Tech Talks: Senior Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer Keith McFarland on Federal IT
Welcome to eSimplicity’s Tech Talks blog series! Tech Talks is a series launched by eSimplicity’s technical writing interns to discuss various topics within the tech industry. From personal experiences within the company to emergent innovative technologies, eSimplicity aims to gauge diverse perspectives and shed light on engaging topics within the tech sector!
Calling all future federal IT whizzes!
It is no secret that the federal IT industry is expanding now more than ever. With so many complex aspects to it, such as choosing from a variety of agencies to work for, finding complementary certifications, and gaining certain security clearances, breaking into the federal IT field can be a complicated process to say the least. Recently, a few of our interns sat down with eSimplicity’s very own Senior Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer Keith McFarland to simplify the process of growing within the field. We’ve developed a plan to help pave the way for all of the federal IT enthusiasts out there, so keep reading!
First of all, what is your experience with federal IT work?
Through the years, Keith has worked for several federal agencies including the Centers of Medicaid and Medicare (CMS) and the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) within the Department of Defense (DoD). Keith says he prefers federal over commercial experience, as he knows he can make a difference at the government level. In fact, Keith and his peers at eSimplicity’s work directly impacts 150 million Americans enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Their work directly supports efforts to minimize waste, maximize insurance availability and optimize the cost of care for those individuals. Additionally, millions of healthcare providers are impacted by the work they do through systems and data they have made available.
“It can be challenging and frustrating in its own right. It is easier to get into commercial, but once you get into an agency, you’re on the pathway to get more opportunities because you can learn so much.”
What would you say are the basic need-to-knows about federal IT?
As far as level of importance goes, Keith says security clearances are very high up there. Additionally, he emphasized the need for workers to understand who (which agency) they are working for. Some agencies will be casual, while others will be more “shirt and tie.”
“I worked for IBM for years, and there I dressed like my client.”
As far as interviews go, Keith advises those interested in federal IT should “know who you’re interviewing with,” and to “know what the opportunity is.” This means understanding the jargon and being able to relate to future clients. Keith also stressed the importance of knowing the agency and its division mission before interviewing with a company. Interviewees who know the company and its clients mission stand out compared to other potential employees who don’t, as each agency has its own culture. Be sure to do your research on the company you’re interviewing for!
What kind of training and certifications should people within the IT industry stay up to date with in order to keep up with the industry?
As far as certifications, Keith recommends focusing on the certifications you intend to use in the immediate future. Certifications require high effort and high cost to maintain, so make them worth it. Keith advises finding the best 2 or 3 certifications that you can manage, and to always stay in your area of expertise. Finding your specialty and sticking with whatever that might be aids in your ability down the line to contribute to a team.
Keith added how new graduates need certifications more than people who have been working in the federal IT industry for a long time, as it is a matter of experience versus non-experience. He recommends getting certifications because if you are don’t have much experience yet, all you most likely have is education. Recent graduates and new hires will still have an education-based resume, so having a few solid certifications can demonstrate your capacity to learn — “that is the #1 thing” you need!
Why should the newest generation joining the work force be interested in working in federal IT? Is it a rewarding position?
When asked what his position in the federal IT industry means to him, Keith expressed his passion for making a difference in the world. While the work is narrow, there is so much value within it. He says the service should drive your interest, as “it’s a way to serve your country.”
As for salary benefits, you can make a nice living while working in government IT, but you’re not likely to become terribly, obscenely wealthy, nor should you, since your salary comes from taxpayer dollars. However, as explained earlier, working for government agencies has the potential to impact many lives.
What advice do you have for anyone interested in the federal IT world? Is this a good area of work to get involved in?
First and foremost, this industry is growing. Therefore, Keith suggests getting an internship in order to get ahead of the game.
“Have a plan, it matters.”
Secondly, Keith advises starting out in commercial work and then combining your skills to do government work later down the line in an effort to “leverage your experience.”
When it comes to shifting into federal work, Keith says “the cream of the crop positions is all about who you know.” Keith says when recruiting, he pulls up potential employees’ LinkedIn accounts and likes to see what they look like as far as if they have made connections, if they have gone to conferences, and what they have done on the side. Connect, connect, connect!
Lastly, Keith says if you’re an applicant, “find a place that is more than a paycheck” because you need to be passionate about where you want to work. “You can’t always change the momentum of a 25k employee organization.”
What are some of the benefits that accompany working in federal IT?
Keith highlighted a few benefits, including more flexibility depending on which agency you work for with some agencies being in-person and others being completely online. He also added how government agencies promote more opportunities for women and minority owned businesses. Wahoo!
All in all, what comes to mind when you hear “federal IT?”
When asked what comes to mind when he hears “federal IT,” Keith started out by explaining most federal IT work falls into two categories: DoD or non-DoD. Within those categories, applicants need certain security clearances in order to access classified information or spaces. For example, DoD agencies have varying degrees of clearances. Most agencies are very strict on their clearance rules and will expect candidates to have the required clearances when applying. To get those clearances, however, Keith says “You have to get a job with a company willing to sponsor you.” He went on to explain how sponsoring someone is “an investment” for a company, so employees will often have to sign an agreement that they will work for a certain amount of time after receiving their clearance. In fact, some agencies will let employees begin contributing to a project before they are fully cleared in an effort to help them get their clearances. Keith recalled how he “couldn’t work on a project for 9 months one time” until he was cleared. Why is this you make ask? It is simple. The clearances are in themselves expensive.
“Sometimes government contracting has an image of expensive contracts and contractors. This is because companies and individuals require investments for clearances, domain knowledge and specific government mandates to perform work and delivery solutions in federal IT. Those investments often don’t have a parallel in the commercial IT space.”
Once Between its many specialties, gaining clearance and breaking into the federal IT industry may seem tedious, but once you get in, Keith says “you’re on a pathway for more opportunity.”
We would like to extend a special thank you to Keith McFarland for his helpful tips and insight on the federal information technology industry! For all of you aspiring tech workers, we hope Keith’s advice clarified and further interested you in the federal IT field.