Joining the U.S. Digital Service

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I’ve never worked in government before – or even considered it until I read Dan Portillo’s blog post when he joined the U.S. Digital Service. Mixing the technical skills and business tactics honed in Silicon Valley with the domain specific skills of career government employees is a brilliant way to solve long-standing complex problems in the internal mechanics of government infrastructure. Since their initial work on healthcare.gov, they’ve helped out at the Veterans Administration, Dept of Education and IRS to mention just a few public examples. Each of these solutions have material impact to real humans, every single day.

Building Release Engineering infrastructure at scale, in all sorts of different environments, has always been interesting to me. The more unique the situation, the more interesting. The possibility of doing this work, at scale, while also making a difference to the lives of many real people made me stop, ask a bunch of questions and then apply.

The interviews were the most thorough and detailed of my career so far, and the consequence of this is clear once I started working with other USDS folks – they are all super smart, great at their specific field, unflappable when suddenly faced with un-imaginable projects and downright nice, friendly people. These are not just “nice to have” attributes – they’re essential for the role and you can instantly see why once you start.

The range of skills needed is staggering. In the few weeks since I started, projects I’ve been involved with have involved some combinations of: Ansible, AWS, Cobol, GitHub, NewRelic, Oracle PL/SQL, nginx, node.js, PowerBuilder, Python, Ruby, REST and SAML. All while setting up fault tolerant and secure hybrid physical-colo-to-AWS production environments. All while meeting with various domain experts to understand the technical and legal constraints behind why things were done in a certain way and also to figure out some practical ideas of how to help in an immediate and sustainable way. All on short timelines – measured in days/weeks instead of years. In any one day, it is not unusual to jump from VPN configurations to legal policy to branch merging to debugging intermittent production alerts to personnel discussions.

Being able to communicate effectively up-and-down the technical stack and also the human stack is tricky, complicated and also very very important to succeed in this role. When you see just how much the new systems improve people’s lives, the rewards are self-evident, invigorating and humbling – kinda like the view walking home from the office – and I find myself jumping back in to fix something else. This is very real “make a difference” stuff and is well worth the intense long days.

Over the coming months, please be patient with me if I contact you looking for help/advice – I may very well be fixing something crucial for you, or someone you know!

If you are curious to find out more about USDS, feel free to ask me. There is a lot of work to do (before starting, I was advised to get sleep!) and yes, we are hiring (for details, see here!). I suspect you’ll find it is the hardest, most rewarding job you’ve ever had!

John.

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