Story Jam: Building the Digital Workforce of the Future
May 4, 2022
Narrator: A mosaic of pictures representing a variety of people of different races, age, and gender appear on the screen. A title box appears over this image.
Joiwind Ronen: Hello! Welcome, everybody. We’ll give it another minute here, as we see the participant ticker move up from about 20 participants to a few more. And then we’ll go ahead and get started. We’ll give it about another 15 seconds, and then we’ll go ahead and jump in.
Okay. I think we’ll go ahead and started here.
Good afternoon, and welcome everybody. My name is Joiwind Ronen, a partner here at Wheelhouse Group. And I am super excited to host today second annual Public Service Recognition Week Story Jam (try to say that about three times fast)!
For those of you who don’t know, we launched our Stories of Change initiative last year. We really did it as a way to give voice to all of these remarkable stories that we’re hearing from many people in government those stories of resilience and innovation that were happening in times of great challenge. Our hope in starting this initiative was to create a place and a community where we could learn from each other and, by sharing these experiences, we could all collectively become better drivers of change here in government.
If this is your first Story Jam, and think we have a lot of people here for the first time, I encourage you to go to the website and read and watch all of the awesome resources that the community has created in the past year. That’s at wheelhousegroup.com/Stories of Change.
And we will be posting links like that in the chat. I know that some of you, especially those of you at the White House, have fire wall issues and can’t access the chat, so I will try to read those as well. And we’ll also have the chat available after the session for those of you that want to see it.
It looks like we have a great crowd today. People calling in from all over. Ashburn, I see Virginia, I see Washington, D.C., someone called in from Charlottesville. It looks like we have a good sample. Someone calling in from Boston. Just so excited to see so many faces (well right now it’s more your head shots) but excited to see so many people here calling in today!
So, before we get started, I just want to take a moment to pause and thank everybody who serves in government. I know we can kind of overlook this week as we go about our normal day-to-day jobs, but it truly is an honor to work with so many innovative and committed leaders. I encourage anyone (who has not done so) to take a minute and go to the Partnership for Public Service website at psrw.ourpublicservice.org for Public Service Recognition Week (PSRW). They have some really great resources and discount codes, but they also have a survey called “I serve because…” They too are collecting stories and sharing what you all do in newsletters and on the website. So, I encourage you to take a moment and visit there.
Just a reminder, in 2021 Wheelhouse Group was asked to join the Digital Services Coalition. We affectionately refer to it as “DSC.” We’ll put a link to their website in the chat if you have not heard about the Digital Services Coalition. But we are focused on bringing the focus to the people side of digital transformation with the DSC. Through that organization we were introduced to many new partners, and we have heard many stories of how this group is redefining how government goes digital.
So, we decided in 2021 to really focus our stories and these events such as the one today on digital transformation. With that in mind, we invited and are so excited to partner and collaborate with Traci Walker, Executive Director of the DSC. She has graciously agreed to moderate the discussion here today. She has a long career in public service, working hard both in government and outside of government, and I am excited to learn more about her and the speakers that are coming up in a few minutes.
But before I turn it over, I get to go through a few administrative details. So, bear with me just a few seconds longer and then we’ll jump into the meat of the sessions. As you can probably see the session is being recorded, and we do that so we can post it on the website afterwards and you can share it with others. I also do want to point out that you can find full speaker biographies and links on our website – stories of change. We won’t be going through those in detail, so you can access them and learn more about each of our speakers there.
Just as a reminder about format, today is part storytelling and part discussion. So be ready with your questions, as we want to keep it interactive. I ask that we be respectful of the special space we’re creating here together. Some ways to do that are make sure to keep yourself on mute and stay off camera unless you are speaking.
If you would like to, I encourage you to click on the three dots by your name and include your name, organization and pronouns. That helps if you are called on. If you want to put any questions in the chat, and we call on you, we will be able to call you by your name. You can then take yourself off of mute and turn on the camera, if you would like, and introduce yourself.
Before we get started the last thing, as we usually do in Story Jam, we are going to have chats and polls going on throughout. So, we’re going to go ahead and do the first poll. For those of you that can access the poll, it’ll go ahead and pop-up on your screen. You can (I know there’s a lot of things going on your screen with Zoom) if you want, you can click on it and move it to a different part of your screen, wherever you want. And then you can choose your answer, submit the poll and then the results will show up on your screen. So if we go ahead and put up poll number one, this is really an opportunity for us to get to know you better.
Good thing I have written down the questions. What is your experience working with or in the government?
The options are:
- I have mostly worked at a government employee,
- I have mostly worked as a government contractor,
- I have worked in both industries and government,
- I work in another industry or sector.
So, if you go ahead and click on that and put your answer in. I am going to hand it over to Traci, who will talk to us about the results and jump over into the discussion. So, thank you everybody, for joining.
Traci Walker: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for that, Joiwind. As she mentioned, my name is Traci Walker, and I am the Executive Director of the Digital Services Coalition. Happy Public Service Recognition Week!
So, a little bit about the DSC. We’re a nonprofit trade association, made up of companies who are experts in digital services and digital transformation. As an FYI, we’re opening up our membership drive soon, so if you are interested in joining, please check out our website for updates. Or you could get in touch with me personally and I can give you more information on that. So, just a little housekeeping and “come join us” statement before we get started!
It looks like the poll results have come in and it looks like 59% of everyone here has mostly worked as a government contractor. About 14% that have worked mostly as a government employee, myself included. “I have worked in industry and government” at 24%. And 10% is “I work in another industry or sector.” Thank you to everyone who is joining in.
This kind of shows that we definitely have a heavily industry-based conversation but love the fact that there are people who have spent a lot of time as government employees. What we really are trying to talk and have this discussion about is understanding the digital government workforce. So, not only just the people who have only worked for the government or the other people who have worked only in industry, but where does the line start to blend and what does that look like as we go forward into the future.
One of the things we are going to talk about today with our panelists is understanding motivations and opportunities of having those career choices that can lead someone to work for the government at any level – state, federal, county, tribal reservations – that people are working in. We really kind of want to figure out what does it look like for somebody to want to make that decision to work for the government and then also work in tech.
I have completed 20 years in the government. I made my first jump into industry this past year, which was great, but that really isn’t a typical career trajectory (even for a federal employee) anymore. Most the time, when I started it was like okay, you’re going to do your time here as a government employee, you’ll go until you retire and at that point you will look at what industry opportunities are out there.
But that’s really changed in the last five to ten years, especially in the area of tech – in the CIO office, in the digital transformation offices – as more opportunities to blend the line have come out and been made available to both government and industry.
I think the idea that we’re also kind of talking about a little bit today is the idea of “boomeranging.” Where we have people that come in and join the Presidential Innovation Fellows, the U.S. Digital Service, 18F, and have done a term of service. They have taken a hiatus or sabbatical from their current job, and come into government to serve a very specific term (six months to potentially two years or a little bit longer), gone back into industry and then decided there was still more work that they could do on the government side and coming back. And that is what we’re calling “boomeranging.” So, we’re going to talk a little bit about that – what that looks like and the trends that are happening because of it. Also, how do you keep digital transformation skills current and how do we upskill the government as it needs to also understand how you get to digital service transformation? These skill sets that aren’t necessarily in government right now – what does it look like to bring those in?
