• Analysis
  • November 19, 2015
  • 25 minutes
  • 0

Technologists join government to help veterans into civilian jobs

Entrepreneurs team up with the public sector as 'Presidential Innovation Fellows'

Imagine leaving the only career you’ve ever had. Despite doing many different jobs in different parts of a huge organisation, you have always been part of this one big structure.

It has paid you and trained you and taught you its ethos. It may sometimes have been overbearing and authoritarian, but your place within it has always been certain. You’ve always been on a team, and that team is very powerful.

You’ve worked and led others in the most pressured and hostile environments conceivable, yet you’ve never had to write a résumé or do a formal job interview. Never have you had to learn the pushy skills of self-publicity that would allow you to sell yourself to a prospective employer.

It’s like you’re starting over at the bottom ranks

And yet, all by yourself, you need to find a job.

That is the situation of those leaving the military. In the USA, there are 21 million veterans of the armed forces, nearly three million of them from the period since the attack on the World Trade Center.

They are twice as likely as the general population to be homeless, twice as likely to commit suicide, more likely to be alcoholic, more likely to be mentally ill, more likely to be in prison, and, until recently, more likely to be unemployed. 69% say finding a job is their biggest challenge.

Former marine Daniel Rau told Apolitical: ‘If you’ve got someone who’s been in the military for five-plus years and they’ve had a significant amount of responsibility, been in charge of multiple people and had people’s lives in their care, and then you get out, and it’s like you’re starting over at the bottom ranks, where your peers of the same age have already been growing within the civilian system.’

Daniel Rau at the White House

Rau, who is now 32, served as a radio technician and then in close protection for State Department officials in India, Japan and the Yemen. After leaving the military in 2008, he took a degree in finance and worked in a brokerage firm until 2010, ‘but I didn’t have that overarching sense of purpose and mission that I had in the military. Losing that sense is something all veterans feel, and each person has to figure out how to replace that.’

When he realised finance was not for him, Rau called a buddy and got a job ‘in two weeks’ doing close protection work for State Department officials in Afghanistan. He did that for five years before coming back to the US and helping set up veteran mentoring network Veterati.

Of leaving the military he says, ‘It can be easier depending on what guidance you receive, but if you try and do it without any guidance, you’ll probably run into a lot of trouble.’

All job options

30-year-old Andrew Stroup seems an unlikely person to be helping to solve this problem from within government. With degrees in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, he founded CommonKey, a tech security company; MegaBots, a hardware company that wants to create a league of giant fighting robots; and the Baltimore Foundery, a non-profit organisation, providing access to industrial tools and education. (He has also been a contestant on engineering game show The Big Brain Theory.)

Stroup could raise millions to start another company in Silicon Valley or take any number of high-paying and prestigious tech jobs. His decision to take a role in the public service is all the more remarkable for the fact that he had a job in government before, in the Department of Defence, and left it in frustration. Stroup says that the slowness of the bureaucracy made it ‘nigh-on impossible’ to complete projects in the rapid, adaptable way he had grown used to at start-ups.

We source amazing talent that departments could never find on their own

But he is emblematic of the people who have transformed veterans’ search for employment as well as numerous other successes, such as allowing citizens to easily download their own medical data, making communities more disaster resilient and giving students easier access to sexual assault resources. He has ‘always believed that the government is the largest honeypot of data and that data has such an amazing potential impact on people.’ He returned when an offer to work in an innovative programme coincided with a radical change in the opportunities to turn that potential into a reality.

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President Obama makes the PIF programme permanent

That programme is called Presidential Innovation Fellows. ‘PIFs’ as they are nicknamed, are ‘seasoned technologists, entrepreneurs and innovators’ who have won the chance to work in government for a year. By framing the jobs as competitive fellowships, the government has managed to attract highly ambitious talent that might not ordinarily have considered working for the state.

Says Stroup: ‘We effectively source some amazing talent that [departments] could never ever afford or find on their own.’ The first echelon, in 2012, selected 18 fellows from 700 applicants. The applications now run into the thousands throughout the year.

Founded in 2012 by the US Chief Technology Officer, Todd Park, along with a small group including Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel (formerly CTO at Veterans Affairs), the programme was made permanent in August by order of President Obama, who hailed its ‘remarkable results’, first among them the work done for veterans, a perfect example of how the innovations of tech-connectivity can be applied to entrenched real-world problems.

How it works: Found in translation

The fellows serve six or twelve months in departments or agencies (which pay for them) to bring their tech savvy to bear on a particular problem. In a collaborative effort between the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the First Lady, Vice-President Joe Biden, the Department of Labor and the Office of Personnel management, a team of fellows built a website bringing together in a one-stop shop all the previously scattered and obscure information about jobs, benefits, healthcare and educational opportunities.

