I joined the U.S. Digital Service in July 2017. It has been an incredible experience, far exceeding my expectations. My team helped build the Blue Button API, modernizing government and moving healthcare interoperability forward. I’ve also spent time with people like USDS Administrator Matt Cutts; Seema Verma (Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; and Matt Lira, Special Assistant to the President for Innovation Policy and Initiatives; and been to meetings in the White House.
Prior to USDS, life in Denver was easy. My wife had a job she loved, our two elementary school-age kids were in a great school, our big fluffy labradoodle was fat and happy, and we had a close group of family and friends.
I had a conversation with Susannah Fox, former CTO of Department of Health and Human Services, about AI, healthcare and Aneesh Chopra’s book “The Innovative State.” I was inspired and began digging deeper into the intersection of government and technology. I learned about 18F and cloud.gov and played around with datasets from data.gov. I watched hearings on the OPEN Government Data Act and subscribed to newsletters from think tanks like the Center for Data Innovation.
As it turns out, there’s an incredible amount of innovation and goodness happening in government today from the use of open source to data transparency to progressive tech policy.
Susannah connected me with the U.S. Digital Service, a group of engineers, designers, product managers, and digital policy experts that work across the departments of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, and the Small Business Administration to improve websites, access to datasets, user experiences and more. It sounded awesome and I decided to give it a go. You can read more about why I decided to join the U.S. Digital Service here.
If you are thinking about totally disrupting your comfortable lifestyle and moving to Washington, D.C., for a family adventure like we did, here are the 5 steps we took to make it happen:
Step 1: Figure out school
We began our search by looking for rentals and asking some friends of friends that live in D.C. for advice on schools. It turns out D.C. has excellent public schools. We came up with John Eaton, Stoddert, and Mann Elementary, looked at their websites and browsed rentals within the school boundaries.
Step 2: Visit, tell the kids, find an apartment
Over the kid’s Spring Break we decided to travel to D.C. to get a lay of the land. We broke the news to the kids that we were moving to D.C. for the year. They took it well. We decided to rent out our Denver house to assure them the move was temporary and they would return home to their own rooms and friends.
D.C. is an easy place to live. There are old row homes, new apartments and big houses for rent depending on where you want to live. We setup a few tours through Zillow and had a Realtor friend help show us around a bit. For this visit, I would recommend renting a car to move around the various neighborhoods quickly for the tours.
We also set up tours with the schools. The kids were slightly terrified as we walked around each school and the other kids stared at them. This was an important thing for us to do, however, so we felt comfortable with each school and able to talk with the kids about which one they liked best.
Part of our adventure was doing things totally different from our setup in Denver so instead of a house we decided to rent an apartment in the Woodley Park neighborhood. Woodley Park is super family-friendly and two Metro stops away from the U.S. Digital Service office next to the White House. It’s a good mix of families, professionals, parks, big trees, and restaurants, and near the Zoo.
Step 3: Rent our Denver house and move
Our kids are 6 and 9 years old so we’ve accumulated a respectable amount of old toys, books, kid’s artwork and more over the years. We gradually chipped away at packing. We gave away many, many boxes of old kid stuff and convinced friends to babysit our piano, patio furniture, and bikes for the year.
Renting the house was easy. We found a property manager in Denver who found us a family to rent the house in a few days. A giant container showed up outside our house a week before moving day. I hired two movers to pack all of our furniture, and on moving day I picked up a small truck and my wife and I loaded our stuff.
Step 4: Arrive in D.C.
We took a few days to drive across the country with the truck and one of our cars. The kids handled it well, listening to audio books and playing car games. We hired two more people to help us move into our apartment. The first thing we had to deal with was our car. My wife (thank you Sarah!) dealt with getting a D.C. license and plates for the car so we could park on the street. The next task was getting the kids enrolled in school which was very straightforward. A few minor normal moving things like setting up Internet, running errands, etc. and we were done.
Just like that, we were living in D.C.
Step 5: Day one at the United States Digital Service
Wake up, get dressed, head to the White House complex. Not exactly your average first day at a new gig.
The first week at USDS is all about onboarding. Besides the normal HR, computer, badges activities, you spend time with USDSers to hear stories, tips on being successful at USDS, and understanding the intersection of tech and policy at the federal level. You get assigned to a team based on your background and what you want to work on. For me this is Health and Human Services. The first week is a firehose of information as you’d expect, but the hours aren’t crazy. You’ll want to dig into problem solving but need to be patient and enjoy the orientation type stuff.
Once you get plugged in with your team and start working, things get busy fast. Since it was mid-July and we didn’t have any camps or other activities set up, my wife and the kids took off to Florida for a few weeks. I really missed them of course, but this was helpful as it gave me a ton of time for after-work dinners, going to D.C. tech meetups and working longer hours as I got up-to-speed on projects.
About a month in, and as school began, we settled in to a nice routine and work/life balance. It was easy to make great friends through the kids school. Once that happened, the kids ended up in a bunch of sports and after-school enrichment activities with their friends.
Everyone says “the days are long and the years short” and it’s so cliché. But wow, it has really applied to this year in D.C. As the cherry blossoms begin to bloom here and the days are getting warmer, it’s hard to believe our year in D.C. is nearing the end. We really thought long and hard about staying in D.C. another year. We made the decision to move back to Colorado, mostly because we miss the mountains and that was our original plan. After year one at USDS, you can renew for another term. U.S. Digital Service members join for what we call a tour of duty: it allows us to bring in folks for term-limited positions to work on building a more awesome government.
The work at USDS is powerful, especially for someone like me that has never served in government before. You spend your days focused on highly impactful projects that directly benefit the American people. For me, it’s been working on Blue Button 2.0, an API that enables Medicare Beneficiaries to sync their health data with apps they use. For you, it could be working with Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Small Business Administration and more.
Totally disrupting yourself and your family life for a year in exchange for an awesome adventure in D.C. is totally doable. I hope you take the leap—the American people need you.
“Despite the challenges that arise on any given day, I wouldn’t trade this job for anything, especially in this moment.”
“I have many avenues to create impact at USDS, which is what keeps it interesting and fulfilling.”
“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.”
“Improving the aging technology that government and its services runs on was an extremely compelling goal.”
“Serving a tour of duty with USDS is not only good for the country but also a great opportunity for you as a technologist.”
“At the Defense Digital Service I help make the lives of service members better, and safer.”
“USDS’ value is in delivery and building capacity. We’re able to work on projects to take an idea to implementation, and guide teams on best practices for how to continue this momentum even after we’re gone.”
“Everyone I worked with at USDS brought talent, a can-do spirit and a belief that together we could make the country better.”