I will turn it over to my speakers now, give an introduction to them and hear their stories. We want to have them walk through their career, from both the public and private industry aspect, and we also want to know what called you to serve in the government? How has that impacted your decisions in your career path and the jobs you take?
I will start off with Robbie Holmes. He has joined us today and is a former coworker of mine at U.S. Digital Service. He has also been part of the DSC before going back to work in government at the county level. Can you please take some time tell us who you are, and what inspired you to work in the government?
Robbie Holmes: Hi, everybody. My background is varied my background is really varied I started my career working at an Internet web hosting company, probably 28 years ago at this point, but then slid into working in state and city government. At the state level I was working for the DSS, which is the Department of Social Services in New York State for welfare, and eventually over to the Human Resources Administration for the City of New York. Both times as a contractor, but eventually became a provisional civil servant for the City of New York running the Network Operations Center.
And at that point I decided I wanted to try to do something else. I was transitioning from traditional IT to development, and I ended up moving out of the Government at that point to work for Sony Music. So I went to Sony, and then eventually to Zagat Survey, got acquired by Google, and bounced around a bunch. So, I got a chance to do a lot of things in a lot of different industries, and then eventually left Google went to Johnson and Johnson where I led up the the team that was building out all the public facing websites.
And then I got to Phase2, which is a company I had known for a really long time. They do a lot of large-scale websites, and they do contracting to both the private industry and the federal government. At that point, I read a blog post where Mikey Dickerson where he talked about healthcare.gov and about walking in the door and asking, “how do you know when healthcare.gov is down?” And them saying “hey, we turn on the news. If we’re getting yelled at on CNN, then we know it’s down” and so we know how to monitor things.
It [blog post] resonated with me really hard because, as much as the work I did for the city and State of New York was some of the most effective, it was it was difficult. I spent a lot of time in the welfare centers and you bring a lot of that home. I felt like that work was really productive and really had a lot of value to not just the people of the city of New York, but the Taxpayers. I ended up migrating a bunch of stuff to open source and trying really hard to save money for the for our state and city-level governments. And when I read this I thought I could use my new skills to help America. I thought that was pretty cool.
I applied for USDS and that sent me down the trajectory of working for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Eventually, I moved over to the headquarters team as part of the Executive Office of the President and then slid around all over the place – went over to USDA, and DHS, and helped out with farmers.gov and a few other places.
So I felt a lot of impact through that time and I did a full four years at USDS, so two (2-year) tours of duty. At that point I decided I wanted to try something different and I went off to one of the DSC firms, Pluribus Digital (a couple of folks in the audience today) where I was the VP of Product Development.
And then I had a really weird background where I ended under buying a home in prince William county and joking with my wife that we should look and see if there’s anything there for her, and then I saw that they had a director of software engineering role open.
And after a couple of conversations and talking to the CIO here, Rob Mancini, I was able to convince them that it might be a little bit larger than director of software engineering and explaining sort of what digital services and digital services modernization was. And over time it ended up happening. I founded a business and then started to work for Prince William County. I am currently the Director of Digital Services and Software Engineering for PWC – Prince William County here in Virginia. So, trying to help be an advocate for and lead up how we approach things from a digital services perspective.
Traci Walker: Thank you so much for that, Robbie. I am going to turn it over to Jessi Bull from GSA. She is a former board member of the Digital Services Coalition, so we’re excited to see you back in government at GSA. We hated to lose you, but we understand the call. So please tell us more about your journey.
Jessi Bull: Sure. Thanks for having me. It’s good to see everyone again.
So, I have taken – I think this is probably going to be a theme that you will hear today – a less traditional path (starting to wonder what a traditional path actually looks like). I started my career working in government, not really in technology at all. I may be a reverse boomeranger, I think, compared to others here.
But I was drawn to government early because I have always been drawn to complicated problems. I am kind of happiest in the gray areas where the questions come in tangled webs and solutions are rarely singular in nature.
So, I started in federal oversight. I worked for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Office, evaluating procurement advocacy and the adoption impact of some major federal legislative changes, along with identifying opportunities for course correction across a number of different areas.
And my engagement in tech actually started there. I joined an internal working group that looked at how our products were being used by customers and how we could take advantage of different technology uses to make them higher impact.
And then I moved into local government, to work for the city and county of San Francisco for a year, looking at health care management systems and transportation level at the municipal level, which is a whole other sort of ball game.
Then I shifted into the federal/state intersection when they were at the US Department of Agriculture Student Nutrition Service for the western region. I managed a portfolio of technology projects for 14 different state agencies there, as well as a series of operational areas like grocery store operations and management, certification enrollment policy, clinic experience and procurement. And I really saw the challenges and opportunities in technology there. The way that people experience the program, how different technology choices can influence experience of families as they navigate their benefits, and how they relate to other services that they’re getting and opportunities that lay within that space.
So, I wanted to dig in more on the development process. I moved into the tech industry where I spent a couple years in strategy operations and project management, primarily for safety net programs.
And then I came back into the government again, last fall, at the federal level because I wanted to be part of the decision-making process as these huge federal technology initiatives were being rolled out. This administration has made customer experience, and the role that technology plays, really front and center. I wanted to be on the government side of things kind of helping to figure out how to make these things happen. So now I am working for the Administrator at GSA helping to coordinate our agency’s response to the Customer Experience Executive Order and Customer Experience priority of the President’s Management Agenda.
That’s me and excited to talk more.
Traci Walker: Thank you so much for that, Jessi. I think one of the big things you always hear when people join in is that being able to help families and being able to help people that are in your life, and getting to see that from a government perspective and being part of that mechanism is always a big theme when you ask people why do they want to work on these hard, gnarly problems. So, thank you Jessi, for the work that you did with that.
I’m going to have Mateo join us now. He is working as a Communications and Change Management Consultant for Wheelhouse Group, focused at the IRS, and also helping us at the DSC as Communications Chair. So, kind of roped him in to helping us out there. Thank you so much for that. Mateo, can you tell us about your story?
Mateo Haddad: Sure. I think right off the bat, like Jessi mentioned, we’re going to see some parallels here. But I really appreciate events like this because it offers opportunity to really reflect on lessons I have learned earlier in my career, and still carry with me today.
When I look back at how I got here, working with Wheelhouse Group (and we’ll kind of get through that storyline) but the road is rarely, rarely a straight line. What is traditional experience at this point?
But my service in government started with the Peace Corps in 2011. I joined with very loose ideas of what I wanted to do professionally. But at the core of it all I knew I wanted to help people. So, from 2011 to 2014 I lived in Peru and worked primarily with young folks focusing mostly on health. I worked directly with youth, facilitating health and sexual education sessions. And eventually that kind of snowballed into working with the people who work with the youths – like teachers, community health workers, all sorts of folks. That continued to snowball into working with the people who work with those people, so we’re talking government and Ministry of Health officials and nonprofits. So really the scale just kind of kept increasing. All of this really gave me a better understanding of not just Peruvian systems, but how the U.S. Government engages with those systems.
