Matt Cutts on the US Digital Service and Working at Google for 17 Years
You can find him on Twitter at @mattcutts.
00:00 – Intro
00:18 – Working at Google in 2000
2:30 – Did Google’s success feel certain?
3:35 – Building self-service ads
7:05 – The evil unicorn problem
8:05 – Lawsuits around search
10:30 – Content moderation and spam
14:20 – Matt’s progression over 17 years at Google
17:00 – Deepfakes
18:25 – Joining the USDS
20:45 – What the USDS does
23:25 – Working at the USDS
26:25 – Educating people in government about tech
28:40 – Creating a rapid feedback loop within government
31:30 – Michael Wang asks – How does USDS decide whether to outsource something to a private company, or build the software in house?
32:40 – Spencer Clark asks – It would seem that the government is so far behind the private industry’s technology. To what extent is this true and what can be done about it? How should we gauge the progress of institutions like the USDS?
35:45 – Stephan Sturges asks – With GANs getting more and more powerful is the USDS thinking about the future of data authenticity?
38:05 – John Doherty asks – How difficult was it to communicate Google’s algorithm changes and evolving SEO best practices without leaking new spam tactics?
40:00 – Vanman0254 asks – How can smart tech folks better contribute to regulatory and policy discussions in government?
42:20 – Ronak Shah asks – What’s your best pitch to high-performing startups in the Bay Area to adopt more of human centered design (something that the government has been moving towards surprisingly well, but that some fast moving startups have neglected resulting in controversy)
49:40 – Adam Hoffman asks – What are legislators, the government, and the general populace most “getting wrong” in how they conceptualize the internet?
51:15 – Raphael Ferreira asks – Is it possible to live without google? How do you think google affected people in searching for answers and content, now that’s we find everything in just one click?
55:05 – Tim Woods asks – Which job was more fun and why?
56:55 – Working in government vs private industry
1:00:30 – Snehan Kekre asks – What is Matt’s view of the ongoing debate about backdooring encryption for so called lawful interception?
Craig Cannon [00:00:00] – Hey, how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s podcast. Today’s episode is with Matt Cutts. Matt is the Administrator of the US Digital Service and previously he was the head of the web spam team at Google. You can find him on Twitter @mattcutts. All right, here we go. Matt Cutts, welcome to the podcast.
Matt Cuts [00:00:19] – Thanks for having me.
Craig Cannon [00:00:20] – No problem. For those who don’t know you, you are the administrator of the US Digital Service and previously you were at Google, where you were head of the web spam team and also the 71st employee in the year 2000. What was Google like in 2000?
Matt Cuts [00:00:37] – Oh man, so we had three people start that day and that was a new record at the time. Now you’ve got like hundreds of people starting each week. But the crazy thing is it was a startup back then, so late nights, working crazy hours. I remember one of the first projects I worked on was SafeSearch. At one point at like 2 AM I got something working so I was really happy so I was going to head home and was speeding because I was super excited I got this thing working, got a speeding ticket. I literally remember working every weekend until at some point people were like oh, three or four years in, we don’t work on weekends anymore. I was like “Oh, now the culture’s changed a little bit.” But it’s super weird to be the people who were just folks, Ameet or Lucas or whoever, then eventually became entire departments. Sales departments and people who dealt with logs and privacy. But back then it was just like a small group of people.
Craig Cannon [00:01:37] – That’s crazy. How do you, because I know the story with PB creating Gmail, it’s just a one-guy goof, let’s see if we can do this.
Matt Cuts [00:01:45] – Right.
Craig Cannon [00:01:45] – How did projects get delegated and chosen? How did it all work?
Matt Cuts [00:01:50] – Well, it was funny because I started out, I did SafeSearch and then there was this ski offsite. Like everybody fit on one bus, one 50-person bus back then. That was a great introduction to the company. I was skiing and on a lift with a manager and she was like hey Matt, you like doing front-end programming. I was like sure, I like Front End programming. And then like boom, guess what, you’re in the ads group now. I’m like wait, I don’t want to be in the ads group. But there were only like five people and they needed the help and so I was trying to help out, we did geolocation. And it took like a year to claw my way back towards ranking. It was very informal. It was very much like here’s a problem, we’ve got to go swarm and tackle it. Even writing SafeSearch was because there was a partner that wanted it. And so we were like okay, can we build this in time? Let’s see if we can make it.
Craig Cannon [00:02:39] – Oh, so on a self-hosted version? Okay. To what degree did you feel like the success of Google was certain at the time?
Matt Cuts [00:02:50] – Completely uncertain. If you go back I think Google had raised like $25 million from Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia or whatever, and so as I recall, the dot com crash happened like March of 2000, winter apocalypse. Everybody was like this is going to be terrible. It wasn’t at all clear that we were going to be able to make it. I remember when AltaVista, I was worried they were going to crush us.
Craig Cannon [00:03:17] – Aw, man.
Matt Cuts [00:03:18] – Because you had a certain number of ranking signals and if they had twigged and caught on fast enough. They even had copied our appearance. They had a little front end where you could set it, I think they called it like Goofy, like rainbow colors that looked a little like Google. But they didn’t get the quality right so we were okay from that point of view. But it was non-stop for several years. Trying to make sure in those early days Microsoft didn’t realize how much money was coming from search engines.
Craig Cannon [00:03:47] – Right.
Matt Cuts [00:03:47] – But also AdWords and later like AdSense.
Craig Cannon [00:03:50] – Can you walk through that product development because I’m so curious. What did you start and think oh this might not be a thing and then a certain type of ad takes off or you tried something and it failed.
Matt Cuts [00:04:00] – It was wild because back then people were like do you have sales people sell stuff, which was the default, so you go to the most profitable folks. And do you sell by CPM, costs per thousand, or do you sell by costs per click. There was this thing called Overture where people could bid on things. There was a whole bunch of shifts in strategy where people were like let’s figure out how to do this. So at one point, I was in the ads group, and they said like we’re going to do this prototype of self-service advertising. We’re going to make some little ads on the right hand side and aw man, I forgot to turn off caching when I ran that experiment and I nearly melted Google at that point, which was not cool.
Craig Cannon [00:04:40] – Because they were just dynamically serving them constantly to everyone?
Matt Cuts [00:04:42] – Well no, no, this was super, super prototype. The ads were like pool tables and PlayStation and I forget what the third one was.
Craig Cannon [00:04:50] – For any search?
Matt Cuts [00:04:51] – No but in order to show enough, you had to have it in the experiment for like 30% of people because not that many people were searching for PlayStations or whatever. I turned off caching for 30% of Google, which radically like racks were melting down, all that sort of stuff. I remember we looked at the click through rate and it was really low because we just picked some copy. We hadn’t done any A/B testing where like would you like to buy a PlayStation now kind of thing. And as I recall, Mercer was like this is not good for the user experience and Larry Page was like well maybe but I can imagine click through going up, so let’s explore this a little bit more.
Craig Cannon [00:05:33] – That surprises me because I’ve heard stories about banner ads, for example, in the beginning having crazy click through rate. Why was that not working?
Matt Cuts [00:05:40] – The only thing I can think of is the copy probably sucked, it was off on the right hand side. People probably didn’t know what exactly is this thing over here. It was kind of fun because they were like multicolor ads back then.
