“As a computer scientist, I have worked throughout the private sector to see how we can use technology to drive positive change. In the early days of Google Health, I was trained to pull together teams of people with different backgrounds to think of ways to make health data interoperable. As a consultant for IBM, I worked with doctors to build data warehouses and analytics to gain insight from health data. I have had the opportunity to design healthcare interoperability software, study disease trends with data analytics, make Google Search more efficient, and work with large scale data systems. But it was with the United States Digital Service that I got the chance to really bridge my background in technology with my passion for service.” — Kathy Pham
Kathy left USDS in March 2018 for her next adventure in Boston where she is teaching a Product Management and Society course at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, leading the Ethical Tech Working Group at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center, and co-leading the Responsible Computer Science Challenge with Mozilla. She also founded and co-leads the Women in Product Boston Chapter. From her experience with product, government, public service, and technology, she recently launched Product and Society, incubated as a senior fellow at digital HKS.
You describe yourself as a computer scientist, who has worked throughout the private sector to see how we can use technology to drive innovation. What brought you to USDS when it was first founded and why did you decide to stay?
I started at USDS in late 2014. I decided to join after sitting on the floor of the Grace Hopper Women in Computing Conference with Mikey Dickerson, then the administrator of USDS, who pitched this idea of a new tech startup inside government at the White House. I had always been interested in public service, so I said yes, not knowing what to expect. I had been working at Google Search and also spent all of my career in the private sector tech industry; it was interesting and new to venture into the federal government. So, I thought why not do a short sabbatical from Google and come do this for a short amount of time. I ended up staying for 3.5 years.
I decided to go to Washington, D.C., at the time when USDS was about 12 people. I met amazing people who were brilliant and understood both technology and policy, and knew how to break through bureaucracy to get things done. People like Erie Meyer, Vivian Graubard, Mollie Ruskin, Ginny Hunt, Haley Van Dyck, Charles Worthington, Jennifer Anastasoff, Emily Tavoulareas, Marina Martin, who had been doing this work of bridging tech in government for quite some time. I felt like I had just found my people — people who cared deeply about communities that needed services most in this country and people who thought of ways that technology could be used to really make problems better.
Tell me about the USDS culture and how it compares to the private sector.
I have had the opportunity to work for some really great tech companies and teams. Some are dubbed the best places to work, like Google. When I left, many folks asked if I would miss the free food and many perks. After my first day at USDS I realized that although places like Google are a great place to work, there is nothing like this team and the mission of the work. USDS is a place where people care deeply about other people both within USDS and also the millions of people who interact with our government services. On a personal level, I found the culture unrivaled — the way we come together whenever people have personal tragedies or are dealing with personal issues, the flexibility when my mom passed away, and the support when I had my first child. From the work, professional perspective, personal perspective, USDS is everything I ever looked and hoped for in a job with the best, most mission-oriented, professional, brilliant, kind, and smart people I’ve ever worked with.
What are you most proud of during your time at USDS?
I am proud of so many things at USDS. I am proud of us for building a tech team within the federal government and figuring out how to hire people in. It was an honor to work with people like Jennifer Anastasoff, who headed up talent from the beginning, and figured out how to get people through the door. I am proud of representing the U.S. Digital Service at the State of the Union Address in 2015, as First Lady Michelle Obama’s guest, which was a crazy and exciting experience. I am proud of laying the foundation for the work that later became critical healthcare work, and for the work around how we create charters at agencies as we grew. I am proud of the strong foundation I helped build at USDS.
We’ve had our share of failures as well and in many ways have used those failures to launch other projects. And we’ve also had many successes. I’m really proud of the ways we have continued to iterate over and over again. If we fail at something we do, we learn and do it better. We iterate on everything we work on and learn from each other.
If someone were hesitating wanting to apply for or join USDS, what would you say to them?
If someone was hesitating to join USDS I would say “Do it!” It is a rare, one of a kind opportunity. It is the ability to work at the highest level of government in the United States to impact people at a scale that is unrivaled. You get to work with this mix of policy people, tech people, law people, designers, product managers, engineers, and so many talented people coming together in this very unique environment that is the federal government. So, do it. There is nothing quite like it. You will learn so much that you can take back to whatever it is that you want to do next, whether it’s staying in government, going back to a tech company, starting your own non-profit, starting an institution, or going into academia. Do it. Not only will it be a very fulfilling experience but you will learn so much that you can take to so many places beyond USDS.
Why do you think it’s critical to have technologists in the government?
I think it’s critical to have technologists in the federal government because we have government services that require consumer facing products, and we need people in-house who know how to build them. Additionally, our government makes decisions about technology that impact society at large. So I think it’s critical to have people who understand technology — computer scientists, engineers, designers, and product managers — here both building services for people and also providing insight and guidance on how we as a federal government create policy that affects the private sector. I think it’s great to have folks rotate through to bring the latest ideas that exist in tech, and merge that with the great expertise that many of the current public servants have about why users need these tools.
What was it like moving across the country, going from working for a large tech company to working for the federal government?
I came to D.C. from the Bay Area. D.C. is the hub for politics and the Bay Area is the hub for technology. The Bay Area has a deep passion for how technology can change the world; D.C. has a deep passion for how policy, law, regulation, and public services can change the world. I think alone in their silos, both groups are doing great things, but also have gaps in their understanding. So, for folks who come in and bridge that gap or divide, it makes for a very powerful team of people working together. I have been so fortunate to be surrounded by so many passionate people who understand public service and politics.
If you were to go back in time and give yourself advice for your first few weeks here, what would you say?
I would tell myself to expect and prepare to learn so much from the work and from other public servants and long term federal employees. We were known as these private sector technologists who were going to help change the current state of tech in government. We were asked to leave our cushy private sector jobs to come serve. For many of us, we have learned so much from people who have done this work in public service for so long, with so much grit and resilience.
What’s next for you after USDS?
For as long as I have been in computer science, I have cared deeply about the intersection of people, society, and technology. In the tech world, this means looking at different systems, algorithms, code, data, and thinking deeply about how when we don’t bring users into the fold, we have a lot of problems. The tech industry is grappling with that right now. Tech companies have developed tools that are being used in ways that were unintended, and many of the engineers and developers, including myself, did not think about these issues. These days, I think a lot about the responsibilities of engineers when we build and ship products. There is a lot to learn from people in government, social scientists, philosophers, political scientists, and people who have deeply thought about communities. How do we bridge expertise across disciplines, and how do we better train our engineers to build tech products that better serve communities and society?
“I have never met such a passionate group of individuals who show up for one another to provide help on projects and emotionally support each other during difficult times.”
“I’ve been involved with so many things I am proud of, but probably the most meaningful contribution is making the civil service stronger.”
“If you are thinking about totally disrupting your comfortable lifestyle and moving to Washington, D.C., for a family adventure like we did...”
“Making sure we can improve, design, and iterate on a printed piece of paper, while explaining policy in a more human-centered way was a challenge I wasn’t expecting.”
“Despite the challenges that arise on any given day, I wouldn’t trade this job for anything, especially in this moment.”
“I was interested in USDS for personal reasons: the projects are high-impact, and working at USDS was a chance to grow professionally. But in the end it was the chance to make a difference in people's lives that sold me on the job.”
“It’s not about how can we maximize digital ad space or make conversion rates better, but how we can use technology to really make a difference in someone’s life.”
“Making responsible decisions about complex issues requires representation at the table where the decisions are being made.”