“Girl Geeks Gone Gov”: Martha Wilkes + Lisa Koenigsberg with United State Digital Service (Video + Transcript)

June 9, 2020

Stories of how two middle-aged girl geeks found themselves working for the government at US Digital Service for the career adventure of a lifetime, and why you should think about a career in civic tech too.


Transcript of Elevate 2020 Session

Gretchen DeKnikker: This session, yes, we are recording them. They will be on YouTube later. Subscribe now, and all of your dreams will come true. If you’re hosting a watch party or you want to tweet or have questions, throw them in the chat, send them out on Twitter. Definitely have the pictures. We saw the ones earlier of the watch party with the dog, and that was amazing. That just gave the whole team life because we’re all a little tired after this week.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Submit and upvote your questions during this session, down here using this Q&A button and be sure to check out the job opportunities from our sponsors at girlgeek.io/opportunities. That does include jobs where you could work with these amazing ladies that I’m about to introduce to you at U.S. Digital Service.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Martha Wilkes and Lisa Koenigsberg are both working at U.S. Digital Service, and they’re out here to tell you a little bit about mid-career malaise, a very important thing, knowing that everyone in this audience is more senior than our average audience, and the fact that we work in this ridiculously ageist industry that never gives enough attention to these things, and that all of us are going to face it. You guys are going to come, you’re going to give us life today, so I’m going to stop talking and let you take it away.

Martha Wilkes: Thank you, Gretchen. I’m Martha Wilkes, and I work at U.S. Digital Service. I’m one of the two Girl Geeks Gone Gov. They asked us to come up with a cute title, so that was our alliteration to the next level. We both found ourselves in the government with no intention. Lisa, what is US Digital Service anyway? What are we doing here?

Lisa Koenigsberg: Yes, yes. U.S. Digital Service. It’s comprised of about 170 technology geeks, and I use technology in air quotes, across different expertise, products, engineering, procurement, developers, designers, really smart bureaucracy hackers, which we’ll come back to again. We work with various government agencies to mostly give them permission to try something new, keeping in mind that the mission to do that is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the greatest need.

Lisa Koenigsberg: We’re hiring, by the way, usds.gov/apply. Check us out. We’re going to tell you more about it as we go. I’ll tell you a little bit about how I got here. It was 12 years in a nonprofit, 12 years of coming in one day and finding out thank you very much, but no thank you. Here I am, a mid-career, middle-aged woman who has to go out and fend for herself.

Lisa Koenigsberg: It was hard. I had heard about USDS from a conference, actually a diversity and inclusion conference, that I had gone to several years before. I pocketed a card and made some LinkedIn connections and put that in the back pocket, doing what you typically do is, “I’ll never go and do that. There’s no way I’d work for the government. I’ve heard horror stories about how hard it is to get into the government and who wants to go from private sector to public sector?”

Lisa Koenigsberg: I’m here to tell you that I have done it and it ain’t so bad. I don’t know, Martha, if you want to say a little bit about your journey?

Martha Wilkes: Yes. Mine was a little more fraught. I didn’t ever have USDS in mind and if I did, I don’t think it ever sinked in. I technically live in North Carolina. We’re here in Washington, DC right now.

Martha Wilkes: I, too, got laid off and here’s lesson number one to the people. When you get the mandatory HR meeting with no agenda and you have to attend on the day, there’s your sign. We scrambled, and this goes to my other lesson for you. Keep your portfolio and resume updated all the time. I heard this all my career. Did I do it? No, because on that day, I was scrambling like everybody else was. We knew what was happening.

Martha Wilkes: You have to be ready to go. I was at a company for 16 years, thinking I’d stay at that company 16 years, and guess what? That’s not what happened. I would say that was my first lesson, to be ready to go.

Martha Wilkes: I really also was not finding a lot of jobs locally, and it took me a while to find work, even any jobs, really. I was actually finding that the ones I was getting were the ones that were where the interview process was sight unseen because I have a lot of gray hair, people. That’s what I have, and I’m a middle-aged woman in the tech world. It turns out ageism is real and both of us have experienced it. I think you also liked the fact that the USDS interview process was on the phone.

Lisa Koenigsberg: Yeah. Let me tell you a little bit about that process. I’m going to lead in with an example that tells you what United States Digital Service is. We refer to it as USDS.

Martha Wilkes: Sorry, United States Digital Service.

