Julie Meloni, an engineer from the United States Digital Service (USDS), discusses the challenging but fulfilling nature of her work in transforming government services through technology. USDS aims to modernize and improve public-facing services, help agencies buy better services, expand common platform tools, and attract technical talent into public service. They work on a wide range of projects, from immigration forms and veteran services to supporting immigrants, refugees, and small business owners. The organization’s core values include hiring and empowering great people, finding and telling the truth, optimizing for results, going where the work is, and doing everything with passion.
At Girl Geek X Elevate 2018, Julie Meloni shared real-world stories of how the United States Digital Service (or “USDS”) builds solutions, from public-facing services to helping small businesses, veterans, students, farmers, and more!
Gretchen DeKnikker: I’m super excited to introduce Julie Meloni. She works with US Digital Service, yes, the government. She is going to tell you about the hardest job she has ever loved, working with USDS. Welcome, Julie.
Julie Meloni: Thank you so much. I hope you can all hear me. I am really excited to be here. I love talking about USDS. Every time I do, I am confused because I never thought I’d work in the government, who would love working in the government, certainly not me. But it’s the hardest job I’ve ever loved, and it’s hard for a lot of reasons that don’t have anything to do with technology. It has everything to do with people.
The technology is the easy part. Complex systems are hard. I’m going to talk a little bit about the types of work that we do, who we do it for, and how we do it. The funny thing is — spoiler alert — the things that we do and the way that we’re successful isn’t really unique to USDS.
You can all do it in your own organizations. While I would love for you all to come work at USDS and do it, as a takeaway, I’d like you to think about how you too can use all of your knowledge and expertise and your entire whole selves and bring it to your own work because sometimes it’s all we have.
If you’re looking behind me, this is the fancy digs we have here at Jackson Place for the US Digital Service. I am indeed in a basement. I am in the fancy room in the basement. That just gives a little bit the sense of just how we work. Scrappy is how we work at the US Digital Service. What are we? We’re about three and a half years old. That means that we were started in the Obama Administration. We’re still here in the current administration.
We’re a bunch of very passionate nerds, who use designing technology to help the government deliver better services to the public.
Very specifically, we don’t say the American people because we also serve people who want to become American citizens, and we still do that work today. We’ll talk a little bit about that as well.
What are our objectives at the US Digital Service? One is to transform critical public-facing services. That means anytime that a citizen, or a person wanting to become a citizen, interfaces with the government, it’s probably digital or should be digital. Those are two very different things. If it is digital, we try to transform those services into circa 2010 technology would be really awesome. 2017, 2018 technology is an amazing achievement and sometimes we get good partners in agencies who are amenable to that. That is amazing. But really, we’re trying to bring interfaces from the ’80s, ’90s, and sometimes the ’70s into the 2000s, 2010s. That is hard. It’s hard for a lot of reasons, and we’ll talk through that in a little bit.
We also want to help agencies figure out how to buy better services. That means really digging into what people are trying to do because they’re usually trying to do the right thing and helping them weed through bad contracts, bad requirements, bad everything, and trying to get them to a better place where they can buy better services that are maybe modern and don’t lock them in, maybe, sometimes uses open source, and maybe, sometimes uses new things like agile. We help them buy better services and save money, and that’s a big deal. If we can keep someone from spending $500 million on something that should have been $5 million, we’re going to take that win for us and for you any day of the week.
Another thing that we do is making sure that we’re expanding the use of common platform services and tools, and that could be tools that we help build such as login.gov, which is a joint effort between the US Digital Service and our partners in the technology transformation organization, 18F. That is meant to be a government single sign-on solution at a very high level of authentication.
We would love to be able to roll that out across agencies. Wouldn’t it be nice to sign in to do your taxes with the same user information that you used to fill out your FAFSA at the Department of Education?
What path can that bring? Even if it’s not a specific tool that we build, it might be a common platform. It might be the use of the Cloud. It might be the use of, I don’t know, some sort of, any sort of continuous integration and build system. It could be a lot of things.
We try to make sure that what we use can be used in other places as well because, if we don’t, we’re just as bad as the contractors who lock agencies into one thing.
Finally, we want to bring hot technical talent into public service, and that’s all of you and your friends who are probably too busy working to be here today, get them too. If you are super experienced, especially in complex organizations, if you have a very high EQ, and if you want to give back in some way, *especially if you never thought you would work in government*.
