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Tony Robalik
Tony Robalik

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Public vs private

(With thanks to Sheri Hooley on Unsplash for the cover image of a predatory roadrunner — good metaphor for the software industry?)

If you've read the previous post in this series, you might think that I miss my earlier career as a government bureaucrat. And... I do and I don't.

One of the first things I noticed after transitioning to software development in the private sector was how much faster everything moved, and the shocking openness to new ideas. During standups, my team actually listened to what I had to say. I was able to introduce new concepts into our codebase regularly and with little impediment. I actually wrote our first unit test, and our first Espresso test! 1 (Before this, all our tests were written with Robotium.) I introduced MVP into our Activity-centric architecture. I learned a lot. I was busy every minute of the day, and spent my evenings reading books to further hone the craft. I even ended up mentoring younger devs with actual CS degrees. I was fully engaged and my brain was on fire, in a good way.

Contrast this to my first career as an urban planner. I am a classic "self-starter" with strong internal motivations, and this is basically a perfect recipe for burnout in the public bureaucracy. Everything is slower (see also: fax machines). If you don't have grey hair, your opinion is basically only tolerated; you are treated with (at best) a gentle condescension. I was often so bored in my first job that I had the time to teach myself how to use LaTeX and emacs.2, 3 When I wasn't bored, I was frustrated by the slow pace of change, and frankly the lack of interest in change at all.


One thing I miss about the public sector was the very clear sense of mission. You were there to serve the public good, period. (Actually, the legal phrase is "health, safety, and welfare.") There was often vigorous debate about what this entailed. The debate often concluded the wrong way, in my opinion, but at least at the local level you could believe most people were arguing in good faith. One reason things were slow is that every step of the way towards a new policy or law required ample public notice and opportunity for comment; this was good. (It was also often messy. The public is frequently wrong and poorly informed, which leads to deep cynicism in public officials, who hope for nothing more than an empty public meeting.) It's important to highlight that this slow pace, with an emphasis on community input, is diametrically at odds with tech's famous lust for "disruption" at all costs.

The tech sector also purports to have a mission. It would like the world to believe that this mission is Good (definitely not Evil), and that its profit-driven decisions necessarily lead to the best outcomes for society. I think this is argued in bad faith or at least from a position of narcissism. Prove the value of your work. Don't talk about jobs created or profit generated; extracting oil from the ground does that too. Talk to me about human welfare and happiness, talk to me about ecological sustainability — how does your company improve those metrics? Most don't.

I think tech would be a lot better off if we dropped the sanctimonious act and instead acknowledged that it simply feels good to spend most of our time solving mostly deterministic problems involving 1s and 0s, and it feels doubly good that we're well-paid for this privilege.

I think the public sector would be better off it it made more space for young, energetic people with new ideas. It should embrace systems thinking and ideas like adaptive management (but also in a governing context) so that it can react to changing conditions more swiftly. Barriers to change should be removed, particularly when it can be demonstrated that doing so would improve the "health, safety, and welfare" of the public.


1 Circa 2015. up
2 Really should have picked vim. up
3 It should go without saying that this was entirely useless to me in that role. up

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