Intelligence agencies are trying to poach tech talent. You can do better than them

A few people here may be intending to transition from the tech sector to the US gov given the unfavorable labor market. I strongly advise against it, considering my personal experiences in the cleared world, from timelines to tech competence.

There are just too many issues you don’t really understand until you go through the process and do the work. This applies to the Intelligence Community (IC) as a whole, as I’ve dealt with all of them – CIA, NSA, FBI, and a smattering of others you might know. It doesn’t matter how prestigious the organization is, and often, the more prestigious, the more they think they can get away without fixing said problems.


When you see anon posters about this process taking years, believe them. I have processed everywhere. My shortest was 9 months for an internship – DIA, NGA are usually the shortest, and possibly FBI. My longest was five years end-to-end, from SF86 (the form you fill out after you accept a job offer) to getting a final job offer and clearance – you’ll see this timeline at CIA, NSA. And this is when I already had a full TS/SCI + polygraph clearance elsewhere. There is no rhyme or reason to this process, and you can’t predict it. I hadn’t traveled abroad and have no foreign assets, just a few (between 5 and 15) foreign friends. Straight-laced with no disciplinary/criminal record or drug use. By the time you land a final offer, you’ll probably already have been promoted multiple times at your job or accepted a more fulfilling job elsewhere.

Over and over again, you’ll hear about “clearance reform” and efforts they’re making to “clear the backlog”, but here’s some advice for you: Government reform operates on timelines that exceed the expiration date of your career. None of those “efforts”, if they really worked, mattered for me, nor will operate on timelines that’ll actually benefit you.

To me, this is a signal of malaise, incompetence, and the fact that they just don’t care about talent. You are just a body to fill a seat, and they bake that into their strategy: They lower their bar for a conditional offer (your job offer before your clearance) because they assume that most won’t wait for or make it through the clearance process, which has nothing to do with merit or how skilled you are.


Throughout the process, you will be lied to, gaslit, and ghosted at times. This is not an exaggeration. At one organization, one “prestigious” (CIA/NSA/etc.) agency didn’t respond to my phone calls for six months, and eventually called me back to let me know that I’m still processing. At another equally well-known agency, my contact didn’t respond to my emails for four months and I wasn’t told that my case was transferred to another facilitating officer.

You will also usually never be told which stage you’re in. Investigation? Adjudication? File lost in the trash can? I asked for five years and never knew. A friend might be called for an investigation, but after that? In the queue for adjudication? My adjudicator claimed that there’s “no queue or backlog” but when you’re waiting for five years, either that’s a lie or a coverup for some even more incompetent, Kafkaesque process.

And polygraphs? Believe what you want about their scientific validity. And I won’t discuss the details here. But good, innocent people walk out of those rooms disillusioned and even in tears, knowing that they could be banned from the IC for something they didn’t do because of either what the machine said or what they want you to think the machine said. Even though I have never been rejected because of a polygraph, I’ve had enough experiences to side with those who discredit them.

At some organizations, I have taken six four-hour polygraphs for a single process before I even got the clearance. Across the community, I have taken twenty, not a single one for a clearance renewal, all just to get clearances at different organizations. Reciprocity is given only whenever the agencies feel like it. It’s a grueling, risky experience (where you may lose your current clearance or get banned), and one that you may have to go through many times, especially if you want to pick between different agencies. Consider that if you’re applying to multiple agencies or consider not applying at all.


Think about the above barriers to entry. Think about how that affects what applicants they can select from. Agency leaders will claim that their technology talent is world-class, but that couldn’t be more untrue, especially because of the Kafkaesque clearance process. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of people apply to technology jobs at Google every year. If they had 30,000 roles to hire for each year, they might get the top 3% of applicants. But if they suddenly had to turn away competition from foreign nationals, anyone who smoked weed, anyone unable to pass a finicky polygraph, and (even worse) anyone unwilling to wait 2-5 years for a clearance, they’d have to give offers for 200k, 300k, or 500k applicants knowing that they can only hire 30k of them in the end. What do you think that does to the technical bar of the organization?