When I think about the skills that I learned there it’s really a combination of hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills being community assessments, survey development, grant writing, data analysis on various levels – small towns of 3000 people to regional level groups of like 150,000. Some of the soft skills: cultural fluency, adaptability, empathy, things like that. I say soft skills but people skills, which tend to have higher value, I think, in virtual environments.
So came back to the states 2014, went to grad school and got my Master of Public Health. And I am based in DC, so if any of you are here – hi! Also don’t be surprised if you hear sirens in the background because it is DC.
But I spent some time at grad school, finished up there. And worked at USAID for a couple years as a communications analyst in the Bureau for Global Health working with our senior level staff to really ensure a cohesive voice for the Bureau and help with USAID and the government story, not just here in the U.S., but around the world.
So, I think that experience is really helpful in getting a sense of how an international government agency works inside and out, collaborates across federal government, interacts with Congress and contractors. And really got to see how an agency like that engaged in technology, with a broader emphasis in the past couple of years on digital health, and really incorporating technology into the programs and projects that they do all around the world.
So that brought me to Wheelhouse Group, where I am working to support the Internal Revenue Service. You may have heard of them. It is May, so, hopefully that is not too triggering for anyone in the audience.
Working at Wheelhouse Group has been a really interesting opportunity to hone, like I said earlier, soft skills and hard skills. With an organization like Wheelhouse Group, really — it’s a group that is people focused. And being able to go from private to public – or in my case, public to private – it’s been really important to not just have a background in communications and working with data, but having these sort of core competencies that allow me to adapt and shift in a space that I was not familiar – I was not familiar with the IRS before this, but now a primary client, and I get it.
I had a brief story to share, but I will hold that for the end. Really, what I see as a kind of overall point, is technology is a tool that we have but the human experience is what makes it real. And as long as we continue to keep people at the focus and the center of our conversations as we’re enacting these sweeping technological initiatives, I think we’re setting ourselves up for success. And Traci, back to you.
Traci Walker: Thank you so much. I love what you just said as keeping people as the focus. I think that’s definitely a big deal, especially when you have the international challenges as well. You realize, hey, all these things are hard, but everyone has some of the same basic needs and government has that responsibility to providing that. So even across borders and boundaries, those challenges are probably going to be met with similar solutions and similar thoughts as well.
So, thank you so much, Mateo, for joining us.
And last but definitely not least, Kara DeFrias. She is working in the Executive Office of the President, at the White House. She is Senior Advisor in the Office of Technology at the White House. And Kara, we have crossed paths in many different variations of where you kind of worked between 18F, the White House, and different places. I loved seeing you and hearing your experiences when you have talked in different places, so we’re really thankful you are joining us here today. Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about your journey – what has called you to serve and what are the skills you are taking from this and building?
Kara Defrias: Yes. And just to let you all know the reason I am wearing a team USA soccer jersey; we hosted team USA at the White House today and we were encouraged to show our team spirit. And I totally forgot I had this [event] this afternoon. So, you are getting me in the full USA gear.
Traci Walker: It’s appropriate to have the USA gear on at any time. We’re all good.
Kara Defrias: Thank you for Wheelhouse Group and Traci for having us today. And second of all, the thing you all need to know off the top is that I am just a kid from Jersey who was supposed to be a high school English teacher. On most days, I have no idea how I got here. And you know my pronouns are she/her, my Twitter is @KaraDeFrias, and my website is karadefrias.com and you can read about my career there. I would love to spend the intro getting into my why – why yes to public service? Why yes to moving across the country? This is my third time coming from San Diego to DC to do this work.
My why is because I actually give a sh*t about the people who we’re here to serve and the people we show up with every day. The super short version of my background is I got into government service because I saw a tweet from a guy named Todd Park – actually almost this week, 10 years ago. I am so going to cry. I am not sorry for that, but, whoo…
We were part of the first class of Presidential Innovation Fellows, and we were the people who were the human guinea pigs on this grand hypothesis of whether technologists will come to government and serve a tour of duty. I saw the tweet that someone retweeted into my timeline on Twitter and it said: “we are looking for a few good women” – he purposefully said that – “and men to serve their country in the first class of Presidential Fellows.”
Now as somebody who’s worked in the top of all the industries I’ve been in – I worked in entertainment, my first gig was on the Oscars. I worked in pro sports, my first gig was the women’s world cup ‘99 and I went on to also work on the Super Bowl hatch time show (we had Sting, No Doubt, and Shania Twain, which was so much fun). And it’s nothing I’ve ever set out to do. When I say I’m a kid from Jersey was supposed to be a high school English teacher and coach soccer, it’s the God’s honest truth.
But I saw the Tweet, and I was at Intuit working on Turbo Tax. Which is interesting, right, because Turbo Tax is arguably the biggest intersection of government and the private sector. We help people do something that is terribly confusing, which is taxes.
So, I was working on that, and at the time Intuit also had a program called the Innovation Catalyst Program where we helped unlock “Design for Delight” and get it into the DNA of employees. I was there for total of nine years, but I was the ultimate designer, so I was selected to be in the first class.
There was only one paragraph on White House.gov explaining what this new Presidential Fellows thing was. I took a leap of faith. I applied. I thought it was really close to the Innovation Catalyst Program. Turns out, it was really close to it so out of an applicant pool of – by the way, I am looking at this because I have 5 minutes set here like a good speaker – a pool of 800 applicants they picked 18 of us. I will point out, of the 18 only 2 women were picked, and I was definitely the slacker of the two. Marina Martin who is now Marina Martin Nitze, went on to be the CTO of the VA, so she won that one.
But it was just so thrilling to be part of that, and what we proved out was the hypothesis will work, people will leave the private sector. I came here for six months, I was a fellow, and then I boomeranged back to into it for a few years. In 2012 I saw Todd Park again because people from USDS, 18F and the Presidential Innovation Fellows program were talking at a tech conference in San Francisco about how this wonderful experiment they had done three years earlier was taking off like gangbusters. So, I went backstage afterwards, I hugged and high five everybody and Todd said “we need you back.” So, I came back for the final two years of the administration, left the private sector again. I started off at 18F, I was Senior Advisor to the Executive Director and the senior leadership team. They were not allowed to call me Chief of Staff because the head of GSA said that would make 18 F sound too official, so we settled on Senior Advisor as my title.
And then I was taking a class at Georgetown in February of 2016, and at the State of the Union – three weeks prior – President Obama announced Biden’s Moonshot [to cure cancer]. As a three-time cancer survivor, it was incredibly meaningful to know that we were going to be the country to kick cancer’s ass.
