Lindy Kyzer

Hi this is Lindy Kyzer with ClearanceJobs. Welcome! Defense hiring, hiring within the cleared space, definitely a topic that is near and dear to our heart at ClearanceJobs. We talk a ton about the hiring process, how to get a job in this industry, and the security clearance is one component that we tend to touch on a lot because the show is called “Security Clearance Insecurity,” but it’s a part of this broader piece which is this whole national security hiring market that we’re in.

Today, I’m really excited to be chatting with Michaela Flatau. She is the chief unicorn collector with Defense Unicorns, the head of talent acquisition at Defense Unicorns. Defense Unicorns is really one of these companies that I love following and seeing over at ClearanceJobs. They’re relatively new in this space but not brand new; they have built really a robust employer brand, which I know is a wonky industry term, but when you see them you know them.

They work in the defense industry and support national security but they also have a lot of fun. I love Michaela. I came across her online. She definitely is having fun at what she does but is also very passionate about the community and making national hiring better. So thank you so much for being on the show and for taking the time to chat with me today! I really appreciate it.

Michaela Flatau

Of course!

Lindy Kyzer

So we have traded laments about the government hiring process because you come from a government background and you have family members who have worked in supporting national security. I was just having a conversation with someone earlier today about the government hiring process; why is it so painful? Why are we still talking about the same problems over and over again? So just to start, kind of talk about your involvement with the government hiring space and if you have any thoughts on why can we not fix this big monolith issue of government hiring? Let’s do it today!

Michaela Flatau

I started my career as an intern with the government in HR and I have worked in every single segment of government hiring, from recruiting and placement, from classification which is where they’re auditing grades and writing position descriptions, to manpower, to resource planning, to full-on being the central HR for one of the organizations. Since coming from having a full view of the whole process and looking at it from above, there are just so many inefficiencies, especially when it comes to simple things. So much of your time during the day is being taken by data entry or like things being put on, no kidding, paper being passed around in a folder. It’s incredibly frustrating because later in my career with the government, we had tried to push some automation in there and I feel like we were met with resistance from folks who worked in the hiring process because they didn’t want to be transparent about the hiring process. Because they had thought that it could potentially affect their jobs and the stability of their job, and I’m like, “Do you understand that if this data entry things, these like day-to-day things that take up so much time, if those were taken off your plate you would have so much more time to iterate on the process, make it better and also gives more human decision making ability to some of those roles that need it?”

Also, I felt like when the hiring process is segmented that much it’s very hard to think about the job being connected to a human being who has a family. Who is waiting on a decision. To hear back from a job in four, five, six months, even up to a year is absolutely absurd because you cannot expect someone to put their life on hold, and then hear back from a job in six months and still be in the same place that they were where they would be ready to accept that job. They probably went to a contractor at that point, gotten a job offer within a month and then have been working there already.

I feel like so many of the innovators in this space that I know of, would love to work directly for the federal government. If the pay was more competitive, if the process was easier, if it didn’t feel like you needed tips and tricks and hacks or to pay someone to write your resume. All of these things just to get your foot in the door. So I know that didn’t exactly like pinpoint one specific area; I think it’s the whole thing and I could go into more detail on every single area that needs to be fixed but I’ll leave it at that so that we can move forward.

Lindy Kyzer

You touched on a few things, the data entry and the duplication of effort, and then  just the responsiveness of the process. That’s something that I heard a very similar complaint back from government even related to the security clearance process saying, “Hey we couldn’t respond to everybody,” like right? It’s the whole, if we respond to this person then they will expect us to update them on this process, we can’t respond to everyone.

Well that’s industry standard in the private sector. If you have an applicant that you’ve onboarded to the extent that you’re putting them through the security clearance process. They’re in your pipeline so nurturing that candidate within the pipeline is something for the government that almost needs to be an education piece. It will save you time because you won’t lose all these candidates.

Michaela Flatau

Exactly. And I’ve seen candidates who are perfect for the government. If we’re hurting in sheet metal, there are sheet metal folk. If we’re hurting in software engineers there are software engineers. But they have been so soured by the application process in the time it takes to hear back that they’ve completely written off working for the government; they’ve given up. And that makes me sad because these people were once banging down the gates wanting to work for the government, and have been beaten down so badly by the process that they just said it’s not worth it anymore. They did want to serve the country, but if they can’t even have the opportunity to hear back on a job application, then why would they put forward any more effort?