It is the kind of that thing that seems very straightforward now that it exists, but the sheer amount of information collated and made easily usable here is deeply impressive – everything from how to get rehabilitation to hundreds of thousands of job listings from across the country.

As Rau says: ‘There are a lot of resources available, there’s a lot of information available and one of the biggest challenges guys face is navigating all that.’

The jobs are particularly important, as they underpin so much else, and the website includes a very thorough ‘résumé translator’ that puts skills learned in the military into the language of Human Resources.

Cost savings are calculated at $27million

When you type in your military job, the translator gives a long, comprehensive list of tasks that job entails and a checkable list of transferable skills. For a senior sergeant in the infantry it lists tasks like:

  • ‘assists the Commander in the implementation of command policies’
  • ‘develops and executes NCO Professional Development Programs’
  • ‘reviews evaluation reports to determine compliance with policies and procedures and recommends corrective actions’

There are hundreds more such skills. The transferable skills come under headings like ‘Administration and Management’, ‘Complex Problem Solving’ and ‘Quality Control Analysis’. Each can be ticked and automatically added to a résumé-builder, making it nigh-on impossible for our job-seeking former senior sergeant to miss out on presenting his varied abilities.

Below this are listed potential careers for a person with these skills. Beside each career you can ‘learn more’ or ‘search jobs’. If our senior sergeant takes a fairly straightforward idea of what he’d like to do next and selects, say, private security, there are nearly 10,000 actual jobs listed, in California, in Texas, in New York and, in short, all over the union. And not only that, but the ‘featured jobs’ at the top aren’t there because they’re paid for but because those employers have given a commitment to hiring veterans.

Although there is no data available on how many jobs have been found through the site, more than a million people have used the Veterans Employment Center since its launch in April. The Department of Veterans Affairs calculates cost savings of $27 million.

Nonetheless, Diana Tsai, CEO of Veterati, which aims to connect veterans with jobs through mentors and networking, emphasises the limits of an automated system. ‘It doesn’t take into account any of your aspirations and blind spots. A core determinant of your future is not just your past but what your aspirations happen to be. For some of the population it’s going to work, but for some it won’t.’

Daniel Rau gives the example of himself: he was a radio technician and close protection officer, but then after leaving wanted to work in finance. He believes that veterans in that position need ‘speak to someone who has a similar background to you and who went in a completely different direction than their past background may have dictated. And you can learn from them and what they’ve learned blazing the path they have to their successful point. You can learn how to get there and what additional possibilities may be available.’

An unexpected career path for veterans is provided by something else that PIFs have worked on: the solar power industry. The SunShot initiative was launched in 2014 at the Department of Energy to make solar power economically viable and to create jobs. Part of it is called ‘Solar Ready Vets’, which connects veterans to jobs and training in the industry. It has significant presidential backing and now one in ten solar energy industry employees is a veteran.

The concerted effort on veteran unemployment reduced the rate to 3.9% in October, the lowest rate for seven years. It is now below that of the general population (which is at 5%).

From an experiment to impact

When President Obama made the PIF programme permanent, he praised its imaginative projects with medical records, police departments and schools, and said, What began as an experiment is becoming a success. From now on, Presidential Innovation Fellows will be an integral part of our government.’

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Andrew Stroup at the White House

The programme is now to be dramatically scaled up and Andrew Stroup is responsible for doing the scaling. Selected for a fellowship in 2013, he couldn’t take it up because of his businesses but in March, he joined the programme as Director of Product and Technology.

So far there have been 97 fellows over the past three years, including the current ones, and the recruitment process is being accelerated. Where previous ‘classes’ of fellows all started in batches, intake is now done on a rolling basis.

Stroup does not doubt that the programme can attract people: ‘The cool thing about government is that you’re not building an app or a product that impacts tens to hundreds of thousands of people, instead it’s tens to hundreds of millions of people, which is an amazing opportunity.

‘We’re talking about people who were part of the original Google Maps team or founded Weather Underground but I think what they realise is that in the Valley or in New York you get in a cycle where you’re building more efficient code or a widget that allows consumers to find a product, but there’s a greater purpose around social impact and it’s almost become a sexy quality to have in the industry now.

‘It’s really about when you pack up your laptop at the end of the day and you go home and you reflect on what you’ve done, and you can say, I’ve helped people better identify ways to register to vote or helped veterans find employment or helped address income inequality through data. It’s not only sexy, it’s a fulfillment of life, this greater meaning. And I think it’s a natural evolution of how technology has propagated into our culture and how you can use that to do good.’

