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BY Jenna DutcherJuly 20, 2022, 2:18 PM
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) headquarters stands in Washington, D.C., as seen in August 2019. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Talented computer scientists are regularly sought out by both Silicon Valley startups and established corporations nationwide. But one surprising sector is also seeking to bring in computer science talent: your local statehouse.
“It’s so important that people with technology and engineering or computer science backgrounds go into government,” says Kathy Pham, the deputy chief technology officer for the Federal Trade Commission.
This holds true at a federal level. From the Social Security Administration to the Department of Defense, more than 79,000 federal employees work in information technology fields, and more than two-thirds of federal agencies employ at least one IT professional.
The public sector’s need is immediate, and its services are ubiquitous. “Think of the number of government services you’ve interacted with, ranging from state and local stuff, like the DMV, to federal things, like passports, immigration, social security benefits, et cetera,” Pham says. “They touch everyone. Oftentimes people have horror stories of having to deal with those services. And there are incredibly smart, dedicated public servants behind all of that.”
Part of the challenge in the public sector, Pham says, is the much older, large-scale tech systems that require a lot of tech talent to either help modernize—or make useful for the people who need to work on them. As a result, aspiring computer scientists can make a real difference, and find ample job opportunities, with the federal, state or local governments.
From studying computer science to setting public sector policy
Making technology useful and technological access equitable in society—with a consideration for the ethics and responsibilities inherent in computer science—is Pham’s calling.
A high school elective class in programming was her entry point into computer science, a field she went on to study at both an undergraduate and master’s level at the Georgia Institute of Technology. After graduation, Pham launched her career with software, product, and computer science roles at industry giants like Google, IBM, and Harris Healthcare.
Pham’s academic interests in human computer interaction, data systems, and cryptography informed what came next. In the last 10 years, she has worked for the U.S. Digital Service, Google, and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, the latter of which put her on a path to identifying both her personal passions and the overarching interconnectedness between technology and society. More recently, Pham moved into the role of deputy chief technology officer at the Federal Trade Commission, bringing a policy and regulation slant to her previous technology work.
Pham recognizes a deep need for technology skills in the public sector. After all, computer science and other tech engineering skills can be the make-or-break factors for critical public services.
In that arena, effective engineering and accessibility considerations are crucial. “It’s so that government services are built in a way that serves all the people that need government services,” Pham says. “When people can’t get access to health care, or social services, or even their social security checks—because of a tech glitch or just tech that was designed to not work in general—that’s incredibly problematic.”
Equally vital, Pham says, is the ability to step back from the computer science fundamentals to take in the holistic picture: “It’s important to have those perspectives in the room, to hire our peers who are in these other fields—like journalism and library sciences and history, et cetera—or to at least have some understanding of the importance of those skills yourself.”
Gaining computer science competency at a graduate level
But where to gain additional skill sets? While undergraduate programs generally stick to a set curriculum to ensure students understand the basics, it’s at the graduate level where computer scientists can really discover and explore their own interests, Pham says.
“Graduate programs offer the flexibility to think about what classes in your areas you want to explore and the opportunity to think about those less tangible, less fundamental skills-type stuff around how to work with different people, how to think about the effects of tech on different parts of the world, in ways that undergraduate degrees might not offer.”
And a master’s degree in computer science, like the one held by Pham, can be a natural fit for those looking to make a difference.
“Government is the largest public service,” she says. “This is like a call for every tech person: if you’re looking for some of the hardest, most challenging tech problems that touch some of the greatest populations in the world—because at least in the U.S., government services don’t just touch people who are U.S. citizens, there’s people who want to apply for immigration status, people who need to deal with the U.S. government in any capacity—there’s probably some tech component there and it’s where the greatest need is right now.”
Pham is also passionate about the public sector’s need to employ people who understand computer science at all levels of government. “There’s tech at the federal level, the state level, the city level,” she says. “Sometimes it’s independent tech, but sometimes it’s figuring out how to coordinate your tech across these different levels. But it all requires our best tech talent.”
Gain wide-ranging skill sets to impact a broad sector
Pham also teaches a Product Management and Society course at Harvard University, which centers on thinking through the life cycle for building technology, with people at its center. She says that this line of thinking is applicable for both governments or tech companies. “We get into issues of ethics and responsibility, when people just can’t live their daily lives. [There are] bus systems that can’t get online because of technology. There’s so many examples.”
Regardless of field, industry, or organizational size, fundamental computer science skills will stay in demand. “And not just an understanding of what tech is, but the skills of knowing how tech works, the inner workflow, picking the coding languages, defining your variables all the way to the system architecture and the strategy around tech,” Pham says. “All those pieces are so important to understand, whether we’re actually building a technology, or we’re trying to figure out the harms to the technology, or we’re trying to figure out how to regulate and set policies around the technology.”
What’s true for industry is true for the public sector. Governments at every level need committed public servants who have a thorough knowledge of computer science—and, equally important, those people who are willing to grapple with the ethical and practical considerations of how technology engages with society.