Serving at USDS: Chase Kimball
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!
Chase Kimball, Product Manager, Defense Digital Service
What’s your background?
This all got started for me when I was a White House intern back in 2012. I was working in the Correspondence Office when I witnessed one of the staffers printing out emails one-by-one and hand addressing envelopes to respond to them. I was shocked. I had learned to code in my previous job at an economic consulting firm, so I cobbled together a script to automate the process (using Visual Basic for Applications, the only language available to a lowly intern to run on a White House machine). The staff were very grateful, and soon I received a job offer.
That set me on a new course. In fact, I had been scheduled to start a master’s program in religious history at Harvard Divinity School right after the internship ended, so my decision to work instead on improving government technology was a pretty significant redirection! But the challenges were so exciting: everywhere I turned at the White House, the technologies were outdated and the processes cumbersome, which meant by picking just a few low hanging fruit I could make a big impact. I felt empowered even though I was young. I revamped a lot of processes, and I helped launch modern tools for engaging constituents. I became an accidental technologist.
What inspired you to join USDS?
While I was leading the tech team at the White House correspondence office, a few of my friends went over to another part of the White House to help start this new thing called the “U.S. Digital Service.” I was captivated from day one. Here was a team setting out to tackle all of the issues I was dealing with, but across the entire government. Very early on, USDS published the Digital Services Playbook, which struck like a lightning bolt of clarity. Here were people who knew how to deliver services in ways that would actually work. I instantly wanted to join, so, a few months after USDS was first formed, I offered to help build out some of their internal tools, which is how I got my foot in the door.
What has been your biggest challenge?
In 2016, I left our internal tools and operations team to join a small team tasked with helping streamline the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. This was at the peak of the refugee crisis. The President had set a high goal of admitting 85,000 refugees that year, though early projections suggested as few as 50,000 might actually make it, based on the program’s current (in)efficiencies.
It was hard work. Systems were antiquated, data was messy, and processes were redundant. At the root of it all, collaboration was a challenge. The program is jointly run by the Departments of State and Homeland Security, with an alphabet soup of other vetting agencies all playing a role as well, and so the program falls victim to Conway’s law: the more siloed and removed each agency was from what the other agencies were doing, the more fractured their systems and interfaces were.
We addressed the organizational issues first, by convening a group we called the “Refugee Coordination Center” (RCC), which brought people together along three axes: Department of State leadership and Department of Homeland Security leadership, subject matter experts and technical experts, senior leaders and “boots on the ground” operators. We met every two weeks, and it was amazing how quickly we could run issues to ground. Using data to guide our priorities, the RCC implemented a series of technical and process improvements, including pipeline metrics, algorithms for optimizing the timing of security checks, and digital tools for approving applications to replace paper-based processes. None of the technical improvements would have happened if the human organizations behind them hadn’t found better ways to communicate and collaborate. In the end, despite the early projections, 85,000 refugees made it safely into the country that year.
How does your work or the work of USDS make an impact?
At the U.S. Digital Service, we only take on work that we believe will make a meaningful impact. In the case of our involvement with the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, tens of thousands more refugees made it to the U.S. who might not have otherwise, and they are now rebuilding their lives in a land of peace. In another engagement, we found ways to improve Health and Human Services systems and processes to decrease the time it takes to safely reunite unaccompanied migrant children with their families. In my current work, we’re helping the Air Force develop technologies to defend our Nation’s satellite infrastructure from cyber attacks. It’s important work. That’s one of the things I love most about USDS. If the work isn’t important, we stop doing it.
What do you want to do after USDS?
I want to create something. It’s hard to match USDS for scale and impact, so the only next move I can think of that will really get me excited is to create. I want to build something from scratch, or work alongside someone I admire to do the same. Maybe that’s building a team within a broader organization, or maybe that’s starting something altogether new. A few months ago I founded a consulting firm with some old colleagues, but that’s just a side gig right now. We’ll see. An old hero of mine, Lowell Bennion, once wrote:
“Make something, do something with your hands, with your imagination, with your mind, with your soul, with your fellow men. Do something in their interest.”
That’s what’s on my mind right now.
What will you miss most about USDS when you leave?
One of the things I will miss most are USDS’ values. It is rare to work for an organization with such clearly articulated values, that are so frequently quoted, that really do shape the way we operate. In fact this was one of the criteria we thought about when first deciding on our values: that they could be quoted in meetings and shape the outcome of a decision by reminding us what we stand for.
“Optimize for results, not optics.” “Find the truth. Tell the truth.” “Go where the work is.”
These are some of my favorites. I’ll take these values with me wherever I go, but in that new place others may not know them. I will miss belonging to a culture where everyone was shaped by values like these.
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.