USDS is 6! Celebrating Our Anniversary

Highlights from USDSers who served tours 2014–2020.

Over the years USDS has matured and changed as an organization. Our core values remain the same and we’re still committed to building better government services for all Americans.

Mollie was the 5th USDSer and was instrumental in shaping our brand by designing the USDS wings. The USDS mascot, Mollie the Crab, is named after her.

Mollie Ruskin (alum. 2014–2017), Designer, USDS HQ

I joined USDS in its infancy, arguably before it was even born. I was a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the VA in 2013, the year infamously marked by the failure of healthcare.gov. I was part of a cast of characters who spent much of that year working to make the most of this epic stumble — drafting new policies, standing up new products and guidelines, launching pilots, demonstrating all the ways government could learn from this moment to embrace 21st century human-centered service delivery.

In the summer of 2014, my tour at the VA was ending and I was full intention to return home to NYC. But, just as I was wrapping up, it seemed that much of our endeavors throughout the year prior were beginning to take hold. 18F had been up and running for a few months, and now it seemed this thing which once seemed a pipe dream, the U.S. Digital Service, was finally coming to be.

But, I was skeptical. I had come to DC for a more holistic, less technology-focused vision of making government services inclusive, respectful, and human-centered in every touch point; not just the digital ones. In those days, design was a bit of an afterthought, icing atop the government modernization cake, with open data and software reliability taking center stage. I was worried I’d have to struggle to keep the values of design and equity at the fore, that the challenge of the undertaking would outweigh any potential impact.

There were a crew of friends and colleagues encouraging me to stay and help build USDS for just this reason. I recall a dizzying stroll of laps around EEOB with Erie Meyer; I was nervous but Erie was, as always, exhilarated. She reinforced that the things I cared about — making government services designed around real human experiences and building a diverse and inclusive team to do this work — were the very reasons I had to stick around. She’s very persuasive.

I signed on the dotted line and stayed at USDS through January of 2017.

What was USDS like during that time? I mean, listen: it was bananas.

We were building a startup inside of the federal government. The challenges of both of those things bounced off of each other raucously. We had to figure it all out from scratch: how to structure ourselves, how to bridge tech and government culture, how to pick projects, how to get approval for literally everything, how to hire, how to build inclusively and thoughtfully, how to deliver value. And then how to do it all within highly restrictive firewalls, all the standard process trappings of bureaucracy and under the scrutiny of Congress and the American people.

It was high stress but it was also full of possibility. We were trying to do things we really had no idea were possible, having meetings to win over incredibly powerful, incredibly risk averse people, working on super high impact, hugely important projects… all while stuffed into a tiny space, interviewing candidates in literal utility closets and collaborating on values statements in Github markup.

Quiet space for phone calls and interviewing candidates has been hard to come by at USDS HQ from the earliest days.

It may sound glamorous but it was genuinely incredibly hard work. Everything felt urgent and important. Everything was new and untested and on fire. But folks threw themselves at the work with gusto and meaningful things came.

A few moments stand out in my mind as defining highlights of my tour.

I conducted user research in government offices, libraries, community centers, on streets, in parks and in peoples homes across more than 10 states. But hands down the most memorable was usability testing a new background check tool for the FBI at a gun show attended by 60,000 people in Las Vegas.

That gun show in Vegas.

I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor in a corner of the USDS HQ, drinking bubble tea from Teaism, making journey maps, or writing out research plans.

I pitched the idea for what would become the U.S. Web Design System to a panel of government officials by unfurling a giant “quilt” of printed images of dozens government websites.

Pitching USWDS to multi-agency stakeholders.

The USDS office was a dirty mess for the first year and we decided to freshen the place up for our first holiday party in 2014. I quickly doodled the unofficial USDS insignia — the emoji strong arm, computer, and USA flag — on a whiteboard; which I understand is somehow still there to this day. Somehow drawing an emoji feels very representative of a lot of USDS life in those early days. 💪🏽 🖥 🇺🇸

The emoji whiteboard during our FIRST holiday party in 2014.
We still use the emoji whiteboard today!

USDS grew and changed immensely during my time.

I think I was the 5th person on staff and by the time I left, we had hired over 200 people.

It’s hard to convey how much it changed. We were just one small messy crew in the beginning, gradually unfolding into teams at different agencies and eventually fully spinning off into discrete agencies organizations.

I stayed at HQ throughout this, watching as new recruits would arrive with a mix of ambition and feeling overwhelmed. Then, gradually get their sea legs to navigate the complexities of what it takes to do this work. Within a year, there were more names than I could remember and ever more projects and teams standing up. By the time I left, there were people hired and more meaningful work done than we could ever have imagined in the early days.

I finally did make it back to NYC and after some much needed down time, I have launched my own freelance design business. My roots are in movement building and social change work, so I’ve been applying my USDS experience in blue sky research, piloting new initiatives and building teams to tech and design initiatives in advocacy, organizing and philanthropy.

These days I spend most of my time in political tech and mutual aid work, and try to leave space to to making art on the side.