And so, I was at this class at Georgetown up on the hill, it’s called How Congress Works – I will let that joke sink in for a minute. I knew I had to get involved, but I didn’t know how. And then I got a phone call while I was taking that class, and it was Vice President Biden’s head of digital strategy and who said “we need you on the moon shot.” We talked for a half hour and at the end, the last thing I said to Lindsay [Holst] before we got off the phone was that I wasn’t born to do this work – I survived to do this work. I came over, worked on the moon shot as Director of Experience Design for 11 months. We kicked ass, we took names, we launched a lot. I went back to private sector at the end of the administration and then came back last March and I’m Senior Advisor in the White House Office of Technology.
My why is because the work we all do matters. You all matter. I thank all of you and it’s a really big honor to be here today. So, I will throw it back to you, Traci.
Traci Walker: Thank you, now that you have us all verklempt. Thank you so much for your passion and dedication on this.
So, we’re going to get into a little bit more of those stories and going into the questions on this, but before we do we are going to kick it off with another poll, real quick. The question on this one is:
What skill set do you think will best serve the digital service movement in government?
- Policy wonk
- Bureaucracy hacker
- Special unicorn
- End-user whisperer
- Accessibility evangelist
There is a little tongue in cheek when it comes to these kinds of things, because these were terms and ideas that I would say (prior to a lot of people coming in from the digital movement) were not flung around in the government. Unicorns and hackers were not things you talked about with people and stuff. So, the fact that these terms are becoming more and more prevalent and understood, and coming in from industry – that we are seeing that blend – I think shows that one of the big things that we do need to talk about, and understand as we move forward into the future is that common language and how do we talk about special skills, and the needs that people are going to have once they come into a government environment, and how do we kind of normalize it a little bit more with what an industry environment is.
The responses are in. Nobody thinks we need to be a policy wonk, 36 percent of us need to be a bureaucracy hacker – that is going to be a good term, special unicorn is at 9 percent, the end-user whisperer is at 32 percent, and accessibility evangelist is at 23 percent. We are pretty split between bureaucracy hacker, end-user whisper, and accessibility evangelist. I think that’s great to hear.
If I can have all of my panelists join me again on camera. Hello, again!
So, in 5 years, if this trend of boomeranging continues, what are things that should be implemented in either the private or the public side that makes it easier for people to look at doing a “term” in government? And I will throw it over to Jessi to kick us off.
Jessi Bull: Sure. I guess, I think about two different things. When I think about individuals, as they look at their own careers and try to navigate those decisions for themselves, I think the thing that I would love people to think about is just that there are differences in the value that careers and work experience in both private sector and public sector can offer. But one is not necessarily better or worse than the other, I think they’re just quite different.
Industry, from our perspective, often moves faster than the government and can provide a great chance to really execute and learn how fast can you go and how big can you go. But government offers a really wide impact and a chance to really figure out the why. So being in government means you can be a part of the decision process – which is often messier, definitely slower, and has lots of webs to untangle. But the impact you can have is really long-range.
I think working in both the arenas can really develop different skill sets and perspectives, and I think it’s really valuable both for individuals moving through careers, but also for the organizations that hire these folks. Being able to understand and navigate multiple needs and perspectives is really valuable for everyone involved. I think government and industry are most effective when they partner together and being able to effectively partner is being able to understand each other.
Traci Walker: Great. Thank you. Mateo, what do you think about this?
Mateo Haddad: Yeah – everything that Jessi just said. I think the need to partner is really strong. With this question it brings up a couple things for me. I know this exists in some capacity already, but when I think about just what would draw me to swing back and forth and complete my boomerang, maybe even a couple laps, I think about opportunities for details, fellowships – whatever we want to call them. Really focused learning opportunities that allow for a time-limited exchange to share knowledge and best practices for just more seamless work between private and public sectors, that can ultimately lead to stronger public/private partnerships. So, again, I know these exist, but really just maybe better visibility, more accessibility, more equity. I could keep saying words that end with Y, but I will leave it there for now.
Traci Walker: I am going to kind of flip this just a little bit, Kara, but if this a trend that should continue, you know, what are the downsides to the idea of boomeranging and what are the things to prevent those downsides?
Kara Defrias: I want to “yes, and…” both of the other panelists’ earlier comments. I would really be remiss if I didn’t bring up the concept of privilege in all this. I think as long as you make people come to Washington DC or as long as you don’t pay your interns, these are things that are just not equitable. Some people can’t move away from their family, or they can’t take a lower paying job, or they can’t take a benefits cut. And some of our best talent that’s out there isn’t able to come in [to office] for a variety of reasons, including those ones.
So, I think the best we can do to make this attractive – I mean in the beginning our hypothesis was “oh we’ll get the Googles and the big tech companies to do sabbaticals.” I was fortunate that my company (at the time) looked at it as 6-month personal leave of absence. I will say that there was a trip-up in the first year of PIFs, (Presidential Innovation Fellows) we didn’t get benefits – we got paid (but it was pretty low on the scale) but we did not get benefits. And as a three-time cancer survivor I found out literally right before I took my Oath of Office that “Oh, we need you to talk to HR and we need you to resign all paperwork because we can’t give you benefits.” I had just moved here from San Diego, to be clear, and I was like “that’s not going to work.” So we had to renegotiate on the spot, figure out how much Cobra was going to cost me and times that by six monthly payments and they ended up giving me a “raise.” But had I known that before, I would not have gotten on the plane.
So, I think we really need to look at employees as entire humans that have lives and responsibilities and have different levels of privilege, to make sure we’re not just compensating them monetarily and with the allure of this amazing opportunity which is impact and scale. It has to be a wholistic look at the people, and not just pulling a lever here and there to make these things happen.
Traci Walker: And you brought up a great point. I want to give a shout-out to our HR people who have absolutely take that bureaucracy hack for a lot of these different digital service positions and programs that they’ve come in, to try to figure out how to make it work and the crazy rules that they have to do. Thank you to the tireless HR specialists who have helped out in making this thing work.
Robbie, I want to give you a chance to answer as well.
Robbie Holmes: Yeah. I think a lot of evolution happening in the hiring process across the board. The SME pilot that happened through OPM, that USDS was a part of. I think it’s very dissuading to somebody who is willing – who has the privilege, who wants to join the government and drop everything they have, to then end up in a 6-month pipeline where they’re told they’re not qualified to do the job that they were qualified for 10 years ago. Because of the way that their resume is reviewed, because of the way that the process has been done. There’s been a lot of change and a lot of movement, but I think that is one of those things that’s absolutely devastating to trying to get people who are enthusiastic to come and join the federal government.
We have talked a lot about – joked about it a lot in the USDS time-period – if you have done drugs in the past, be transparent, talk about what it was. All those things are better today. The bigger problem, I think, is when you are sticking someone in a long process, without a clear understanding of the timeline and about how long it can take, and then they’re told at the end of it that their experience is not valid for the government. It compounds the problem of basically creating a negative connotation to go work for the federal government.
And that stinks. I was lucky enough to come in and join USDS. But I think if I had gone through the application process, and because I don’t have a college degree was told I couldn’t do this, even though I had been Director of Engineering and run teams at Johnson and Johnson and Sony and all these other companies (worked at Google), that would have devastated me and I would have been very anti-joining government at that point.
