The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Being a defense contractor during a shutdown: ‘I’m going to go update my resume’

Much of the impact of the shutdown is felt by the 800,000 federal workers who are simply furloughed without pay. But the ripple effects spread far and wide, to all the workers employed indirectly on government contracts. One of them, a software engineer with a large D.C.-area defense contractor who asked to remain anonymous, described Monday night what it's been like to work under the threat of your sole client suddenly going dark.

Lydia DePillis: So what's the atmosphere in the office?  

Day to day, you don't notice it in the work we do. I go in tomorrow, and I know I have a bunch of bugs to fix. But there is that nagging sensation of, like, should I be looking for a new job soon? What's going on? There's a lot of chatter in the office. We have employees that work on the bases themselves. So they'll work on an Air Force or Navy base. They actually don't go to work tomorrow. They all are being stuffed into our office. So we've got to move chairs and tables around, because they can't go to their normal jobs. There's a lot of frustration, particularly aimed at the Republicans in Congress. People will say, 'Hey this is bullshit, why can't they just figure this out. We go to work, why can't they go to work?'

LD: Was there some sort of company-wide meeting about it? 

We have a lot of meetings. We definitely had one around the sequestration, because at the time they were really getting into furloughing a lot of employees in the government, and a lot of those guys are our clients, so if they don't show up to work, we have no point of contact. We can basically keep working, because we're basically already paid. So if we have a year-long contract, it's still going, and I'm sure the government won't be shut down before the contract is over. So that money's already been set aside. So in that sense we're okay. But for example, there's a couple of side projects that we're trying to develop into actual contracts, so those get pushed back, or those get prolonged, someone's going to lose money. And it's probably going to be the government, that's just how it works.

So for example there's this one project that we're trying to start up. And it's really deep in the development phase. And we have people flying across the country, and we're meeting, talking, and prototyping stuff. If the people who're meeting, we can't contact them tomorrow because they don't work, do we pull our flights? Does the project get canceled? What do we do now? So projects that aren't in contract form, written down and ready to go, those are the ones that get hurt. That's a week or two of our time, and we're going to charge them for it.

LD: Do you get the sense that higher ups are irritated or tense? 

We definitely get e-mails of, 'we're not sure what's happening.' And it does make people nervous. I know a couple of employees who're just tired of constant, of the debt ceiling before, and then sequestration, and another debt ceiling, and after a while, you get kind of like, 'what the hell, who wants to work in this environment.' You're constantly under threat.

LD: Is that serious enough for you to think of getting another job?

Oh yeah. It's just annoying. You get frustrated. All day today, we've just been watching different news networks, sitting at our computers thinking 'oh god, what's going to happen today?' I definitely do have other places I can go to. Funny enough, I got an e-mail today for a position right in my hometown. So I was like, ha, it's almost like an out. It's that nervous laugh of like, 'things aren't great, uggggh, I'm going to go update my resume.'

LD: Did you figure coming out of college that government contracting would be a reliable career?

Absolutely, that's what I thought! Stupid me. I thought that 'hey, government will always be here.' I mean, I'm not that naive, but you think it's pretty stable. You take the job because you think it's stable. I'm not worried that tomorrow I'll show up and my computer's gone, but it's just frustrating, and it makes me feel like i should go do something else. Especially because we have so many meetings because of the Snowden incident. So that is irritating.

LD: Yeah, it's been especially fraught to be a security contractor these days, huh. 

Yeah it sucks! On the way home today, I stupidly turned on the radio, and listened to talk radio, which was a horrible mistake. I turned on Sean Hannity, dear God, and to hear people that are like, 'yay, the government's shutting down, screw them,' I think he's playing Disco Inferno. What the hell? I know people who aren't going to go to work tomorrow. And to hear people that are celebrating? We're just like, what the hell?

LD: Do you understand the antipathy toward the huge amounts of money we spend on defense contractors? 

I understand people who are not happy with bloat. There are definitely things where I'm like hey, what the hell, this is a lot of money to be spending. I'm aware that there is waste. I'm not stupid. You get big enough, waste starts building up. There's a lot of ways you could cut it down. But to just flat out not have people not show up, break development cycles and push projects back, that's really not the way to go about it. You're just making things more expensive, you're not making things cheaper.