Craig Cannon [00:05:53] – Were you throwing in pictures and trying to make that–
Matt Cuts [00:05:55] – No pictures. But I remember like a one pixel darker color boundary. They were really pretty ads but I think people just didn’t even know to click on them. And it turns out, having people willing to put in the A/B testing makes a huge difference. The first self-service ad we got for AdWords was I think for a lobster company. You could buy lobsters in Maine and have them packed in dry ice and shipped to you. That was the point when we were like, “Oh, there’s this whole long tail of people who want to reach people who are looking for the things that they’re selling–“
Craig Cannon [00:06:29] – Right, pre-social media, yeah.
Matt Cuts [00:06:31] – Totally.
Craig Cannon [00:06:32] – Did you do like a user study? Did you call the person in Maine up and be like what made you choose to do this?
Matt Cuts [00:06:38] – I hope that they got in touch with that person.
Craig Cannon [00:06:40] – You’d figure it would be like a pizza shop in San Jose.
Matt Cuts [00:06:42] – Right. I really hope they got in touch and were like did you know you were the first one? I remember I went to a search conference a few years back and somebody was like, “Hey, I was one of the first AdWords advertisers.”
Craig Cannon [00:06:55] – And I was like, “Oh cool, what did you do?”
Matt Cuts [00:06:57] – And he was like, “It wasn’t family safe.” I was like, “Oh, interesting.” He was talking about how he tweaked all the keywords and did all the testing. People were willing to put in that work because you could find these little cavities where nobody else was searching and if you found the right word, you actually get great click through rates and a great response.
Craig Cannon [00:07:18] – You see it today with YouTube, right?
Matt Cuts [00:07:19] – Yeah, people realize, “Oh, there’s nothing for this kind of flat earth search,” therefore they just fill it up. We used to call that the evil unicorn problem or at least I used to call it that. Because people come to Google and they’re search for something like flat earth. There’s no good answers because you’re looking for the most reputable, useful results to give people. There’s not that many legitimate folks that are like, “Oh yeah, the earth’s totally flat.” But you still have to show 10 results unless you change the interface to say you’re in an untrusted area, which we experimented with that later. The folks who realized there are people searching for evil unicorns, you know everybody thinking unicorns are perfect, nice, whatever, but you can still search for evil unicorn and then you’ve got to have 10 results for evil unicorn. It’s sort of this lacuna, like a lack of information. When there’s not high quality information, you still end up showing something. The folks who realized the can make flat earth content or whatever were just filling in the gap.
Craig Cannon [00:08:20] – At that point you were just like, “Hey, listen, we’re a common carrier, to a certain extent, and whoever comes through comes through?”
Matt Cuts [00:08:26] – It gets really hard with common carrier and publisher and 230 and all that sort of stuff. There were literally people who sued us because we took action on them because we considered them spammers. They were literally selling PageRank. I will link to you and the amount of money is based on the amount of PageRank I have. We took action and they were like that’s unfair and we’re like how, we rank the search results. There was one called Search King and the result of that lawsuit was that search results are protected by the first amendment. That was a useful court precedent. Then there was one called Kinderstart where they were saying PageRank is an algorithm and so you have no ability or right to zero out somebody’s PageRank or to take action. If you follow that to the natural, logical extreme, then you’d never be able to tweak or adjust the search engine or manually say this one’s spam but we haven’t caught it yet, the algorithms aren’t ready yet so we’re not allowed to take action on it. We won that lawsuit as well. It was super interesting to see how people thought about search. Whether it was a newspaper or whether it was a card catalog at a library or like a magazine. People just want high quality, relevant results. They don’t want to delve too deeply into, we tried giving people knobs where you could tweak how reputable something would be and nobody ever…
Craig Cannon [00:09:48] – No one used it.
Matt Cuts [00:09:50] – No.
Craig Cannon [00:09:50] – They just click on the first five or whatever.
Matt Cuts [00:09:52] – Typically.
Craig Cannon [00:09:53] – Where do you fall now with things like YouTube where you just go deep, deep, deep and you might not even know you’re in it?
Matt Cuts [00:10:01] – One good thing about Google, having left there several years ago now, is that the people really care about trying to do the right thing. Trying to return high quality, relevant results. And the same thing for YouTube. It’s a different silo within Google but a lot of the DNA is the same. When you see searches for something that doesn’t actually exist and so spammers are ranking for it on YouTube, YouTube wants to take care of that. Some of the recent stuff where people are getting down a rabbit hole, I’m sure that there are engineers thing very hard about how do we solve this problem and make it work better?
Craig Cannon [00:10:40] – Okay, I could talk to you about Google back in the day for a very long time. I want to be careful. But I was curious, so being early on the web spam team and then running web spam, you’ve read these stories about content moderators overseas looking at horrible stuff. Were you exposed to that?
Matt Cuts [00:10:59] – Yes. Moreso with SafeSearch, where you were trying to detect pornography and non-family safe things. For awhile, so Larry and Sergey shard and office for a long time because they were on the road and we were tight on real estate. For a long time I had the cubicle right outside of Larry and Sergey’s office. This was right when I was working on SafeSearch and so it was like– Trying to see if I cold find stuff that had slipped through. And if I did, I would try to tweak word weights and stuff like that. So at some point, Kolpreet, who was our first lawyer at Google, came by and he was like, “Hey, Hey Matt. We know you have to like look for pornography, it’s part of your job, it’s a vital thing that you do, but like it kind of weirds out when visitors are coming to see Larry and Sergey and there it’s in their line of sight. It looks like you’re looking at porn and we know you’re doing it for work, but could you put like a white board up to block your…” I was like, “Okay, I can do that.” I did end up seeing a lot of stuff but there was a little bit of a different time. SafeSearch was just towards pornography and spam was more like buy cheap Viagra and loan consolidation stuff and so it wasn’t nearly as bad as a lot of the content moderators had to deal with. There is one aspect though in which once you’ve seen all the different ways in which people try to spam and cheat and try to break the rules, you can’t unsee that.
Matt Cuts [00:12:24] – It’s the blackhat mindset. Once you realize, “Hey, here’s a thing where people can recycle their conference badges,” my mind immediately goes to what if that’s not the conference and then people have free conference badges that they can use for their friends in the last two or three days of a conference. You literally can’t look around the world and not think about how is somebody going to abuse that system.
Craig Cannon [00:12:44] – Right. Now do you feel like people are fundamentally evil kind of thing?
Matt Cuts [00:12:48] – No, no. So even, it was funny, whenever we were working with, there’s a lot of publishers and websites that do search engine optimization or SEO. And there was a little bit of folks early on who were like oh, that’s all evil. That’s 100% you’re trying to manipulate things, therefore bad, therefore take action. And there was a VP of Engineering, his name was Ors, who really had the right approach. He was like look, these are small businesses. They’re trying to do the best they can to make sure that they rank well because they think that they have some of the best services on the internet. We shouldn’t begrudge them trying to rank well, we should give them good things that they can do. Make your site better, make it faster, make it easy to navigate. So that was really kind of a turning point where a lot of folks who might have been antagonistic towards SEO, saw more like this is energy which can be channeled in a positive way, which I think it critical. Because you know folks are just trying to do the best thing for their business. There’s a few that are…
Craig Cannon [00:13:46] – Yeah, of course.