I have seen people in that position, and they’re crushed. Because they are so excited about coming and having an impact and then their hopes and dreams are smashed because of some bureaucracy in the hiring process.
Kara Defrias: Yeah. I am just going to “yes, and…” that real quickly. A huge shout out to the team at 18F who put out the blog post about how to write a resume for federal government, and a shout out to TTS. We have to acknowledge that there are people and movements that are trying to moving us forward. It is righting the Titanic as it is approaching the iceberg. And I am not dogging on any of this. One, we’re calling out privilege, and two, we definitely want to highlight the people who are moving this forward in a meaningful way.
Robbie Holmes: Yeah. The example I give, because of my USDS background, we changed the hiring process specifically for USDS (it was originally the joint pipeline with 18F) where it was a different experience than going through USA Jobs. And that was unique for a little while and I think that is influencing a lot of these other things. There is a lot of people who are working on the bureaucracy hacking of hiring process, and there is a lot of great work being done. I just have seen people apply and be crushed. Like having a significant other of someone who is already in government get told they can’t join because they don’t have qualifying work, when they’re getting a PhD in the subject matter. Things like that are just so devastating to both the person working in the government and the person trying to come in. So, there is a lot of stuff that I think we can be better about in approaching how we recruit people and shepherd them through the process.
Traci Walker: And I think that kind of piggybacks on to the next question which is around the skill sets and key roles that are not traditionally in government that, for the most part, have been outsourced. If you look at government history and the trends, it was that all of our scientists and specialists had to be members of the government. So, you had to pass a civil service exam, you had to be an expert in your field. We’re talking about building rockets and stuff like that. And then there was a big trend where all of those skill sets were kind of outsourced and now kind of in the hands of industry. And I think this is a little bit of seeing that pendulum kind of come back.
So, we talked about along with digital service and digital trends, we look at UX designers and researchers, we look at product management, developers familiar with DevOp practices, site reliability engineers, and of course cybersecurity has its whole huge world of things. What other skill sets or areas of expertise do you think that government is missing out on in this trend? Or that you see in industry that should be brought in, leveraged in? For people who are listening and saying that we already have our foot in the door for some of these roles, how do we bring in others or show that these are special roles that need to be brought in? And that can piggyback a bit around the idea of customer experience as well.
Mateo, do you have any thoughts on that?
Mateo Haddad: Mic check. Speaking of technology. [Laughter]. You know, first I just want to – both Robbie and Kara, you are going to break my neck by the end of the session. I am over here nodding yes and snapping. My hands are dry because there is already too much snapping going on.
But, I think it’s really interesting to see not just the evolution from specific positions in fields, but also the government’s recognition in broadening just the hiring pool in general. We’re seeing a lot of initiatives that are coming out with this not-so-new administration, the current administration, just really pushing for broadening the diversity of their hiring pool. Not just in skill sets, but also backgrounds, ethnicity, gender, just all these really critical topics that create ultimately the best product that you can create. Just having differing opinions, all focused on one sort of primary, central goal. I think that just as a broad principle, we’ll call it a best practice, that will help us get to where we need to be. So, yeah, Jessi, I see – go for it, Jessi jump in, please.
Jessi Bull: Yeah. I think this is a really great question.
A thing that’s really exciting to me is that we are starting to see some evolutions beyond a sort of how do we get some people in the job – there’s been a little bit of emergency response that has happened over the last period of how do we bring in experts to help us with complicated technology problems. And I think now some of the conversations are really shifting into how do we make this more long-term? How do we think of teams as a whole? How do we think about organizations having capacity in-house and being able to partner effectively with vendors for different things – like who are we hiring for where? And I think a thing that I am really excited to have seen this year is GSA, in partnership with this administration, helped launch the U.S. Digital Corps, which is the first full-time paid fellowship program for early career technologists. Which I think is super exciting to not only be talking about how do we bring in these mid or senior career experts and think about how do we motivate them to take on public sector problems, but also how do we engage with communities that are just starting out? How do we get them to think about their career trajectories differently and to consider for them starting out in the federal government and building their skill sets that way?
And I think, similarly, a thing that I am also seeing happening that I am excited about is a skill set – that we maybe don’t talk about as much in the federal space, but I think is really important – is not just bringing in individual technical capacities but also the ability to work with cross functional agile teams. So, being able to help build those teams effectively understanding how design and engineering can balance and counterbalance each other and the roles that product management and program management can play in that I think is really important to longer term, institutional success.
So, I am hoping to see bigger conversations and more conversations happening around not just what is the pipeline that we’re bringing in, but also when they get here, how are they set up for success and how are we thinking about engaging teams in more holistic ways.
Traci Walker: Wait a minute, designers and engineers are allowed to talk now? I didn’t get that memo yet. Okay. Okay. I am catching up now. [Laughter]
You know, that brought up a great point around nontraditional tech backgrounds. Kara, you mentioned earlier that you are a theater major. I personally am a history major who fell into government contracting that happened to be IT, and everything I have learned about IT has been on the job. I never once took a course or anything in technology, but I am actually considered a technologist.
How do you see that kind of thing continue – that trend continuing where you’re pulling people from maybe in the government with nontraditional tech backgrounds, or also from campuses or universities or even high schools and trade programs and pulling them into this tech world? Making it more acceptable to say, “yes, I can actually be a part of this as well, even if I don’t have that tech background.”
Kara Defrias: Yeah. It’s an interesting question. As an undergrad I started out as a physical therapy major and made it through my first semester with a 2.81GPA – General Bio and Organic Chem just slayed me. And I thought “well that doesn’t seem fun anymore.” So I switched to Theater and English. And I had never done theater before – I tried out on a lark. I Didn’t make the college’s soccer team so I thought “what am I going to do four years now?” And I walked into the student center and I saw a flyer for Brendan Behan’s The Hostage. And I thought I am half Irish, I do a great accent, I have nothing to lose and here we are, everybody. Many, many, many years later.
It’s one of those things where my background… I got into tech because I was an instructional designer – my masters is from Penn state (shout out to any Nittany Lions on the call or watching the programming afterwards). Proud public-school grad. And I’m one of those people that prove that you don’t have to go to some fancy school with some big price tag to do cool shit for your country.
And one last thing – I want to get into your answer – but I also want to call out… we talk a lot about impacted scale. Sometimes you get into government and you make one change on one page of a very large website of a very large agency, and to the hundreds of thousands of people who need that one page to be working, you could change their lives. So, it’s not always about the grand gestures, it’s not always about the home runs. Sometimes it’s a bunt or a base hit that you are affecting thousands of people’s or millions of people’s lives. So, I just kind of wanted to plug that in for a second.
From a background perspective, my first job out of college I was a photojournalist and the paper was a small enough paper – 100,000 circulation outside of Philly – that some days I was also the reporter. And I think the skill sets that are most interesting to working government number one with a bullet is curiosity. You have to be curious.