Lindy Kyzer

And there are just simple things. There’s big things but there’s also some simple things the government could do. And so I think just having conversations like this, I hope kind of helps to move the needle on that a little bit. I know there are folks in the space like you who we have worked in there and you want things to be better so we can get the right movement. I haven’t given up hope yet!

Talk about the transition into Defense Unicorns, there really one of the companies that I think is doing some really cool things when it comes to hiring in this space. Which, sometimes even government contracting is very similar to the government hiring process, and almost feels like there is a contractual requirement not be cool.  Not to pretend like your jobs are innovative or stuff like that. So what what are some of the ways the Defense Unicorns stands out even this government contracting space? Because I do think they do.

Michaela Flatau

When Rob Slaughter approached me, he’s our CEO of Defense Unicorns. When he approached me about coming to Defense Unicorns and building the hiring process the way I wanted to, that was incredibly exciting for me. Because a lot of folks in the government space were being extremely vocal about changes that need to happen and things that we’re seeing that were not efficient and were not contributing to hiring good employees. But ultimately it was falling on deaf ears, and so the prospect of being able to go to a start up and start something new from the ground up and make it like employee-centric candidate-centric was so appealing to me.

My whole family thought I was crazy because I had been in the government system as a GS 4, and in in five years worked up to GS 12. I just got accepted into a free masters program with Air Command Staff College. I’d just gotten a new job and was being looked at for supervisory roles. I was climbing my way up the ladder, I was doing all the right things and I was about to throw all of that away to go to a start-up called Defense Unicorns.

A lot of people were like “Are you sure?” and I said it’s more than just climbing the ladder and being in that stable government job. I want to feel like I’m making a difference; I don’t feel like I’m doing that right now. I’m trying to but I don’t feel empowered to and this is my opportunity to go somewhere and feel empowered. To work for a company that I know is going to be doing good for the government. I am still serving the warfighter just as a contractor and it feels good.

Going there, there were so many inefficiencies with the government process. I flipped it on its head over here at Defense Unicorns.  So first off, every single candidate deserves a response to the job in a timely manner after that decision was made. I cannot control if the decision goes to your spam, if you didn’t see it, but I can’t control that everyone is getting sent a decision on where they’re out in the hiring process and what is happening.

I can also be transparent about the hiring process. I can be transparent about time lines. I can move fast, which, sometimes I have to explain to candidates, “Hey I don’t want you to feel like we are in a rush with hiring because we’re moving fast. I just like to move fast because I understand that you have a decision to make.  I want you to know what our decisions are as quickly as we’re making them, that way you can make decisions for your family on if you want to come here and how that factors into your life.”

Interviewing process; anyone who has interviewed with the federal government: it’s rough. There’s a lot of rules where as an interview, you are not allowed to talk to the candidate, ask clarifying questions, really even like smile or chuckle or anything like that. You’re just supposed to sit there and take notes because any of that is seen as potentially giving the candidate a leg up over other candidates. I do not like that at all because I think that that completely takes the human element out of hiring.

I believe in having conversations with candidates and also explaining to them as well what we’re all about because I can recall interviews that I was in, answering my questions but I didn’t have the opportunity to ask questions about the team I would be going to, the organization I was getting hired into, what were they looking for, what what their expectations were. It’s very one sided and I think that getting hired for jobs should feel like I’m interviewing you when you’re interviewing me and we’re making sure that this is a fit for both of us rather than just this one sided questions, being afraid to even look up at the candidate because you’re going to give them some sort of cue that they’re not doing well or they’re on the right path.

So that’s something as well that we do very differently at Defense Unicorns. Employee experience is important here and making sure our unicorns are taking care of, and their families are taken care of, because when they’re taken care of, they’re gonna take care of us. They’re going to produce better work and they’re going to feel appreciated that’s how we create this employee base that is so passionate and so excited. Also making sure the people we’re bringing on board are passionate about the mission as well.

I cannot tell you how we’re refreshing it is coming from the federal government, to coming to a place like this. I can confidently say that every single person here knows what they’re doing is contributing to the warfighter and is excited about that and is passionate about that. Whereas in the federal government, I felt like I had a mix of innovators, some people coasting to retirement, some people who are just there to clock in and clock out, and some people who just felt genuinely so disconnected from the mission that they didn’t feel passionate about it.

