“From Private to Public: Leading in Government Tech”: Maya Israni, Director of Engineering at U.S. Digital Service (Video + Transcript)

March 21, 2023

Maya Israni (Director of Engineering, U.S. Digital Service) shares her journey to government and civic tech, and her experience leading government engineering teams. She dives into the types of projects that engineers work on at U.S.D.S., along with how to apply your technical skills to improve government programs and services for millions of people across the country.


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Sukrutha Bhadouria: Hi. Hi everyone. We hope you’re having a wonderful time in the conference and you’ve been enjoying all our sessions. A few housekeeping notes. Make sure to tweet all the amazing things you’ve been learning in your various sessions that you’ve been attending. The hashtags are IWD2023 for International Women’s Day 2023 and hashtag ElevateWomen, which is, you know, the name of our conference where we want us all to lift as we climb.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Next up, we have Maya. Maya is Director of Engineering at United States Digital Service in Washington, D.C.. Prior to working at U.S.D.S., she worked at Facebook as a senior software engineer and graduated from Stanford University with a computer science degree. Welcome, Maya.

Maya Israni: Thank you. And thank you so much for inviting me to be here today. Thank you all for joining. As she mentioned, my name is Maya. I’m the Director of Engineering at the U.S. Digital Service. I’m not sure how familiar y’all are with the Digital Service. During this talk, I’ll dive into a little bit of what government tech is and my journey here and the types of projects that we work on in government tech. Just because it is a little bit unique, especially as someone coming from private sector that transitioned into public sector and public sector work has been pretty awesome. Please do use the Q&A. I will aim to save as much time as possible to answer your questions. Again, use the Q&A and chat feature, and I will try to save time at the end to answer them.

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Maya Israni: A bit about myself. I joined U.S.D.S. at the end of 2020. I started off as an engineer working in our nutrition safety net benefits space. For those of you that aren’t familiar, the United States government has a number of nutrition safety net benefit programs. Those include programs like WIC (Women, Infant, Children) or SNAP, which is formally known as food stamps. These are programs that are offered to low-income folks for cash and benefit assistance in, in buying food in other nutrition services. And we had a team over at the Department of Agriculture working on improving the service delivery of these benefits. I was an engineer in that team and then led that team for about a year, and then stepped into the director role at the beginning of 2022, and have been here since prior to US Digital Service, which is a small unit of technologists sit at the White House. I worked at Facebook, I worked in the private sector and I was an engineer on both integrity and privacy teams there and made that transition into government at the end of, of 2020. Let me dive a little bit into what engineering looks like at U.S.D.S.

Maya Israni: We have around 50 or 60 engineers and data scientists here at the US Digital Service from a wide variety of backgrounds. We have folks that are coming from public sector, from private sector, maybe that’s non-profits, other governments state governments, also folks with civic technology background. And like most places, we hire a diversity of engineers. We have full stack, we have front end backend folks with more security expertise, folks with more DevOps expertise, data scientists, data engineering. We generally hire senior folks with a generalist background, and that’s because we work on a really broad range of projects here. It’s important that folks are able to just jump in and, and plug in when, when needed and however needed. We also work on cross-functional teams.

Maya Israni: In addition to engineers, we have product managers, we have designers, and again, similar to private industry, those designers sometimes have UX backgrounds, research backgrounds, content backgrounds And then we also work with procurement folks, and that’s particularly important in government because oftentimes in government, we’re not necessarily building the thing, building the product. A lot of government services are run through having, bringing in a vendor or a contractor to kind of build out that service or build out that program, and so it is a key part of how we build government technology, and we have procurement folks to help us ensure that we’re building things responsibly, and baking in the best engineering and design practices into the products that we build.

Maya Israni: The day-to-day of U.S.D.S. engineering, like any job, there’s no specific day to day that I could call out, but we have about 20 different projects across about a dozen federal agencies right now. And the general mission of U.S.D.S. engineers is to bring the best practices in technology and in design into how we deliver government services and programs. Sometimes that might mean helping an agency set their technical strategy or hire in technical talent. Sometimes it actually is the technical implementation, and we do have some folks that have the hands-on keyboard coding and architecture work. Sometimes it’s helping set model engineering practices for an agency and, and kind of teaching, teaching folks how to fish rather than doing the fishing ourselves.