Lisa Koenigsberg: Inside baseball here, so I apologize, an acronym heavy world.

Martha Wilkes: It’s the government; there are acronyms.

Lisa Koenigsberg: Typical government placement takes a long time. The USDS process took two clicks. You don’t need a government resume. You can use your regular resume. You go online, you pick a few checkboxes and upload your resume and you’re done.

Lisa Koenigsberg: What our counterparts that predated us did, one of the things that we did was hack the US Government hiring process to make it so that we have a much more human-centered approach to hiring. We’ve been talking a lot throughout today about bias. The entire interview process consisted of three pretty detailed interviews. All of it took place on the phone. I did not physically see a human being until I accepted an offer.

Lisa Koenigsberg: Then I said, “Well, wait a second. I would like to see who I’m going to work with and maybe where I’d be working and see a human being,” just because I didn’t trust that it was real. It doesn’t remove all of the bias because there’s still voice and tone and language that comes from different parts of the country and the world, but it definitely removed some of the ageism bias because they couldn’t see what I looked like or what I wore or any of those things.

Lisa Koenigsberg: That gives you an example of what USDS is. USDS is still working with the office of personnel management to make the hiring process more user friendly, meaning that you don’t have to write a 25-page computer readable resume that does keyword matching, and then maybe if you did everything right, you get to talk to a human. We start with human and go from there, so there’s ongoing work happening, but USDS started that with their own process. Did I say that we’re hiring?

Martha Wilkes: Yes, usds.gov/apply. we won’t be offended if you go to our website in the middle of our talk. That would be awesome. We’re always hiring people.

Martha Wilkes: Speaking of other people who work here, the imposter syndrome here at U.S. Digital Service is turned up to 11, because there’s incredible people here. I have to say, in my career I’ve worked with what I thought were awesomely smart people. Everybody here is smart and also nice because that’s one of the things that we’re looking for at U.S. Digital Services, not only people who can do the work technically, and we all have to be able to do that, but there’s an extra special secret sauce to USDS, U.S. Digital Service members that we don’t always own the thing.

Martha Wilkes: Mostly what we’re doing, because of our reputation, is that we don’t have all the answers. Our agency partners and the folks that work in the agencies are awesome people. They just are stuck in the bureaucracy and the red tape maybe of their agency. We mostly partner with them and elevate them and make sure their excellent ideas come to fruition. We can, because of where we are, locate a breakthrough a little bit. Do you feel like that imposter syndrome, Lisa?

Lisa Koenigsberg: Oh gosh. In any given day, I’m sitting in a room full of a combination of agency staff, let’s say at Office of Personnel Management. I’m sitting in a room with USDS staff that could go anywhere from former CTO of companies, to the people who started–the famous five or seven of Google, and the chairman of the Office of Personnel Management. Then there’s me.

Lisa Koenigsberg: I’m with my sweatshirt and my tennis shoes on thinking, why am I here? What could I possibly contribute? Then they ask me a question and it’s amazing, the support that you get in the feedback. They’re just looking for help. They’re looking for people from the outside to help them realize how to deal with the American public and create user-centered services and product ties and use modern technologies.

Lisa Koenigsberg: It’s hard, but it’s super fulfilling. I have given the example of if you want to do something in a place that has the big impact, forget Google and Amazon. Those numbers are minuscule. There are millions and millions of people in the United States and the people that we work with every day, those are their customers, not the couple of million that belong to Google or Amazon. It’s huge. If you’re looking for something that has purpose and meaning, there’s nothing bigger than you can do than work for a government agency.

Martha Wilkes: The other good thing about working for the government, which again, neither of us ever thought we’d be in, the benefits are really good. I think this is our advice and our lesson to especially middle aged women and also planting seeds in younger women who maybe one day, so may be thinking about this, because we are looking mostly for people who can walk in and handle themselves and have had maybe some life experience.

Martha Wilkes: I think both of us has had some life experience. Not only have we had life experience, but to sound like a Hallmark card or an Oprah episode, the hard things in life, the disappointments we had by being laid off in mid career, I almost can’t believe it’s coming out of my mouth, as cheesy as it sounds, but it literally has brought me to this experience, opened my mind to, “Okay, I have to broaden my horizons because I’m a middle-aged woman in tech and I need to find something, the next thing.”

