Fed headhunters look to Silicon Valley for talent

Fed headhunters look to Silicon Valley for talent

The Obama administration is ramping up its recruiting effort in Silicon Valley as it seeks to hire experts to defend the government from hackers. 

In a move to establish tech-world credibility and recruit cyber talent, both the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security will establish outposts in Silicon Valley. 

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The unprecedented actions, announced by Cabinet officials in California last week, point to the government’s struggle to compete with top technology companies for the most talented workers.

At a time when Google and Facebook offer an array of amenities to employees — not to mention competitive salaries — it is hard to persuade up-and-comers to work for the government, officials said. 

“The mission is compelling, but we have to make the environment less dreary,” 

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said of government work during a Stanford University Q&A last Thursday. 

“Kids don’t want to get into something they are in for their entire lives. We can’t have industrial-age human resources thinking in an age when they want choice, flexibility,” he said. 

News that Russian hackers read President Obama’s unclassified email put the issue of cybersecurity back in headlines over the weekend.

Carter also revealed on Thursday that Russians hacked the Defense Department’s unclassified networks, an attack that might be linked to similar intrusions at the State Department and the White House. 

Government agencies come under fire around the clock from cyberattackers seeking to breach their security. But because the problem spans virtually every sector of the economy, cyber experts have plenty of attractive job options if they want to fight hackers. 

The flow of workers typically goes from government to Silicon Valley, not the other way around, said Jim Lewis, a cyber warfare expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“People leave D.C. for Silicon Valley, a lot more money and a lot less bureaucracy. Plus, they don’t have Congress whining about their employer all the time,” Lewis wrote in an email. 

“In fact, some companies have a deliberate strategy to lure younger federal workers, by offering them bigger salaries to live in San Francisco. NSA [the National Security Agency] has some appeal, because you eventually get to do cool stuff and play with amazing toys, but it’s a lot harder for other agencies.” 

There is plenty of evidence of a revolving door between the Obama administration and Silicon Valley, though it is unclear whether tech workers will stay in government positions for more than a few years on average. 

Google veteran Nicole Wong became the White House deputy chief technology officer in 2013, only to depart a little more than a year later. 

Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property Michelle Lee and U.S. Digital Service Administrator Mikey Dickerson — both also former Google employees — remain in their posts, albeit with less than two years in D.C. between them. 

Meanwhile, an exodus is taking place from agencies like the NSA toward the tech world, which has become the destination of choice for former top administration officials. 

Former White House press secretary Jay Carney became head of global corporate affairs for Amazon in February, following the trail of Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, now at Uber, and Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson, who is working at Apple. 

The flow of workers belies an otherwise fraught relationship between the White House and Silicon Valley over NSA surveillance and data encryption, a conflict that might impede the government’s recruitment efforts. 

Both Carter and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson used a visit to California as an opportunity to press their tech-heavy audiences on encryption, arguing that going too far in protecting user data would hamper criminal investigations.

“Encryption is making it harder for your government to find criminal activity and potential terrorist activity,” Johnson said last week. 

Their friendly but insistent comments followed criticism of Obama for failing to fully explain his encryption stance during a summit at Stanford earlier this year.

A wide circle of major tech CEOs skipped that event in what was interpreted as a rebuke to the NSA and a sign of a wider falling out between the White House and the tech world. 

Cybersecurity strategist and tech startup adviser Mike McNerney said debate over government surveillance isn’t likely to prevent cyber experts from joining federal agencies.

“The attraction would be job security coupled with government level experience, which can open additional doors for individuals down the road,” he wrote in an email. 

“There are plenty of very talented folks more focused on individual growth as opposed to the politics involved.”  

 

— Julian Hattem contributed.