Gillian Tett has a good piece on FT.com about Brett Goldstein, a former executive at OpenTable, who left the tech world for local government in Chicago out of a desire to get more involved socially.
Fifteen years ago, Brett Goldstein seemed to be just another tech entrepreneur. He was working as IT director of OpenTable, then a start-up website for restaurant bookings. The company was thriving – and subsequently did a very successful initial public offering. Life looked very sweet for Goldstein. But when the World Trade Center was attacked in 2001, Goldstein had a moment of epiphany. “I spent seven years working in a startup but, directly after 9/11, I knew I didn’t want my whole story to be about how I helped people make restaurant reservations. I wanted to work in public service, to give something back,” he recalls – not just by throwing cash into a charity tin, but by doing public service. So he swerved: in 2006, he attended the Chicago police academy and then worked for a year as a cop in one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods. Later he pulled the disparate parts of his life together and used his number-crunching skills to build the first predictive data system for the Chicago police (and one of the first in any western police force), to indicate where crime was likely to break out.
Tett goes on to make the point that few tech executives enter government after their stint in technology. She contrasts this phenomenon with other industries such as finance and energy, some of which actually pay bonuses to executives who spend time in senior government roles.
She has a point. Perhaps it’s the physical distance between Silicon Valley and D.C. that discourages more post-IT government careers. Perhaps it’s uncool to leave the glamorous world of tech startups to go run a part of a government agency. Cool or not, what Wall Street knows and SV is learning slowly is that in the U.S. government matters. Like it not, and I like it less than most, that is the fact, and it’s smart to have senior industry people spend time in DC, learning not just how the place works but making the case for their industry.
As the author goes on to note:
To most young entrepreneurs, the idea of working in a state bureaucracy sounds like utter hell. But if there was ever a time when it might make sense for more techies to give back by doing stints of public service, that moment is now. The civilian public sector badly needs savvier tech skills (just look at the disaster of that healthcare website for evidence of this). And as the sector’s founders become wealthier and more powerful, they need to show that they remain connected to society as a whole. It would be smart political sense.