Serving at USDS: Aileen Chen
In this blog series, we share the stories of USDSers. Find out where they were before USDS, why they joined, the challenges they face, the impact of their work, what life post-USDS may be, and what they’ll miss most. Hope you enjoy meeting them!
Aileen Chen, She/Her, Software Engineer, Defense Digital Service, from the San Francisco Bay Area
What’s your background?
I’m a Silicon Valley native who grew up surrounded by tech. I was pulled into its vortex at a relatively early age despite several feeble attempts to escape and pursue other interests. Looking back, though, I’m grateful that I ended up in tech since it has given me a unique opportunity to have widespread impact. Prior to USDS, I was a software engineer and tech lead at Facebook, where I worked on a variety of projects, including places search, gifts, ads, and combating cyberbullying. My constant desire to learn new things led me up and down the stack, from web front and back end and external APIs to search infrastructure and machine learning.
What inspired you to join USDS?
I learned a ton from working in the private sector for 7 years and wanted to apply my knowledge to something that was more personally fulfilling. I also wanted to move to D.C. so I could be in the same city as my fiancé. Thus when I discovered USDS and its inception while reading about the American healthcare system, it seemed like a perfect fit. Improving the aging technology that government and its services runs on was an extremely compelling goal. After meeting some of the inspiring folks who worked here and hearing their stories, I decided that I wanted to be part of that change.
What has been your biggest challenge?
A huge challenge most of us at USDS face on a daily basis is navigating the many layers of bureaucracy within the largest employer in the U.S. This manifests in a variety of ways. For example, there are often too many players in any given program. Finding the right person to answer a specific question can be a Herculean task. Policies and incentive structures mean that most people, by no fault of their own, are extremely risk-averse. Getting anything approved, be it connecting to another DoD system or launching something new, oftentimes requires mountains of paperwork and can take months. Unsurprisingly, we frequently butt heads when we come in and disrupt the status quo. However, all of these roadblocks make breaking through and succeeding so much sweeter.
How does your work make an impact?
Every year, 400,000 military service members get orders to move, oftentimes across the country or outside the country. The system that supports these moves is unstable and difficult to use. The policies around moving are also too convoluted. All of this exacerbates an experience that is already very stressful and can result in situations like military families receiving their belongings weeks late or not realizing that they owe thousands of dollars for exceeding their moving allowance. This system is also used by government back-office employees and moving companies. When it goes down, it means they can’t do their jobs and everyone loses money.
I’m currently working on a project to rebuild move.mil and streamline the entire process. In the 6 months since we hired our contractors and kicked off the project, we launched a prototype which has already proven to be much more user-friendly. For example, we integrated with Login.gov for the sign-on solution. It’s faster, more secure, and better designed than the login system that the legacy system uses, which looks like it’s from the nineties with blinking red text. We also changed the policies and processes around using electronic signatures so service members can type their names to schedule their moves, rather than having to print, sign, scan, and upload.
The meta-goal of this project is to change the way that the government procures and manages software. We hired a small shop of non-traditional government contractors who know how to use modern development practices. Instead of handing them a thick packet of predetermined requirements, our working relationship acknowledges that requirements can and will evolve over time. The hope is that we can demonstrate the benefit of these types of modern development practices and spread them across the government, saving taxpayer dollars in the process.
What do you want to do after USDS?
I don’t know yet, other than wanting to move back to the Bay Area to be closer to family and finding another job with a mission that I care about.
What will you miss most about USDS when you leave?
I’ll definitely miss everyone’s passion and energy. The people at USDS aren’t here just to collect a paycheck or to enjoy the perks. I’ll also miss all the places this job has taken me, from military bases in small towns to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It has shown me parts of the United States that I otherwise would never have seen and given me the opportunity to meet people I might not have crossed paths with, which I deeply appreciate.
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 email@example.com and visit usds.gov/join.