And that’s reflected in their work. Virtually none of the contributions to artificial intelligence in the past 10 years have come from the IC. I’ve worked with teams that have been impressed with RegEx. Extraordinarily outdated implementations of machine learning frameworks are labeled as “cutting edge” because teams haven’t been able to do better than finicky dashboards built for 2015 analytics pipelines. Offices with fancy titles like “advanced analytics” don’t put anything into production. And numerous people claim to be “technical” but when you dig deeper, it turns out they know nothing about the field of their job. You’ll have a mechanical engineer managing AI/ML capabilities because all STEM is the same STEM, right?

My technical peers who stayed longer than I did worry that their skills will atrophy and they won’t be able to hop to another option. Many senior technical folk indeed struggle to get jobs outside of the beltway bandits because the only profile they’ve built is that they’re a body with pulse and a clearance. Believe me, working for the CIA or NSA doesn’t qualify you to get a real job outside of the beltway just because it’s “prestigious” or has the spy aura – if you don’t learn anything applicable (and many don’t), there are no good exit opportunities.

Ultimately, the model of the IC for technology work is to procure it, not to build it themselves. The contractors are doing the real technical work. And I trust that if you have worked in a technical field at all, you know that project management work that the US gov (often done without the necessary skill given the low technical bar) does is different from real technical work and even tech lead work. Some people with technical skills enjoy the former, but most don’t, and you just know that when they claim that they’re “working at a higher level managing the work” that that claim is BS to any tech lead who knows something. Like a product manager who claims that they have more impact than an SDE (software developer) solely by virtue of their title.


This is probably the least important reason, but this is pretty obvious. But get familiar with the GS scale. Entry level SDEs are making more than members of the “Senior Intelligence Service”. That STEM pay incentive? 12% doesn’t do anything (and it doesn’t exist above GS-12) when your rate is 60-75% lower than of highly skilled workers. That’s not a typo – the best SDEs who can pass the most difficult interviews are making double to quadruple.

And you most likely won’t be credited for your technical skill, because the government measures your value by your years of experience and how many people you supervise, not how cutting edge the algorithms you’ve developed are. The path for individual contributors to rise up is exceptionally narrow, and ironically for technical folk, is even more narrow as often the only GS-13+ roles available are project managers, not technical experts.


I like the community because I care about the mission. But my experiences with all of the above have been and endless string of “WTF?!” moments, hence the strong caution above. If you’re still interested however, I’d consider becoming a contractor at a company that has also has a strong commercial presence. Not a place like General Dynamics, which gets a majority of its revenue from the gov. But some place like Microsoft, which sells more to the commercial sector than the gov. That way, you’ll interact with highly skilled people and have a connection to the outside, more sane world. And there’s real mission work to be done at places like these – government personnel outsource a lot of it. Bottom line, if you’re technical, make sure you stay someone who’s more than a pulse and a clearance.

But if you’re technical, don’t go gov. It’ll be a huge step down, potentially traumatic, and at the minimum a massive headache if the other companies you’re applying to are good at anything.


Interesting read. Say you end up getting hired. How’s the training at these organizations? Can you grow technically from the training programs that they have? Any specific IT fields at these places that are good to get into?

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Great insight and perspective. You can complain about the government and it’s processes or join it and try to fix and/or improve things??? It’s your government and your country that gives you and everyone else the freedom to create commercial opportunities that exist for everyone in tech and elsewhere. Our country must be doing something right???

You do realize some people don’t work for money and just want to work for their country and care little about their pay/compensation? General Milley’s pay is laughable when you look at his skills and work demands.

@weeble, I reject your false dilemma of “either you serve or you earn money”.
To me, serving my country is best done when it is done effectively. Depriving myself not only financially, but also (and far more importantly) in terms of learning experiences, efficient processes, and effective technology works only to self-flagellate myself. That is self-sacrifice with no purpose. And self-sacrifice with no purpose in gov isn’t real service - in fact, it is a selfish way to soothe one’s own ego.
I’ve chosen my path because I can learn more, build more effectively, and ultimately serve my country better in the private sector. And so I am working to improve the state of my country. I would similarly applaud people who’ve chosen to work at Meta to fight Russian disinformation if they made that choice because they believe they can do so most effectively with Meta’s technology and surrounded by the brightest and most driven professionals in the industry.
Anyway, it’s pretty clear that you’ve read my post, and so you should have read the point that pay is the least important factor to me. I’m not sure why that’s your main point. Everything else that detracts from the government experience is the thousand paper cuts that would render most driven technology professionals ineffective. I’m also not sure why you’re talking about freedom and all, that has nothing to do with choosing to work for the right organization to be an effective technology professional - the FTC ensures the existence of competition between technology companies but I wouldn’t work for the FTC to grow in tech. Both your comments just seem to be rambling non sequiturs.


