Whatever the long-term legal/cybersecurity/privacy implications are of the San Bernardino cell phone case, the fact that the FBI is insisting on Apple’s help to break into a suspect’s iPhone reminds us of one oft-lamented fact: the private sector is way better at attracting and keeping top talent in the technical world. At this stage, there is little reason to think that this will ever change.
This case, and the dozens (hundreds?) of other instances where law enforcement has needed assistance from outside experts, is an open admission that top government agencies like the FBI can’t cut it. They do not employ minds with the technical aptitude and/or experience to undo or get around what the minds at Apple (and elsewhere) have built.
President Obama’s extensively covered “call to arms” at the recent SXSW Interactive Festival emphasized the dearth of promising tech employees currently engaged in government service – as did a recent piece in the Military Times outlining how the Department of Defense plans to “borrow” tech talent as needed to advance national security interests.
So the war on terrorism pretty much depends on Silicon Valley lending D.C. a cup of sugar.
The question is, why isn’t the government able to draw the innovative and brilliant workers it needs on the front end? For much of the twentieth century, many of the best minds worked for the U.S. government and many of the century’s greatest scientific and technical achievements took place in government labs (and large, unpopulated currently irradiated swaths of land). Just what went wrong and how to fix it are issues many have tried to address, but only one answer seems reliable…
Government is No Longer in the Business of Innovation
Pundits have come up with a variety of explanations for the apparent lack of interest in government service amongst those of a technical bent. From the many “Millennials are like this“ arguments to the assertion that older tech workers are being overlooked to issues of pay, lack of interest in government work, and bad culture fit, almost every possible angle has at some point been proffered as the “real” root of the problem of government attracting tech leaders.
A report that looked at the actual data refutes or questions most of these suggestions. Alternatively, one particular look at tech jobs and tech workers came to a subtle yet ultimately unsurprising conclusion:
Government agencies with a strong recent track record of innovation (e.g. NASA) aren’t having any trouble filling their ranks, while agencies that tend to look on tech as a means to an end rather than a worthy end in and of itself make rather lackluster employment options for the IT-abled.
The best minds in any field are forged where their abilities are pushed, stretched, and respected, and most government agencies simply aren’t offering that opportunity to their computer and technology teams.
Think about the fact that the FBI’s best-bet approach to unlocking the San Bernardino iPhone is a “brute force” attack; not to oversimplify a fairly complex situation, but in a nutshell, that’s the level of imagination the Bureau’s tehnical leadership brings to the table.
The US government won’t attract or retain the tech workers it wants until the US people—or their elected representatives—change what they want to get out of the government. We need to get back to the days of advancing scientific and technical knowledge purely for the purpose of advancing, and then figuring out how to apply those advances later. That attitude, which has been politically branded as a “lack of accountability”, is essential for true innovation and for earning the eager loyalty of hungry, creative and innovative minds.
It’s what drove the development of aviation, space flight, the Internet, and computers themselves. It brought us satellites and communication infrastructure and CDs and nuclear weapons, and it could bring us a whole lot more if the government fostered an environment of appreciation for innovation for innovation’s sake.
Who knows, maybe we need another Cold War. If only North Korea were an actual threat…
Daniel A. Guttenberg is an Atlanta-based writer who fell into the startup world by accident and has been gleefully treading water ever since. He will be survived by his beard and his legacy of procrastination.