Martha Wilkes: Also, that–having gone through that now has given me something, so when something hard comes along, maybe I can keep it in perspective a little bit, or maybe be like, “I’ve been here before and it’s been a hard thing, but I’ve come out the other side.” I think that’s the lesson, to be open to the adventures in your career. I never really thought I would. I never envisioned myself here. What do you think?

Lisa Koenigsberg: Yeah, when I dropped my resume in, I thought, “Nah, that’ll never happen. I’m just going to do it for the experience and have another interview through my belt.” I do want to, again, echo some of that, don’t be afraid to stretch yourself. Don’t be afraid to try something different.

Lisa Koenigsberg: I know the average government employee works in a place for 20 years plus. We have terms. We’re limited to two two-year terms, so a total max of four years because that is the industry standard, right? That’s how long people stay at a job. That’s how long you don’t become succumbed to the inside baseball. There’s a purpose for that, and it’s hard.

Lisa Koenigsberg: I also come from a woman perspective and I have found that, because I’m with the United States Digital Service, that has given me some carte blanche to walk into a room and be heard. As a woman in technology, I offer give every opportunity that you have to be heard. Don’t be afraid to have your voice. Don’t be afraid to say what you think. It won’t always go well, but don’t shy back because you’re sitting in a room full of men. Your voice matters. Find a place where you can be heard.

Lisa Koenigsberg: I will also just give a few examples of what USDS does, talking a little bit from our own experience. Do you want to throw in a few things that you’ve done?

Martha Wilkes: I’m a designer. My first project, when I joined U.S. Digital Service was to actually dig on a hiring pilot. We have a pilot and we’re trying to improve the government hiring because we have had stories and evidence of people with upwards of 60-page resumes. That’s what it takes to even get through the hiring process, which is crazy, especially when you’re trying to hire awesome tech people who might be coming from the private sector who have a two-page resume, like we all do.

Martha Wilkes: That was my first project. Now I’m at the Department of Veterans Affairs, working on tools for healthcare for our awesome veterans. They’re such fantastic people, who have paid the price up ahead, assuming that they did the right thing up ahead for their country, and now we owe them all the stuff that they sacrificed for.

Martha Wilkes: They’re wonderful, wonderful users. I listened to some user testing last week, usability testing last week. I told everyone I’m biased because I fell in love with everybody. They’re awesome, awesome people, our veterans.

Lisa Koenigsberg: Yep. My original few months, maybe six months, was at the Veterans Affairs Administration and I focused on the authenticated experience. Once you’ve logged into the VA.gov website, what do you see? What is your dashboard? What is your profile? What services do you have rights to and how do you find out about others? Super exciting.

Lisa Koenigsberg: We did a three month in-depth research and discovery phase that directed probably a two-year roadmap that’s now being executed against. I got to come in and just make that happen. I’ve now handed that off to another really smart group of people, and I’ve been working at Social Security Administration to help them better transactions, like getting a replacement Social Security card or getting proof of benefit from them or finding out your claim status. We’re helping them bring the consumer to the forefront and get the- I guess our time is up.

Martha Wilkes: USDS.gov. That’s our final thing. USDS.gov/apply. Sorry about that. We made it.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Wonderful. Okay.

Martha Wilkes: We’re happy to take questions, you guys.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yes, and I love that U.S. Digital Service, they sponsor–they join us as a government participant every year. Every year, the speakers are just phenomenal. You think at the beginning, there’s no way I would ever work for the government. Then you meet these women and you’re like, “You know…?”

Gretchen DeKnikker: Then you guys talking–not you guys, y’all talking about impact…

Lisa Koenigsberg: Oh.

Martha Wilkes: We’re Girls Geek Gone Gov.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Just the impact, you touch everyone, everyone in the entire United States. That is scale and that’s amazing. I think a lot of people, for the first time are looking at it, going, “Oh, wow. This sounds really cool, and I could work with you two.” Okay–

Martha Wilkes: It’s daunting. It’s a little scary, truly, when you walk in and you realize that when you’ve been operating at a different level, maybe, especially for me in the private sector, but it is thrilling and also you’re not by yourself. There’s an awesome team of people. Again, mostly the agency folks are the ones who really have that expertise and you partner with, I would say. Do you agree?

Lisa Koenigsberg: Yep.

Martha Wilkes: Cool.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Our most popular question is, well, it’s switching as they do. One is around the technology stack that’s used. I know you all work in different departments. Is that even something you can share? Is it a secret?