Maya Israni: I think it helpful and usually just to dive into some examples of projects so you can get a flavor of, of the breadth and scope that we work on, so I wanna dive into three examples with y’all today. The first is around our work with the CDC. So at the onset of the pandemic as we all experienced, there was a huge data crisis in terms of, we were testing folks for Covid and needed a streamlined, accessible sustainable way to report that testing data to public health departments. And so the US Digital Service partnered very closely with the CDC in building out a bunch of data reporting systems. One of them is called Simple Report, and you can learn more about this at simplereport.gov and the concept is quite simple. It’s a system that is used now across the country for testing organizations to report Covid test results to public health departments, and as you can imagine, that’s a critical point in the data reporting process and helping understand what is the severity of Covid cases or a number of Covid cases across the country, and helping us better understand how the pandemic was affecting different regions and what trends we were seeing. Again, this is something that we partnered very closely with the CDC on, and it’s a product we helped build from scratch and it’s a product that’s still used today.

Maya Israni: The second example I wanna wanna outline is related to an executive order that was signed in the end of 2021. In December 2021, President Biden signed what was called the Customer Experience Executive Order, and the goal of this Executive Order is to improve the customer experience, so the experience of folks like you and me have when we interact with government services and programs. And one of the core tenets of U.S.D.S. is designing with users and not for them, and bringing in the principles of human-centered design and helping better shape government services and programs to meet people where they’re at and be accessible for everyone. And so with this customer experience executive order, U.S.D.S. has taken on a bunch of different customer experience work across federal agencies. There are almost a dozen federal agencies that run programs that interface with people, the American public, and those are agencies like the Small Business Administration, the Social Security Administration, Veterans Affairs, and we’ve partnered really closely with those agencies to provide more accessible services to people and again, make sure we’re meeting people where they’re at and providing them with an accessible and dignified experience as they’re moving through the process.

Maya Israni: In particular, we worked closely with the Social Security Administration to modernize their landing page, so that’s ssa.gov. We launched a beta site at the beginning of 2022 and really focused on the user here, right? These are folks who are maybe more senior and there might be accessibility or connectivity issues when they’re accessing the website, and so we focused on accessibility and navigability and making sure that we were minimizing as much friction as possible when folks are landing right on ssa.gov and trying to understand more about the services or programs that they’re entitled to, and then how to actually enroll in them and minimize any sort of friction along the process. The third example of project I wanna highlight is one of our open source projects. This is one that was born out of the Justice 40 Initiative. In December, or excuse me, in January of 2021, just after inauguration, President Biden launched the Justice40 Initiative, and this commits to distributing at least 40% of certain federal funding to communities that have been disadvantaged, that have been marginalized, underserved, overburdened, particularly by environmental factors.

Maya Israni: And so after this initiative launched, US Digital Service partnered closely with, it’s called the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which is a council out of the White House, and we built what’s called the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. Again, this tool is, the code is all open source right now, you could check it out if you’re interested, and this is a tool that shows an entire map of the United States down to very specific local regions, and you can dive into a number of factors (environmental factors, housing factors, transportation factors) to better understand where each of those regions are scoring. And the goal of this tool is so that an agency can go in and help them identify communities that have faced environmental injustice, and that helps direct where they should focus and funnel funnel federal funding. It’s a tool that we built mostly off of census data, so data that’s available. And again, we built this tool end to end and open source, and in that way, we’re really trying to, as I mentioned instill engineering practices and set the standard and model of how we should build tools and products in government.

Maya Israni:I’ve talked a lot about what engineering projects have looked like at U.S.D.S., and I, I also wanna come, come forward and talk about the difference between maybe private sector, where maybe more of y’all are familiar with and public sector. And so I’ll drive into like different aspects of the organization that I think are important. The first is around culture. U.S.D.S. has developed a number of, of values that we work by and, and live by every day, and I’ll call out a few of the ones that are most resonate with me, and most resonate with the work that I think we do, because our culture is a little bit unique from the rest of government. Obviously the US government is a huge, huge entity and a huge bureaucracy and we’re just a mighty group of just over 200. But we do aim to maintain a culture that imparts those best practices as of technology and design, and one of the values that we live by is find the truth, tell the truth. You’re coming in as, as technical experts and you’re meant to, to hone into that expertise. And, and as you see things say things and, and call things out that goes really closely in line with our other value of optimizing for results, not optics.

Maya Israni: Every day, we use data and research to help inform the direction that we are designing and heading, and then the decisions that we make in building products and providing services. Another value of ours is to go to where the work is, and that means that while we sit technically at the White House, we are partnering very closely with agencies, and that means to meet your agency partners, meet your users where they’re at, go to where the work is, go shadow folks, go do field research, go sit in the offices of our federal partners, and empower the people in the agency who are oftentimes doing the work already. And again, designing with user is not for them, centering the human, centering the person in everything we do, designing for all people in America.

