Serving & Returning: Kathy Pham
When USDS was founded in 2014, private sector technologists began taking a one-to-four year breaks from their careers to serve in the federal government to improve critical services. After nearly six and a half years, some USDSers have returned for round two. In this series, we will highlight those “boomerang” USDSers on their experiences serving and returning.
Kathy Pham (she/her), Product @ USDS HQ. Currently Harvard, Mozilla & USDS. First served at USDS from November 2014 to March 2018.
I originally joined USDS in November 2014. It was the first time in my career that I found a place that combined my passions for technology, healthcare, product, and service. Before that, I spent either volunteer time, or side projects on what the companies considered impact — immigration services, K-12 education, equity in tech, food insecurity, and more. My new role allowed me to truly bring so many of my passions in one place and tie them together in ways I had never been able to anywhere else.
In addition to that, I was able to do it with some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. There were Vivian Graubard and Erie Meyer who taught me so much about the intersection of tech, service, and policy; Mollie Ruskin and Dana Chisnell, two of the most talented designers in the world; Traci Walker, the government expert on technology procurement who expanded my knowledge with sessions on “A Day in the Life of a Contract.” Sarah Sullivan, leading operations and skillfully making it possible for USDS to operate day to day. I will never forget my first day of USDS, first day in federal service, sitting in our then sparsely furnished headquarters, listening to these brilliant civic technologists interchange conversations about executive orders, human-centered design, and technology procurement with stories of life in Washington D.C. They were all fiercely devoted to the mission of building a better government. I knew then I had found my new work home.
The very first things I worked on were healthcare interoperability and electronic health record systems at the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs. I was lucky enough to be on a discovery sprint with Mina Hsiang, a product exec, engineer and health expert who deftly navigated tech, health, and government complexities. Within the first weeks of joining, it was clear that it was everyone’s responsibility to build and support all the functions of USDS. I worked with Jennifer Anastasoff, the first Director of People Operations, to build our first hiring system for our new talent team. We also worked to create the first version of our interview process before we were able to hire really talented talent people to continue growing the team’s capacity. I worked on understanding how our team could creatively use GitHub beyond code, for file management and communication, since that was one of the few approved collaboration tools. I started our “Kudos” ritual at every staff meeting, which to date is one of my proudest contributions to USDS. Though my core role was as a product manager and engineer, there was so much team and foundation building to be done and it was everyone’s job to do it.
I left USDS in March 2018 after serving for three and a half years. It was time for me to transition to something new and I had a great opportunity to be a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University and teach a Product Management class at the Harvard Kennedy School. The role would allow me to focus on what I had done over the past 15 years inside of government with civic tech while also thinking through social responsibility and ethics for the private sector tech industry. I always missed USDS and knew that if there was ever an opportunity to come back in some capacity, I would do it. I learned so much at USDS that made me a better engineer and product manager. I also learned by example how to lead with empathy, kindness, and strength. There were so many people with incredible accomplishments who rolled up their sleeves to do anything that was needed leaving hubris at the door. They put work over getting credit (optimize for results not optics, one of our USDS values), and knew that the most important goal was to help build a better government.
In this second tour, I will be serving at USDS in a limited capacity while continuing in my appointments at Harvard and Mozilla.
After leaving USDS, what did you decide to do next? How did your experience at USDS shape that decision?
After leaving USDS, I entered academia, an area I had considered but had not seen in my future until the opportunity with the Harvard Berkman Klein Center to focus on responsible technology. Joining USDS had been a big transition in itself from the private sector. When I studied computer science, I was taught to get a software engineering job in the private sector and didn’t hear enough about the option of working in government. USDS opened my eyes to a bigger role where I could use my skills for the public interest. Harvard also did that, showing me how I could use my skills in academia. I co-founded and lead the Ethical Tech Group at the Berkman Klein center, and created a new class called Product Management and Society focused on building products in the public interest.
I’ve also become a Mozilla Fellow where I run the Responsible Computer Science Challenge that works with 19 colleges and universities to integrate ethics and responsibility in computing curricula. I’ve also co-founded the Fix-the-Internet Incubator. My experiences studying computer sciences and engineering allowed me to build a foundation to work at tech companies. This prepared me to work at USDS which opened my eyes to how much technology can help people which lead to me work at Harvard and Mozilla.