Matt Cuts [00:13:48] – Bad actors. But for the most part people just want to know, give me the ground rules, make sure everybody’s behaving consistently by that. If there’s somebody I see violating the ground rules, can I tell you about that and will you take action on that? So trying to make sure that people know the right positive things to work on and the right negative things to avoid I think helped defuse a lot of the tension. Where it shouldn’t be SEOs or websites versus Google, or a search engine. It should be working together to give the best results.
Craig Cannon [00:14:16] – Yeah, that makes sense. Another thing that was interesting about your time at Google was just how long it was. I think the average tenure now is two years or less at a tech company.
Matt Cuts [00:14:26] – I don’t know. I stayed there for a month short of 17 years.
Craig Cannon [00:14:33] – That’s a good run. How did you think about your work over that long, long period? Because you came right out of a PhD. You didn’t finish. Maybe some day.
Matt Cuts [00:14:47] – My dad’s like you can still go back. I’m like I don’t think I’m going to go back, dad.
Craig Cannon [00:14:51] – I’m good. In the beginning, you’re an IC. How long was it before you were managing people? What did that whole progression look like for you?
Matt Cuts [00:15:01] – I got to code for about five years before they, like in 2004, 2005… Okay, so worked on SafeSearch, worked in the ads group, and then I was on quality. Was on quality for the rest of my time at Google. And it was funny because for awhile I was like spam’s going to be an issue. And it was not a popular opinion within Google.
Craig Cannon [00:15:27] – Because they thought the algorithm was so good?
Matt Cuts [00:15:28] – Yes, they thought Google couldn’t be spammed. And it was because I worked on SafeSearch and I found a loophole that I was like oh no. Oh, there’s going to be a problem here.
Craig Cannon [00:15:38] – You used an example on the history of the internet podcast where someone bought an expired domain and turned it into a porn site.
Matt Cuts [00:15:45] – Yes.
Craig Cannon [00:15:46] – Stuff like that.
Matt Cuts [00:15:47] – Exactly. And so after that I remember having an argument with a very early employee of Google who was like well that’s easy, you just solve expired domains and then you’re done. But that doesn’t take into account guest books and award programs and fake awards that you’d give just to get links to people and social engineering and . So it was almost like you could see this thing coming down the horizon. And everybody else was busy. They were working on other stuff. Google was great at the time. Like back in 2000, you’d have a hard time convincing people there was ever going to be spam. So there was some tension there for a little while, but eventually started working on spam. And after a little while longer, again, this one great VP of Engineering named Ors, he invited me to his office one day and was like, “Hey, Matt, bearing in mind that you can’t say no, how would you like to manage the web spam team?” And at the time I was just a lowly engineer so I was oh, I guess I can’t say no so I guess I’m a manager now.
Craig Cannon [00:16:45] – Is that your managing tactic now for negotiations?
Matt Cuts [00:16:48] – That’s such a bad tactic. Because if they realize they can be like or I could go work somewhere else or I could just say no. But it actually worked out because you become less productive but you enable so many more people to become productive. And so really kind of worked on it for the rest of my time at Google, being a manager and trying to guide and help people to partner with them to figure to how to make the quality of the search results better.
Craig Cannon [00:17:18] – If you were thrown back into Google right now, how would you be thinking about deep fakes?
Matt Cuts [00:17:23] – Ah, man. The idea that you can create a video which has somebody falsely, superimposing somebody else’s picture is a super hard problem. Because in theory, you could do content aware hashes where you could say this video is extremely similar to this other video except for these pixels, but then people can change the histogram and add some noise and add a chyron or something. It’s fundamentally a hard problem. In general, with web spam the philosophy was do as much as you can with an algorithm, catch the residual with manual spam people who are well-trained and extremely good at being able to catch things and then use that as the training data for the next wave of algorithms. But fundamentally when you’re synthesizing new content as opposed to just republishing old content, that’s a lot harder to detect.
Matt Cuts [00:18:16] – That’s a tricky one.
Craig Cannon [00:18:17] – So yeah, the job is not over yet at Google.
Matt Cuts [00:18:20] – No, and I think the main thing is just have policies. Like I you have good reason to believe that there’s a deep fake, how do you handle that process? Because I don’t think you’ll be able to completely automate the detection.
Craig Cannon [00:18:31] – But that’s a problem already, right, with de-platforming, de-monetizing or monetizing, it’s the same issue.
Matt Cuts [00:18:36] – Totally.
Craig Cannon [00:18:38] – After that quite amazing tenure at Google, what motivated you to join USDS?
Matt Cuts [00:18:47] – It was interesting, I was in Nebraska at the time with my wife because I was working part-time and my wife said, “Why don’t we do something fun?” I was like, “Okay? You get to pick what’s next.” She’s like, “Well my family lives in Nebraska.”
Craig Cannon [00:19:00] – Seems great.
Matt Cuts [00:19:01] – So I’m like all right, let’s try that. And after I’m like eight or nine months I was like, “Nebraska is really wonderful, the people are really nice, but I’d also like want to try something new for a little while.”
Craig Cannon [00:19:12] – Did you go to a Berkshire meeting?
Matt Cuts [00:19:13] – I did.
Craig Cannon [00:19:13] – You did.
Matt Cuts [00:19:15] – The Berkshire Hathaway meeting, you buy one share of Berkshire Hathaway, which you can buy for like 140 bucks and then you go to this meeting and watch them grill Warren Buffet for eight hours. And they also give you like free honey bun treats. Yeah, all the Dairy Queen stuff. That was a fun April or May kind of thing to do. But it was interesting because I saw a ton of people that I really respect going to DC to try to make a difference in government. And Mikey Dickerson, who was the first guy to run the US General Service had come back to Google. He’d given a talk and talked about the impact that you could have. So at that point I was like all right, something interesting is going on here. I want to see what’s going on. And had an amazing six months. The election happened and they needed somebody who could sort of steward the US General Service and make sure it would still be in good shape.
Craig Cannon [00:20:07] – Because the person in front of you was an appointed official.
Matt Cuts [00:20:10] – Mikey was a political appointee. And so they needed an interim acting administrator and so I was wiling to fill in of that role–
Craig Cannon [00:20:17] – You stepped up.
Matt Cuts [00:20:17] – And be the acting, well to be clear, a bunch of people stepped up. Yes, some folks left but at this point something like 75% of the people who are in the US Digital Service joined during the Trump Administration because we got this two to four-year tour of duty model. We’re not supposed to stay forever. We’re supposed to come in, bring in skills from the tech industry, make systems work better inside government, and then head back out again. And so a fair number of people, there’s about 10% of USDS has been around longer than I have. At some point, I need to find the next place to go. Yeah, hand the baton to.
Craig Cannon [00:20:53] – Could you just, everybody maybe has heard of it but doesn’t exactly know what you work on. Can you just break it down?
