What projects did you work on during your time at USDS?
I started on an ill-fated project at the Social Security Administration working on disability claims processing. We were pulled off after a month due to a variety of factors, since there was a lot of history with that project and USDS before my team got there. While that experience was tough, it was part of the evolution of USDS and how as an organization we learned to operate — a key lesson of making sure to send a whole team in from the very beginning of a project. The remaining 2 years was spent on helping build login.gov, a single sign-on authentication platform for government. This had been tried before in the government and had not worked. I had been told it was a USDS “moonshot” effort before I joined, which made me excited to be part of it. I managed the privacy and security compliance aspects of the project.
What was your biggest challenge?
One of the biggest challenges had to do with getting through the Authority to Operate (ATO) process in an environment that was, with good reason, very risk-averse and also didn’t fully understand agile and iterative software development. New systems like login.gov need an ATO, and the ATO compliance process generally reinforces the discredited waterfall methodology by forcing things to be built on paper from end to end, with little to no user validation, and the whole process can literally take years for the highest level of ATO. There was a lot of trust building and communicating with stakeholders needed to get to the point where we developed a phased approach for the ATO that let the project launch.
What is your favorite memory?
Hard to pick, but two stand out: first, when we got our first ATO signed and launched login.gov and went out to celebrate. For me, there was a realization that this team had gotten something off the ground that had failed in several previous attempts, and this was just the beginning. Second, unexpectedly meeting President Obama on the Navy steps of the EEOB on an unusually warm January day.
Why did you decide to join USDS?
I had worked at the State Department in tech-related positions for several years, and then at the Office of Management Budget, and was ready to leave government altogether out of frustration of not being able to get things done. I had heard of USDS, but was skeptical about what it could achieve given the challenges of tech in a bureaucracy. By that point I felt like I had heard all the slogans and buzzphrases (be innovative, challenge the status-quo, be data driven) that were either empty or never had the right level of buy-in or involvement to make an impact.
But what motivated me to join USDS was when I saw a presentation of the GI Bill Comparison Tool built by the USDS VA team. As a Veteran, I felt like it had been built for me because it answered the key questions about education benefits I had back when I was transitioning off active duty and planning on going to grad school — letting the user compare how much the benefit would be broken down by state and school, the housing allowance, and how much you’d pay out of pocket — along with a link to apply. This seems really straightforward, but finding this information when fellow service members and I needed it was incredibly difficult, and made it a challenge to figure out how to use the benefits we’d earned. A lot of vets don’t use their education benefits for that reason, and I knew that many obstacles were overcome in creating this tool within the VA. It was hugely inspiring to see something useful being built, not only for the GI Bill, but for making all VA benefits and services accessible, clearly with input from vets like myself. USDS is uniquely positioned to provide those outcomes, and need people to keep the momentum going.
What would you tell someone who is thinking of doing a tour of duty?
Do it. There are no small wins at USDS. Whatever you help get done, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant — everything from shipping a new feature to finalizing a memo — wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and will be a critical step to creating a positive impact for millions. The work isn’t partisan; it’s work for the people.