From Google to the Department of Homeland Security: What I learned from my time in government

Eric Hysen
Mar 21, 2017 · 6 min read

Two and a half years ago, I dialed in to a videoconference from my office at Google DC for what I thought would be a routine meeting. A colleague and I were talking to Mikey Dickerson, a Google engineer who had just returned from helping lead the Healthcare.gov rescue effort. I managed civic products for Google at the time, and I was hoping I could get Mikey’s advice on our roadmap and maybe even convince him to join our team.

I was apparently the world’s worst recruiter, because before I could get more than a few sentences into my pitch Mikey started talking about this crazy idea the Obama White House was discussing with him. Rather than bring in private sector technologists only after a major project like Healthcare.gov failed, they wanted to bring in tech talent for term-limited tours of duty and give them a seat at the decision-making table from the beginning.

I was hooked, and instead of recruiting Mikey I found myself following him out the door. A few weeks later I had left Google and was sitting in a drab windowless conference room taking the oath of office to become the sixth member of the United States Digital Service.

We thought this was a ton of people at the time. (Credit: USDS)

At the time I thought I was joining what would ultimately be a team of twelve (we thought even that would be an amazing recruiting feat!) who would work on three important projects. That idea didn’t last long. Today USDS consists of 200 world-class engineers, product managers, designers, acquisition reformers, and policy and operations experts who have worked with a dozen different agencies on major initiatives.

USDS in January 2017. Bonus points if you can find me. (Official White House Photo)

Last Friday, I ended my first tour of duty with the Federal government. Over the past two and a half years, I’ve had the privilege to build and lead USDS’s efforts at the Department of Homeland Security, first out of the White House and then by creating the DHS Digital Service to bring the work in-house.

After spending over twice as long in government as I’d originally planned, it’s time for a new group of leaders to drive the organization forward. USDS is term-limited by design to ensure its members never settle for the status quo and have up-to-date technical skills. I have a lot to catch up on after two years of enterprise service buses, ColdFusion and ASP apps, and mainframes. I’m encouraged to see colleagues like Matt Cutts stepping up to lead USDS and couldn’t be more excited about what they’ll accomplish.

This journey has been so much wilder and more meaningful than anything I could have dreamed up when dialing into that videoconference in 2014. Never could I have imagined helping tens of thousands of refugees start new lives in the United States, 70,000 new citizens and counting take the Oath of Allegiance, over a million immigrants renew their green cards online, billions of dollars of trade move smoothly into our economy, travelers navigate airports more efficiently and safely, and DHS finally start to embrace agile contracting and modern collaboration tools. And more than all, I never could have imagined that we could recruit 200 brilliant and talented people to take the crazy leap and make all of this work possible.

I’m ending my time in government optimistic about the future of USDS and the broader movement to deliver better services to the American people. Any new President would bring uncertainty for a new program from the last administration, but the digital service movement has received broad bipartisan support from the beginning. USDS was one of the few cases of the Obama Administration receiving its full budget request from Congress. We’ve seen only positive signs from the new administration that they will continue to support USDS and appreciate technology’s critical role in service delivery. While our country is certainly in uncharted territory since January 20, USDS’s clearly defined mission to improve public service delivery gives it an anchor to continue doing important work without political interference.

I am also departing more aware than ever of just how much good can be done by government services. I’ve traveled to refugee camps and sat in interviews as mothers and children described fleeing the Syrian civil war as it followed them from town to town. I’ve visited our southwest border and seen the young children who have trekked across Mexico on foot, running from gang violence in Central America and desperately seeking to be reunited with family in the United States. And I’ve attended naturalization ceremonies and seen the hope and pride in the eyes of immigrants from all around the world, of all races, religions, and backgrounds, as they wave miniature flags and take the oath of allegiance to become American citizens.

New Americans (Official White House Photo)

Seeing this firsthand has only reinforced to me how dangerous, cruel, and un-American many of President Trump’s policies are. And digging deep into these programs’ operations and technology have shown me that not only will these policies hurt millions in need, they will also fail to achieve their objectives. This makes the work that actually does improve these peoples’ experiences, both inside and outside government, more important than ever. If nothing else, my time at USDS has made me a very well-informed citizen and left me strongly equipped to work on the issues I care about.

Finally, I’m leaving government in awe of the work career civil servants do every day. Federal employees are some of the most underappreciated people in our country. They do vital work every day for less money than they could be making elsewhere in a system that makes it almost impossible to be productive. There are bad apples as there are in any large group, but they’re few and far between. Federal employees don’t deserve to be treated as a political punching bag and subjected to ineffective policies like hiring freezes that do nothing but encourage the best of them to leave.

Across DHS, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with many of our uniformed law enforcement officers, from CBP Field Operations Officers and Border Patrol Agents to TSA Officers and Coast Guard Seamen. These people are literally our government’s front lines, so they can become the physical manifestation of bad policies. Blaming under-supported uniformed officers for the policies of politicians 20 organizational levels above them couldn’t be more misguided. The uniformed officers I’ve worked with are smart, dedicated, and trying to do the best they can in a bad situation. They’re a lot more like Rod Williams, the TSA Officer from “Get Out,” than you’d think.

A surprisingly accurate portrayal. (Credit: Universal)

The next time you’re going through the airport, take a second and say thank you. They don’t hear it enough.

If you’re a technologist worried about the state of our country, I’m still convinced that a tour of duty in USDS is one of the most important things you could do to make things better. If government’s not for you right now, I hope you’ll join me in looking for ways to fight for what matters from the outside. More than anything, leaving government has raised the bar sky-high for whatever I do next. I don’t know what that will be yet, but I do know that I’ll never be the same again. Inside government or out, now is the time for us to step up and use our skills to make our country a better, safer, and fairer place.

Eric Hysen

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Tech, data, and design for a better country. Former @USDS @DHSgov, @ObamaWhiteHouse, and @GooglePolitics.