Matt Cuts [00:20:59] – Yeah, absolutely. The US Digital Service started when healthcare.gov went down, caught on fire, the website was spinning shrapnel everywhere. They turned on CNN to see whether the website was back up or not. It turns out a bunch of contractors has done good work but the integration points where things were supposed to connect were not really all that well-tested. Bringing in best practices like let’s get everybody in the room, try to do a blameless postmortem. Let’s add monitoring, site reliability, engineering practices, those kind of things, that was what allowed healthcare.gov to make it through the enrollment period. After that people said, we need more technologists in government. How many $100 million boondoggles do you have where you spend a bunch of money, you spend three years writing the requirements, you spend four years writing the tech, and then by the time you’re done it doesn’t work or it doesn’t work as well as you expected. And so the US Digital Services is sometimes really like a SWAT team. When a system goes down, US Transcom has a database that’s down or something like that, we try to work with them and try to figure out how to get it back up. We also do discovery sprints, where we’ll come in for two weeks and we’ll say we think this is the problem. You might think this is the problem but it turns out over here is the bigger constraint. We’ll do anything from months long engagements to years long engagements. We’ve worked with USCIS to try and help immigrants become citizens faster, Veterans’ Affairs
Matt Cuts [00:22:29] – trying to claim health benefits and everything like that. It’s fascinating because you are a federal employee but you come in for a limited tour of duty, anywhere from six months to two years to four years. And then a lot of folks head back into industry but a surprisingly large number of them say, it turns out I’m ruined for private industry. Once you have helped make a student loan wizard that literally helps your sister fix her student loan and be able to get a car and have a better life you’re like why am I going to go work on Uber for dog walkers or how to deliver weed to people better? Which is, it’s a fine problem.
Craig Cannon [00:23:04] – I understand to work on but you’re not saving the world if you’re doing that. A lot of people are like forming startups in civic tech, they’re helping to build state digital services, they’re doing consultancies, all the way down to some folks who decide to stay in government which is really exciting because then you’ve got people with good emotional intelligence, hopefully, good technical ability, who can say that’s not the way a computer works.
Matt Cuts [00:23:34] – Oh dude, we’re going to get to that. The whole Facebook hearing, oh, my God. But I’m curious about who makes up your team. Do you have people who are writing COBOL patches? What does it look like?
Craig Cannon [00:23:48] – We do have one guy who taught himself COBOL for fun.
Matt Cuts [00:23:51] – Really? Yeah because there’s a lot of COBOL in government, like a bunch. And in fact I could show you a picture of a, aw man, I won’t name the agency but there’s a room where they file bugs by printing out COBOL on paper and being like, the room is sorted by line number. It’s super scary. We’re about one third engineers, one third designers, one third product managers. We also have people who are like procurement experts who help decide how to buy things better. We’ve got an amazing talent team. It’s always good to have a lawyer to help you make sure you’re not doing…
Craig Cannon [00:24:30] – And how big is it? How many folks?
Matt Cuts [00:24:32] – We are about 180 people.
Craig Cannon [00:24:32] – Okay, cool.
Matt Cuts [00:24:34] – And it’s fascinating because you’ve got everything from folks who’ve been in government and wanted to maximize the amount of bureaucracy they can hack to folks who are Facebook engineers. We had a staff software engineer come from Google. She could only come for the summer but we were like come on down and let’s see how much work we can get done. It’s really gratifying to see people do that.
Craig Cannon [00:25:00] – That’s cool. Do you have a different kind of onboarding process given that you know the tour of duty’s limited?
Matt Cuts [00:25:07] – Most of the time if you want to join the federal government, you get on a site called usajobs.gov. Well we, you know, if you’re interested in joining the US Digital Service, go to USDS.gov/apply. And can literally do it in 90 seconds.
Craig Cannon [00:25:22] – That’s cool.
Matt Cuts [00:25:22] – If your browser has autocomplete, it’s like your name, email address, that kind of stuff, and a resume. If you’ve got a resume ready, you just upload that guy. What happens then is if you’re a designer, designers look at your resume. If you’re a product managers, product managers look at your resume. We actually do one technical interview that’s like how good an engineer are you? Can you write some code? And then if that goes well then we’ll do a follow up technical interview and one emotional intelligence interview. I don’t want to hire jerks. It goes to a hiring committee that determines whether this person is minimally-qualified. And we’re always hiring. We have this rolling, it’s not like we have batches. We’re like the application phase is always open. And it’s fascinating because these folks could probably earn a little bit more money, although the government can pay up to $165,000 a year.
Craig Cannon [00:26:15] – That’s not bad.
Matt Cuts [00:26:16] – So not a horrible salary. And it’s cheaper in DC than San Francisco right now. And so we try to streamline the candidate experience and make sure it’s not as governmenty as it often is when you’re trying to join public service.
Craig Cannon [00:26:29] – Well it’s probably like hiring at startups and knowing what that experience is like.
Matt Cuts [00:26:33] – Yes.
Craig Cannon [00:26:33] – Very different.
Matt Cuts [00:26:33] – Yes.
Craig Cannon [00:26:35] – Let’s go back to the Facebook or the tech in government. How are you guys thinking about educating people in government about how the computers actually work?
Matt Cuts [00:26:47] – There’s Jen Pahlka at Code for America, which is an amazing non-profit, I think has said, and there’s a lot of people who use this phrase, that, “government is who shows up.” There’s an amazing amount of passionate people on Capitol Hill and throughout government but I’ll give you one stat. HUD, Housing and Urban Development, has 8000 plus employees. According to the statistics, the number of IT experts, like there’s a job classification 2210, blah, blah, blah, we’ll just say IT people. The number of IT people under 30 at HUD is zero. If you can get one good technical person to come in, it can make a huge difference. You could have a huge impact. A lot of the times you might have thousands of people on Capitol Hill but they have to be experts on a bunch of stuff. Farm bill and all kinds of stuff. Technology is not necessarily their core expertise. Getting some technologists who are willing to come and say this particular product is actually snake oil or we evaluated this and it looks great. Even if it’s just the process of selecting a contractor. The dirty little secret is the government doesn’t do as much work as the contractors who they bring on board to do stuff. Iff you get a bad contractor or if you don’t know what good looks like because they write agile, agile, agile all over the request for procurement. Yeah SCRUM, I’m a certified SCRUM Master 9000, whatever it is. I’m sure there’s great, I’m not saying it’s–
Craig Cannon [00:28:28] – Some of my best friends are SCRUM Masters.
Matt Cuts [00:28:28] – Some of my best friends are SCRUM Masters, that’s right. I’m going to start using that line, if you don’t mind. But it’s also the case that for one procurement we said instead of writing a pile of paper that says how good you are, why don’t you submit some code to us and we’re going to have engineers actually grade the quality of your code. If you get better contractors, you get better results whenever the finished work product is done.
Craig Cannon [00:28:55] – And have you figured out a way to give someone a feedback loop that’s fast enough that makes them feel like they’re having an impact? Because let’s just say I’m amazing. I’m the best software engineer at Google. I’m going to go join HUD. Am I now just going to be pushing a rock up a hill for my entire career?
Matt Cuts [00:29:13] – There are definitely days where you feel like in government you’re pushing a rock up a hill. We sometimes use the metaphor of paper cuts. It took us four years to get access to Slack, for example, get permission to be able to use Slack, at least within our particular group. Every so often you have those breakthrough days where you’re like oh we actually convinced this person that this policy doesn’t help people, it actually hurts people. Or I could–
Craig Cannon [00:29:45] – And the scale of the impact is large.
Matt Cuts [00:29:47] – It’s huge. If you can shift the ship of state by one degree, that’s tens of thousands of veterans who are getting benefits or tens of thousands of small businesses who are getting certified faster and more accurately. There’s hard days but it is super deeply meaningful. If you absorb a few of the paper cuts, you make it a little bit easier for the next person. So by the time they show up, they can get a good laptop on day one that has access to some modern tools. And they’re like oh, you know what, working for government’s not that bad. I’ll take the next three paper cuts and then the person behind me will have an easier job.
