By Steve Kelman

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'Don't leave: you're all hired,' government boss tells tech interns

cheering federal workers

Coding it Forward, which I have blogged about before, this summer fielded its third cohort of "civic digital fellows" in the federal government. From only 14 fellows the first year, the program was up to 54 this year, at six agencies.

This effort, started by college undergraduates at Harvard and other schools, has been very carefully designed to give students a good experience. A central feature is that interns must be given meaningful work assignments that allow them to support the mission of the agency where they are working – none of the presentations that traditionally marked student IT internships in Washington.

The students would attend a number of group events where they would learn more about the government and issues in federal IT, along with events organized by the agency sponsoring them. And each student would have a personal mentor – a senior Washington-based person from the public or private sector – to provide career counseling.

The capstone of this summer was a recent "demo day" where the fellows presented their work at their agency. At the National Institutes of Health (NIH) -- one of the six sponsoring agencies welcoming its first group of fellows, nine in all -- Principal Deputy Director Dr. Lawrence Tabak gave the initial remarks, and after hearing the fellows' presentations, according to a post on Twitter, he walked over to them and said, "You're all hired!"

When I saw this post, I decided to learn more about the experiences of the civic digital fellows at NIH.

As I looked through the list of the nine interns, mostly entering their junior years at college, I was simply blown away. They are attending schools such as Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia, Duke and Cornell, and most are majoring in computer science. These are kids for whom the world is their oyster. Yet they chose to cultivate their oyster in the government.

Compared with previous years, where fellows were working in digital government areas probably more familiar to most blog readers, a fairly large component of the fellows' work this year, and certainly at NIH, an agency a good deal of whose work features data analysis, involved data science (i.e. using data to help make conclusions or predictions, including machine learning and natural language processing). Some worked on teaching data science newbies at NIH basic data science skills. Others worked on specific data science projects such as trying to predict how a cell crawls around in a dish or using topic mapping to match grant applications to program officers with the appropriate expertise.

I have frequently expressed concern about the government's shortage of IT substantive expertise, which gets raised in the context of contracting, where there are worries that the government lacks the technical skills to manage contractors after award. Did NIH have the data science skills to supervise the fellows?

It turns out the agency does have people doing data science, but their job titles are generally statistician, mathematician or bioinformatician.

Jessica Mazerik, a special assistant to the principal deputy director and coordinator for the fellows program and workforce lead on data science workforce development at NIH explained that the Office of Personnel Management set "data scientist" as a job category.

"So moving forward, we'll be able to track these numbers in the federal government," she said.

Fellows are paid $4,000 for a summer, $5,000 if they are grad students. Agencies must come up with the funds. This has generally been done, and was accomplished by NIH, through a contract between Coding It Forward and an organization that arranges student internships throughout the government. (There has been some discussion of agencies using the GSA schedules to buy the interns' services.

"NIH leadership supported the fellowship concept," Mazerik said, "so funding this program was not a challenge."

One thing that has worried me about the program is that the students are so high-powered that they might be regarded by the agencies as arrogant, snot-nosed know-it-alls, making acceptance and collaboration harder. I asked people both at NIH and Coding it Forward about this, and, for whatever their answers are worth, all said this was not a problem.

"In the orientation, we stress the importance of being human-centered while building products and services in agencies; not only does that mean talking to users, but also working with agency supervisors, colleagues, and others to understand their perspectives. After all, our team and the students recognize that many federal employees have been serving their agencies for years, if not decades, and we rely on them for their expertise," said Rachel Dodell, the Coding It Forward executive director. She added that "working within government processes can sometimes pose challenges (for example, needing to get IT approval to add software packages to computers), and the fellows dealt with these professionally."

I was pleased to see that, when some of the fellows were asked a question about their greatest accomplishment for an NIH blog about the program, one responded, "Justin Bieber follows me on Twitter! My proudest accomplishment from the 6th grade" -- an appropriate sign of not taking oneself too seriously.

Mazerik offered two pieces of advice, one operational and one cultural. "Make sure your fellows' badges are ready on day one, and their offices are ready to assign them IT equipment and strong IT support to get all their systems up and running. For tech fellowships, this is so important!" And: "These students are coming from totally different backgrounds (they aren't biologists or biomedical researchers) and have unique perspectives – so learn from them and let them teach us."

I also asked her what the biggest logistical challenge for setting up the program was. She said it was getting the right fit for the fellows – finding a part of NIH that best could use their skills and designing projects that were meaningful.

I would make the more-general comment that, in exchange for getting so much more from these interns, agencies must also contribute more, not only in developing meaningful work but also providing them group activities at the agency and – not least – paying them.

None of these students this year was a senior, so they are not yet on the job market. Agencies who might later want to hire a fellow should start planning in advance. One of the big complaints students make about job search in the federal government is how late job announcements come out; the private sector often makes hiring decisions in the winter, before many federal jobs are posted.

I spoke with Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service, about this, and he said that with advance planning agencies can get job announcements out in a timely manner -- this is what the Partnership is doing with its cyber fellowship program. Some, though not all agencies have direct hire authority for IT positions, though Coding it Forward hasn’t seen it used yet. They are at this point hiring ex-interns as contractors, though Coding it Forward is looking for other alternatives.

It makes me really excited and proud to think about these kids. This may be the best chance yet for the government to create a tech talent pipeline. Let's do the follow-up so we don't blow it.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Aug 14, 2019 at 5:31 PM


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