It depends, but overall, I’d say there are few real advantages in choosing government over the private sector with respect to training opportunities in technology.
The USGov (USG) has a massive budget for internal and even expensive external trainings, and I’ve heard of cases in the IC where tens of thousands of dollars are forked out for useless executive education programs (cash cows for universities) or more useful real degree programs, all with just a commitment requirement for a year or two. I think there are more opportunities to do either (preferably the latter, obviously, but so many people just burn this cash on the former) with gov.
But the point of training is to learn. And if you’re technical, you probably know that there are a lot of free resources out there for you to learn the cutting edge. I’m in AI/ML and that’s certainly true for my field. I can take a course tomorrow, paid for by my company, on ML written by one of the founders of the entire field. So all that erodes a lot of the advantage USG agencies have with their external education budget.
Furthermore, and more importantly in my opinion, there’s a greater concentration of talent in these fields in private sector companies. That leads to free internal courses often either developed by 1) full-time paid internal instructors who switched after developing real-world experience at cutting edge companies or 2) volunteer instructors who write these courses on their own time to advance their career. This isn’t true everywhere, but usually, at good companies, there are strong incentives to develop a robust community of cutting edge practitioners, which gives you the opportunity to learn. The USG has similar courses but internal training is just better at good companies vs. the USG because people know things and do cutting edge work. And if you’re on great teams doing that work day-to-day, that’s even better.
If you want to learn, go where the center of gravity of your field is, and that’s where you’ll learn. Imo, the few good processes the USG has for facilitating training are far outweighed by other factors.
There are probably going to be exceptions in some fields here and there, but I personally can’t think of any. Even for ones that you’d think would be better in USG, you’ll want to do your research. Consider offensive cybersecurity: You’d think that the NSA has a monopoly over that field, but in reality, they buy most of their zero-day vulnerabilities from tiny companies that find and engineer them.

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I dunno man, the job security goes a long way. It’s a tough road trying to push to bring the tech up to date, but at least on the contracting side we have incredible control over that. The money is not that much worse either.


You are rambling on about your perfect “chosen path” on an anonymous forum. It would seem to me you have great conflict about this path and your many “WTF” moments. If you want someone to tell you that the government job you can’t have or didn’t get is not right for you I agree. It’s not the right path for everyone. Our government usually equals slow moving endless bureaucracy but it’s still the best government in the world and wonderful things flourish in it.

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That’s a fair point. You can balance job security against the other reasons I mentioned.
That being said, imo, job security in the gov is a bit overrated. If you are competent and can keep your resume up to date, hopping to another job in the private sector isn’t a big deal unless you only have the most competitive companies on your list. And the pay differential more than makes up for any job insecurity.
And yes, I second your point on contracting. As I mentioned, that’s the path I took. You still have to deal with clearance headaches, but if you’re at a good company, none of the headaches over competence and (fewer of the) headaches over bureaucracy. Contracting job security is nice too. Personally for me, that makes it all worth it, but maybe not for most people hunting for a job after leaving Google, even as a layoff. Those highly competitive people could get a decent job at Allstate/Ford/name any F500 company tomorrow and a much more competitive company like Databricks or McKinsey with some serious effort even in this environment.

Ok, it’s clear you’ve read the post but you don’t understand it and have this weird urge to defend USGov incompetence for no reason.
“Rambling on… chosen path” - Ok sure, simply repeating my words back to me doesn’t make your weak retort valid. My path was simply a last paragraph as a recommendation in the main post, and my follow-up comment about that directly responds to your weak, rambling, nonsensical defense of the government. This whole post is about the career choices people can plan for, and I am continuing to lay that out. This entire time, I’m not sure what you’re doing.
“Great conflict”, what? There is no great conflict here. The main recommendation is clear: don’t go gov.
“Government job you can’t have or didn’t get”, what? I got offers at every IC agency I applied to - CIA, NSA, NGA, DIA, FBI, and more. Clearances everywhere as well, and I’ve worked as a blue badger (govie). It was an option, an option that I took, and an option that I left.
“It’s not the right path for everyone” - yes, I agree, and I lay out the reasons above.
“Slow moving endless bureacracy” - you say it yourself, one of the main reasons why technology professionals shouldn’t onboard.
“Best government in the world” - rambling non sequitur, not relevant. Again, would you work for the FTC to grow as a tech professional? No, that wouldn’t make sense. Nor would working for the IC as a blue badger.
Virtually none of what you’ve said is relevant to the personal choice technology professionals can make when planning their career. Again, just a continuous stream of borderline trolling non-sequiturs, and you may not even be a technology professional, and so I’ll choose to not engage further with any comments from you.