And that’s sad because that’s the whole reason why we should be working for the department of defense. It’s that we understand the loss and the sacrifice of our service members, and that’s what we’re there to support in whatever role we fill. All of it contributes directly to the warfighter. I think that’s how Defense Unicorns sets ourselves apart, especially from other defense contractors. Because I feel like that culture translates to the contractor, and it feels very similar to being in the same federal government space.

Where at Defense Unicorns we do work on really hard problems and we do work on things that directly impact service members lives, but if we can make every other aspect of the work pleasurable so that when our unicorns do have to focus on those tough problems, they feel like they’ve had enough downtime and relaxing in an encouraging environment, that they can fully focus on that. We already have so much stress and big problems especially in software and tech that we’re trying to work towards that if we can make all other aspects of work happy, I think that’s how we set ourselves apart. And we’re called Defense Unicorns!

Lindy Kyzer

I mean yeah, you’ve got that going for you for sure. The chance to get to wear a unicorn t-shirt ranks pretty high on the list for me wanting to apply for a position. But I think you touched on something that is key: the mission is that unifying function that everybody across this community wants to support. That is a very serious mission and that can also lead to stress, and sometimes we don’t want to admit that these can be very stressful jobs.  How do you balance the fact that you’re doing cutting edge technology, you’re doing amazing innovative work that can be stressful, and if you’re operating with that high intensity and you don’t ever feel the release of like, “Hey but I can also have one of my co workers. I’m working on this big problem that is stressful but I’m solving it with somebody I really enjoy working with.”

I think you’ve done a great job of conveying that piece of it saying like, if you’re a technologist your skills are in demand. You can get jobs at a lot of different places, but this is the place you want to work because you have that mission that people want, that they want to solve the hard problems. I find that across a lot of the tech candidates, but then they also want to be in this community that gives back to them.

I saw on the headlines last week and this comes up in industry, and I I think as our community has gotten bigger, it’s been a net positive. We want the start ups, we want the unicorns, those different perspectives on this. But I feel like it can be harder to operate in that space as a start up.  So I was just curious, do you come up against technologist kind of put off by the fact that there’s defense in your name? Or how do you kind of work with in those two spaces?

Michaela Flatau

It’s interesting because I do feel like a lot of folks feel a certain way towards the Department of Defense and towards defense contractors because obviously we are involved in war. And that is unfortunately, a reality. I think we can agree that we all believe deeply in the value of life. Like let’s be real, when weapons are poorly built, there is more collateral damage, meaning more innocent lives lost. More tech in the defense sector means more improvement in precision and then reduces the risk of loss of lives.

Obviously, integration of more innovation in tech and software in the defense space removes more human lives like like thing for example ARI in drones removes more human lives reducing risk of loss of lives on both sides. And you can look back in history and see that. Like in World War,  how inefficient it was and how deadly they were, especially those who were not involved in battle. I understand that some folks don’t want to be involved in war. The reality is that the more tact that’s inserted, the more innovation, the better this is going to get.

It’s important to remember a lot of the defense sector is also humanitarian efforts and deterrence. Trying to prevent these things from happening. I mean, we as a country depend on our freedom for economic strength. The more safe we are, the better our prosperity is and then the more equipped we are to help others. A lot of the candidates I’m finding are coming to us because they’re getting tired of like improving how ads are being seen on the internet and like still filters for your face on Snapchat. Like, yes, the technology is being used for that stuff but then they’re sitting there like “I want to push tech to its limits. I want to figure out like how to make this bigger, because it’s gonna be bigger than this, and I want to make an impact,” and that is what I talk to candidates about, is the impact here saving lives, helping people, that it’s the same bottom line as working with the federal government, as well is saving lives and helping people, ensuring our country’s safe. So that’s kind of where my thought process went with that question.

And that’s a reality, the weapons are going to be used regardless. Would we not rather insert more tech and innovation and be more precise, reduce innocent  lives being lost.

Lindy Kyzer

I look at that I just feel like a guttural feeling that people have a lack of understanding of what the Department of Defense does and how big it is. Because I think the breadth of these missions – I’m all about conveying there’s different avenues and lanes that you can work and and approach federal government employment and it doesn’t all look the same. And that’s why I love new innovative companies in this space because if you can support national security and work in a lot of different sectors doing a lot of different things but you’re still going to be working on some really cool projects. I feel like we go through these news cycles every so often where somebody gets really mad that somebody has a government contract. Like I wish you had to read the banality of those defense contracts and also see how far removed a lot of these contracts are.