Maya Israni: A topic that became all the more exacerbated during the pandemic was this digital divide that not all of America might have access to smartphones or the type of Airmeet platforms that we’re using today, and how do we build services and introduce technology responsibly and provide folks with yes, an option to enroll in a program online, and also provide a paper process for someone who might not have access to the same resources. Building accessible websites, websites that are translated to different languages and using plain language, not government speak or legalese. Another topic I wanna dive into a little bit is just the pace of the work. Government does move slower, plain and simple. It’s a bureaucracy. That’s how bureaucracies are designed.

Maya Israni: Quite frankly, it can be irresponsible to move too quickly sometimes. Inherently as some of the work we do is a bit more retroactive. We’re responsive to events like a pandemic and how that changes how our country operates. That being said, things can go from 0 to 60 really quickly if we’re sprinting towards a launch. Like I mentioned, we worked on some Covid launches and on a few others, and things can move fast. And we try to build momentum and create that momentum as we go. I think metrics of success also look a little bit different in government. I came from private sector and was used to having a half over half product roadmap with dashboards and data, and could see the graph grow and, and ebb and flow over time. That’s not always the case over here, I would say.

Maya Israni:We oftentimes, sometimes we have those launches with metrics, but oftentimes we have more maybe creative metric success, and that looks like I mentioned, like hiring technical talent into agencies or setting the technical direction of an agency. The last piece I wanna touch on is the scope of work because it’s huge. The government is entrusted to provide critical services and programs to the public. And the types of services that we work on and the people that we’re impacting. The scope is enormous. We’ve worked on programs with veterans, with refugees and asylum seekers, with students, with small business owners, seniors, and focusing really mostly on, on the people who need it most. And I think that’s definitely worth calling out as maybe one of the unique facets of working in government.

Maya Israni: With that, I am going to take a look at some of the questions. First question I see right here is, “How did you discover the opportunities in U.S.D.S. and what made you transition from private to public?” I think that feeds kind of straight in from what I just said there, which was I’ll answer the the second part of the question first, which is why I made the transition from public to private, or excuse me, from private to public, is I never… I studied computer science in college. To me, computer science was always a tool. I wasn’t necessarily keen on building things to build things. It was always the why, and why does it matter, and how am I impacting people, and what am I doing in this world to make things a little bit better than… how leave things a little bit better than how I left, than how I entered. And again, I think the scope and impact you can have in government is just unparalleled and unmatched, quite frankly. In the United States, we entrust the government to provide these types of services and programs to people and set the policies, and I think that the type of impact you can have here was always very appealing to me.

Maya Israni: How did I discover it? That’s a good question. I think I discovered it a little bit by word of mouth. The story that most folks often hear is the healthcare.gov story. So when U.S.D.S. was born out in part when healthcare.gov launched and the launch didn’t go as smoothly, a bunch of technologists came in and helped stand it back up. And I think I’d kind of followed that journey and that story, and when the time seemed right and for me it was almost a year into a a pandemic, I decided to to make that shift.

Maya Israni: Another question I see. “What advice would you give to early stage UX designers interested in building a career in civic tech or government?” I’m gonna maybe broad broaden up the question and advice I would give to early stage technologists in general. There’s a lot of ways to get involved in civic technology that aren’t just working at, say, the US Digital Service or government agency.

Maya Israni: A lot of states and cities have digital services. I recommend you take a look at the Digital Service Coalition. There’s also volunteer opportunities and there’s also, we have what’s called the US Digital Corps hires early stage folks / early career folks to come in and do a tour of service in government. Definitely a lot of different options in how to dip your toes in and in the way that fits your personal and professional circumstances best. I see the host coming in here, which probably means I’m getting kicked out at this point. <Laugh>

Sukrutha Bhadouria: No, hardly getting kicked out. Just wanted to say thank you so much, Maya. This was wonderful. I see the amazing engagement and the questions. Please do take it to Maya, or you can reach out to her, how, how do people reach out to you, Maya?

Maya Israni: I think throughout the profile, I’ll add in my email address and you’re welcome to reach out to me there. We also have folks attending, sitting in the lounges and attending the different networking sessions, so please come talk to us. We’re eager to share more. We also have our incredible engineers and data scientists and designers and folks on the project teams attending those sessions as well, so please talk to them. And we’re eager to hear from you!

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yes. All right. Just like one of the attendees said, this was rad. Thank you so much. All right.

Maya Israni: Thank you. Bye bye-Bye.

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