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Opinion: Laid-off tech employees are overlooking public service

Dorothy Eng argues tech professionals would enjoy the challenge of designing solutions for everyone in Canada, not just those who can afford them.

It’s no secret that the tech sector is going through a turbulent moment, and that tech workers are feeling the brunt of it.

With repeated rounds of layoffs hitting the sector, most recently at Shopify, many talented people are considering where to take their career.

We’d like to suggest an overlooked area of the job market where transformation is taking place, outcomes can change lives, and there’s no shortage of unique challenges — the public service.

As a non-profit working to develop digital products and services for the public good, we believe in designing for all, not just some, people. That also happens to be the mission and mandate of the government.

In the past, the public service hasn’t been able to compete for digital talent. Things are changing.

We think tech professionals should consider the challenge — and reward — of designing solutions for everyone in Canada, not just those who can afford to pay for them. These users are people whose lives can be legitimately and systemically improved by better public digital services.

In the past, the public service hasn’t been able to compete for digital talent, who were offered exorbitant salaries by large tech companies and shiny startups. And while it’s true that the government faces challenges within their digital teams, from a lack of job titles like UX Designer that are standard in the private sector, to a limited tech stack and a reliance on waterfall over agile, things are changing.

RELATED: Shopify cuts 20 percent of staff, announces sale of logistics division

COVID-19 saw the rollout of more digital public services faster than ever before, demonstrating the government’s ability to be agile and user-focused when it needs to be. The federal government has recognized the need to bridge the gap between technology and its citizens, drawing on learnings from the pandemic in its new digital government strategy.

The Canadian Digital Service, Ontario Digital Service, and Nova Scotia Digital Service are just three examples of government teams advocating for quality digital public services and the methods needed to achieve them. At all levels of government, teams are revisiting everything from their tech stacks to product development methodologies.

In the past, becoming a civil servant was considered a career for life, but that’s changing too. Interchange agreements and other mechanisms are allowing tech workers to take a “tour of service” by contributing to the public sector for a year or two before moving on to their next opportunity.

At Code for Canada, we place technologists in shorter, fixed-term projects to help our public-sector partners tackle digital challenges. Some go on to stay in the public service, while others take what they’ve learned and re-enter the private sector. Most notably, they all report a deep satisfaction from working on projects that will impact people nationwide.

There is an incredible calibre of tech talent in Canada. This moment in the tech sector should be a rallying cry for tech workers to embrace the tech for good movement. Whether it’s a yearlong commitment or a total career shift, we can and should think about leveraging our collective skills to improve life in this country for everyone.

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