Craig Cannon [00:30:24] – That’s great. I remember hearing about that VA story about you need to like downgrade your version of Acrobat to use this browser.
Matt Cuts [00:30:30] – It’s so sad. And I have to say the one thing that I try to avoid and I’ve not done in awhile so far in this interview is giving more credit to our federal partners. Because what you find is people who know the right answer or who are deeply dedicated, committed, passionate, but for whatever reason don’t always have the power to get the right answer to the right level or to push through some regulation or overcome some resistance. If our goal is to come in and find those amazing people who are trying their darnedest to try to make sure that the right thing happens and give a little bit of extra wind beneath their wings, that’s a fantastic model. Because we’re not the world experts on how this part of government works.
Craig Cannon [00:31:17] – You’re also 180 people so it’s like you couldn’t–
Matt Cuts [00:31:20] – Exactly, yeah, and that’s why just being able to find the leverage points where we can enable good things to happen and work with and collaborate with federal partners who are the true subject matter experts and the real heroes in the story, that’s when things really go well.
Craig Cannon [00:31:34] – Okay, so sometimes you kind of drop in and you’re like a PM basically, making that happen.
Matt Cuts [00:31:38] – Okay, gotcha. There are a bunch of questions for you from the internet. Woohoo!
Craig Cannon [00:31:44] – So we’re going to just knock some out. Michael Wang asks, “How does USDS decide whether to outsource something to a private company or build the software in-house?”
Matt Cuts [00:31:53] – That’s a great question because it kind of goes back to this last thing we talked about. Fundamentally that’s going to be the federal partner that we work with that’s making that decision. So it’s like do you buy, do you build, can you use something open source or off-the-shelf, commercial technology? So it’s rarely the case that US Digital Service is making that precise call. It’s more like we might do a discovery sprint, dig into something for two weeks and be like you know what, this off-the-shelf software as a service product will work just fine for the 90% case. And then sometimes it’s like no, you have to build your own grants management software. But we’ll help you find a good contractor or help vet them or help make sure that the contract is written well, those kinds of things. And so if you can just buy something commercially or repurpose some open source, great, you should not reinvent the wheel. But if you’ve got a really unique need then US Digital Service is there to try to figure out how do we fill that with the minimum amount of work and money.
Craig Cannon [00:32:56] – Cool, all right, next question. Spencer Clark asks, “It would seem that the government is far behind in private industry’s technology. To what extent is this true and what can be done about it? In addition to that, how should we gauge (here we go) how should we gauge the progress of institutions like the USDS?” That is such a good question. I sometimes joke, and this is not intended to be a knock against the amazing people who are trying their very best to make things happen in government. But I sometimes joke that government technology is frozen in 1995. And the reason that I pick that date is because bug bounties, which is just the idea that if I find a security hole, I’m going to alert a company and the company gives you money and says thank you. Bug bounties were invented in 1995 by Netscape,
Matt Cuts [00:33:44] – which was a browser that came before Firefox, for those of you who weren’t born then. Exactly. And then the federal government had never done bug bounties before 2016. So the Defense Federal Service, which is an amazing group of individuals at the Pentagon, ran something called Hack the Pentagon and later Hack the Army, Hack the Air Force, Hack the Marines, they’ve done a ton of bug bounties.
Craig Cannon [00:34:09] – Wow.
Matt Cuts [00:34:10] – And it increases the security of our country in all kinds of different ways. It’s cheaper, faster, you find more security holes. Bug bounties are fantastic. You look at your quiver of tools, it’s a great tool. So bug bounties were not put into place until like 2016. Now the government is sort of thinking more about vulnerability disclosure policies, bug bounties, that kind of stuff. Now we’re kind of at a phase where I’ve seen even just in the three years that I’ve been in government, a lot of folks like how do I move to the cloud? How do I make sure it’s secret? So if you think Amazon Web Services was introduced in 2006-ish. If you can in three-ish years go from 1995 to 2006, instead of doing one yer per year, you’re doing like three years per year. And again, not to claim that that is all the work of the US Digital Service because there’s amazing groups. There’s AT & F, which is a group in the General Services Administration. There’s a ton of super leaning forward Chief Information Officers, CIOs. So a whole bunch of people, all collectively pushing the government means that if we’re moving through bug bounties, through on premises email onto people thinking about how do I move my stuff to the cloud, my gauge of progress is hey, we’re only 13 years, for our standpoint. behind instead of 23 years behind.
Matt Cuts [00:35:35] – That’s pretty good progress from our viewpoint.
Craig Cannon [00:35:38] – That seems awesome. And in particular your progress? How do you rank yourself there?
Matt Cuts [00:35:38] – The US Digital Service is still here, we’re still working on projects that matter, we’re hiring, and we’re able to have an impact, for me that’s like if we’ve got good work to do, that’s the primary measure of success that I care about.
Craig Cannon [00:36:00] – Okay, cool. Steven Sturgis asks, “With GANS, general adversarial networks, getting more and more powerful, is the USDS thinking about the future of data authenticity?”
Matt Cuts [00:36:11] – That is such a good question and it makes me put my web spam hat on. You can use a GAN to make a fake person that doesn’t actually exist. A picture of someone that looks completely real but is just invented by a computer, which is a huge problem for something like spam because you can astroturf comments and be like I am Bob Smith and here’s a picture that doesn’t look like any other. You haven’t just stolen someone’s picture. It makes it harder to figure out is this comment authentic and is this data authentic. Luckily the profit motive to spam government, like there is some but primarily the sorts of spam that we’ve seen are things like fake comments on the FCC or various other places. The Wall Street Journal had a good article about that. Typically US Digital Services more like we’re implementers. If there’s a system or a process that needs to be examined, we are happy to help. There’s this amazing group called the Office of the Federal CIO and they think more about policy. What should the federal government data strategy look like? What should the federal cloud strategy look like? Those kinds of things. How much open data should people have? I think all of those are hugely important. Data authenticity, at least as far as with people spamming or creating fake data, is a little bit outside the scope of the kinds of things that we typically see. As we do see more movement toward data interoperability. So that might be a way where you could be like okay, this seems like fake data because it’s
Matt Cuts [00:37:50] – two standard deviations out from what the typical stuff seems like. You could do those kinds of things. But honestly, the kinds of problems we run into at the US Digital Service are more like here’s a paper process, can we make it electronic? Here’s an electronic process but it sucks. Can we make it like private industry would do where you can do it on your phone and there’s no obvious glitches? And there’s so much work to be done just on that sort of non-privacy stuff.
Craig Cannon [00:38:16] – Before you hit bleeding edge, GANS stuff.
Matt Cuts [00:38:18] – Totally.
Craig Cannon [00:38:18] – Yeah, that makes so much sense. We have another Google question. So John Dougherty asks, how difficult was it to communicate Google’s algorithm changes and evolving SEO best practices without leaking new spam tactics?
