Tag Archives: technology

I want you to become a government tech vendor.

Hey, competent tech folks: your country needs you. Your knowledge, your experience, and your connections can improve the United States for everybody.

I’m not asking you to go work for the federal government.

I’m not asking you to go work for a non-profit.

I’m asking you to become a government technology vendor. I want you to sign up at SAM.gov, start bidding on 18F microcontracts, and eventually pay an attorney to help you navigate the procurement process to get a multi-million-dollar federal technology contract.

Uncle Sam drawing, captioned: I want you to become a gov't tech vendor.

* * *
The same handful of vendors bid on every federal tech project, and often the bids are between one and two orders of magnitude higher than they should be. FedScoop recently published a list of the top 100 federal IT vendors, ranked by income. (I’d only heard of 13 of them before.) 71% of of the contract income in this list goes to the top 10 vendors. 22% goes to Lockheed Martin. Look at this distribution of the top 100:

A chart that drops off very steeply
Numbers are in millions.

If we performed this exercise with all federal IT contracts—and there will be $86 billion in federal IT spending in FY2017—we’d see that there is a very long tail, though it probably wouldn’t change the fact that most of the spoils are divided among a handful of vendors.

Despite all of this spending (or perhaps because of it), only 6.4% of large federal IT projects succeed. The failure and subsequent rescue of Healthcare.gov shined a light on the pitfalls of our legacy procurement model, and the enormous benefits that can come of working with small, agile teams of software developers who are given the space to do their job.

* * *

I’ve spent the last few years working in tech as a non-profit partner to government and, before that, I worked in tech within government. I am here to tell you that you can effect more positive change as a government vendor than as a helpful non-profit, and that you can be at least as helpful to our nation as a government vendor as you can by working on tech within government. (After all, government outsources work to thousands of times more technical positions than the number that they employ directly.)

Generally speaking, free software is useless to governments. If you spent the next eight months feverishly producing the perfect regulatory management platform, and then handed a copy of it to an agency (complete with a FOSS license), odds are slim to none that they would be able to use it. There are far too many hurdles.  But if you bid $100,000 on a government RFP for that system, you’d ensure that government would save a bundle and be able to actually use your software. Government has a system for acquiring new technology: the procurement process. Realistically, the change you can provide will come from working within that system, not trying to work outside of it.

The United States needs a small army of competent developers to start hundreds of businesses, bid on federal contracts, and do top-notch work for a fair rate. We need people whose goal isn’t an IPO and fabulous wealth, but instead to earn a nice living for themselves and everybody who works for them while making their country better by creating better technology for government.

There is good and important work that needs to be done in government technology, at federal, state, and local levels. Doing that work in exchange for payment isn’t merely not a bad thing, it may be the only thing you can viably do that actually makes a difference. It’s not reasonable to expect talented developers to perform free work at government hackathons in exchange for pizza while major vendors produce failing software for hundreds of millions of dollars.

A 6.4% success rate isn’t good enough. Fixing this will involve a lot of work beyond merely attracting new vendors—and most of that work is within government—but attracting new vendors is an important part in this improvement. Become a government tech vendor. Help make the U.S. a better place for everybody.

Links for November 10th

  • Nieman Reports: A Local Newspaper Endures a Stormy Backlash
    This is the story of how the tiny Idaho Falls Post Register bravely uncovered a series of cases of pedophiles acting as leaders in area Boy Scout troops, as told by the managing editor of the paper. In the face of an angry public very much in denial and personal embarrassment heaped on the reporter (a closeted gay man, he was outed), they pushed on, eventually getting state law changed to help the victims and and winning the Scripps Howard First Amendment prize.
  • Bret Victor: A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design
    Whether or not you care about the phrase "interaction design," you'll probably be interested in these thoughts about the poverty of our methods of interfacing with gizmos when compared with the rest of our interactions with the world.
  • Food Safety News: Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey
    Anything related to honey is filtered out of most honey, leaving a sugar solution. Why? In part because it allows Chinese businesses to dump their antibiotics-laced honey on the U.S. market without any pollen left that would allow the honey to be IDd as Chinese. If you want real honey, just buy it from a local producer or from a health food store.

