Applying for the Presidential Innovation Fellowship
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Please read the first post on why PIF for some context.
- One year is possible. Two is optimal.
- Which PIF archetype are you? How does that make you feel?
- Tell your story, and vet the opportunity based on that.
PIF is really two years
Let’s start with one important warning for those planning a one-year stint.
The Presidential Innovation Fellowship should be described as a two-year position. Most PIFs stay for two years, and some stay even longer!
Once you join, you’ll hear the framing you hear when joining a company in a leadership position: spend the first 90 days listening, observing, and learning about the teams, processes, and history around you.
And you’ll also hear something about needing time to hand off your work and ensure it keeps going. That’s probably 30 days or more.
So you’re down to eight months to affect change.
Meanwhile, you’ll learn that, yes, things do move slower in government.
Some reasons will make you say, “Damn, that’s a good point.” I encountered this often while at NGA and during discussions with other PIFs and folks at GSA. So much thoughtful consideration of all potential users, not just computer-savvy folks. So much oversight around taxpayer dollars to ensure responsible stewardship.
Of course, you’ll also find many roadblocks to slow you down. Some are personal, like people who don’t trust you because you’re “just a government outsider” or “just a short-term consultant with the fancy title” that they can wait out. Some are structural, like legacy processes and the mental models behind them.
You’ll need time to meet people, learn this context, and find the areas where you can attempt strategic change, not a quick-win that’s equivalent to a project that an excellent new hire could do.
I stayed for one year (see the earlier post for why this was the plan). I hope I worked on something that is structurally important, but I’m sure a second year would have been helpful.
The three types of PIFs
Going into the fellowship, I thought everyone would be like me:
- 10+ years in industry
- senior leadership experience
- considered PIF an effective way to do public service (that isn’t running for office).
No, that’s not the case at all.
I don’t know if the data backs it up, but I observed three types of people who are PIFs:
- people (often 25-35?) who have rocked their first private-sector position and are looking to turbo-charge their career through PIF and jump into seniority in the public sector (or back in the private sector)
- people (often 35+?) who are having a mid-career re-assessment and considering a move to non-profit motive work
- people (40+?) who are taking this as a hiatus to scratch that “give back to my country” itch
When I joined, I fell into #3. Over the first six months, though, I started saying, “Wow, this is amazing! There’s so much going on, and software can affect so many things. This is great!” And that led me to think more about #2.
As you think about applying and what you can get out of the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, consider which type you are above… and whether the other two types are folks you want to interact with. Everyone has a different agenda.
Vet the opportunity even if you see it as an act of service
People have asked for advice about the application and interview process.
First, I want to emphasize that when I saw the process on the inside, it was the fairest, most equitable process I’d seen in my career. The team cares a lot about having interviewers remove bias while assessing candidates. I took a lot of notes.
Second, follow the instructions on how to write a government resume. It’s related to the fairness goals above and will help you better understand the story you are trying to tell. You have to indicate some area of expertise and focus when you apply, as that will help agencies and leaders understand what you bring to the table.
You are telling this story, so you are deciding on your expertise and the type of work you’d like to do.
Once you do this and submit your application, it is possible (and likely) that you may disqualify yourself. Maybe this year’s batch of agencies isn’t looking for someone with your expertise. Maybe this year’s applicants are heavily weighted to your focus, so you lose out.
That’s okay - for PIF, and really for any job, you want to ensure you get what you want (once you look past the fancy title).
Okay, so if you get this far and get to the agency interview phase, you’ll speak to your likely manager and learn about the agency and role. Here, you listen a lot, ask questions to ensure you are getting what you want, and emphasize your area of expertise and how it could fit into the role.
You want to vet the manager and role gently.
Here’s the dirty secret - the role may be poorly defined or in flux, and you will not be set up for success. You only have one year (or two) to make good things happen. If you and your manager spend the first six months trying to figure out what area you are working in, you’ll be dissatisfied.
The manager… may not be your manager. So you should ask!
Also, feel out whether they are there for the long haul and what they want from you. Are they hoping you’ll be an individual contributor on their team? Are they looking to hand off part of their team’s strategy to you? Is that strategy aligned with any explicit agency-level guidance and planning?
If you don’t hear answers you like, then you should tell the PIF interview team this during feedback. You may get a follow-up that helps clarify concerns and puts you at ease. Or you may not get the position, but you will be happier and can try again later.
My fellowship went well because I worked under NGA’s CTO Alex Loehr. He, along with a few other members of the technology leadership team, interviewed me. They referenced official public-facing documents like the NGA Technology Strategy, which referred to product management and the strategy I would help with.
I still owe you what I worked on and what I learned.
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