Matt Cuts [00:38:33] – Oh man, that’s a good question from John. It was interesting because I would go to search conferences and a lot of Googlers would go to search conferences. And we would pick up what are people talking about as far as blackhat tips and tricks or what are they talking about on search forums and stuff like that. So we got a lot out of that participation. We would learn and then we had to be careful about how we communicated. But at a very high level, my goal and I think a lot of how Google communicated the goal, was to say here’s where the puck is, here’s where the puck is going to be. Move toward where the puck is going to be. Make a site, we were saying you need to have a mobile site, way early before everybody realized mobile was going to be such a big thing. You need your site to be fast. You need to think about are you practicing good design, those sorts of things. And so it usually wasn’t that hard because you’re like look, most sites, if you do a site audit, there’s things where you can just say move toward this mountaintop and you’ll be good. There were definitely a couple of signals or dimensions that I had to be careful about. I talked to a partner at YC at demo day and they were saying, I just have to be 100% honest, because there’s like 5000 founders, I can’t keep them all and mind. If you’re honest, you don’t keep track of what you’re saying. There might be times when I did my best to always be honest but I might frame things in a way that’s like here’s the positive way to talk about it and leave out,
Matt Cuts [00:40:11] – and you could probably make some money in the short-term doing it this way.
Craig Cannon [00:40:14] – Right.
Matt Cuts [00:40:15] – But it historically wasn’t too bad.
Craig Cannon [00:40:16] – It was not that big of a deal.
Matt Cuts [00:40:17] – No.
Craig Cannon [00:40:17] – Okay. Vanman0254–
Matt Cuts [00:40:19] – Totally real person.
Craig Cannon [00:40:24] – Exactly, it’s totally legit. I completely trust this comment. How can smart tech folks better contribute to regulatory and policy discussions in government?
Matt Cuts [00:40:33] – That’s a great question. There’s a lot of stuff happening at the federal level but there’s also a lot of stuff happening at the state level and even down to municipal, city, county sort of stuff. So what I would say is show up. Show up to the City Council meeting. Show up to the state legislature and say I can help answer some policy questions. There’s a guy who literally was buying DVDs of the Virginia State Legislature and their transcripts and was like getting them turned into actual transcripts and then just making that available to more people. There’s all these grassroots ways to encourage people to understand how government works. The other thing I would say is smart tech folks, you should run for office. We need people who, we don’t have that many computer scientists who are elected officials, especially at the federal level. So it’s hard, I’m sure, but it is a thing that is possible to do. And so especially at the state level or at the federal level. You would be amazed how much of a difference it makes to just show up and be like hey, I’m a resource. If you want to hear about X, Y, or Z, I’m kind of a world expert on this part. So if you have questions about whatever, I’d be happy to help.
Craig Cannon [00:41:54] – Yeah, cool. Also not for nothing, there are a bunch of government tech startups that have gone through YC based in DC and other places.
Matt Cuts [00:42:02] – Yeah, totally.
Craig Cannon [00:42:03] – Yeah, you can do this in a for-profit way.
Matt Cuts [00:42:06] – And there’s a whole new generation of contractors that are like hey, we see a bunch of opportunity. So yes, you can go the non-profit route, you can go into government, you can offer your resources to free, you can be consultant, but you can also form a company. People have started the gnarl on healthcare and there’s so much redundant waste in there. There’s like a decades worth or a generation worth of stuff to be done there. There’s a bunch of stuff to be done in government as well so totally.
Craig Cannon [00:42:36] – All right, Ronack Shah asks, well they say, “Hi, Matt, nice to hear you on the podcast.”
Matt Cuts [00:42:43] – Hi Ronack.
Craig Cannon [00:42:44] – What’s your best pitch to high performing startups in the Bay Area to adopt more of a human-centered design? So something that the government has been moving towards surprisingly well but that fast-moving startups have neglected.
Matt Cuts [00:42:55] – Yeah, there’s this myth that the lore about Steve Jobs was always well, if I ask people what they want, they’ll tell me they want faster horses instead of cars or something. And so yes, there is room for the occasional fifth standard deviation genius who’s like I know they think they want this but they really need this, an iPod or whatever. But most of us are not Steve Jobs, we’re just not. And so if you talk to users, you can only get so far off base. It’s amazing to me, I went to some place recently and I was filling out the register on iPad in the lobby kind of thing and they asked for an email address but they don’t have the @ sign. You’ve got to go hunt down and press shift, shift, shift to find the at sign. And it’s just like watching a user, doing the journey map, seeing what the pain points are. People underestimate how important it is to be beloved. Just goodwill. One of the things that people loved the most about Google was the logo. And it’s like that’s not hard to do but it’s like it’s worth putting a few people on coming up with cool, fun, Pac-Man logos. You don’t think it contributes to your bottom line but it kind of does. Like whenever Zuckerberg got testified and grilled in front of Congress, the market cap went own like $129 billion in one day. And I always have a hard time at Google saying okay, yes we should talk to webmasters, and publishers, and SEOs, search engine optimizers. But how do you know how many people should be allocated to that? It should be at least one, the first one helps.
Matt Cuts [00:44:36] – But then you don’t know how far you go until you get to diminishing returns. So we always had a hard time quantifying what is the value of good will. And I think like losing $129 billion in market cap in one day is one really good measure of goodwill about whether people like you or not. So don’t wait until the Congressional hearing roll around.
Craig Cannon [00:45:00] – But this is a dangerous conversation right? Because I think a lot of tech companies are like how do I get out there more without offending the other side so they’re just wading through very carefully like oh, if I make, to make it very simple, if I make the right like me by allowing gun videos and whatever gun has, whatever, the left will hate me. So how do you do that?
Matt Cuts [00:45:22] – I would say yes, there’s 2% of issues that might be hyperpartisan and divide people and polarize people. But there’s 98% of issues that are like, I was literally trying to buy insurance the other day and I had two websites open. And the first website was like okay, step one, we’re going to need you to make a login. It’s going to be this password, six to 30 characters…. The second website was like tell us your personal information, tell us your credit card number. Which one do think I gave my $400 worth of insurance money to? The second one that was super easy and no pain points. And you could literally see, one was 1980s style, static website, and the other one was like hero images and cool stuff. But design is not just what is pretty, of course it’s not. It’s about thinking about the user and making sure they have a good experience. And I honestly think that is a secret competitive advantage. Whenever you talk to a random company and they think about what is my net promoter score. And yes, net promoters have their own issues but if you’re not thinking about how much your customers like you, you probably have a competitor who is thinking about that.
Craig Cannon [00:46:35] – Totally. It’s so much that it’s a cliche I see but we basically shove people out the door then go talk to their users.
Matt Cuts [00:46:41] – You’ll learn, and we see that with search engine optimization as well, if you talk to five users and say what would you type to find this page or what would you, here’s your problem, how would you type it, you would be radically surprised by the kind of words they use. Is it a USB drive, thumb drive, USB disc, this kind of stuff. So if you’ve got a friend that’s afraid to insert a USB drive into their computer, you got to think about why are they afraid, what makes them afraid, what kind of words are they using? All that kind of stuff.
Craig Cannon [00:47:12] – Yeah, do you have an opinion on the size of your dataset?
Matt Cuts [00:47:16] – This is like a constant debate amongst some folks. I feel like first nine or 10 people you talk to get you the biggest amount of value. The team that we have at Veterans’ Affairs has literally talked to 5000 veterans. Now that’s over a course of like four years. But I mean we built one feature and it was, so if you’ve been discharged for other than honorable reasons. So traumatic brain injury, PTSD, don’t ask, don’t tell, whatever, it’s really hard to get your paper upgraded because you have to, it depends on the service. You might have to fill out a form, you have to send it to VA or DOD, Veterans’ Affairs or Department of Defense.
Craig Cannon [00:47:57] – What does paper upgrade mean?
