The US Digital Service: YCombinator Podcast with Matt Cutts

I listened to an interview by YCombinator with Matt Cutts. YCombintor is a famous startup incubator that has helped build companies such as Airbnb, Dropbox, and DoorDash. Matt Cutts is one of the original google engineers, who built google safesearch, spam detection, and worked on the first google ads. He now is the director of the US Digital Service.

What is the US Digital Service?

The US digital Service was made to "fix" all the issues regarding outdated technology. Notably, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many discovered that critical government applications were built on programming languages 60 years old like COBOL. To fix this, the US Digital Service works with federal government departments in order to modernize infrastructure. They also act as consultants for new projects. For example, they helped HUD (Housing and Urban Development) decide new contractors.

The US Digital Service hires seasoned industry professionals from companies such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft who want to make a difference. Unlike other departments, the US Digital Service is considered a seasonal job, where after 2-4 years, you go back to industry. I found this an interesting difference from the general job structure. Matt Cutts explained that the reason for this is that the job is meant for industry leaders to make differences from their prior experience, and not fall into the burnout of industry (described as rolling a rock up a hill).

They take alternative approaches from the usual government. Instead of requesting large documents in writing to decide contractors, they instead request code samples, which software engineers grade.

They also audit the usability of government websites – such as the veteran affairs website.

Does it work?

Some notable work that the US Digital Service has done is automating the process to apply to get veteran benefits. Notably the process of applying for honorable discharge (for healthcare benefits) when a veteran was instead discharged for health reasons. They have also saved departments money by finding open source solutions and commercial applications instead of contracting.

The US Digital Service is fast forwarding how the US government operates. Cutts described that the US was "stuck in 1995". Common practices from the 1990s to 2000s were only adopted 7 years back in 2016 (such as bug bounties). Cutts also noted that departments are now moving to the secure cloud, which only started a few years ago, emphasizing that the government is "catching up".

Working to help others.

The entire podcast helped me realize that you should choose where you work based on the outcome you want to have. In the case of US Digital Service employees, civic service was important.

Jobs should be motivated by end outcome, and supported by benefits (not the other way around).