Why I Chose to Be a Government Advisor

A year and a half ago I agreed to become advisor in the cabinet of the deputy primer minister of my country (Bulgaria). It might have looked like a bizarre career move, given that at the time I was a well positioned and well paid contractor (software engineer), working with modern technologies (Scala, Riak, AWS) at scale (millions of users). I continued on that project part time for a little while, then switched to another one (again part time), but most of my attention and time were dedicated to the advisory role.

Since mid-December I’m no longer holding the advisory position (the prime minister resigned), but I wanted to look back, reflect and explain (to myself mainly) why that was a good idea and how it worked out.

First, I deliberately continued as a part-time software engineer, to avoid the risk of forgetting my (to that point) most marketable skills – building software. But not only that – sometimes you become tired of political and administrative bullshit and just want to sit down and write some code. But the rest of my time, including my “hobby”/spare time, was occupied by meetings, research, thoughts and document drafting that aimed at improving the electronic governance in Bulgaria.

I’ve already shared what my agenda was and what I was doing, and even gave a talk about our progress – opening as much data as possible, making sure we have high requirements for government software (we prepared a technical specification template for government procurement so that each administration relies on that, rather than on contractors with questionable interests), introducing electronic identification (by preparing both legislation and technical specification), and making myself generally available to anyone who wants advice on IT stuff.

The big news that we produced was the introduction of a legal requirement for making all custom-built government software open-source. It echoed in the tech community, including some big outlets like TechCrunch, ZDnet and Motherboard.

I was basically a co-CTO (together with a colleague) of the government, which is pretty amazing – having the bigger picture AND the intricate details in our heads, all across government. We were chaotic, distracted and overwhelmed, but still managed to get both the legislation and the important projects written and approved. I acquired some communication and time-management skills, researched diverse technological topics (from biometric identification to e-voting), I learnt that writing laws is very similar to programming, and I had the pleasure of working in a wonderful team.

There were downsides, of course. The financial one aside, the most significant problem was the inevitable “deskilling”. I had no time to try cool new stuff from the technology world – machine learning, deep learning, neural networks, the blockchain. Kafka, Docker, Kubernetes, etc. I’m not saying these are crucial technologies (I have tried Docker a couple of times and I wouldn’t say I love it), but one has to stay up to date – this is the best part (or the worst part?) of our profession. I missed (and still do) spending a few evenings in a row digging into some new and/or obscure technology, or even contributing to it. My GitHub contributions were limited to small government-oriented tools.

Another downside is that I’m pretty sure some people hate me now. For raising the bar for government software so high and for my sometimes overly zealous digitizing efforts. I guess that’s life, though.

Having stated the pros and cons, let me get back to the original question – why I did I choose the position in the first place. For a long time I’ve been interested in what happens to programmers when they get “bored” – when the technical challenges alone are not sufficient for feeling one’s potential, or potential for impact is fully reached. A few years ago I didn’t think of the “government” option – I thought one could either continue solve problems for an employer, or become an employer themselves. And I still think the latter is a very good option, if you have the right idea.

But I didn’t have that idea that I really liked and wanted to go through with. At the same time I had ideas of how the government could run better. Which would, in my case, impact around 8 million people. It would also mean I can get things done in a complicated context. I started with three objectives – electronic identity card, open source and open data (the latter two we have pushed for with a group of volunteer developers). All of them are now fact. Well, mostly because of the deputy prime minister, and thanks to the rest of the team, but still. That job would also mean I had to get out of my comfort zone of all-day-programming agile-following software-delivering routine.

And that’s why I did it. With all the risks of deskilling, of being disliked, or even being a pawn in a political game. Selfish as it may sound, I think having impact, getting things done and doing something different are pretty good motivators. And are worth the paycheck cut.

I still remain a software engineer and will continue to create software. But thanks to this experience, I think I’ll be able to see a broader landscape around software.

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