From fed to private sector: How to make the move

When looking for a new professional challenge, federal IT employees often set their sights on an industry job. But how can they ensure that their shift from public- to private-sector employment goes smoothly?

To answer that question, I asked former senior-level federal officials who have successfully made the transition to share their experiences and offer practical advice on finding a job that fits.

The officials — each with more than 30 years of experience — agreed that job seekers should reflect on what kind of work they want to do, research companies of interest and use their network of contacts to find the right kinds of opportunities.

They also said a common pitfall that causes federal employees to bounce from one industry job to the next is a lack of preparation.

“The biggest single factor of those who didn’t have a good transition is they didn’t have a clear idea of what they were walking into,” said Pat Schambach, former CIO at the Transportation Security Administration and now vice president and general manager of homeland security business at Computer Sciences Corp.

Before moving to the private sector, employees should consider how industry differs from the federal government in terms of budgets and financing, said Renny DiPentima, former deputy commissioner of systems at the Social Security Administration. He retired as president and CEO of SRA International in 2007.

DiPentima said federal employees should think about and specify during interviews what kind of value they will add to a company with their existing skill set.

Former government employees are often targeted for work in two areas: business development, such as sales and marketing, and program management. It’s up to the employee to decide the area in which he or she will be able to contribute the most, DiPentima said.

When Schambach began thinking about joining the private-sector workforce, he talked to others who had already made the switch. He particularly sought out people who did not have a successful transition.

“Start early, and start by interviewing people who have gone through it, and learn from their experiences,” Schambach advised.

He said federal employees should weigh whether they want to work for a large or small company and consider whether they would prefer a company that provides products or services. And they should decide what role they’d like to fill at a company.

“Part of my goal in talking to people was to help me understand these roles and how they are different from each other,” Schambach said.

He also used those conversations to understand complex private-sector compensation models so he knew what to ask for and how to negotiate.

Do your homework

Woody Hall, former assistant commissioner and CIO at the Customs and Border Protection agency, agreed that talking with others who have made the change to the private sector is essential.

The more you talk with former feds who are now in the private sector, “the better you’re going to be able to negotiate a [benefits] package that makes sense to you and your employer,” said Hall, who is now vice president of IT strategy and CIO at General Dynamics IT.

Hall said federal employees should be upfront with companies about what they’re looking for in a position. “Private-sector companies are able to structure and restructure positions much more easily” than the government, he added.

Hall also said employees should do their homework on the companies they’re interested in by researching them on the Internet or contacting colleagues who might be familiar with the companies’ inner workings.

Jim Williams, former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service, also emphasized the importance of staying connected with friends and former colleagues as one searches for a new job.

“You’re probably going to find a job through someone you know,” he said. “You should make sure people know how to get hold of you.”

Williams, who is senior vice president of global professional services at Daon, added that he took five months off between jobs to recharge and figure out what he wanted to do next — a recommendation that was popular among the other former officials.

About the Author

Alyah Khan is a staff writer covering IT policy.

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