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James Scott: Automating and engineering a better government

picture of James Scott
James Scott, Software engineer at 18F


All throughout the summer, we’ll be profiling members across the 18F team. James Scott joined 18F in June 2015 after working as a software engineer at Intel. He is a developer on cloud.gov, a new platform that enables small federal teams to rapidly develop and deploy web services with best-practice, production-level security and scalability.

Melody Kramer: Tell me about your path to 18F.

James Scott: After graduating with a degree in computer engineering from the University of Virginia, I started full time as a software engineer in the Rotation Engineer Program at Intel. I rotated through several teams, and developed and demoed new software features ranging from embedded solutions to cloud services. Through the program, I was able to meet different executives across Intel and learn executive leadership skills. After the rotation program, I joined Intel’s Android team, where I focused on developing new ways to optimize the Android user experience without compromising the performance.

I really enjoyed my time at Intel, but I was looking for new challenges and more mission-oriented work. Living in California was great, but I was looking for opportunities near where I grew up, in Virginia.

MK: How did you find out about 18F?

JS: When I was talking to people about opportunities near Virginia, 18F just kept popping up as a new startup-like group within government. I was a little skeptical, so I went to the website, and emailed the email address, asking to find out more about what was going on with 18F. The rest is history.

MK: Why did you decide to join?

JS: Intel is a gigantic company and I learned a lot there, but I wanted to try something smaller and more startup-like. I also wanted to be able to use my software development skills to have a greater impact. 18F is about bringing the best software practices to the government, and I wanted to contribute and be an agent of change in this effort.

One thing that I also think about is my mom. I wanted to be able to tell my mom what I did where she could see the impact. The fact that 18F is trying to change systems in government is something that I can talk about with my mom, and she can see the impact firsthand. That was my big thing.

MK: What have you worked on so far?

JS: My main project is cloud.gov, a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) that tackles core infrastructure issues and lets our small development team improve the delivery of 18F products.

So far, I’ve developed a web app to give users the ability to easily administer applications deployed to the cloud.gov platform. The web app helps not only power users but also users who were uncomfortable with the command line interface. I’ve also developed features for the underlying Cloud Foundry platform to enable the use of more technologies (for example, Amazon Web Services RDS) and to generally provide a better user experience. I’ve also deployed monitoring and alert systems, provided support for customers, and contributed solutions back to the Cloud Foundry open source community.

I’ve also talked to government groups about migrating web services to cloud platforms, and stayed active in documentation work. I’ve given tech talks on developing applications with Golang. I’ve documented best practices for developing Golang tests and best practices for using Docker and Docker-Compose for Development Environments.

MK: What has been the most impactful project you’ve worked on?

JS: Outside of cloud.gov, I’m an active member of our Diversity Guild, and I’m really excited about the listening tour we conducted, and the fact that 18F allows and encourages us to do that kind of stuff.

Basically, we interviewed tons of people about what they look for in a workplace and what makes them thrive in a workplace. It was great to be able to talk to people both outside and inside of 18F about what are we doing right and wrong in terms of diversity. I’m proud that 18F is okay with admitting we aren’t perfect at diversity. And hopefully, what will come out of our research, which we’re currently writing up, is that we’ll come up with a list things that we’ll try to change. That’s the hope.

To get that schedule for me as an engineer, people had to ask permission: “Can we take him away from engineering work to do this?” And the answer was yes, because people at 18F take this stuff seriously and value it.

MK: Are there any anecdotes or stories that you can share about overcoming obstacles on your project?

JS: When it comes to getting FedRAMP’ed, you have to generate a document that’s hundreds of pages long. I was one of the main developers working on a tool that allowed people to collaborate in GitHub and on other platforms and then would auto generate a Word Document containing all of the necessary documentation at the end.

It will likely be used in future iterations of cloud.gov both for us and for our customers. It will be really useful with automating compliance — a task people usually think about at the end of a product. This will help them think about it earlier in the process.

MK: What was most surprising to you about joining 18F and the federal government?

JS: My biggest hesitation was that things might be slow or different, and I was unsure of how quickly we would be able to move. But I’ve been very pleasantly surprised: We move fast and ship a lot of products.

MK: What would you tell your colleagues from a previous job who were contemplating coming to 18F?

JS: I would say “Do it.” I’ve talked to people from my previous job about 18F. I say “It’s a really cool time to be in the government right now. Things are changing drastically about how software is written in government. And there are lots of possibilities about how we can address diversity in tech in government. Everything is changing right now.”

MK: What do you hope to take with you?

JS: I’ve done a lot more public speaking since arriving at 18F. That’s something that I can take with me — that possibility. Usually as an engineer, you have to be really heads down, but I’ve been able to share what we’re making, and that’s something I’d love to take with me.

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