Paul Cosgrave heard the call. The former CIO of the Internal Revenue Service left that post early last year to get in on the dot-com boom, joining AECventure, a business-to-business exchange for the architectural, engineering, and construction industry. But the economic downturn soon slowed AECventure's momentum, and Cosgrave was thinking about returning to government work--this time at the Department of Transportation, which had approached him to lead an IT project to help solve the problem of rampant airline delays. Sept. 11 clinched his decision to join the department, and now he's taking on an even more critical and difficult assignment at the agency.
In January, the 30-year IT veteran became a consultant to Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and will work with the newly created Transportation Administration on technology projects to improve security in the nation's airports. He is soon expected to take over as the department's CIO. Cosgrave, whose brother is a New York firefighter, followed his heart to the post. "I came in with a patriotic spirit," Cosgrave says. "It certainly wasn't for the money."
Cosgrave isn't alone in his desire to embrace IT work that can have widespread impact. Many IT workers have abandoned the profession in the last year, according to recent figures from the U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics (see "Vanishing Act," Feb. 18, 2002). But while some of those nearly 300,000 IT pros say they've left for work that will let them make a difference in the world, others say the terrorist attacks have recharged their enthusiasm for a profession hard hit by the battered economy. The experiences of the past few months have shown that IT can make a difference, not just to a company's bottom line, but to the fate of the country and its citizens.
As a managing director for nearly six years in the public-service practice of KPMG Consulting, Darryl Moody has been involved in dozens of IT initiatives for government agencies. But he's particularly eager to lead his new assignment: helping to develop an IT infrastructure for the Transportation Security Administration. Creating that infrastructure is "a once-in-a-lifetime consulting opportunity," Moody says.
The TSA, which is overseen by the Department of Transportation, will assess threats to transportation, relay information on transportation security to law-enforcement agencies, oversee background checks for airport personnel, and enforce security requirements. The agency needs an infrastructure for information sharing with outside parties, including law-enforcement officials. KPMG will also work on developing systems to evaluate the daily performance of security systems (including X-ray equipment) and security operators, so that problems can be quickly identified and corrected.
"I don't want to worry about some idiot getting on a plane to do harm," he says. "I want to make that go away, and I know the work I'm doing here will help." Moody relishes the chance to help his country strengthen its defenses, but he also has a personal interest: His 11-year-old daughter, who lives in California with her mother, regularly flies across the country alone to visit Moody, who lives in Herndon, Va., and those trips are unnerving in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
An increased interest in IT government jobs might reflect a renewed desire to serve one's country, or it might be the natural result of big-budget IT projects drying up in the commercial sector. IT is booming at government agencies. IT initiatives for homeland security and E-government efforts figure prominently in President Bush's fiscal year 2003 budget, which seeks funds for nearly 3,000 projects. The Office of Personnel Management, the human-resources agency for federal workers, has seen interest escalate in all federal jobs, including IT positions, but a spokesman was hesitant to ascribe job seekers' motives to patriotism alone.
Both factors appear to have a role in the trend. Recruiters for the FBI, which is hiring 900 new agents, see more interest from people with IT backgrounds who want to apply their skills toward serving their country as well as obtain better job security, says special agent Andrew Black. A CIA spokeswoman says the agency in recent months has been flooded with resumés from candidates with IT experience. The agency is embarking on projects to improve its ability to share data with other agencies and ramp up investigations into cyberthreats against the national IT and telecom infrastructure. Some applications from IT professionals include notes stating that they're looking for more meaningful work in light of Sept. 11. Because it typically takes a few months for applicants to go through the screening process, it's too soon to say how many IT workers with experience in the commercial sector will ultimately work at the agency. At least one applicant who was hired recently for an IT role took the CIA's offer over more lucrative private-sector opportunities, the spokeswoman says. She declined to identify the individual or the specific job because of security reasons.
Of course, IT professionals should realize that not every government or IT contractor job will be as exciting as helping the CIA thwart cyberterrorism. Many computer-related positions on http://www.usajobs.com, the federal Web site that posts open government jobs, are for entry or midlevel positions such as technical support assistants. Moody cautions that many IT professionals with commercial backgrounds become frustrated by the bureaucratic controls at government agencies, which often slow projects. On the other hand, IT professionals working on homeland-security projects actually may wind up under intense pressure to move even more quickly than they're accustomed to.
A number of proposals in Washington may give IT workers who decide a permanent career in government isn't for them a chance to pursue shorter-term assignments. Spurred by discussions with private-sector technology leaders like Andy Grove and Steve Case, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., late last year proposed creating a national volunteer corps of IT workers to help restore and repair damaged communications infrastructures after disasters and to build a nationwide system for making information on detecting bioterrorism attacks readily available. After news of the proposal broke in December, Wyden's office was flooded with calls from IT employees, all wanting to know how they could get involved.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., have separately introduced bills that would let private-and public-sector IT managers swap jobs for up to two years, each retaining their own pay and benefits. The main goal is to increase the government's technology competence with new expertise and offer insights into making the federal government more efficient. But companies that lend talent would gain experience that could later help them secure government contracts for products or services.
IT defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. doesn't think it will be hard for the government to attract IT employees for temporary or permanent positions, judging by the jump in unsolicited resumés it's seen since Sept. 11. The company gets about 20,000 unsolicited resumés per month, up from 10,000 to 15,000 received monthly prior to Sept. 11. "What we're doing now has real meaning," says Jeff Shuman, VP of human resources and administration in the company's IT group. "Now, we're all trying to make the world better."
--With Marianne Kolbasuk McGee