A lot of people join USDS thinking they are taking a break from their career development in some ways, but in reality, when we leave, we are stronger product managers, designers, and engineers.
Part of the work I am able to do at Harvard and Mozilla was because of my rich understanding of technology, society, and community that I honed while at USDS. I learned to be a better product manager and engineer. USDS is a masterclass on technology and service. The ability to think through who we serve and how we do it, along with the complexity of the engineering problems that exist in government, are unlike anything in the private sector. It’s a really different experience and there’s so much to learn while contributing to government. And now I’m back!
What made you decide to come back to USDS?
What really planted the seed at first was my experience with a presidential transition in 2017. Periods of transitions can be chaotic and have many levels of uncertainty. I had recognized that things at USDS had changed since I left in 2018, but I could still use my knowledge of the foundation parts of USDS to support during the transition period. Having had experience working on talent, product management, engineering, and bureaucracy hacking at USDS, while respecting that those practices had evolved over the past two years, led me to the decision to come back.
During the last presidential transition, I remember how important it was to make sure that the organizational pieces of USDS continued. Being able to roll up our sleeves to do all the things to support the organization was so critical. I wanted to come back to do just that, and so far, that has turned out to be true.
How has your experience been rejoining USDS? What has changed and what’s the same?
It has felt like such a warm homecoming. Living during a pandemic where there is a lot of uncertainty and where we can’t see each other in-person, it’s been amazing to come back to a (virtual) environment that’s familiar. Having so many people share excitement that I was on-boarding was not something that I take for granted — it doesn’t happen everywhere. I feel grateful to have the opportunity to come back.
I was reflecting on the early days at USDS where we didn’t have established Communities of Practices (CoP) or as much organizational structure, so was grateful to see that had evolved so that someone like me would have a clear CoP lead to report to and support me to dive into work within the first two weeks. There was a clear assignment and I knew where to find what I needed, and who to ask. The warm welcome and clarity of the work has really been great. It shows the years spent building structure at USDS has really paid off.
Something that has stayed the same that makes me so happy, and something I’m most proud of, is something called Kudos. It was started as a way to recognize other USDSers, allow us to thank each other openly, and have visibility into each other’s work. In a world where it’s hard to track what everyone is working on; Kudos surfaced the great work that others are doing. It was always fun, whimsical, and informative, but the team has taken it to new heights since its inception! It has been a core part of maintaining culture during the pandemic and I was so glad to see how it had evolved. It shows me how much culture matters during difficult times.
It has been a privilege to see how the team has adjusted through three different Administrations. People have had to learn to work differently and be creative to get work done. We’ve always had a challenging environment to work in, navigating the complexities of government, but now the team has an even bigger toolkit to know how to navigate really different types of challenges. It’s been interesting and enlightening to see and learn from others. Everyone is remote and we can no longer stop by our office at Jackson Place in Lafayette Square by the White House to see each other and regroup, but we’ve been able to find other ways to do that.
What are you most excited about for the rest of your tour?
So many things! On a personal level, I am so thrilled to work everyone at USDS again. It’s definitely not a homogeneous group but there is a special sense of deeply shared mission that is unmatched anywhere else. It seeps into how we work and how we treat each other, which is special. The amount of work we have ahead of us is also exciting. The ways USDS is involved helping so many groups where tech wasn’t previously a factor is credited to so many people and groups that have done work to solidify that digital and government should be a part of everything we do.
I also have the great privilege to step into the large shoes of Kat Jurick and Jenn Noinaj to continue the work of the Discovery Sprint Guide. It’s such a feat that they were able to coordinate across so many groups and agencies to create this playbook to share so many lessons learned and examples with the world.
There are so many ways we don’t know how USDS will be called to serve in the future, and it’s such an immense privilege to be a part of it. The other day I was asked to weigh in on funeral homes and ways technology might help play a part in ensuring people can take care of their loved ones with dignity justice, and equality. Having recently lost my father last year, and my mother a few years prior, I have personally experienced the funeral process. Being able to work on something like that, that directly impacts our personal lives and the lives of so many others, is a privilege. That is the case with every project at USDS. We work on technology, services, and initiatives that affect millions, and often our most vulnerable. During my last tour at USDS, I was able to contribute to the Cancer Moonshot, Precision Medicine Initiative, and Electronic Health Records, while my mom was going through cancer treatment in California. USDS is truly the opportunity of a lifetime.
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