Former Google spam chief heads to USDS branch


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Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s web spam team and famed wizard of search engine optimization, says he will temporarily leave the search giant to join the Defense Digital Service at the Pentagon. 

Cutts, who has taken personal periods of absence from Google over the past two years, announced on his blog last week that he’d be joining the U.S. Digital Service — specifically the Defense Department’s branch — for “the next few months.” 

He joined Google in 2000, and quickly made a name as one of the company’s leading search engine engineers. Cutts — who wrote the first version of Google’s family filter, SafeSearch — had most recently been working with Google search quality team. 

Referring to USDS and other government digital services teams, like the General Services Administration’s 18F, as “idealists who are also making a large impact” and trying to improve things in government, Cutts wrote he wants to join the movement “to see whether [he] can help too.”

Responding to questions on Y Combinator’s Hacker News forum, Cutts revealed that he initially interviewed to join the main USDS team but took the job with DDS “because that’s where I thought I could help the most.”

He cited DDS and DOD’s recent success with Hack the Pentagon — the first federal bug bounty — as the type of impact he believes he can help make with the team. 

“This is my personal opinion, but if bug bounty programs become more common in the government, that would mean that lots more people would be protected from hacks or identity theft,” he wrote. 

The DDS team is also working with DOD to improve its Defense Travel System.

Since the formation of the USDS in 2014 — shortly after several private sector technologists, including USDS founder and Administrator Mikey Dickerson, were asked to help fix the disastrous rollout in 2013 — the federal government has brought aboard a surge of high-profile tech talent to help reshape the way it develops digital technologies.  USDS has about 100 members and 18F has nearly 200, many of whom left their careers in places like Silicon Valley to take brief stints of service with these teams. 

USDS and 18F were at the center of a recent congressional oversight hearing. While the teams were criticized for an initial lack of transparency since their separate launches in 2014, many of the gathered lawmakers showed their support for them as disruptors of a broken federal IT enterprise.

“The government’s messed up. The way we buy IT goods and services is messed up,” said Texas Republican Rep. Will Hurd, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s IT Subcommittee. “The only way that we are going to get a digital infrastructure in the federal government that the American people deserve is if we break some things on the inside, and we utilize the talents of the private sector as well.” 

FedScoop reached out to USDS and Cutts for comment on his move but got no immediate response. 

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Department of Defense (DOD), Departments, Government IT News, Innovation, Matt Cutts, U.S. Digital Service, White House