Matt Cuts [00:47:59] – So that you can get an honorable discharge so that you’re eligible for health benefits, all sorts of other stuff. And it was crazy because we launched it, people love it and somebody was like well who told you to build this? Where does this fit into the software development lifecycle and the enterprise planning, whatever? And the answer was the veterans told us to build this. And so it took one person, her name was Natalie, by the way, taking the ball and pushing really hard and she got this amazing group of folks who helped her. And now that community of veterans has like a tool that they really want. And it is amazing. Like yep, the first 10 veterans you talk to are the most helpful but the 5000th will still help you make your product better.
Craig Cannon [00:48:47] – Super interesting. I remember one time I was at a post office in Japan and they had a bunch of different grade glasses tied to the stand where you filled it out and it was like this is so perfect. You would never think about it until you see the 400th person leave their glasses there. Oh, this is what they want right here.
Matt Cuts [00:49:05] – Yes, and it’s crazy to me that there are some companies people love. Vanguard or TiVo or pick your favorite. And typically they love them because they delighted them in some way or can just be like a lot of people like Google because it’s like I show up, it’s always up, I get the answers I need, it’s fast, it is as relevant as I think humans can reasonably achieve or whatever and then I leave. And just the shear being able to deliver over two decades now a product that just works and then gets out of your way and doesn’t annoy you, doesn’t show popup ads or whatever, that is a way to engender a lot of goodwill with people.
Craig Cannon [00:49:45] – Yeah, just thoughtful is so, it doesn’t have to be cute for it to be thoughtful.
Matt Cuts [00:49:50] – Right. Whimsy is, maybe good.
Craig Cannon [00:49:51] – It’s optional.
Matt Cuts [00:49:54] – But delight or just caring for the user is huge.
Craig Cannon [00:49:58] – Yeah, all right Adam Hoffman asks what are legislatures, the government, and the general populace most getting wrong in how they conceptualize the internet?
Matt Cuts [00:50:07] – Oh man, that is such a good question. I’m not sure I have a great answer. Most people are not at the level of Ted Stevens was when he was like the internet is just a series of tubes. People have a more sophisticated conceptualization now. I think the internet is a huge, big place and you’ve got everything from great actors to bad actors. A lot of the times the kinds of times when people want to pass a law or something to forbid something on the internet, you could just say well what if somebody were doing it offline, how would you treat it? And a lot of the same metaphors apply. The other thing is you don’t need to specify the specific mechanism. You don’t need to say you can fax something. Because if you bake in the code or into law that this has to be faxed, that’s going to affect things for the next 30 years until there’s a new law that supersedes it. So baking in the idea of what you want but not hardcoding the specific technologies that are used are a little more likely to make something evergreen so it’s just like the data can be electronically transmitted and you don’t care if it’s via fax or chat or whatever or protocol buffers or JSong. You’re not hardcoding something to a specific technology. I think that’s probably the best I can offer on that one.
Craig Cannon [00:51:30] – Okay, that makes sense. Next question, Rafael Ferrera asks, “Is it possible to live without Google?” I think there is some interesting questions beneath this though. So he says, “how do you think Google affected people in searching for answers and content now that everything is just in one click?”
Matt Cuts [00:51:50] – That’s such a good question because yeah, people lived without Google, at least up until 1998, then tens and thousands of years. But now I’ve been to a restaurant up in Toronto where they literally have a little indentation where you both put your phone in and then you put the wooden thing on the–
Craig Cannon [00:52:09] – The Faraday cage kind of thing?
Matt Cuts [00:52:10] – It tucks your phone away where you have to be present with the person. And it was hilarious because I went to a dinner that was at that restaurant and three or four times during dinner I was like oh well I can just look up when the Eiffel Tower was invented or whatever. But the food plate is sitting on the little phone holder and so you’re not able to get to your phone. But at the same time, I do think that we’re a little more, I feel like my attention span has gone down. You don’t have time for boredom anymore and so you just hop on Twitter. When you have five minutes to waste, Twitter is a great way to waste 35 minutes.
Craig Cannon [00:52:48] – I see it oftentimes with friends, I do it myself too. Like online dating as an example. You get in this eternal optimization problem. Oftentimes you don’t think oh, I have to do a full load out if I’m going to load something else in here. But you see people who are just like oh, I can get someone who’s like 10% more funny or more attractive or something. Same with restaurants. You’re at this place like oh, it could be better. It could be a cooler phone holding thing.
Matt Cuts [00:53:16] – And it’s strange to me that, there’s somebody who just wrote a book called “How to Break Up With Your Phone in 30 Days.”
Craig Cannon [00:53:22] – Oh, okay. Are you still doing that, by the way.
Matt Cuts [00:53:25] – It failed horribly. I tried that as a 30-day challenge. I still have my phone so I clearly didn’t break up that much. But just I have been trying to spend a little more time being active on weekends instead of being on my computer all the time. I actually lost like five pounds doing that. So I’m like yeah, we could all step away and do a little forest bathing and that kind of thing as opposed to just you spend three hours on the computer and then you’re like what did I actually accomplish? So I think this is kind of putting the finger right on the pulse which is like maybe the pendulum will swing the other way. Maybe we’ll be a little bit more mindful and okay, I will do this thing with the computer and then I’ll put the computer away and talk to a friend or visit with somebody.
Craig Cannon [00:54:10] – Hopefully.
Matt Cuts [00:54:10] – We’ll see. Meanwhile all the dark patterns in the world and all the infinite scrolls indicate no way. I did use Piehole to block most of my time-wasting sites.
Craig Cannon [00:54:26] – Okay, have you stuck to it? Do you open the browser on your phone and then cheat?
Matt Cuts [00:54:31] – I do, yeah. So I have to turn off wifi to be able to access Twitter now. It helps because you think at least for a second before you get back on there.
Craig Cannon [00:54:42] – I like Greyscale. Greyscale makes your phone terrible. It’s so boring.
Matt Cuts [00:54:46] – You take a picture and you’re like I don’t know if it’s a good picture or not.
Craig Cannon [00:54:48] – Yeah. And also just taking time off even. I’ve gone away for a week, been offline, and it’s shocking how quickly you can batch process it all. But then when you think about it you’re like wait, I probably spend like 10 hours a week in email. But then I just did a whole week of email in one hour. Why am I refreshing this constantly anyway?
Matt Cuts [00:55:06] – Yeah, totally. It feels like with the latest version of the iPhone and with the latest version of Android it’s like the pendulum’s starting to swing the other way. Digital well-being, those sort of features, I think that’s super cool.
Craig Cannon [00:55:19] – It’s exciting. Okay, so Tim Woods asks, “Which job was more fun and why?”
Matt Cuts [00:55:25] – Oh, that is not fair. I love all my jobs. Okay, so at Google you know you could get a haircut and an oil change and do your laundry onsite and see Colin Powell. It was a great place, it was a ton of fun. The people were phenomenally talented. So on a shear superficial fun level, Google was pretty fun. But I got to say working at the US Digital Service, often hard, often difficult, often frustrating, off the charts meaningful. There’s a lot of people who say happiness is not this hedonism kind of did you enjoy your day and how much candy did you eat. It’s like did you work on something that you’re going to feel good about on your death bed kind of stuff. They’re radically different and I would not have been able to do the job with US Digital Service without my time at Google and I’m incredibly grateful for it. A ton of people work hard to make Google a fun place and a great place to work. But man, the people at the US Digital Service are folks who are just incredibly noble and will sacrifice and will wake up everyday and will sometimes try to push a rock up a hill. And a lot of days the rock just comes back down 90% of the way. So that kind of perseverance and seeing people willing to do that in order to make services work better for the American public, that is super inspiring. Fundamentally they’re just different though.
