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Obama's healthcare.gov savior says: 'No suits please, we're techies'

Mikey Dickerson plans change in move from Google to running government IT

Photo of the White House at dusk

The incoming head of the newly formed US Digital Service – a crack sysadmin force to fix government IT systems – has said his team are focused less on looking smart and more on serious coding.

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Mikey Dickerson was brought in by the White House to sort out the lamentable launch of the Affordable Care Act's healthcare.gov. Dickerson, who had spent the previous seven years as site reliability manager for Google, straightened out most of the healthcare website's problems so quickly that he was offered a top new role.

"What we saw during Healthcare.gov with folks like Mikey and others was how a fairly concentrated group of innovators, as long as they had clear direction from the White House, could transform something," said President Obama in a video depicting Dickerson's first day on the job.

Let's face it, the US government, like its British counterpart, doesn't have a good reputation with IT projects. The new US cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniels is even proud of his lack of understanding of technology issues.

"Being too down in the weeds at the technical level could actually be a little bit of a distraction," Daniel told the Information Security Media Group.

"You can get enamored with the very detailed aspects of some of the technical solutions," Daniel said. "And, particularly here at the White House ... the real issue is to look at the broad, strategic picture and the impact that technology will have."

But Dickerson's not like that. He's a hardcore techie with no interest in empire building or petty power games, and said he wants the US Digital Service to be essentially invisible while it works on making White House systems as easy to use as commercial websites – and he's looking for similar souls who aren't stuffed shirts to join him.

"People want to know if I’m wearing a suit to work every day,” Dickerson said. “Because that’s just the quickest shorthand way of asking: ‘Is this just the same old business as usual or are they actually going to listen?’”

Dickerson did slip into a suit, once, when the President came to visit. But otherwise he bumbles around the West Wing in a short-sleeved shirt that has had only a passing relationship with an iron at some point in its life.

He understands that what's important is getting things done, not looking smart while doing so, and the message appears to be getting through to other areas of government. In May, FBI Director James Comey said that getting the right online talent for his agency might mean relaxing drug testing – a position he's since pulled back from.

But the US government is recognizing that if you want the job done right you've got to get the right people to do it, and most of those folks don’t want to be bothered with protocol and dress codes when there's serious software to be written.

It's a lesson Silicon Valley learned a long time ago and you're more likely to see people with Day-Glo hair on campuses in the Bay Area than a buttoned down suit and tie – because people work best when they are comfortable. Whether Dickerson can convince the Washington mandarins of this, however, remains to be seen. ®

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