Take a look at US Digital Service or 18F and see what might fit for you.Not knowing all 2,000 of you or whatever it is watching this today, I can guarantee that we need all of you. I’d be happy for five. We need the help.
Who are we helping? That’s the fun part, right? We help as many people as we possibly can and this is why it gets hard because we can’t help everyone. We have an agency team at the Department of Homeland Security.
We work to create tools that help asylum officers adjudicate their cases quicker, which means they can help more refugees come into the country, more asylees come into the country.
We are trying desperately to make the immigration form process better. Generally, in all the situations that I explained, what we really do is we try to unfuck the government that is really fucked, from a technology perspective.
We have a team at DHS working hard for immigrants and refugees and working a little bit now with FEMA to try to make the grant system not suck quite as much as it does especially for people who have just lost everything in fires and floods. They shouldn’t have to go through as much paper as they do.
We also help veterans. This is one of our favorite stories because there is so much that we owe to our veterans and so little that we do well for them from a technology perspective. There are 598 distinct websites where veterans go to get information about how to get the services they’ve already earned like healthcare and education — 598 different websites is like 597 too many.
We have been working with the VA to make all these websites at least flow through one kind of interface like a portal, very cutting edge portal technology at vets.gov, and trying to make the paper forms not paper anymore, so incrementally taking bad things and making them better in terms of interfaces. You’ll notice a common theme as we go through here.
Military service members — We work for them. One of our teams at the Pentagon, the Defense Digital Service, they’re working on a better platform that helps active duty service members and their families move. The moving process which hundreds of thousands of families do every year, all at the same time, is a very antiquated computer system that usually goes down and results in people not being able to move and so we’re making a better one because that sort of cognitive load. You don’t want to think about how you’re going to move your family from one end of the country to the other while you’re sitting in Afghanistan getting shot at. That’s the last thing that you should be thinking of, so we try to make sure that you don’t have to think of that.
We also help students — In 2015, USDS and 18F worked together to create the new version of the college scorecard which focused on actually listening to students and their families, really figuring out what it is that they wanted to see, and then making that so.
Medicare/Medicaid recipients — We work with the team at Health and Human Services at the centers for Medicaid and Medicare services and we’re working on opening data basically providing APIs for third parties to access Medicare clean data so that doctors and other third parties can work with that data and present it to patients in a better way, make sure that they’re sort of looking at their trends and how can that help provide better service for seniors and anyone, actually.
Farmers — this is my personal favorite. There is a process that we went and discovered. We do discovery sprints here at USDS. We get a bunch of people together like four, five, and we go out for a couple weeks and we learn everything we can about a topic. We interview people, we ask the question, “You know if you had a magic wand, what would you change?” Then, we come up with a report that says, “Here are some things that we think we should change,” and then, if we’re lucky, we get to work on enacting better legislation or even building a better technology system.
With farmers, we found that farmers have a really hard time getting guest workers to pick the crops. This is a food security issue for all of us. If you can’t pick the crops, the crops die, and then you have to plow them under and we have no food. Farmers often have to single handedly manage hundreds of pounds of paper in order to get their guest workers into the country because there’s nobody domestically that wants to do the work. There are five different government agencies that they have to work through to get the workers. Farmers need to farm and not do paperwork for five different agencies, so trying to help people figure out how maybe not make that what farmers have to do. Also, that’s a lot of paper.
Finally, small business owners — I say finally only because that’s the last icon on the screen, not because that’s the end of the people that we help or that we are working for. We have worked with the Small Business Administration to make the application process for certification smoother, much easier, less burdensome, also for the analysts inside the SBA who are adjudicating cases.
Again, we’re using paper and working through nice, clean, modern technology with a UI that makes sense to just to do their job so that small business owners can do their jobs and their families can survive. That’s a lot of stuff right through there. One of the reasons that I worked really hard there to do that quickly was because if I pause, I cry because this is really hard work. There is literally nobody that we could walk past in the street who isn’t served by some of the work that we’re trying to help our agency partners do. That can be really emotional, and that is hard to do sometimes.
Actually, the number one reason that we choose projects, is this project the one that has got the greatest impact for the greatest number of people? If it doesn’t, then we have to prioritize it a little lower. Is the likelihood of success high? If so, awesome, so far so good. Can we scale it across government?