Links for October 27th

  • The Guardian: Mexico City considers fixed-term marriage licences
    The city is considering offering two-year marriage licenses. Couples would get married, and two years later their marriage contract would end, though they could, of course, renew it. Why? Because so many marriages end after two years, requiring an expensive and trying divorce. I've been forecasting limited term marriage licenses for years, but I never would have guessed that it might start in the heavily Catholic Mexico.
  • CNet: Was legal site rewrite a liberal plot? Not quite.
    Justia made a mistake in a regular expression (I made the same mistake last week), resulting in some SCOTUS rulings going missing from their website. The conspiracy-theory responses are remarkable, especially the bizarre call for a criminal investigation. Justia is a private site—they're free to exclude any rulings for any (or no) reason!
  • Nest
    I am embarrassingly excited about this thermostat. I've put a lot of thought into thermostat design over the past few years, convinced that they could both look and function a great deal better than the best models currently available. (In my new home, we got top-flight ones installed, and they're still ugly and work poorly.) The Nest Learning Thermostat is quite a bit more advanced than anything I'd imagined. One more feature I'd like: the ability to detect the presence of people in the home based on whether their phone is on the WiFi network.

Links for September 20th

  • Ars Technica: Patent trolls have cost innovators half a trillion dollars
    A study by some Boston University researchers have found that, from publicly traded companies alone, $500B has been spent on paying off patent extortionists. That's a quarter of all U.S. R&D expenses, wasted. If we want to get serious about reducing the cost of doing business in this country, let's start with software patent reform.
  • Google Webmaster Central: View-all in search results
    When articles can be viewed paginated or all on one page, Google is now preferring the all-in-one approach in displaying search results. Because, of course, people don't want to read articles broken up into ten pages.
  • Pressthink: We Have No Idea Who’s Right—Criticizing “he said, she said” journalism at NPR
    Jay Rosen provides this thoughtful piece about the media-wide habit of presenting two sides of a disagreement and pretending that's good journalism. (The exception to this rule is, of course, Fox News, which makes only the thinnest of pretenses at presenting both sides equally.) Opponents of abortion say that tighter regulations on clinics are necessary. Supporters say that regulations are tight enough. So, go farther—compare abortion clinics to other, similar medical facilities, compare the requirements and the actual health data, and tell us who's right.

Links for August 30th

  • W3C: Personal names around the world
    The World Wide Web Consortium has put together this great document about how people's names differ globally, and the implications of those differences on website and database development. I've long preferred simply providing a "name" field—none of this "first name" "last name" business—and this reassures me that this is the right path. Even folks not interested in website development would find the first half of this pretty interesting.
  • ConceivablyTech: IE Falls Below 40% Market Share For The First Time Since 1998
    The last time so few people used Internet Explorer, they were on version 4.0. This is a great sign of healthy competition in the browser market, something that really didn't exist after IE4 until just a few years ago.
  • Gallup: Presidential Job Approval Center
    This is a great little web app from Gallup, albeit one trapped in Flash without an API and lacking the ability to link to any data within it. They've got presidential approval data going back to Truman. Interestingly, Obama's popularity thus far mirrors most closely that of Reagan.

Links for August 29th

Links for July 24th

  • Talking Points Memo: White House—We Thought We Were Down To The Details
    Turns out the real reason that Boehner walked out on Obama on Friday is because Boehner demanded a repeal of the individual healthcare mandate. Which, ironically, would actually have worsened things, since the individual mandate will significantly reduce federal spending.
  • New York Times: Some Parents of Gay Children Push for Marriage
    I really enjoyed this article about the normalization of gay marriage having led to parents saying "OK, fine, you're gay, and now gay marriage is legal, so what's the holdup?" Gay or straight, kids are going to get nagged about marriage by their parents.
  • UC Berkeley: Agonized pose tells of dinosaur death throes
    So many fossilized dinosaurs were preserved in the same position: head and neck pulled backwards, bent halfway down the back. There has long been a standard explanation for this—drying tendons and ligaments pulled them into this shape—but attempts to simulate this in animal corpses have all failed. A new theory is that this is consistent with damage to the central nervous system, specifically damage to the cerebellum, perhaps through infection from algal blooms.
  • AP: October 2010 Newsletter
    It was only last fall that the Associated Press stopped distributing their news via satellite and moved to an internet-based distribution system. Wow.

