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Protocol Cloud
Your weekly guide to the future of enterprise computing.

Are cloud employees ready to work with the government again?

Biden in the clouds

Welcome to Protocol Cloud, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This week: Will a change in presidential administrations change how cloud employees think about working with the government? Plus, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston on the future of work and why help is needed for overworked open-source maintainers.

The Big Story

Meet the new boss

As the reality-based community settles into the idea of Joe Biden taking office as the 46th U.S. president, the federal government continues to press ahead with its need to modernize technology infrastructure.

Bloomberg reported Tuesday that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — perhaps the most troubling facet of outgoing President Donald Trump's administration — is looking to expand its use of AWS and Microsoft Azure next year. More than $100 million will be spent through government contracts on cloud services from both companies, according to the proposal.

But is government work still a problem for tech employees? President-elect Biden has outlined plans to reverse many of Trump's immigration policies, including the blanket prosecution of migrants crossing the Southern border and the separation of families as a deterrent, but it's not clear how quickly those policies will take shape at an agency that has spent four years upholding a very different set of priorities.

  • Groups of employees at both Amazon and Microsoft made it very clear at times over the last four years that they did not support building tech to carry out ICE's mission.
  • Cloud employees at Google forced the company to turn down future work with the Department of Defense on Project Maven over concerns regarding how their work would be used in service of the administration's goals."
  • It's hard to say how widespread these concerns have been across organizations that employ thousands of people, but there's no question that senior management teams at cloud companies were aware of the dissent.
  • And there was not the same degree of antipathy toward government military or immigration contracts under President Obama, during the years in which cloud computing rose to prominence and the federal government adopted a "cloud-first" strategy.

The reality of lots of government tech contracts — including this one, according to Bloomberg — is that they're actually carried out by third-party contractors that source and manage cloud services from the big players like AWS and Microsoft.

  • That would give the cloud providers a bit of an arms-length relationship with ICE, in contrast to the full-court press both companies continue to make to secure the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract with the Department of Defense.
  • But cloud providers and other enterprise software companies have also come under fire for services provided through third-party contracts.

Trust in U.S. government institutions is pretty low entering the start of the Biden administration, especially among those working in the tech sector. Consider that just in the last decade:

If Biden follows through on his plans for institution reform, will outspoken groups of cloud employees drop their opposition to building technology for U.S. government agencies like ICE? And if they don't, is it worth the tech companies' while?

  • The tech industry was built on decades of post-World War II and Cold War-era government spending on new technology, not least of which included the actual internet.
  • But the way people see the world has changed in the last 20 years, thanks in large part to technology.
  • A generation of tech workers, sold on the promise of changing the world, wants to make sure they're changing the world in line with their values, which have been at odds with the outgoing administration's values for four years.
  • And the size of the new ICE contract — at least $100 million over five years — just isn't that big compared to the scale at which AWS and Microsoft are operating: Airbnb is spending $150 million a year with AWS, and that's after scaling back its usage in the wake of the pandemic.

There's a lot of work to be done.

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This Week On Protocol

NSFW: After eight months of sorta-kinda trying to contain the worst pandemic in a century, it's pretty clear that the American workplace is never going to be the same. In an interview with Protocol's David Pierce, Dropbox co-founder and CEO Drew Houston outlines how his company is changing its structure to accommodate this new reality.

ATL: Tech companies have been talking about expanding in Atlanta for a decade, but as Protocol's Anna Kramer reports, it's finally starting to happen. Microsoft is investing millions in offices for cloud and AI work, and venture capitalists are starting to take a closer look at the city's startup scene too.

Five Questions For...

Sam Ramji, chief strategy officer, DataStax

What was your first tech job?

In college I had a summer job in 1992 programming spreadsheets in Lotus 1-2-3, which was actually an amazing education. I spent the summer writing a program that would automatically roll up the financial reports from subsidiaries in seven countries and pull them into a single summary, including some currency conversion. Lotus was an underrated development environment!

What's the best piece of advice you could give to someone starting their first tech job?

Do not underestimate the goodwill that is available to you. All reasonable people want you to succeed. Therefore, ask anyone you admire for 30 minutes of their time. Ask them questions about how they ended up doing what they are doing and what are the most important lessons they learned. Trust that they will make the time, and remember that no matter how impressed you may be with them or how famous and unapproachable they seem in your mind, they had a first tech job too, and they felt just like you do now.

Pick one piece of consumer or business software (that isn't sold by your company) that you can't live without.

Discord. There is something magical about this software. I am seeing it becoming a platform where bots can hook into Discord APIs to make life easier, like looking up rules, rolling dice or connecting with other apps. I think there is a long trajectory ahead for Discord.

What was the biggest reason for the success of cloud computing over the past decade?

Velocity. Decision-making velocity at an organizational level went up because the decisions were made much lower in the organization — all because the unit price of cloud was so low you could put it on a credit card as an engineer or line manager. There is a huge lesson for corporate management here, and we are seeing companies learn it at a new scale during COVID: Get out of the way and let the line employees take the lead.

What will be the biggest challenge for cloud computing over the coming decade?

We are in an awkward time, and you can hear it in the language that CIOs and CTOs use to describe their IT strategy: "We're doing hybrid, multi-cloud computing and we are working on our edge and 5G plan." That's a lot of words to describe a computing fabric. The biggest challenge will be adapting our systems of thought and visualization to a computing fabric that is 10x more distributed than it was before.

Around the Cloud

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Thanks for reading — see you next week.

Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized what cloud employees at Google achieved. They forced the company to turn down future work with the Department of Defense on Project Maven; they did not force it to cancel an existing contract. Updated Nov. 18, 2020.

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