Inside Obama's Stealth Startup

Jon Gertner | Fast Company | June 15, 2015

Inside Obama's Stealth StartupPresident Obama has quietly recruited top tech talent from the likes of Google and Facebook. Their mission: to reboot how government works.

The new hub of Washington’s tech insurgency is something known as the U.S. Digital Service, which is headquartered in a stately brick townhouse half a block from the White House. USDS -employees tend to congregate with their laptops at a long table at the back half of the parlor floor. If there’s no room, they retreat downstairs to a low-ceilinged basement, sprawling on cushioned chairs. Apart from an air-hockey table, there aren’t many physical reminders of West Coast startup culture—a lot of the new techies are issued BlackBerrys, which seems to cause them near-physical pain. Nevertheless, the corps at USDS tends to rely on the same jargon you hear around Silicon ¬Valley these days. They’ll say they’re here to "iterate," or to "deliver product," or to "JFDI" (that is, just fucking do it).

When I wander downstairs one morning in late April, Ben Maurer, a young engineer on sabbatical from Facebook, is huddling with a few colleagues on a project for the Department of Defense. "I’m not just fixing bugs here," he informs me, looking up from his laptop for about a nanosecond before going back to his coding. He seems tired but pleased to work on something big—in this case, to map out a broad digital structure for an upcoming project at the mammoth agency.

To a certain extent, the Obama administration has always been a comfortable place for techies like Maurer; the president—whose 2008 campaign was arguably the most convincing demonstration at the time of social media ¬potential—was the first chief executive to appoint a chief technology officer and, more recently, a chief data officer. "Government has done technology and IT terribly over the last 30 years and fallen very much behind the private sector," Obama says. "And when I came into government, what surprised me most was that gap." But creating high-level positions like the CTO was a route to better government technology policy, not necessarily better operations. Besides, the immediate priority was addressing the economic crisis and resolving military entanglements...