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Things will never improve unless we take the initiative ourselves to improve them. Also, coming as a deaf woman, the private sector is a hell hole for DE&I. I’m lucky I found a contracting company that is really good about that.

The government may be trying to “poach” talent because they want those improvements. And last I heard they are working to become competitive with market pay, especially in Cybersecurity. So it’s not all negative. Plus, myself and many others would love PSLF.


@everyafter The government’s goals for poaching tech talent are clear, but in my opinion, if individuals want to help, they can do far better by hunting for contracts that work to improve these issues. That is how the vast majority of real technology work is done these days in the IC, and it’s been that way since the Clinton administration took a hacksaw to the IC’s civil service budget after the Cold War. And as I mentioned, at top tier companies working these contracts, there’s at least some hope that you can learn and be an effective technology professional (even one devoted to the IC). This doesn’t exist in government. There is little reason to go government if one can serve more effectively, building better technologies to hunt foreign spies, as a contractor.

Furthermore, virtually no one ambitious is in a position to unwind the horrific clearance timelines and gaslighting. The contracts running those systems are held hostage by legacy primes and the hazing practices common with polygraphs and clearances are endemic to the culture. Speaking out leads to personal repercussions, so the best one can do is to call Congress.

On “market pay”: I take any verbiage on “competitive pay” coming out of the gov with a massive grain of salt. That 12% STEM incentive is the IC’s attempt at “market competitive pay”. In reality, they’re just throwing the word “competitive” around like the corporate kool-aid at any company that underpays its workers because the numbers are clear: top tier talent can make 2x to 4x in the private sector. It’s virtually the same tactic any bottom tier company’s HR uses to retain its employees, claiming that either “things will get better” or that “their pay is already ‘competitive’”.

Even ignoring money, private sector workers will grow their skills and responsibilities twice or three times as quickly each year. Because that’s where they can make material progression from individual contributor to team lead or principal expert. In gov tech work, mechanisms to progress in gov are narrow for team leads, are almost nonexistent for principal experts, and are incredibly slow regardless.

Well, I’m still choosing to try and make things better, rather than being cynical about the past. But, money doesn’t matter to me so long as I can afford to live comfortably; the rest (staying up to date) I learn on my own time, as I have a personal interest in doing so. :person_shrugging:

At first I read synopsis, wanted to rebut. Then I read it entirely.

Spot. On.

I was a part of that clearance machine for 9 plus years.

Twenty polys? Oof. I had 4 full scope polys over 9 years. Enough to know I dont want another 4 hours of degradation, insulting, condescenion from a smarmy operator.

Been told “everything looks great,” called back. Been told “I have serious questions here, as will my superiors. You will get a call back if we decide its worth our time…” Not called back.

Clearance reform was the joke those of us on the inside knew it to be. Hiring a surge of BI’s reduced the backlog…but created a new one at adjudication. It gave some in government the ability to say “I did something” without fully realizing they did nothing. Time to clear continued to grow. Saw many exceed 24 months, signatures expire. New permissions are required.

The IC created a dog eat dog construct. They require contractors to survive, run their compounds, etc. Literally everything from cleared grass cutters, culinary, mechanics, logistics, housekeeping…

All while they hate contractors. At best they tolerate them. But make it clear one is “Govie,” the other is “NOT Govie.” And they eat their own internally.

Concur. Bravo.


I had a similar experience but they did call back… two years later! Or was it two and a half? Stayed cleared and briefed the whole time. Meanwhile nobody outside the agency I was supporting as a contractor could see where I had ANY clearance at all…


By the way, to chime in on this thread… I can’t really argue with the arguments made against seeking employment with an intel agency if you have a strong tech background… or STEM as the feds like to say. But on the positive side, it is a good place to start for a first job to get some experience in practical applications of some of this technology, especially in cloud technology, “Big Data” (whatever that is), and of course the current hotness AI/ML.