Because you are coming in sometimes as an outsider technologist, and you’re talking in a language that people don’t get and they’re talking a language that you don’t get… so, until you want to understand each other, be curious truly about each other, so I think curiosity is number one.
And your naivete is number two. I remember we got our “welcome to government” letter in 2012 from the head of the White House Office of Digital Technology who was our team sponsor. I worked on a project called mygov which, fast forward 10 years, is now login.gov. We stood outside of GW (George Washington University) a couple blocks away and we knew when the students were switching classes so we gave out $5 gift cards for usability on the first iterations of what would be login.gov. Because we were curious. We wanted to know how people would use this thing. It was a paper prototype that said, “where would you tap?” And so I think curiosity is big. I think naivete is… so the letter we got from ODS said “we picked all of you on this team because you didn’t seem to be assholes. Don’t prove us wrong.”
So the second bullet, was don’t lose your naivete. When you come here, the fact that you don’t understand how government works, the fact that you understand how this technology works is actually your biggest asset. So, keep asking why. And user research, UX, would say to ask the five whys.
So, curiosity, naivety, and I think wanting to understand and coming from a place of humble inquiry. Assume the person you’re talking has two things: they actually are good at their jobs – career civil servants are the backbone of our country and we have so much gratitude to give them, we would not be here without them. And two: assume that the idea you’re coming up with has been thought of 3000 times before you got here. Civil servants have been here decades before us, they will be here for decades after us, most being the boomerangs.
And so, come with the curiosity. Come with that true North truly in place of why you are here. Figure out your why before you get here, because when the days are long and the days are hard and you’re crying in your office or on a panel with 43 wonderful humans you’ve never met (or something like that) you can point back to that ‘why.’ In fact, to that point, remember my story earlier when I said I told her I wasn’t born to do this work, I survived to do it? She wrote it on a buck slip and put it in her binder. And so, when I started three weeks later, she showed this to me. And when I left she gave this to me and, and this is my why. This is my why.
I think the “nontraditional” things that ladder up nicely are journalists. The amount of lawyers that I met at 18F, who were there to be coders not lawyers, was astronomical. I have always heard the largest number of majors that make it into law school are English majors. It’s because you look at something, you dissect it, you understand it, and then you act on it. And so I think any career with that mindset would make for a good person in government.
Robbie Holmes: I think you and I are so aligned in so many ways, Kara. I wish we had gotten to work together in our time in government.
At USDS when you leave, a lot of times you get to do a popoff. Mine was during the beginning of the pandemic, so I sent an email to everybody at USDS and one of the things I said in there was assume that people who came before you actually tried to solve this problem and read what they left you behind.
At the VA we enforced that when decisions were made that we wrote a decision document and left it for people in the future, that way it wasn’t starting from scratch all the time. Because every time somebody comes in they’re like “well that’s simple.”
Secondarily, let’s remove all of those words from your vocabulary: simple, easy, just. Those things are absolutely going to crush you, everyone around you, and especially the career civil servants who have been working at this for 15 – 20 years. You should (instead) turn around and say, “this looks like it should be a simple problem, can you explain to me why this hasn’t been solved before or tell me about the three times we tried and it failed?”
Those are the kinds of things that are unbelievable. But my last thing to them was like remember when we came here to USDS? We were a group of people that called each other on our own BS. Stop just calling out your agency partners. Call one another out on your own BS.
There’s something amazing to be able to say… one of the USDS values is find the truth and tell the truth. That should go off in every direction you should be able to turn to your left and right of your “adopted family” and say “Why are we doing this?” or “Is this right?” And I feel like that is one of those things that kept coming up near the end of my time which is: We have to be able to say “but why?” to one another sometimes. You should be able to answer that without getting defensive. It’s okay for us to question.
That’s why we’re here, that intellectual curiosity. Sometimes it feels like “has anyone talked to a user? Have we confirmed this is still really a problem?” Those are reasonable things that you should ask, kind of every day, right?
The discovery print document out the USDS. One of the things I love about it is at the end of the day it says “is the problem we came here to discover still the problem?” Because it may have been reported as a different thing. And we found out something in the process that proved it is not, but that doesn’t mean it is done. We need to focus differently. The inquisitive nature should be in every day of your life.
So perfect how you captured it, Kara. Thank you.
Kara Defrias: Fun fact. I wrote that discovery document with Kathy Pham and you can get it on LinkedIn.
Robbie Holmes: I know, and it is amazing! I heard the podcast where Kathy talked about it and it is so great. But that last line, that last aspect every day, at like six six o’clock at night we were like “Hey, is this still the problem?” It is so important because I think that’s the thing that gets lost. We can all look into these things – it’s questioning whether or not it’s still the right thing and I think that is the aspect I love the most of that document.
Traci Walker: Thank you. Thank you so much for that. Mateo, do you have thoughts on that before we jump to the next question?
Mateo Haddad: I did. Again, breaking my neck over here [nodding yes to others sentiments]. Apart from Kara taking all the opportunities to curse… I would love to get in some curse words as well! [chuckling].
But just as someone new to tech, not so new to government. I am coming up on my 8 month anniversary, I think, in a couple weeks. So much of this is new. I love your comments about just having a deep curiosity for learning and coming in with a giant slice of humble pie, because I don’t know squat. The longer I can maintain that mentality, the more I will learn.
So, I think for me what the appeals, as someone who never imagined myself working in this field, it was, I guess, the unlimited potential for growth. Tech is pervasive. It is everywhere. It is rapidly growing exponentially, second by second. So, I feel confident that no matter where I go from here, a couple cycles of boomerang, I will be a better person and better professional for it.
In terms of how to support that? It kind of goes back to one of Kara’s comments earlier of just looking at the whole person. You mentioned earlier resume building. I think of my resume. I was really taught my resume should be essentially a list of outputs and outcomes and a summary of how efficient and productive I am as a professional, because go capitalism! But really, it’s like what do the outputs and outcomes say about the core competencies of the person? As we are, you know, really hiring and looking at building that workforce of the future, we need to get the whole picture. So, whatever it takes to get there.
Traci Walker: Thank you so much. Feel free to curse bomb away if you can sneak it in there on the next one.
Mateo Haddad: Damn. I am done.
Traci Walker: [Laughter] We touched on it a little bit earlier, and I would not be responsible moderator moderator if I did not go into the buzzword Bingo and talk about customer experience, that being the hot topic. But, of course, you know with anything, especially in the world of digital service and agile software development, as these trends come through and we try to understand them and also the skill sets necessary to implement them, one of the things we from the practitioner standpoint always try to do is keep it away from the concept of being just a buzzword and just the trend that people are doing. Because trends come and go, but like actual customer experience and actual user experience are here to stay.
So, I want to talk with Jesse a little bit about what she’s doing, but also with the others in how you’re interpreting and understanding the customer experience executive order. As well as what does that look like for the workforce, to be able to support it, specifically. Because you know this topic is huge. But in terms of what we’re talking about today how do we look to the Future workforce being able to implement this. Of course, you have some wonderful stories already that we’ve talked about already (like being curious) and that still all applies, but digging a little deeper – what is actually needed to really bring customer experience or make this executive order go from a paper-based exercise to actual experienced change for people who have to interface government? So, Jessi?