If it’s some really great project that has a high likelihood of success, in time, and we can take something from it and teach others across the government or implement technology somewhere else, even better. That’s when we will choose that project to do. That was a lot.
How do we do it? This is where the takeaways come in for you guys because the values that guide our work, you can use these in your jobs too because they’re very simple and they’re not prescriptive. Hire and empower great people. It’s as easy as that, right? Super easy. No. It’s very hard. Our talent team works tremendously hard to recruit and find the right type of people. Type doesn’t mean the most super senior person in the world. It doesn’t tend to be senior, but it also means someone with a really, amazing upside and high EQ and a high ability to get shit done in a mission driven and complex environment.
If we hire you, you are automatically empowered to go do whatever needs to get done and we’re going to do our level best to support you in that process. Find the truth and tell the truth, this is my favorite value.
We don’t pull any punches. If something is messed up in the government, we will tell the cabinet secretary in charge of it that your thing is messed up. We’ll probably use fancier words and be a lot more technically detailed than that, but generally, we need to find the truth and tell the truth because we don’t have time not to.
Similarly, optimize for results, not optics. We don’t have shareholders except for everybody that pays taxes. We don’t even make fancy presentations to the Board of Directors or whatever. We just need to show our results. If we’re showing results, that is the biggest optic that could possibly be. Let the results speak for themselves.
The minute we do something because someone on the Hill wants us to, it would look good, whatever the case may be, the President thinks it’s cool, then we’ve lost our reason to be here. We are here for results, whatever that means. Sometimes the results are not good ones, sometimes we fail. We learn from them and move on. Sometimes, we succeed, and sometimes, we learn about a lot more stuff that needs fixing.
Sometimes, we have to go where the work is because sometimes that stuff that needs fixing is in Afghanistan and sometimes it’s in Southern Illinois and sometimes it’s in Lord knows where. Especially when we work with military families, those military families are stationed at bases in remote places. The people that are doing the work supporting our deployed troops are in Afghanistan or other remote areas. We have to go there to work with them to figure out what it is we’re designing because we’re designing it for them and we’re not going to make it up just because it’s scary to go to Afghanistan.
We do everything with passion. “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” so says Ralph Waldo Emerson and so say we all. If we’re not making momentum in our projects, if we’re not helping our agency partners move forward, we’re not doing a good job.
Finally, designing with users and not for them. Users are at the core of everything that we do. We have to work with them and not make things up. The minute we stop designing for our users, just like the minute you stop designing for your users, the minute you’ve lost the reason for making your product. All of that having been said, join us, please. Any questions, I’m happy to take them here offline, online, on the Internets, wherever you want… I’m here for you.
Gretchen: Great, Julie. People are so inspired and a lot of thank you’s for doing this work and an empathy for how hard it is. Most of the questions that we got, we just have a few minutes, so I want to kind of paraphrase.
Julie: Sorry, I went long, my fault.
Gretchen: No. Just listening to you is so awesome. If you click this, thanks to our sponsors, you can learn more about jobs at US Digital Service. On that page, you’ll find a list of the types of roles that they’re looking for.
I did want to ask you, Julie, there was a question around, “What special skills? Are there part time things available?” Maybe if we could do that one.
Julie: Sure. We’ll do part time, first. The answer is “No.” Also, we don’t even do remote because it is very difficult to work on the ground with users who are in DC when you’re not in DC. If you really want to work in a modern digital services type of environment and give back to the government and you cannot move, do look into our friends at 18F. They allow remote work.
In terms of skills, if you’re an Engineer of any flavor, please join us. If you’re a Backend Engineer, a Security Engineer, an SRE, a Front End Engineer, we work a lot with React, join us. If you are a Product Manager with technical chops, you’ve led and deployed technical products with a team, join us. If you are a UX Designer or Researcher of any flavor of UX because UX contains multitudes, join us. That should cover all of you.
Gretchen: [laughs] You probably inspired a lot of people to think about this in a way that they never would have. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Julie: Sure. Also, remember, you can do all those things in your own company. You don’t just have to join USDS, but again, we’d love for that.
Gretchen: They’ll all want to come and work with you [laughs] .
Julie: You could all come work with us. There’s only 175 of us. Like 175 is not enough to do all the work that we have to do.