Is There a Difference Between Public and Private Sector IT?

by | General

Say you’ve worked in the private sector, but you were always curious about what it would be like working in the government sector. Or let’s say you’re on the government side of the fence and you’ve always been curious what it would be like to be out in the private sector.

Could there be that much of a difference? Work is work, right?

I’ve been fortunate enough to work both sides of the fence. I’ve worked in the public sector at the city, county and federal level, and have worked in the private sector at companies in the legal, financial, telecom, computer server, and automotive industries, so I believe I’ve had enough exposure in both worlds to say that there are enough distinct differences between both sectors, to influence your decision to go down the public or private sector path.

If I had to boil it down to two opposing “themes”, I’d have to say they are “stability (public sector)” versus “agility (private sector)“.

HOW a private sector company gets funded versus a public sector agency is really what drives the primary differences between both entities.

In a private sector company, CUSTOMER REVENUE is the lifeblood and reason for its existence. If the company is publicly traded on the stock market, the company is accountable to a board of directors and stockholders of the company. Every major company decision, every strategy, every initiative, is driven by the goal of INCREASING REVENUE AND VALUE TO THE STOCKHOLDER.

This has ramifications all the way down to each individual employee, and it’s important to know this, when choosing to work for a private or publicly held company.

It means, that even in a single bad quarter, or even a FORECAST of a negative upcoming quarter, this can potentially lead to EMPLOYEE LAYOFFS. The goal of every company is to MAXIMIZE profit and LOWER COSTS OF DOING BUSINESS.

Personnel is one of the most expensive expenditures a company faces, so it’s important to know as a private sector employee, your future at a company is largely driven by the financial strategy of that company. Some companies strive to get bought up by bigger companies.

That may or may not be a good thing. Take Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia Mobile division. Once the acquisition was formalized, 18,000 employees (mostly Nokia) were let go.

I certainly don’t want to portray the private sector as all doom & gloom. With these inherent risks are also rewards. Working in the private sector over the public sector generally commands higher base salaries. I say “base” because I’m not factoring in retirement/pension funds, which we’ll cover a little later. There’s signing bonuses, salary bonuses, stock options, employee stock purchase plans, a bevy of other perks that come with a private sector employee.

In the public sector, the lifeblood of a government agency is TAX REVENUE. And as ole Ben Franklin said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Meaning that a government agency will ALWAYS have a steady stream of revenue from the public tax payers, whether we like it or not. Because of this steady stream of income, things work a little differently when you work in the government.

You are no longer driven by quarterly revenue. The goal of an agency is not to maximize revenue and reduce costs. The goal is to SERVE THE PUBLIC TRUST (had to sneak in a Robocop reference here).

Yes, layoffs can still happen at a government agency, but many government employees are protected by union regulations and a “first hired, first fired” policy. Seniority can help protect government employees, if you can manage to hang around long enough.

You can also be protected by other government laws such as overtime. Even as a full time employee, government protections such as paid overtime, or getting compensated with additional vacation time are in place.

In general, work/life balance is generally more protected and enforced in the public sector. This should factor into your career strategy, if you highly value your personal time.

What about work culture?

If you’re looking to be out on the bleeding edge of technology, you should consider private sector opportunities first. That’s not to say there isn’t any innovation in the public sector.

But there are some important factors to keep in mind if you’re considering government opportunities.

The higher up you move through the government ladder, the more CONSERVATIVE the organization becomes. By conservative, I mean IT strategies and decisions. When I was working at a federal agency, we were only allowed to use Microsoft Internet explorer as our web browser. And it was FOUR VERSIONS behind the latest version.

Social media websites were blocked and any other content deemed inappropriate by the IT administrators.

You could only work on approved technology stacks. The agencies I’ve personally worked with at the city, county and federal level were Microsoft centric. So if you wanted to work with open source technologies, you were fresh outta luck, unless you had special approval.

I once got in trouble for plugging in my personal “unauthorized” iPhone to my Federal agency computer, so I could charge it up! They take security and procedures VERY seriously at the Federal level. I used to attend weekly security and deployment policy meetings where representatives from the major divisions inside the Federal Agency I worked at, would discuss all the software applications that were scheduled to be deployed to production environments, and would vote to approve or reject any applications that did not meet a checklist of regulations and requirements that were required for official deployment to federal computer servers. In essence, be prepared to fill out TONS of requests for anything you need from other departments.

The Agile and Scrum movements, don’t really seem to be embraced at the government level. It’s mostly traditional waterfall methodology where you have business analysts, QA, tech writers, and project managers. If you’re comfortable with waterfall methodology, then it’s more likely you’ll encounter this kind of work methodology at a government agency than a private sector company.

If you like working in a fast paced and agile environment that encourages bleeding edge technology stacks, you’re more likely to find that sort of environment at a non government organization.

Of course, there’s also another aspect of working in the public sector that’s a little harder to quantify. The very nature of serving the public trust can be appealing to many prospective employees. You’ll never see anyone get rich serving in the Peace Corps, yet you see many people continue joining because they find it personally rewarding and enriching. Never underestimate the power of giving!

All these things, by themselves, may seem small, but they add up and should influence your decision to go down one path or another.

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