The High-Tech Revolving Door

“The Revolving Door” usually refers to politicians and other lawmakers moving back and forth between Capitol Hill and the corporations that Capitol Hill works with and regulates. However, according to “The Pentagon as Silicon Valley’s Incubator” by Somini Sengupta in The New York Times, there might be an emerging revolving door when it comes to government technology as well.

Many of us assume the government looks to the private sector to find the most sophisticated techniques. However, according to the Times, it might be the other way around. Silicon Valley is in fact seeking the expertise of government agencies to create the most advanced cyber security. Sengupta notes:

“For years, the Pentagon has knocked on Silicon Valley’s door in search of programmers to work on its spying technologies. But these days, it’s the Pentagon that is being scouted for expertise. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are finding it valuable to have an insider’s perspective on the national security apparatus when trying to find or prevent computer vulnerabilities or mine large troves of data.”

What makes the private sector interested in hiring government security-sector employees?

  • Access to classified technologies and information gives government employees a unique perspective and insight into ideas not available to the private sector.
  • Experience working on critical missions. As former NSA employee Oren Falkowitz put it, “you get to be on the bleeding edge, not just the cutting edge of what’s possible.”
  • Relationships with government agencies and an understanding of an agency’s needs and procurement policies.

What makes the private sector attractive to government employees? According to Sengupta, the only factor is a higher salary. He notes an example of a former NSA employee who attended university on an NSA scholarship. Once his mandatory government service was finished, he immediately took his government-nurtured skills to the private sector.

What do you think? Is this relationship between Silicon Valley and Washington DC a good one? Should government agencies do more to convince their employees to stay at their agencies?

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Pat Fiorenza

Such an important and timely question – talent management is one of the areas every agency is looking at, starting to be prepared for demographic shifts, and a new wave of employees entering into leadership programs. I’d love to hear what folks think about talent management specifically in regard to IT, but in a general sense, some ideas for agencies:

– Mentorship / Executive Coaching programs- connect them with leaders across the agency, help them grow their network

– Training and Professional Development – maybe they can’t provide an equivalent salary, but can offer trainings to help elevate their career

– Compensation is important – but often we tie it to just a salary, managers need to be clear about the entire compensation package (401K, pensions, health insurance, etc), if employees start looking leave for more money, be sure conversations are around the entire compensation, and focus on some of the benefits that government has to offer over public sector (insider track, front lines, cutting edge, depending on role – quickly move up ranks)

– Build institutional knowledge: no matter what, for good reasons or bad, people are going to leave, agencies just need to make sure knowledge is held within the agency, so when change occurs, they can transition quickly.

Darrell Hamilton

Pat has some good points. I would add that people coming and going is not always a bad thing. Yes, it makes the personnel management issues harder to deal with, but all the “good” knowledge is not exclusively on the government side nor is it all on the industry side. There are huge advantages to letting people go to industry. The goal should be to always have some people coming back. Keep a policy that actively works to bring back the people who leave for a while.

Having been one of the boomerang people, I came back after 15 years away. Over time I realized that the extra money was nice and the knowledge and experience gained was fabulous, but there are some benefits of being a government employee that industry does not match. I would not trade my crazy career for anything, but I love what I am doing now.

Ultimately, the government is best served by competing for the talent. Trying to “beat” the compitition for the talent will ultimately not work.

Kevin Lanahan

I’ve often joked that the state of Missouri pays 2/3 of retail for everything: pencils to personnel. We have a narrow opportunity to hire IT staff: we need someone with either elderly, frail parents in the area, a pathological fear of big cities, or a lack of financial ambition.

We had some success hiring people out of college, knowing that they will leave in a few years, but lately we haven’t even been able to do that; they are getting snapped up by private industry right out of college.

When the next tech bust comes along, we’ll be able to pick up a few new govies, but we are resigned for the time being to an aging tech staff (myself included) and contractors.

Pat Fiorenza

Great comments! Darrell, really liked the insights about it not being a bad thing for people to move back and forth between sectors. It’s just interesting times, especially seeing how organizations are adapting to changing IT/hiring/demographics.

Kathryn David

Thanks so much for all of your comments. I wish your points had been added to the article! Government service really does offer a value for employees that cannot be calculated simply by comparing salaries and I wished the article had mentioned that more. I also agree that an employee with experience in a variety of sectors is truly the most qualified. Bouncing around keeps you on your toes and ultimately benefits everyone.

Henry Brown

Would offer that this has been a problem for a VERY long time!


One of the primary reasons, private sector employee’s go to work within the public sector is for the power they perceive that they will have, would also include the job security that generally comes with a job within the public sector…

Again IMO the primary reason a public sector employee will go to work in the public sector is MONEY!. The private sector will go after the public sector employees for all the reasons that you describe. Being somewhat cynical, the private sector knows what a public sector employee makes and to ensure that they get the skill sets that they need they need to offer enough money to tempt the “new” employee to leave a job which has a relative high level of security.