Craig Cannon [00:57:06] – Say all is equal in some crazy alternate reality where Google salary and USDS salary equalizes, do you think there will be a swing? Purpose is super important, right? But you see even these people who go for early retirement, they need to do something. They have to do something with their time. Do you think it’s really like a salary difference that drives people away?
Matt Cuts [00:57:27] – Yeah, salary is part of it. I’ve heard people say why on earth do you have to take a drug test? Which you do if you want to join the US Digital Service. Or why do I have to move to DC? The summers there are hot and humid and they suck. All good feedback. I’m like if we could solve some of those problems, we would solve those. I hear from a lot, a lot of people who are looking for more mission and purpose right now. If you think about the Me Too Movement, some of the stuff affecting the tech industry, people don’t always feel good to admit which company they’re working for now. Or they don’t feel good to say yeah, I’m just making a little bit more money for this particular billionaire or I’m adding infinite scrolling so that people spend more time in my game or in my app or something like that. And so it is super interesting to me, if I go to a RAM conference like XOXO, which is a neat design conference, and I’m like have you considered government service, the hit rate is incredibly high. It might not be the right time for that person. They might want to work at a different level of government or they might have certain political proclivities. But a large fraction of people are like that’s on my list at some point. I was talking to somebody earlier today who was like for right now I need to earn a little more salary but in two years or in four years, I would love to do this. To the point where they were like, let me come shadow you for a little while.
Craig Cannon [00:58:51] – That’s cool.
Matt Cuts [00:58:52] – It’s really inspiring to see that. That a lot of folks are like they, and if you think about it, there’s folks who have student loans who are a veteran or their mom or dad is a veteran. Almost everybody interacts with the government and almost everybody sees ways that those interactions could be better.
Craig Cannon [00:59:12] – Well as I told you before we started recording, I just interacted with the USCIS and I have some opinions about the product.
Matt Cuts [00:59:20] – Okay, so a lot of folks are like I am not the world’s 10X best engineer. Can I still contribute something to government? And as we were saying before you started recording, a lot of the stuff that we do at the US Digital Service is not rocket science. It’s like, “Hey, show me the status of my claim online so I know do I need to wait two years for my disability claim or am I going to get help in two months.” And adding a progress bar to see where you are in the process or making a form work on a phone, a lot of people have those skills. So if you’re listening right now, if you can do a six-month tour, you can get a leave if you’re at a big company for six months and to have to give up all your stock options or stuff like that. That’s what I did. I signed up for a six-month tour and that was three years ago. So we do practice commitment escalation, full disclosure. But it is also 100% the case that there is good work to be done. And two thirds of trust in government, according to McKinsey, so maybe take it with a grain of salt, and two thirds, I’m always scared when it’s such a random number. But they say two thirds of trust in government is driven by the interactions that you have with government. If you want people to trust government more and for it to function more effectively and efficiently and sort of regain trust in an important, critical pillar of society, consider a short tour.
Craig Cannon [01:00:43] – Nice.
Matt Cuts [01:00:44] – Okay, that’s my pitch.
Craig Cannon [01:00:45] – I feel like we have to wrap up on that point. We’ve got a couple of more. We’re going to knock it out, are we good?
Matt Cuts [01:00:48] – Yeah, of course.
Craig Cannon [01:00:48] – Okay, cool. Okay, so Snahan Kekry asks, “What is Matt’s view of the ongoing debate about back dooring encryption for so-called, in quotes, ‘lawful interception?'”
Matt Cuts [01:01:03] – So fundamentally I’m a technologist. I have a math degree, I have a computer science degree, I have a Master’s in computer science, I have a PhD. I have done the public key encryption and my technical assessment is that… Well let me start answering it a slightly different way. A lot of the value that the US Digital Services does is not within a specific silo but looking at the seams between silos because maybe Department of Defense and Veterans’ Affairs don’t talk to each other. And so it’s when those service treatment records are transitioning from a service member to a veteran that things might get lost in translation or fall in between the cracks. And it’s the same way with security. You could have a full final assault with a really great protected system that’s really locked down, but if you have some little seam over here on the side like a recovery method that’s not two-factor authentication that’s actually just tied to your phone, then all somebody has to do is SIM swap and maybe socially engineer a customer support rep to pick your favorite carrier to maybe get access to your accounts and then drain your bank account or your blockchain wallet, whatever it is. It is often not the case that it’s the primary system that gets cracked. The hackers don’t care about how elegant it is, they just want to get in. It’s those seams where two systems join that things often, where there’s a problem. So as a technologist, I do not support having a back door in encryption. At the same time, that’s my personal opinion, that’s my personal technical assessment,
Matt Cuts [01:02:35] – but I’m also a government employee. So there’s processes in which people participate in making policy decisions. So if I’m looped in, that’s going to be my point of view. You shouldn’t have back doors because it represents a vulnerability where bad actors and criminals and all sorts of folks and other nations, say governments, would totally attack it. But I also abide by whatever policy processes are run. So I say my best, I try to convince people of what I think. But then when the policy decision gets made, that’s the policy decision and that’s what happens.
Craig Cannon [01:03:07] – Party lines. Has anyone asked you about breaking up tech companies?
Matt Cuts [01:03:14] – Only in a personal capacity. Although I will say, unexpected plug, the Federal Trade Commission–
Craig Cannon [01:03:22] – Turn right into the camera.
Matt Cuts [01:03:24] – The Federal Trade Commission is looking for a technology coordinator who can basically bridge between two worlds and translate government to technology and back and look at if a technology company is doing A, B, or C, why are the potential reasons for that and what is the business model and why would they structure things that way? If that’s an area of interest to you, the FTC has an open application. I’ve tweeted about it recently. I’ll try to retweet about it. It’s a super interesting position where you could go in and just like I talked about having my opinions about encryption and how that might or might not affect policy, you could go in and say here’s my take, FTC, on this small company or this big company or this technology practice. And it’s not necessarily an engineering kind of position. It might be like a product manager because those are the sorts of folks who often translate between the different worlds. There’s a bunch of places in government to slot in. There’s also a group called Tech Congress that tries to bring technology people into Congress as staffers so that you can help translate policy and say here’s a good idea, here’s a bad idea. Be a sounding board for people within Congress. And so there’s a bunch of ways to participate in those kinds of discussions.
Craig Cannon [01:04:41] – That’s awesome. All right, last time, what’s the website if someone wants a job?
Matt Cuts [01:04:46] – If you would like a job, please go to USDS.gov/apply. We will have actual people looking at your resumes. We could use engineers, product managers, designers, a lawyer, recruiters. If you are a person who can get to yes and you’re a good bureaucracy hacker, we would love to talk to you.
Craig Cannon [01:05:06] – Thanks, Matt.
Matt Cuts [01:05:07] – Thanks so much for having me.
Craig Cannon [01:05:09] – All right, thanks for listening. As always, you can find the transcript and video at blog.ycombinator.com. If you have a second, it would be awesome to give us a rating and review wherever you find your podcast. See you next time.