Understanding IT Culture at the Fed

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In the near term, the federal government will likely outpace the private sector in creating jobs. Among other things, a proposal from the Obama administration recommends transferring 141,300 contractor positions back to the federal payroll.

If you've been laid off from the private sector, you might be tempted to pursue one of these opportunities. After all, government job security and benefits are hard to beat. But if you've always worked in the business world, you should prepared for some pretty significant cultural changes.

I spoke with Joe Lorono, recruitment manager for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, about the differences between the private sector's IT environment and a federal agency's. A former techie who's recruited for several federal agencies in addition to the Fed, he calls the Federal Reserve a hybrid organization, because its unique structure features a blend of cultural characteristics found in both public and private sector employers.

Lorono says IT professionals need to possess both patience and adaptability to succeed in the federal work environment because, not surprisingly, there are more levels of hierarchy in the structure, so decisions take longer. He notes federal agencies are risk-averse by nature, so technology programs are thoroughly tested and debugged before they go live. That's good news for people who prefer a slower pace and who have perfectionist tendencies, but not so good for people who prefer a fast pace and more autonomy. And because government agencies are non-profit, IT professionals aren't pressured to release programs before they're polished and then make changes on the fly.

Also, most projects are national in scope and the agencies quite large, so just accumulating all their requirements takes much longer than it would in the private sector. Federal IT professionals work in large teams and have to make compromises, because decisions involve more people than in business. It isn't unusual for conflict to arise, before a consensus decision is reached through give-and-take.

"Someone who has worked for a very large private organization, where there's lots of bureaucracy, might adapt quite well," says Lorono. "There are similar challenges with budgets, so that part is similar to the private sector. The job stability is a big draw right now, but happiness really depends upon the individual and their temperament."

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