Yeah you’ll have to be patient while the seemingly interminable clearance process runs its course. Yeah the polygraphs are no fun but chances are you’ll do fine (some extreme annoyance and frustration notwithstanding), and the job you actually get when you start may not be what you thought you were getting into. But stick with it a year or two, then you can decide what you want to do. A lot of young people are leaving for jobs in private industry and not just green badge IC contractor jobs.

Probably dating myself but there was an old Armed Forces recruiting slogan that could apply to the IC: “It’s a great place to start.” And who knows you might really like it.


Man that stinks. But as we both know the house wins again. It can be soul crushing to truly not be doing bad things but get that stink eye treatment.

Been out of Poly world 3 years now. Zero desire to return.

Had similar when new company won our decades long standing contract. They courted me for 3 years. Then won ours…offered a huge pay raise…the week they took over I knew it didn’t end well for me. And no real recourse. They needed cut $300k in cost so all 6 department heads they just “negotiated with in good faith,” they found terrible reasons to push them out. Made up infractions, etc. Just awful. And that fear of losing clearance is a stake in the heart. Once you are out the door…no handle on the other side. You are locked out.

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Regarding one’s chances of passing the polygraph, a distinction must be made between pre-employment and subsequent polygraphs. Amongst federal agecies, pre-employment polygraph failure rates on the order of 50 percent are typical. This is why, in The Lie Behind the Lie Detector, we include “A Special Note to Federal Job Applicants”:

A Special Note to Federal Job Applicants

Those considering employment with a U.S. federal agency should seriously consider refusing to submit to the polygraph and withdrawing from the application process. Since the events of
11 September 2001, the polygraph failure rate among FBI applicants, for example, has risen to about 50% (Mondics 2002; Geracimos 2002). The CIA and NSA have similar pre-employment
polygraph failure rates. The consequences of failing a federal pre-employment polygraph examination include:

• You will be disqualified for life from employment with the agency that polygraphed you;
• Your polygraph failure will be recorded in a permanent file;
• You may be blacklisted from employment with other federal agencies as well
• You will have difficulty ever obtaining a job that requires a security clearance. When background investigators do a National Agency Check, they will learn that you have a file with the agency that polygraphed you; upon obtaining your file, they will see that you failed the polygraph. No security clearance adjudicator is eager to put his or her neck on the line by granting a clearance to someone who “failed” a polygraph “test.”

CBP has an even higher polygraph failure rate than the FBI, CIA, and NSA, and again, the record of a failed polygraph is permanent and will be shared with other federal agencies. Any pre-employment polygraph interrogation is a game of Russian roulete with your reputation. House rules for federal agencies involve the cylinder being loaded with two or three cartridges. You may wish to carefully consider whether a federal pre-employment polygraph is a risk worth taking. (We think it’s not.)

Even supposing one passes the polygraph for entry purposes, one’s career will always be subject to the whim and caprice of polygraph operators. Consider the case of John M., a Defense Intelligence Agency employee and U.S. Air Force veteran whose decades long career was destroyed based on pseudoscientific polygraph results. Consider also the case of this former CIA analyst who now discourages her children from applying for any job that requires a polygraph.

This unfortunately does ruin lives. My ex husband failed a poly trying to enter the local police, his lifetime dream, and was barred from ever applying again. This man did not drink, had never done drugs, and had a completely clean history. They made him so nervous he admitted to pocketing a penny off the sidewalk. When asked about his results, he told them he had read how polygraphs work and became so nervous that he knew he was going to fail. They accused him of using countermeasures after this. Afterwards, he fell into a depression that he is still in, 15 years later.

As a person with an anxiety disorder myself, I have been afraid of them ever since. Voodoo machines.


Please cite sources on this, it is wildly inconsistent with what I’ve seen. A few years ago there was news coverage of exceptionally high failure rates at Customs & Border Protection (CBP) that were way out of line with other agencies that use the poly, but I have not seen any news on this recently.

Some agencies seem to use the poly as a screening tool to help whittle down an extremely large pool of applicants; I’m thinking of places that apparently have a “one and done” policy. Most IC agencies will give you at least a second try and some will allow more. I realize that the prospect of taking multiple poly’s is not exactly comforting, but it shows a willingness to work with the applicant as opposed to just moving on to the next person on the list.

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