Martha Wilkes: Does COBOL strike anybody’s fancy because we’re huge in COBOL at Medicare/ Medicaid, and guess what? We actually can’t change that out. That runs the–

Gretchen DeKnikker: Well, the scale of that, yeah…

Martha Wilkes: That runs, what is it, 84% of the economy, so that COBOL code, thank God, is still up and running and safe.

Lisa Koenigsberg: I feel like a lot of what we do when we go in is there are a lot of mainframes sitting in use, okay? I’m not going to lie, but a lot of what we do is try to figure out how to build API services or microservices on top of that, so that we’re not hitting the mainframe for every request that we have, as a starting point of trying to then understand the business roles that drive that, so that we can then replace it some day.

Lisa Koenigsberg: It is not the forever solution, but unfortunately moving from static servers to AWS doesn’t work very easy here. A lot of what we do is try to incrementally get them to do that API transition, so they can uncover business logic and then have it written down when they’re ready to replace it.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Right. You’re the [crosstalk 00:18:22] inside the government.

Martha Wilkes: At the VA, The Veterans Administration, the project that we’re working on, React, microservices, like modern stuff…

Lisa Koenigsberg: There’s React, there’s Ruby. We do have modern services, but they’re often layered on top of very legacy systems.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Okay. There’s two questions. I want to try to get them both in, but we’re like close on time. One is do you need to have a technology or engineering background to apply to U.S. DS Digital Service?

Lisa Koenigsberg: I would say most of our folks do. Most of the on the ground work at the agencies is technology based, so we’re typically looking at people from the technology industry and design and engineering and product. We do have some front office and some talent parts that don’t require that, but knowledge of how to find that is also necessary. I would say most of it does come from a technology background.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Okay, and then the other one, I know it can be confusing… If you guys can get the owl to go back to have you centered, too. Focus just…

Martha Wilkes: Well, the owl has a mind of its own. When I start talking, it literally just…

Gretchen DeKnikker: The other one is how the terms work. You come. It’s a year or two years or four years. Then do you stay, do you go to another department? How does that work?

Lisa Koenigsberg: Neither of us have had to deal with that. I’ll give you the 30,000 foot view of what I’ve heard. Everything goes smoothly. Your two years hits and you can easily just roll over into your next two year term, or you can choose that this is enough, or you can choose that I’m all in on government and try to get yourself placed in a permanent government position.

Martha Wilkes: That’s what I want to do.

Lisa Koenigsberg: Right,

Martha Wilkes: Right now.

Lisa Koenigsberg: You could do your two years and then opt into your next two years. Usually, around year three, you’re starting to look at, and even the leadership at United States Digital Service is starting to talk to you about what is it that you want to do and help you get whatever direction you’re going to go.

Lisa Koenigsberg: We know that right now, there’s a 30/30 split last year of people who went back to the private sector or stayed in some kind of civic tech. Most of the people who stayed in civic tech went to other companies that were doing civic tech work, not necessarily with the government, but a lot of people are staying in the civic tech space because it’s super compelling.

Martha Wilkes: It’s so addicting, having worked at a private sector company, to come and work someplace that really has a mission of serving American people and people who are applying to be Americans citizens. To go back to just selling stuff for a company or just making stuff… It’s a little bit addicting I have to say, and I can’t imagine going back. I don’t want to go back.

Lisa Koenigsberg: I’ll also offer that a lot of the big companies, Microsoft, Google, offer sabbaticals to go do things for three to six months. We’ve had a lot of people come in, thinking I’m going to do my three or six months and have either done that or have stayed and said, “This is amazing. We want to stay.”

Martha Wilkes: There’s no experience like it in the private sector.

Lisa Koenigsberg: Our current administrator, Matt Cutts, came with a six months’ sabbatical from Google and stayed.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I don’t think you guys mentioned: Are you hiring?

Lisa Koenigsberg: Always.

Martha Wilkes: We are hiring. We’re always hiring because people are always coming and going. A lot of people don’t even stay for their full two-year term. People, for various reasons in their careers, are always coming and going, so we’re always hiring.

Lisa Koenigsberg: usds.gov/apply.

Gretchen DeKnikker: There we go. All right. That’s what I wanted to get in one more of. All right. This has been a pleasure, a true pleasure. Thank you so much.

Martha Wilkes: Thank you.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Thanks, everybody.

Lisa Koenigsberg: Happy National Women’s Day.

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