Jessi Bull: Yes. Great question and great topic and is also one that I love because, from my perspective, it is a tangled web and that’s the space I love to be in. But I think there is a lot of buzz around customer experience and and I think that’s fine. I think from my perspective, when I think about customer experience and I think about the government, the question I ask myself is, is the government working? Is it doing the thing it is supposed to do? And how do we know that?
The thing that I love about the way that modern, human-centered design is coming into this conversation is that it really is putting pressure on that question of how do we know that it’s working? When I say that this government program is effective, or that it’s meeting your customer needs… are the people that I’m asking or the ways that I’m measuring that – are any of them the actual end users? Is it the actual members of the public or is it other administration staff who are saying “yes, we did this faster, therefore it is working.”
So, I think that there are some really good conversations happening now and a lot of emphasis on what does the government need to be able to understand who its customers are, reach them – which is a surprisingly complicated, bureaucratic issue – but then also be equipped to respond to them.
I love the conversation that has been happening in this panel today about civil servants. Particularly around that a lot of civil servants know where a lot of problems are. They’ve been trying to solve these for a long time. The answer is not just we need a new website, or we need to build a new website, or technology is the silver bullet that will somehow solve these problems.
But at the same time, what is really required for the initiatives to be successful is that partnership that we have been talking about. Bringing together the deep expertise that civil servants have around how the program works, what are the operational constraints and realities they are facing, and the differences in how programs are funded and how procurement works. They do really matter. It all comes back to procurement!
But we do have to understand and navigate in the space. And technologists can bring a really important part of the story which is how do we understand our users? How do we connect with them? How do we incrementally build to what they need? Not just the best sounding idea, but deliver value in small pieces and keep going in the small pieces.
So, what I think I am excited to see is both sides of the table coming together. The government understanding its own constraints and being willing to put on a “how might we” hat to work through those constraints. And for technologists to come in with a deep understanding of what it means to break this problem down. What does it mean to name our assumptions and hypotheses and just start testing against them and use that as a way to learn. And to take these best practices in development and design and say how are we communicating? How are we measuring? What it is that we’re doing? And how is it working from the perspective of the people who ultimately are using or benefiting from this service?
Traci Walker: Thank you. Robbie, any thoughts on it?
Robbie Holmes: I think it’s so important – somebody mentioned earlier – just putting the user at the center of the process. Inherently, it seems like such a simple statement, but it is antithetical to the way that things have been done in government for a very long time. Because There was a group of people whose job it was to define requirements, and they would meet once a year for like a month and define what was going to happen. And most of the people who are going to do that work weren’t there. So, they would define all these requirements, and then they would come back to their contractors and say “you need to build X in the next year.”
And that sounds silly, but that is the way it worked for a really long time. And most of the people in that process knew that it was broken, and it wasn’t working. And they had no ability to change it. And I think that’s the one benefit that I can say, across the board, having a Todd Park come into the White House and change it. We now have the ability to be the broad shoulders and take the beating. We used to joke about that all the time. “Well, what happens if this ends up in a GAO report?” Well, I can get yelled at. I have broad shoulders. I’m okay with that. Just tell them that USDS said it was a bad idea and then I will take the beating and then go talk to Mikey, or Matt, or Nina. That doesn’t matter. It’s fine. I am here to do this, to protect you a little bit, to allow us to make change. Sometimes to be the person who says “I understand this is scary and I am willing to take and be the umbrella to protect you to allow us to make the change you know we have to make right now.”
I think it was Marina who brought a person in at the ground level to the VA to Secretary Bob’s office to say this “this is the problem that’s been worked on for years and this is the person who helped us figure it out.” Those are the types of conversations that just don’t happen. Marina Martin was the CTO at the VA and Secretary Bob was the Secretary at the time and we literally brought people and got them challenge coined by Secretary Bob and by deputy secretary Sloan [Gibson] for helping us solve problems. It wasn’t USDS solving it, it was all of us together. I think that is the thing that I keep coming back to is that there were a lot of articles written about us, USDS especially, that we were like the saviors coming into government. And that actually hurt the opinions of our federal partners so much and it made us seem like we weren’t in touch with what the problems actually were.
And I kept telling people Stop! Stop it! We’re here to help. I don’t know what’s broken at the VA, but these people who’ve been here for 20 years do and I’m happy to take their input.
Go ahead, Kara.
Kara Defrias: Yeah, I just want to be super-duper clear, that narrative was not created by us. That narrative was created by the press.
Robbie Holmes: 100 percent, yeah.
Kara Defrias: That was click bait. So, to Echo Robbie, we took the narrative in our own hands. I did a panel at Lean Startup week back in 2017 where I brought Marina, I brought Tiffany Ashley Bell who founded The Human Utility which hacks the Detroit water payment system to turn people’s water back on the water again so people (like us) anywhere in the country can donate to help with that. It had Eduardo Ortiz, it had Vivian Graubard. And I wanted it to be super provacative because I was so sick of the narrative. And so, I was putting in my own hands and I titled the panel “What the Private Sector can Learn from Government.” And we packed the main theater – like literally, it was like a theater theater in San Francisco.
And the impressions and the tweets we got that day were through the roof. Because I wanted to take control of the narrative and [convey] that people in government are not idiots. They are very smart and very dedicated and you know what you can all learn a lot from them.
I think that touches on another big part of our responsibility as these tourists (for lack of a better word). But we come into government and it’s absolutely one of our jobs to lift up these heros who have been here forever, and who will be here forever, and who are doing amazing work.
And I will venture to say that those of us with fellowships and short terms – we don’t need the accolades. We’re fine. And so, how are you lifting up those people and throwing shine on them and bringing them along as the partners, because ultimately, for the work continue they need to be along for the ride. And so, I am a big believer in giving away the glory and a lot of shine. As much as ,folks on the call, you can and do every day. Usually when I speak at talks or on panels I give homework. For the 28 of you who are left, when you are done today, send a thank you note or direct message to someone who helped you this week, and let them know what it meant to you, and I guarantee you’ll make their day.
Traci Walker: Thank you so much for that. We’re going to get, open this up for questions. See if anybody in the audience has any questions for any of our panelists on anything we talked about or anything that they specifically kind of worked through or on when it comes to being on the challenges of straddling the two worlds of government and industry.
You could either put things directly into the chat or raise your hand and I will call on you.
So, I think, Joiwind, will you read the chat questions?
Joiwind Ronen: It looks like one from Tabby, if she wants to come off mute and on video. If not, I can go ahead and read it for you. Are you still with us? Perfect. Go for it.
Tabby Farrar: Hi, can you hear me? I am just in awe with this panel. I didn’t come from this industry, and I felt like you guys are meeting on my behalf totally today. So, thank you so much.
But I did have a question. What kind of myths did you have to debunk for yourself after working in the government trenches? Because me now coming in and learning it, I want to know!
