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Computer scientists: Looking for some hard, challenging tech problems to solve? Consider a government job

BY Jenna DutcherJuly 20, 2022, 2:18 PM

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) headquarters are located in Washington, DC, as seen in August 2019. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Talented computer scientists are constantly sought after by both Silicon Valley startups and established corporations across the country. But a surprising sector also seeks to bring in computer science talent: your local statehouse.

“It’s very important that people with technology and engineering or computer science backgrounds go to government,” said Kathy Pham, deputy chief technology officer for the Federal Trade Commission.

This is true at the 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 professional in IT.

Public sector demand is immediate, and its services are everywhere. “Think about the number of government services you engage in, from state and local things, like the DMV, to federal things, like passports, immigration, social security benefits, and so on. yet, “said Pham. “They touch everything. Often people have terrible stories of dealing with services. And there are incredibly intelligent, dedicated public servants behind it all. ”

Part of the public sector challenge, according to Pham, is the older, larger technology systems that require a lot of technological talent to help modernize — or can be beneficial for the people who need to work on them. As a result, aspiring computer scientists can make a real difference, and find many job opportunities, with federal, state or local government.

From studying computer science to making public sector policy

Making technology useful and technologically accessible socially — with ethical considerations and responsibilities inherent in computer science — is what Pham calls it.

A high school elective class in programming is his entry point in computer science, a field he continues to study at an undergraduate and master’s level at the Georgia Institute of Technology. After graduation, Pham launched his career in software, product, and computer science roles with industry giants such as Google, IBM, and Harris Healthcare.

Pham’s academic interest in human -computer interaction, data systems, and cryptography informs what happens next. For the past 10 years, he has worked at U.S. Digital Service, Google, and at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, which later put him on a path to identifying his personal and general interests. -the connection between technology and society. Recently, Pham moved to the role of deputy chief technology officer of the Federal Trade Commission, bringing a policy and regulatory orientation to his previous work in technology.

Pham recognizes the deep need for technology skills in the public sector. After all, computer science and other tech engineering skills can be make-or-break factors for critical public services.

In that arena, effective engineering and accessibility considerations are essential. “This is so that government services can be built in a way that can serve all the people who need government services,” Pham said. “If people can’t access health care, or social services, or even their social security checks-because of a tech glitch or technology designed not to work in general – that’s a big problem. ”

Equally important, according to Pham, is the ability to step back from the basics of computer science to get the overall picture: “It’s important to have room views, to get our colleagues to are in other fields — such as journalism and libraries. science and history, etc. — or at least have some understanding of the importance of those skills on your own. ”

Acquire computer science skills at the graduate level

But where to get more skill sets? While undergraduate programs typically retain a set curriculum to ensure students understand the basics, it is at the graduate level where computer scientists can discover and explore their own interests, as Pham.

“Graduate programs offer the flexibility to think about what classes of your areas you want to study and the opportunity to think about less tactile, less basic things that type of skill how working with different people, how to think about the effects of different parts of the world, in ways that an undergraduate degree cannot offer.

And a master’s degree in computer science, such as the one held by Pham, would be naturally appropriate for those seeking to make a difference.

“Government is the biggest public service,” he said. “It’s like a call for every tech person: if you’re looking for some of the most difficult, most challenging technology problems that affect some of the world’s largest population — because at least in the U.S., the government services not only touch people who are U.S. citizens, there are people who want to apply for immigration status, people who have to deal with the U.S. government in any capacity — there may be some parts of the technology are there and where the greatest demand is today.

Pham is also enthusiastic about the public sector’s need to employ people who understand computer science at all levels of government. “There’s technology at the federal level, state level, town level,” he said. “Sometimes it’s technology independent, but sometimes it’s thinking about how to coordinate your technology at different levels. But it all requires our very best technological talent.”

Acquire broad skill sets to affect a wide sector

Pham also teaches a course in Product Management and Society at Harvard University, which focuses on thinking through the life cycle for construction technology, with people at its center. He said this line of thinking applies to governments or technology companies. “We get into issues of morality and responsibility, when people can no longer live their daily lives. [There are] bus systems that are unable to go online due to technology. There are many examples. ”

Regardless of the field, industry, or size of the organization, basic computer science skills will remain in demand. “And not just an understanding of what tech is, but the skills of knowing how tech works, the internal workings, choosing coding languages, defining your variables down to the system architecture and the strategy around technology, ”Pham said. “All of the pieces are very important to understand, whether we’re actually building a technology, or we’re trying to identify the harms of the technology, or we’re trying to figure out how to regulate and set policies in around technology. ”

What is true for the industry is true for the public sector. Governments at every level need committed public servants with thorough knowledge of computer science — and, equally important, those people who are willing to contend with ethical and practical considerations of how technology works. interacting with society.

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