Why We Serve: Martha Wilkes

In this series, you’ll hear stories from USDSers and learn why they decided to join, why they stay, and how their work is making an impact for all Americans.

Martha Wilkes (she/her), Designer & Accessibility Strategist, USDS at Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Chief Technology Officer. Previously at a statistical software company. From Chapel Hill, NC.

A woman stands in front of a wooden podium and the seal of The White House. She has shoulder-length grey and black hair and wears black glasses. There is a vertical blue line and to the right of that line is white text on a blue background that reads “Martha Wilkes, designer & accessibility strategist”

What inspired you to join USDS?

I was at a mid-career, mid-life crossroads after being laid off from a company which I thought I would be at forever. I was not finding great opportunities locally, so I figured I had to start expanding my options. I saw a tweet about the U.S. Digital Service and applied, thinking I wouldn’t hear back.

Everything progressed quickly, and a few months (and the 2018 government shutdown) later I found myself in D.C. renting a room in a friend’s condo and starting my USDS career adventure in February 2019.

So what exactly is an accessibility strategist? What does that work look like for you?

The cool thing about USDS is that you can invent a role for yourself if you see a need. This is what I did at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) by appointing myself the team’s accessibility strategist, after some colleagues encouraged me to go for it. I knew we could raise the bar even higher on the excellent accessibility work that was already underway when I joined.

Making accessibility a key tenet of your design philosophy from Day One ensures that you keep simplifying with every iteration.

Because we raised our bar higher, our contracting partners have responded by bringing on more accessibility specialists to support the work. One of the big lessons in working in civic tech at any level is that good things cannot happen without excellent contracting partners.

Can you talk about a project you’re super proud of?

I was involved in the early days of designing the VA Health and Benefits native mobile app. I was a lone voice saying, “This is a native app, we have to consider accessibility from the start, and we have to make it awesome.”

At my very first meeting with the sub-contracting partner, they presented their accessibility testing plan. I was speechless! I asked how that even happened. The project manager told them I was scary and very demanding so they had better impress me. And I’m probably the least scary person you will ever meet!

But I do have a high bar because our Veterans deserve The Best. The VA accessibility office said this project team was three years ahead of anyone else because we set such a high bar for design and we tested accessibility every day.

Definitely a career highlight for me and a moment where I can honestly say I made a difference.

A dark blue background and text in white reads “I do have a high bar because our Veterans deserve the best.” — Martha Wilkes, Designer & Accessibility Strategy. “The best” is italicized.

What do you want to do after USDS?

In joining USDS, I selfishly thought I’d make the sacrifice of a few years away from home for the opportunity to meet some people who could connect me to my next job. Two years later, I never want to leave government service.

This work is so challenging, and I get to work on so many different kinds of projects. The people I work with are smart, creative, and, above all, truly excellent humans. I had never experienced the feeling of being on a mission alongside dedicated teammates.

Frankly, it’s addictive and I now never want to go back to the private sector. That’s my challenge in the next two years: figure out how to get hired permanently in the government. (Plus, the retirement benefits are really good, too!)

What’s one lesson government can learn from tech? And one lesson tech can learn from government?

I’ll start with the second question. As a woman in tech, I have experienced my share of promised promotions that never happened; finding out men with half my experience were making a higher salary than me; being told I shouldn’t raise my voice and be so emotional at work — all of it.

Recently, a male team lead came to our daily standup meeting. He had just left a meeting where a woman colleague had demoed her project and the VA stakeholders were completely blown away by her excellent work.

The team lead was so proud of her and so happy for her success, he was literally wiping away tears as he told us about how well she did. He said, “Today was a good day.”

I can honestly say that I have never seen this before in my entire career: a man showing that kind of vulnerability to his teammates, and in support of a woman colleague.

I think the lesson from government to the tech world is that when the team members share a calling to a mission, there is a camaraderie that emerges, and that shared mission can eclipse company politics. Each team member supports the other, knowing that we’re all in it together, we need to cheer each other on, and we pick up the slack if someone has a weak moment. Climbing the corporate ladder and stepping on each other to get to a higher, more powerful spot in the org chart is counterproductive.

As far as a lesson government can learn from tech, make it easy to hire excellent people. Do not require a “federal resume” when a standard two-to-three page resume works just fine for the private sector. Luckily, USDS has piloted and delivered the Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessments, or SME‑QA as we call it, process which fixes this very problem. Now it’s just a matter of getting the various agencies to understand it’s OK to use it.

The best of technology.
The best of government.
And we want you.

We’re looking for the most tenacious designers, software engineers, product managers, and more, who are committed to untangling, rewiring and redesigning critical government services. You’ll join a team of the most talented technologists from across the private sector and government.
If you have questions regarding employment with the U.S. Digital Service, please contact us at usds@omb.eop.gov or visit our Hiring FAQ.

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United States Digital Service

United States Digital Service

The U.S. Digital Service is a group of mission-driven professionals who are passionate about delivering better government services to the public.