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Federal agencies search for ways to get top computing talent

A pair of Cabinet secretaries made a pilgrimage to Silicon Valley last week, looking for insight and inspiration at the home of America's technology industry about how they can attract youngsters with computer skills to come to work for the federal government.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said it was clear there was a clash between the culture of his department and the freewheeling entrepreneurship of Silicon Valley.

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"The mission is compelling: creating a better world and a safer world," he said after a speech at Stanford University. "The mission is compelling. But we've got to make the environment less dreary."

The government is looking for people equipped to defend its computer networks from hackers. The Partnership for Public Service, which promotes careers in government, argues in a new report that the civil service is ill-equipped to respond to the challenge and urges officials to be more flexible in how they make hiring decisions.

While California is the heart of the Internet culture people deal with every day, it is in Maryland — in the office parks at Fort Meade and Howard County — that the largest chunk of the federal government's cybersecurity workforce is based. Some 17 percent of its employees in the field are based in the state, according to the Partnership for Public Service.

The Washington-based group, which worked with contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, said the government's recruiting efforts were foundering in the face of stiff competition from the private sector for people with high-end computer skills.

Max Stier, the president of the partnership, said the hiring race exacerbates what he sees as other problems caused by inflexibility in federal agencies' hiring processes.

"It has to staff up, stock up in a way that is urgent and new," Stier said. "That's an extra challenge."

The partnership identified several challenges it thinks the government faces:

•The government lacks an overall strategy for hiring people to work in cybersecurity.

•Candidates end up taking other jobs while they are waiting for security clearances.

•Training for new hires is uneven across agencies.

•Government salaries are not competitive with the private sector.

Carter and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, both of whom visited northern California last week, announced plans to set up offices there to build better ties with the technology community and tap its expertise.

"The reason that Silicon Valley is so successful is that it has the right people in it, but there's proximity as well there's an ecosystem out here," Carter said. "Everyone's in the same general area, which not only helps forge relationships, but also helps spread new ideas."

Carter said the Defense Innovation Unit X — the "X" stands for "experimental" — will have the job of scouting the best ideas and technology from startups.

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Despite recent efforts to make it easier to join the government and get started on cybersecurity work, Stier said, officials still don't have a comprehensive strategy. In many cases, he said, agencies are competing against one another for talent.

Exacerbating the problem: the lack of qualified workers. Analysts say America's universities are turning out too few computer science graduates and other people with the tools to protect computer networks. In Maryland alone, the state estimates there are around 20,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs.

Jonathan Katz, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland, said his program teaches many international students, who won't be able to work for the U.S. government.

As teachers work to improve education in science and engineering fields, Katz said, teaching students to write code should be part of their planning.

"We definitely could do better as a country," he said.

The government is competing not only on salary but on the brand of its agencies. Computer science graduates might choose between working at Facebook and building technology used by billions, for example, or going to the National Security Agency, where their work will never see the light of day.

On that last score, at least, NSA director Adm. Michael S. Rogers has come up with a proposition that might appeal to students immersed in hacker culture.

"We are going to give you the opportunity to do some neat stuff you can't legally do anywhere else," he said during a visit to Silicon Valley last year.

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