Eat Pray Code – DC’s Technology Conundrum

June 20, 2011

10:52 am

Work for the government, or create the next Facebook, that is the question.  Whether it is nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of startup boom to bust cycles or to work on some of the coolest technology projects while a.) being assured rational working hours, b.) actually being on a first name basis with your kids and c.) knowing that your paycheck really is in the mail. That’s the question for the DC technology scene.

One of the great things about the DC region is that government employment insulates and acts as a shock absorber for our economy.  During a tech bubble, when companies are shutting down and making engineers available to industry (callous euphemism for lay-offs), Washington D.C. area unemployment numbers are buffered by government employment. But what is great for the local economy is a bane for tech executives in search of technical genius.

The result of constant boom-to-bust cycles in the DC area is the knowledge among our local engineering talent that government work has its advantages.  This creates an unfortunate brain drain for DC tech companies during a recovery, because just as Depression-era stock investors who were burned by the Depression found themselves unwilling to return to the stock market, many engineers once burned by a tech bubble find warmth and comfort in the regular, dependable paycheck of government work.

The advantages of government engineering:

  1. Dependability – No-lay offs, well funded, not dependent on the whims of short sighted stock investors.  When the government can’t make a payroll, Treasury prints more money or Congress raises the debt limit. Oh and there is that taxation thing.
  2. Rational Work Hours – Nine to five anyone?  As in 9 AM – 5 PM with an hour for lunch.  There are few 9 AMs to 5 AMs, otherwise known as all-nighters, to get a client-saving software patch out the door.
  3. Actuating Projects – For great engineers it isn’t the money.  Don’t get me wrong: money is good, yet it is hard to compete with the equipment, technology and labs available to government scientist doing cancer research at NIH.  Building the next Facebook isn’t as inspirational when compared to building a laser that can shoot the wings off a gnat on the mountains of the moon (not to mention figuring out how to get that gnat to the moon).

During the Internet tech boom of the late 1990’s, the allure of untold riches from successes like AOL, Netscape, and Yahoo drew government engineers to private sector, venture-backed startups.  There was a gold rush to tech jobs.  After a couple of  tech bubbles, many of those engineers returned to government work and will never venture out into the wild and woolly tech world again.  DC is the only region in the country that suffers a major brain drain of technical talent when tech companies compete for engineers against their own government.

There is no denying that DC has the entrepreneurial business talent and top technical minds to be a world class commercial tech hub. Arguably between our tech companies and government R&D, we are likely the most tech savvy city in the world. Yet when there is a tech bubble, displaced engineers in Texas, New York or Silicon Valley have few options but to sit on the side of the road with “will code for food” signs.  In contrast, great displaced engineers in DC have a government option to dabble with unlimited budgets in state-of-the-art labs on pure innovative science and then go home to sit in dens papered with worthless stock options while thanking the lord that they don’t have to check to see if this week’s paycheck had been deposited in the bank.

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Glen Hellman (@glehel), is an angel investor, serial entrepreneur, and works for venture capitalists as a turn-around specialist. He is the Chief Entrepreneureator at Driven Forward LLC, frequently muses on his blog, Forward Thinking, and works with entrepreneurs to help them figure out what to do and get them to do it.

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