In some ways, the U.S. government has some of the most advanced technology in the world. In other cases, they’re stuck in the 1970s. In a few cases, it’s both (the most advanced technology from the 1970s). That’s just the reality of the matter, and you likely won’t be surprised to know that it looks nothing like it does in the movies.
Here are the top four ways that the media just simply doesn’t capture the exciting reality of actual work at the federal government.
It Doesn’t Look Space Age
Fiction: Let’s take the White House Situation Room as a key example of a place where you’d maybe expect crazy GUIs. For instance, The West Wing makes all the classic mistakes for the White House Situation Room look like a technological dream. The insane GUIs are displayed prominently, with someone presumably in a side room perhaps just waiting to launch highly-polished visuals of trajectories and radar outputs. In The West Wing (and its ilk), they have live streams of military operations on clear glass and interactive maps controlled by admirals.
The reality: Any time you think government, you should imagine bland, white walls. There’s some cool tech in the situation room, but the room itself is a slightly fancier version of bland, white walls with big screens all over the place. Anyone with VoIP experience would feel right at home. While we’d like to think that the people on the other end of the telecom weren’t struggling to share a PowerPoint presentation, the truth is… we’re sure there have been plenty of commonalities with any teleconferencing software out there. “How do I share my screen again?” There’s absolutely an IT guy behind the scenes on both sides making everything work.
It’s Not as Fast
Fiction: While movies like Burn After Reading better represent the starkness of most government offices, it’s a little off on the speed at which things move. You’d think that government employees are constantly sprinting around the hallways in dark suits touting manila folders.
Fact: In reality, if you want something, then you better put in a ticket. Put in a ticket and wait. If it’s not a ticket, then it’s an official request. On a form, literally in triplicate. And then you wait. Or email someone. Or maybe you have an inside fixer to backchannel the process. You know who I’m talking about. Yeah. Exercising those soft skills is the best way to accomplish the impossible when moving fast in the federal government
Instant Access to All the Information
Fiction: You know how every single person seems to access every piece of information? Or, like, how a necessary plot device might actually be someone not having a piece of information? Oooo, they’re hiding a super secret file.
Fact: Your typical competent sysadmin knows they that giving everyone superuser privileges would be disastrous. Need to know is a serious thing. Very few people get information to everything, and even those don’t know everything. They could just theoretically gain access to all the things.
Also, compartmentalized secret information is usually only accessible from an SCIF (secure classified information facility). And you know what an SCIF looks like? It’s not a control room. It’s a bland, white-walled office with a place to store your cell phone before you enter.
Most of the Jobs Portrayed Are Not IT
Fiction: It’s almost required now that the movie hero has the IT or hacker genius sidekick. Thinking about Blacklist or even NCIS, it’s just as easy as, “Let me just pull that information from the NSA,” or “How about we just move this satellite to get that image?”
Fact: Those people are probably not IT or dev folks. The techie sidekick is going to be much more intelligence analyst than IT. (Sorry.) As you well know, IT professionals are making sure the systems that analysts use operate properly. They’re managing licenses with contractors. They’re taking tickets because someone’s computer is broken. And that’s all incredibly important.
To be honest, the actual IT pros of the U.S. government are just like the IT pros anywhere else. Some have windows in their office. Some do not. Some have TS-SCI clearance. Others merely have secret or confidential clearance. They’re still working with Microsoft, Cisco, and even Linux — and not necessarily even on a larger scale than you’re probably managing now.
If you’re interested in a federal job, we have a few tips on how you can get started.
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