Working for Government IT Sucks... and You Should Do It, Too

I tried to find who to credit for this image, but it's all over the Internet with no one to thank

Are you an IT worker who is dissatisfied with your current job? Are you burnt out from repetitive projects? Too much travel? Seeking something more fulfilling than company stock? (And if you’re not those things, do you know someone who is?) Then this is written for you!
Disclaimer: All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana.

You are needed because government IT is going through a wave of employee retirements (along with the rest of government... it’s not just IT!)  Like employees, technology systems and devices are also retiring after serving well for many years. That’s a lot of change all at once; this is both a calamity and an opportunity. It’s also an example of the tectonic speed of government – there are long periods of imperceptibly slow change and sudden bursts of energy. 
Also changing are the skills needed in government IT. Many of the retiring people were experts in a single technology stack, such as Windows servers, mainframe programming, or network hardware. Now that governments have adopted cloud services and off-the-shelf software, government IT needs people who can manage contracts, oversee implementations, and communicate with vendor support desks.
IT Professionals with backgrounds in consulting, user support, or account management… your skills are needed, and you have a chance to make a difference in your own community!

Wait, doesn’t the title say that Working for Government IT Sucks?

OK, Yes, I said it. “Government IT Work Sucks.” It is a harsh phrase, but I want to be transparent if I’m steering anyone into joining us.
First, let’s define “government IT” for the scope of this blog: government employees who provide IT support to other components of the government, including both basic IT infrastructure and the systems & devices that end-users must deal with. Please Note: I’m not saying the people suck (they’re awesome, actually) it’s the situation that sucks.
IT support is harder today because technology is disrupting government services just like other industries. There are always more devices available for field workers (Police, Fire, Public Works, Utility, Code Enforcement, etc.) and each device has its own implementation and support needs. Inside the office there are increasingly complex systems to deliver core business services, self-service portals, official websites, and everyday office solutions like e-mail and spreadsheets. I better stop here before you get me talking about infrastructure like Internet service, phones, and copiers.
Government IT must support everyone’s solutions and (with increasing frequency) interact with the mesh of vendors from these inter-locking pieces. Because government provides life-safety services 24/7, things must work all the time. As if that weren’t enough, Governments IT infrastructure is subject to constant cyber-attack by both everyday malware and people targeting them because they are government entities. 
So that's one way that government IT work sucks: it's hard, and it’s getting harder all the time!
Now let's talk about funding. Lack of budget is the major difference between government IT and private sector IT shops. But the bigger gap is the one between expectations of how things should work and the money available to achieve those goals. It is reasonable that government workers want to deploy new tools (especially that cool app they saw at a trade show) and that government wants to improve electronic services for citizens (“why isn’t this as easy as Amazon?”). The problem is that the budget for technology can't possibly keep pace with new requests, plus the entrenched costs of maintaining all the previously purchased technology.
A subtler funding issue is the lack of staff positions to hire people with the broader set of IT skills needed on current teams. This is especially an issue in smaller governments who do not need full-time specialists, and so must buy these skills as consulting (a viable solution that requires more net spending) or depend on existing staff stretching to cover new skills. However, it’s a great frustration as an IT manager that people don’t appreciate how hard that is.  From the outside, people may see “IT workers” as interchangeable people, but there’s a huge difference between a network engineer, GIS analyst, and a project manager.
The third reason government IT work sucks is that even when you have a budget, you still need to go through a procurement process to buy anything. I wrote a whole blog about this so if you want more detail you can read that here. (You may even see where I derived the title of this post.) The brief summary of that tirade is that government procurement is built around buying physical things and not intangibles like consulting and software. The high price of technology means that even routine purchases must go through complex cycles and take a long time – leading to great frustration among the people who are waiting to buy their cool new thing.

Government IT work sucks, but here’s why you should join anyway

Oh right… my goal here was to encourage you to consider work in public service. Well, now that I’ve sufficiently lowered expectations, let me make the case.
First, it’s incredibly satisfying to use your skills for the public good, and not for someone else’s profit. Instead of trying to reach a quarterly goal, your work provides your local community with effective and efficient services, and you help people make good decisions about technology spending with your community’s tax dollars.
Second, there's an ever-changing array of interesting projects – it’s never just “different customer, same project.” New technologies arrive constantly, and with so many internal customers there’s always something different to learn.
Finally, there's opportunity for a meaningful IT job close to your home... wherever you live. If you have a horrible commute or travel too much, this is your chance to escape! Even if the government you work for isn't the one you live in (which is common) at least you’re contributing to your greater community.

One more reality check

I don't want to sugar-coat this part: many of you will take a pay cut to work for government. There's a chasm in salary between a successful career in the private sector and a one in government. Pension benefits aren't what they used to be, either.
The good news is that if you expand your idea of compensation to include quality of life, and not just your bank account, then being home every night and spending less time in airports are game changers.
Also, I’m suggesting you work in government IT, not necessarily that you stay until retirement. Modern careers have several phases. Maybe you’re at a point in your life where a few years of exciting and varied work could benefit your career story. Or maybe your home situation would improve greatly if you got off the road and took a local job.

So that’s my pitch

Working for government IT is a challenge, and we need good people to do it. If you're considering a career change, or just want to explore alternatives, then take a few minutes to follow job listings for your local governments (City, County, State, Park District, Libraries, etc.) Be part of a better future for your community.