If the government wants the brightest tech talent, they will need to rebrand the perception of their agencies and firms.
The government isn’t regarded as a sexy place for today’s top tech talent. Many technologists aspire to join a FAANG org or a well-funded startup with perks and bucu incentives.
While spinning up the next streaming platform may be great on a resume, today’s tech talent is very mission-driven. In my research, mission matters most. Money comes second. They want to do something that matters. It’s not the work the government does that turns them off. It’s the culture, the bureaucracy, the lack of choice over where they work, and the uninspiring atmospheres available when they are in the office.
When it comes to the gov’t in general, and the DoD specifically, there are lots of things to complain about and others are doing it masterfully (“fix our computers” comes to mind). So I’m going to shine a light on two gov’t entities doing at least one thing really well: brand.
First, NASA. Space. Technology. Sexy, right?
NASA is a government agency. So are…
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
- The United States Geological Survey (USGS)
- The Department of Energy (DoE)
You can go into Target or Forever 21 right now and buy merch with the NASA logo. People sport the logo like it’s a lifestyle brand. Kids grow up aspiring to be NASA astronauts. Would teenagers sport merch repping the Department of Energy? Um. No.
One of my co-workers at my former company worked on our Space Force contract and her parents told their friends that their daughter works at NASA. She’s given up telling them she doesn’t work at NASA. It can be hard for normal people to grasp that there are other places where space work happens. Because NASA is synonymous with space.
I was in a nightclub once and I fell in with a group of girlfriends who introduced one friend as, “This is Stephanie she WORKS AT NASA!!” It’s a whole identity.
NASA is an inspirational brand tied to the American ideal that you can be anything you want…even an astronaut. NASA is a brand that attracts talent into government tech. While I have no idea what it’s like when you actually get there, here’s a glimpse at some Glassdoor reviews:
“They bleed managers from promising flexible schedules then tell them to expect to be at work 50 hours a week after they hire you.” -MSA
“NASA is honestly one of the best places to work. The experience and culture is absolutely the like nothing you will have anywhere else.” –Software Engineer
“While NASA certainly draws people in with its name (…) You get to work on some of the coolest projects out there, but you might not see it to completion in 20 years.” -Mechanical Engineer
Of course, NASA now has competition from some flashy commercial players in the space race, but by and large, they’re the most branded and widely recognizable government agency out there.
The second gov entity with a poppin brand presence is The Pentagon. There is a long-running and symbiotic relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon with product placements fashioned to make working in the top levels of the DoD look like something to aspire to. While we could question the ethics of this, especially when it comes to product placement of the military to attract young people, this move means there’s no shortage of fresh blood dedicated to the mission.
If we want to transform the perception of working on important missions in GovTech, we need to think more along the lines of selling the aspiration to “become one of us”. There are commercial entities serving the government, like Rise8 and Fearless, that make it possible to contribute to the mission of making the world a better place for warfighters, voters, veterans, victims of disasters, etc while also offering the culture, income, work/life balance, and incentives today’s technologists are looking for. Rise8 has built a brand that makes folks aspire to be one of us. And guess what – we do work in space! And you can work on products that you’ll see in production in your lifetime.
“When I was looking for something outside my current role (at Microsoft), Rise8 was on my radar for a while just because of the branding. The branding and the message it was sending.” -Riser
But the point of this article is this: the government can’t leave it all up to niche contractors to offer the lifestyle and culture that tech talent aspires to. Through companies like WeWork, the government can offer better, more inspiring, and enjoyable work environments. And that’s a great start. Healthy cultures, including psychological safety, should be next on the agenda for working toward building a better perception of working in the government.
Once they can actually deliver what they’re promising, they’re ready to brand and market their program or agency as a place to do the sexy kind of work your mom will want to tell her friends about.