas of priority and increasingly providing incentives to tackle those areas, as it did with Operation Warp Speed during the pandemic, and which it continues to do through the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act.
The role of strategic government funding in the rise of new technologies is often ignored or conveniently forgotten. Tesla (no less than the failed Solyndra) received massive government loan guarantees; SpaceX would never have succeeded without NASA’s strategic customer commitments. Google began with a “digital libraries” grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NSF, the public health standards body. And of course, without GPS, which was developed with government backing, there would be no Google Maps, no Uber or Lyft, and none of the real-time tracking so essential to modern logistics. Investors are coming to realize that treating the government as a partner, a coinvestor, and a market is a winning strategy.
Government work is hard but rewarding. Despite the stereotype of Marge Simpson’s sisters working slowly and unhelpfully at the DMV, government is full of mission-driven people working purposefully to solve enormous problems, at enormous scale. This is catnip for developers, designers, and product managers who miss the days when the tech industry was similarly idealistic and dreaming of impact, not just a big payday. Back in 2011, pioneering Facebook data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher made the observation that “the best minds of my generation are working on getting people to click on ads. That sucks.” Tens of thousands of others have since come to the same conclusion.
This pivot is coming just in time. The solutions to the world’s great problems demand our ingenuity. Many will choose to work to solve those problems in the private sector, at startups or tech giants. But many more have come to realize that some of the biggest opportunities for impact at scale can be found by working with or for the government.
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