Solving interesting problems at scale

Although his first experience of the public sector was frustrating, Stroup has found the situation radically changed this time around. He stresses that the ability and commitment of the public servants he has worked with is unchanged: ‘These people have a wealth of knowledge and obviously we know that they’re underpaid compared to the private sector and they do this because they’re passionate about weather data or space or the census and commerce or veterans.’

But this time the situation around those people has changed: ‘I’ve been here for nine months and it’s been amazing for me to see what we can ship in two weeks, that would have taken two years to do.

You gain that snowball effect of doing more quicker

‘I never thought I’d come back into the federal government, but I had that carrot in front of me, thinking, what would it mean to actually have the infrastructure, the support, the buy-in from leadership to actually do the things I was asked to the first time around. That was the motivation for me.’

He ascribes the difference to momentum. The position of Chief Information Officer was created in 2002, the first Chief Technical Officer appointed in 2009. Todd Park in particular Stroup cites as having created and built out the administrative and technological infrastructure.

‘Back then we didn’t have [software platform] GitHub, we weren’t able to use [communication software] Slack, we didn’t have access to developer resources and tools like the private sector. Now, as each day turns over and we block and tackle more and more problems, and build more and more infrastructure and capacity, you gain that snowball effect of being able to do more and more quicker.

‘And I think that goes back to the discussion of why people find doing good interesting, it’s that now the infrastructure is being built out, you can solve more and more interesting problems, because now we’re exposed to more data sets. And having the ability to build even more APIs [a software development tool], which means you can do more cool stuff on those data sets. And this giant snowball is an amazing thing to see.’

Always difficult

Nonetheless, even such a high-profile programme does not get an easy run. ‘There are always difficulties,’ says Stroup, ‘to say the least. The challenges would exist anywhere, but getting a “no” to a “maybe”, that bureaucracy-hacking, is something we address daily.’

Chief among the difficulties Stroup mentions is getting agreement across agencies. Even though the PIF programme is approached with projects, that does not guarantee that the agencies are fully on board. ‘There’s never a single point where they say, “Yes, go do this”, even at the secretary level. Sometimes you have buy-in from leadership, sometimes it’s middle-management or the people who own the product.

It’s about building relationships and capacity

‘But there’s many layers, so it’s not just the chief data officer, you’ve got the think about CIO, the Comms office, the Legal office. It’s broken up into these different functional areas and because of that you have to do that blocking and tackling to build a coalition with the agency that supports the project. That’s why we have co-founders with the agencies who know how to navigate that.’

The growing credibility of the programme does make that easier. But, says Stroup, so does simply having a technology person in the room with policymakers who know they are going to need something technological. ‘The fellows are perceived as subject-matter experts, which provides a sense of trust. Also, having them set in as one of them, as a department employee, being assimilated into the organisation, is very effective.

‘And then proving out what it could look like. What happens if we go from A to C or A to F through technology or these processes. But to be honest, it’s about building relationships and capacity.’

Tours of Duty (that may not end)

More than half the fellows stay on after their stint is up. Says Stroup: ‘They come in thinking they’re only going to serve 12 months, but they see such an endless sea of problems that have to be solved that they’re hooked, by that adrenalin of just the possibilities.’

As he talks about his ambitions for bringing ever more fellows into the government, he resists the temptation to vocalise just how big he imagines the programme can get, but he will say: ‘We talk about government being this giant ship that takes forever to course-correct even one degree. But the government is actually a fleet of many many big ships, and it’s working with all these different agencies that are mission-driven, and differently mission-driven, and it’s all these small ways to course-correct or to re-align these ships as a fleet in the right direction through technology. And that’s almost a mind-bogglingly difficult problem.’

The ambition in the type of problems being addressed is also mind-boggling. At the Department of Commerce, for example, three fellows working with the chief data officer, deputy chief data officer and chief data scientist have taken on the task of reducing income inequality by analysing the Department’s vast information stores.

What underpins these ambitions and indeed the programme as a whole is a very powerfully American metaphor of service. The programme’s creator, Todd Park, described the fellowships as ‘tours of duty’. This obviously resonates deeply with many fellows, including Stroup, both of the whose grandfathers served in the Army in the Korean War.

‘The kind of people interested [in the fellowship] are not necessarily the kind who would raise their hand to serve their country in the military. But that doesn’t mean that their skill sets and their talent isn’t drastically needed. So the programme is a great outlet for these people to have an impact on the world around them. I never really felt the call [to the military] but having the opportunity to come do this and having an impact in a different way is very meaningful.’

Follow the PIF programme on Twitter and send us your suggestions for Apolitical Pioneers to ideas@apolitical.co.

(Picture Credit: US Department of Defense)

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