Traci Walker: Any of you guys can go for it.
Robbie Holmes: One thing I would say is that federal government is probably one of the places where I think you can have the largest impact, but the problems are not as… the ongoing joke is you are not making a unique beautiful snowflake. These problems have been solved somewhere else, it’s trying to convince people that someone who is not in government can help you solve this problem once they start to understand and listen to what the problem really is. And I think, for me it was that I expected everything to be antiquated and not be able to do something modern. Whereas at the VA, we were able to move to the cloud, vets.gov, I oversaw the API infrastructure for almost three years, and it was built using Ruby on Rails and deployed daily. Things that you didn’t expect were possible in government are possible.
And the other one for me is that the government is just made up of people. As a person who grew up in Brooklyn and a kid who had no idea what government was… when I got here and I walked in the door the first day at the Department of Veterans Affairs, with Jeff Mayer and Alex [Name?]. They walked me through the floor and I said, “this is the space?” It looked like the welfare centers. Same kind of feel. Same kind of desks, same kind of chairs. Then I realized I just walked through a whole bunch of people who work for the VA. It is Just like the city government I work for, it is just people. And there’s something amazing about getting that perspective that the government is made a people who are they’re trying to solve the problems. Just remember that. Someone on the other end of the phone or e-mail, a human being is trying to help you. You can be one of those people.
Seems so impossible when you didn’t grow up here. Like the film industry. You can’t imagine a job in the film industry if you didn’t grow up in Hollywood and your family not part of it. Same thing in the government. These are just good people who came here to do the right thing and I found that surprising and I had to debunk that for myself.
I didn’t know what I was walking into when I joined USDS except that I could use my skills to help America. That was what I was promised and then I actually had my mind changed in the first six months. That I got a chance to work side by side with amazing humans all over the place, whether it was USDS, 18F, or people from the PIF side of the house and all of the federal employees that I work with side by side every day. It’s amazing how many humans it takes to move the government. And that’s something I had my eyes opened on probably in the first 6 weeks I was there.
Mateo Haddad: I would just tack on to Robbie point. Won’t go on too long, but one myth that I didn’t necessarily hold, but it is a common one, and Robbie touched on it. That the government doesn’t care. They don’t care about me. They don’t know my needs and don’t get it. So I mentioned the IRS is my client right now. And notoriously maybe one of the worst reputations publicly, right now. However, since joining and supporting their efforts I have learned about the passion that their staff has, the passion that these people have for government service, and how they really view their work as integral to the American system and helping the American taxpayer.
So, we have folks during filing season who are accessible 24/7, 365 days a year. When things go live, that is their life. They have to be available at 3:00 a.m. if a system goes down. And so, to me, like, I don’t have that kind of dedication personally. That’s why I am doing what I am doing. However, it is really admirable for people to really commit their lives and their professions to supporting in that capacity. And that’s just one example. I am sure all of the panelists have much more experience really seeing that kind of dedication.
Traci Walker: Kara or Jessi any thoughts on myths?
Kara Defrias: Many of us have heard the story of Todd Park literally sleeping under his desk here in the White House during the healthcare.gov rescue effort. It’s just we – we, meaning those of us who come in with limited term duty –have a finite amount of time to make as much impact as we can. I think the things that go by the wayside are sometimes mental health and physical well being. And those are the things I think that we all need to show up for each other and double down on.
I have a Post-it note behind me that says “team health check.” The people who are on projects and programs with me know when I ask that, the meeting stops and everyone around the room is brutally honest. Sometimes that means deadlines shift. And sometimes that means we end the meeting early or we all go off video. I think in particular with those of us who come in or boomerang, is making sure to look out for each other as well.
Traci Walker: Definitely seeing such a big shift towards the mental health aspect being more normalized in the government space, because I think of the influence of industry a lot definitely as well so that’s been some of the positive shifts that I’ve seen. Jessi, did you have something?
Jessi Bull: Yeah. I think I am going to flip the question because I can. And from my perspective most of my career has been in the government. So I think my term of duty was actually the reverse where I view working for the tech industry directly as my tour of duty, for whatever that is worth. But I think a myth about tech, that I needed debunked, is that technology is always the answer. Or always the the right answer. I think that a lot of these problems, as people have talked about, are complicated and deep rooted and have a lot of history behind them. And sometimes technology can help jump forward and sometimes it can’t. And I think there are problems that technologists can’t necessarily solve or definitely can’t solve on their own.
So, I think sometimes there’s a silver bullet type of vibe around tech. Oh, we’ll just bring in… tech will come in and save…blah, blah, blah. And I think a thing that I have learned through the development process is it is both much simpler and much more complicated than that.
Traci Walker: Last chance, we didn’t have any other questions in the chat. Does anyone have questions for our panelists before we go? Don’t be shy. They are very nice to talk to. All right. Well, thank you all so, so very much for joining us. My friends and speakers, this has been wonderful.
As a long-term fed and now making my way in industry, I definitely think there’s a chance of a boomerang on the other end of this. I don’t know myself what that looks like but having the ability to maintain friendships and connections with all of you still in the space is also one of the big things that I really enjoy. One of the things I was very afraid of, and one of the myths that I was very curious about, is making the jump from government into industry and how was I now going to be now perceived, how was I going to be talked to – especially from the government perspective, because I have sat on the other side of the conversations for so long.
And I personally have been very happy to know that not a lot has changed. And that people are still going to have the same conversations and still talk to you the same way, regardless of where you are sitting. So, what all of the panelists have said, it’s the why, and how you support government in the movement makes the big difference at the end of the day.
Thank you all very, very much, and I will turn it back over to Joiwind.
Joiwind Ronen: Thanks, Traci. That was a really awesome hour together. I was reminded of the Dos Equis commercial – the world’s most interesting man. I think we have the most interesting government and industry employees here today! You guys have had some really cool experiences. And, especially during Public Service Recognition Week, it was really cool to remember the different paths that people take to get here.
But the thing you all share is really, is this commitment to public service, this curiosity, this naivete, and ability to just keep asking questions. It was great to see everyone.
I do really welcome you, if you want to get involved with Stories of Change, if you have ideas for panels, for speakers, this is really community driven. So just drop any of us a note and let us know if there’s anyone you want to hear from. I feel like we need a Todd Park session, where it is just Todd Park talking because he was here in spirit today. But let me know if you have ideas for other future topics.
Thank you again to the panelists and all of our participants. I want to plug — next week, May 11 they are doing a Federal workforce night at the Nats game playing the Mets. So, if you have a Jersey, like Kara does, come on out. We have a link there, and they’re running a 25% off code that is available to everybody. You can come out and celebrate the public service week if you are here in DC Area. We would love to join you.
Thank you, everybody. Hope you’ll stay involved. Come to Stories of Change – we will be blogging about this event and we’ll share a transcript and a video of the event so you can share with your friends and colleagues, or your parents if you’re a panelist, or your children!
We hope to see you soon. Thanks so much. Bye, everybody.
Narrator: Wheelhouse Group – guiding business and technology change.