Links for June 2nd

  • TPM: ‘Sovereign Citizen’ Opens Fire On Store Because It Ran Out Of Crawfish
    42-year-old Larry Wayne Kelly—yes, middle name "Wayne"— opened fire on Pensacola's L&T Seafood Market with an AK-47 after they sold out of crawfish. When police tried to arrest them, he tried to run them down with his car. But it's OK, Kelly says, because he's a "sovereign citizen"—laws don't apply to him.
  • Quora: Is the cryptocurrency Bitcoin a good idea?
    This economist makes a good argument that Bitcoin is, at best, a terrible idea and, at worst, a scam.
  • Wikipedia: List of IARC Group 2B carcinogens
    I thought it was big news that the World Health Organization had classified cell phones as a potential carcinogen, until I read more about "Group 2B," as it's been classified. Also on the list is baby powder, carpentry, coffee, and pickles. These are things that may or may not be carcinogens—nobody knows for sure. Most humans on the planet have mobiles phones, yet brain tumors are no more common now than they've ever been—that seems to settle it for me, at least given the current paucity of evidence.

Links for March 9th

  • Richmond Times-Dispatch: 1,100 felons regain rights in McDonnell’s first year
    Color me surprised. I would happily have put down $50 saying that McDonnell wouldn't restore the civil rights to but maybe 10% as many felons as Gov. Tim Kaine Kaine did. He's on pace to match Kaine. This is still a terrible system—we're one of just two states in the nation that still give only the governor the power to restore rights.
  • PolitiFact Virginia: Virginia lottery claims all profits since 1999 have gone to education
    Turns out that this is basically true. I'd wondered.
  • Washington Post: In Utah, Sen. Hatch courts tea partyers one by one in quest for survival
    I'm not what you'd call a fan of Sen. Orrin Hatch, but it's depressing to see how low he's stopping to kowtow to the most extreme elements of his party. He's taking to swearing in his speeches because it makes the tea partiers happy. He's been consulting a muscle car builder on his votes several times each day, apparently because he wants to make the guy feel special. He's having to apologize for his decades-long friendship with Sen. Ted Kennedy, because this bunch sees cooperation or even friendship with Democrats as failure. This article neatly summarizes everything that's wrong with politics. While claiming—weakly—to have (silently) opposed President Bush's policies, they're reproducing President Bush's scorched-earth politics.
  • Pinboard: Anatomy of a Crushing
    I have come to the conclusion that my future projects must include a revenue stream. It's swell to create a service for a community good, but without a revenue stream, that's committing to doing something forever because it once seemed like a good idea. That'd just dumb. The low-priced social bookmark service Pinboard (which I'm using to post this right now) has a great model that illustrates how a revenue stream can make a service significantly better without significantly reducing the accessibility of it. Also, I just love every detail here about how Pinboard is designed and how it was created, because it's precisely how I develop, for better or for worse. I thought I was the only one!

Links for February 28th

  • The New Yorker: Worrying About Reagan
    Jane Meyer chronicles concerns about President Reagan's mental health that began in in his second term. Incoming chief of staff Howard Baker started a quiet internal investigation, talking to top White House aides. Quoting the head of that investigation: "They told stories about how inattentive and inept the president was. He was lazy; he wasn’t interested in the job. They said he wouldn’t read the papers they gave him—even short position papers and documents. They said he wouldn’t come over to work—all he wanted to do was to watch movies and television at the residence." Meyer concludes that Reagan probably had good days and bad days, as is found in any Alzheimer patient.
  • TIME: Pocket Paging
    Bell started selling pagers in 1962, under the brand name "Bellboy," after releasing them at that year's Seattle World's Fair. By 1967, thousands were in use commercially, with some simply trigger a beep, but others actually permitting voice to be broadcast to the tiny device. Motorola had taken over the market as a manufacturer, with their "Pageboy" model, at $180/apiece ($1143 today), taking 80% of the market.
  • CSS3 Buttons
    A framework for creating GitHub-style buttons. Now I just want to put buttons all over my websites.