There’s a lot of different ways to be engaged in, to be involved. But always good to hear that for companies like Defense Unicorns, you like you know that you’re supporting the warfighter and can  find candidates that are interested in doing that, and find out a more compelling mission then creating a filter. Although, I would filter my face.

Michaela Flatau

I know, add cat ears, remove the blemishes, thank you.

I want to circle back to that, and I’ll be real with you. So I have worked in the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center  where troops would come and be stabilized before going back to the states after being wounded in war. And that’s the stuff that people don’t see and some of these folks. I remember a gentleman, who, we obviously go in there and say, “Hey welcome to the hospital, what’s going on, we’re here to take care of you and pack your bullet wounds and wrap your amputated legs and what not.” And he said he was playing soccer with a little kid and then got shot in the legs and that’s why he was at the hospital.

And so there’s so many more stories that were similar to that and I was like, if people could see the folks who are getting hurt in these wars, because I’m sure on the other side there’s more stories. If there is a way to remove human lives from that equation by adding more technology would we not want to do that? I do think you’re correct where people just don’t fully understand and I think if they were to understand they would be more willing to jump and say let’s do this, let’s make things better, let’s make things more precise.

Lindy Kyzer

I want to circle back to the hiring question as we close. So if you could change one thing about government hiring, what would it be? As we walk away from this conversation, do you see some low hanging fruit that you just wish the government hiring process would implement today?

Michaela Flatau

Is it a small, simple step for me to say to just completely gut USA Jobs and redo the website? Fix the application process, the B. S. assessment, the way that certain jobs are open for months at a time but you never hear back. Certain jobs are open in other avenues as well, or can I talk about like position descriptions and how they were written in the nineties and how they’re not accurate to today’s technologies? Interviewing process, the way resumes are sorted which is a staffing specialist not really having any direct contact with the hiring manager, or what the job is, just reading one of those outdated position descriptions going resume by resume saying, “Okay I got the key words in here.”

It’s kind of scary when you look at all the different areas that need to be fixed. So a simple step, I’ll just stick with all gut USA Jobs and make it more straight forward. Make applications more straight forward, we’ll go from there but that’s the very first step. That’s the very first thing that sours so many candidates. So that’s the one I’m gonna have to go with, just gut USA Jobs and make it better.

Lindy Kyzer

Yeah, I think it does it just doesn’t reflect the hiring process that we have today and we’re all about like the accepted service positions over at ClearanceJobs. We try to always tell folks USA Jobs is not the only way to find a government job. You go to a place like ClearanceJobs and search, we have government positions listed there, even convincing these agencies who have those authorities right, for the cyber and tech position.

Most agencies have the authority to do that now, but kind of a convincing and getting the hiring manager on board to say you don’t have to use USA Jobs. We repeat that you don’t have to use USA jobs, especially to fill these in demand tech positions that they have. So kind of educating on that. USA Jobs should not be the only place you have to land on to get a government job today.

As you said, until they make the process better. Folks ask me all the time, “How do I get a government job?” and I wish I could tell them to create a profile on USA Jobs and employers will contact you, which is the way it is on ClearanceJobs. You can create a profile and a hiring manager will reach out to you. We’re in a candidate market, you should be able to do that.

Michaela Flatau

Yeah, that’s what makes ClearanceJobs so nice. So many people are soured by their experience on USA Jobs but they still want to work in the federal space, and they still want to support our government in some way, shape, or form. There’s other avenues, ClearanceJobs being one of them, looking on LinkedIn, looking at contractors, all sorts of different ways that you can support and not have to deal with the headache that is trying to figure out how to write your resume the perfect way, to pass the ball into the assessment with the right questions, and put the key words where they need to be, to pay someone to write a resume for you.

It should not be that hard, especially when there’s so many great candidates out there who would do such a service if they could just support.

Lindy Kyzer

I think that’s the takeaway. We both talk to people all the time who want to work in federal government, who want to support these positions. That’s good! Let’s not waste it while we have it. But I so appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I love those who have served in government who have worked there way, moved into other positions who have a lot of passion for making government better, because I think that’s what it will take to improve the process. People who experience from the inside and have that energy momentum and now have that perspective to say, “Hey it could be better; let’s continue to improve the process and make it better.” Check out Defense Unicorns because you do amazing and cool stuff over there.

Michaela Flatau

Thanks so much for having me!

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Lindy Kyzer is the director of content at Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email Interested in writing for Learn more here.. @LindyKyzer