USDS was an incredibly formative experience for my career. I came in on unsure footing, rife with imposter syndrome and insecurity about my lack of technical background.

I learned a grad school amount about tech, but also about people and organizations and institutional change. Truthfully, USDS was incredibly challenging professionally and personally, but it’s where I grew up as a designer, a technologist and a leader.

EmTav with patriotic Grumpy Cat and our hierarchies of tech needs.

Evagelia Emily Tavoulareas (alum. 2015–2017), Product Manager, Digital Service @ VA

I had already been in government since summer 2013, helping VA leadership reimagine how they engage with veterans online. I started right around the same time as Marina Martin, and three Presidential Innovation Fellows (including Ms. Mollie Ruskin). We started collaborating, and from there it’s all a wonderful blur.

I had the privilege of seeing the Digital Service team at VA evolve from an idea to a real thing we could hire for. When the HQ team started in August 2014, I was at the VA Center for Innovation, and helped stand up the VA team that I later joined in January 2015.

As with most start-ups, “roles” were a bit… mmmm… nebulous at the beginning, and evolved over time. Bottom line: I was a PM + bureaucracy hacker, with design sensibilities. While my heart and brain were on the product side, I found much of my time being spent on navigating the agency and building relationships that enabled our work on many levels.

There were several evolutions of the team during this time, and we experienced exponential growth that exceeded many expectations. While we were doing the work, we were also trying to build an effective organization, recruiting, telling our story, and fighting some significant, at times existential, battles.

It was the epitome of building the plane as it flies, and was quite a rollercoaster in many ways. Through it all, while I loved the work and mission, it was the people at USDS that kept me going — that kept me coming back every day.

There are so many highlights of my tour.

If we are talking about memorable, I’d say the time Alex Gaynor built a prototype of a thing during a meeting with VA IT and a contractor. Or every time we had a happy hour at our HQ and Secret Service watched us carrying loads of refreshments inside. Or squatting in Marina’s office during the transition to keep our foothold in the Secretary suite.

There are plenty of ethernet cables in government.

If we are talking about impactful, I’d say the time we showed the Deputy Secretary at the VA the video of a Veteran using the existing VA healthcare application, followed by what became the new VA.gov… when the Veteran said “you people just told me to go f*** myself.”

The DepSec put his head on the table in front of him, then looked up and said, “we have to change this.” And then we did.

Oh, and the DepSec also personally intervened to ensure that Veteran got the care he was seeking, and gave a coin to the case manager in Atlanta that made it happen.

During my time I saw USDS grow in many ways. Of the myriad changes, one I find myself thinking about a lot is the understanding and prioritization of the role design plays solving the problems we took on.

Early days at USDS HQ. Megan Smith, the third US CTO is bottom right.
Shannon with Marine One on The White House South Lawn.

Shannon Sartin (alum. 2016–2019), Executive Director, USDS @ Department of Health and Human Services

I landed on the USDS site after reading the Digital Services Playbook and wanted to learn more about the mysterious organization people were talking about.

At the time I was a contractor working on a proposal for a project that I knew would fail — the worst kind to respond to. I noticed some talk about fixing procurement on the USDS website and in that moment it felt like the clouds opened up and the sun was shining down illuminating this new path for me. The “Join Us” button was calling my name!

I filled out the application but when I went to select my area of expertise, I wasn’t sure where I fit so I filled in, “getting s**t done,” and clicked apply.

When the confirmation page popped up with “Thanks for sending your information to the White House,” I had a moment of panic over my use of a four letter word. Two weeks later someone reached out though, and the rest is history!

Shannon with Procurement Director Traci Walker and the “procuremenati.”

I started at USDS in early 2016 and left at the end of 2019. I think very little compares to USDS in 2016.

There were people who had lived through the entire USDS creation and history around including a lot of strong characters who encouraged internal dialogue about hard things.

USDS was a place that instantly felt like home for me. The whole tour felt like a defining moment to be honest, but two stand out the most.

One is stepping into the Executive Director role for the HHS team. I was laying in bed with a broken ankle debating leaving USDS when I got the phone call encouraging me to apply. Honestly, that moment changed the course of my career, and probably my life!

I took over just as the team was set to deliver one of the most transformational projects at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the Quality Payment Program. We touched everything from policy and procurement to identity and security. Supporting the amazing team through that process was absolutely an honor.

The second defining moment came about a year after we delivered QPP and it was in the form of defining “what’s next” for the team. We had also just launched the Blue Button API with the CMS Administrator. Being in a target-rich environment meant there were many things we could work on and the exciting challenge was determining which high-impact project should come next.

That process isn’t easy. It is a dance of understanding how to deliver the greatest good for the greatest number of people while also acknowledging the constraints that impact our ability to be successful.

At an “onsite offsite” in the Secretary of War room, I pitched the team on a project to modernize the payment systems for Medicare. I got about one sentence out before the team seized the momentum and began pitching each other on the project.

By the end of the meeting it was clear that this huge, risky, unwieldy goal would be the thing that could have huge impact on the agency and the entire American healthcare system.

Inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the “onsite offsite” took place.

That moment is also defining in that it led me to my current role, supporting the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation Center as their CTO driving forward that same goal.

USDS changed a lot in my time there. Two very different administrations, lots of new faces, new projects, new hurdles, new successes. In 2016 there was a lot more secrecy around USDS. Very little press, Haley’s TED talk was one of the few things out there.

Shannon giving an interview for GovernmentCIO Media’s podcast, Govcast.

Now the organization is more publicly known. There are also the obvious changes like staff meetings moving to GSA to accommodate our growing family. Then there are less obvious changes like understanding more of the long term impact of Digital Service teams and adjusting how we work with agencies accordingly.

Kelsey (left) with Annie MacMurray and Andréa Viza at USDS’s 4th anniversary celebration.

Kelsey Hastings (alum. 2017–2019), Digital Marketing and Content Lead, USDS HQ

I first found out about USDS from a friend who was serving a tour of duty at the time. I absolutely decided to apply right away! I felt strongly about the mission and after talking to a few people on different teams, I knew it was a one of a kind opportunity to serve in government.

I was a little hesitant at first about the idea of moving to DC without knowing anyone, but everyone at USDS immediately made me feel welcome and I’m still good friends with some USDSers to this day.

I never thought I’d be in DC longer than my time serving at USDS, but here we are three years later and I love it!

I served at USDS from 2017–2019, and like any startup I’ve worked at we were constantly changing and evolving as an organization. It was always fun to see our headquarters and the front room get more ‘fancy’ over time and watch the nature of our staff meetings grow.

A big change I got to help with was the re-launch of our website usds.gov, of which all kudos go to Ellen Butters and Jared Cunha, along with our models for the homepage image and USDSers who participated in our blog series for the people page.

Kelsey: “My favorite designer of all time, Butters, was always game to do something creative for USDS social media!”

One of the highlights from my tour was tweeting about an avatar named Luke Crab Walker. Totally kidding (although that was a super weird/funny week). I don’t think there was a ‘defining moment’ of my tour — what was most special to me was telling the stories of all the amazing USDSers, including alumni, that joined and made an impact with public servants across the government. We hoped they would inspire others who could relate to their story to take the leap and join….usds.gov/apply 😉

Mollie the Crab wielding the power of the force, as featured in Slate.
David in front of USDS HQ.

David Bao (alum. 2018–2019), Deputy Executive Director, Digital Service @ VA

It was probably around 2016 or 2017 when I found out about civic tech as a whole, in particular when I read a story about how folks from around the country came together to save healthcare.gov.

I learned about USDS and it immediately clicked with me how I could leverage the product management skills I built in Silicon Valley to reach and improve the lives of even more people.

When I had the opportunity to apply, I jumped on it!

My tour of duty ran from 2018 through 2019. I felt like USDS had a fairly solid presence in its various agencies, with enough folks involved in different places to be able to effectively learn from each other in our all hands meetings and within our respective communities of practice as well.

While the products I had worked on in the private sector always had design components worked into them, the projects I worked on at USDS showed just how powerful fully integrated design can be in order to drive the best results for end users.

David Leading a team meeting of the Digital Service team at VA.

Many other organizations look at design as a lower tier priority, but at USDS the combination of visual design, user experience design, and content design being worked into nearly every project was such a joy to be a part of. Now that I am back in the private sector, it’s definitely one of the things that I miss the most, but I’m at least able to now say “when I was in government, we did design in these ways” and be proud of it!

David with VA CTO Charles Worthington, (then) Deputy CTO Alex Loehr, and Chief-of-Staff Lacey Higley.

There were definitely changes over the course of my tour of duty, especially within the VA team itself. To me, these changes were a sign of the agency being willing to adjust parts of their internal policies to properly create and enable “forever homes” for the projects originally owned by the Digital Service. It was definitely a learning experience for the USDS as a whole, as from there I started to notice more and more new projects being started with more clearly defined success criteria and handoff plans.

David with a visiting service dog at VA HQ.
Katherine hosting kudos during a virtual staff meeting from her “urban jungle,” raising the bar on themed kudos readings.

Katherine Nammacher (active since September 2019), Product Manager, USDS @ Department of Homeland Security

I’ve been at USDS for almost a year, and the work and quality of people is great. The community of colleagues is amazing — talented folks willing to grab coffee and answer questions without hesitation. The projects are impactful — from healthcare access to hiring in the federal government to COVID response. Our government partners and their dedication to service inspire me daily in my own work. Every week, staff presentations often leave me humbled by the work done with colleagues and their partners.

Most of my time in the last year focused on the Assessment Generator, a tool to support the asylum process. A couple of my highlights include:

Unveiling new changes of the tool to 250+ asylum officers with our partners and the positive feedback we got! — We worked on the Assessment Generator, which supports asylum officers in the adjudication of case they review. To share new changes to the app, our team and our HQ partners hosted a video call to walk users through the updates. The asylum officers were thrilled about the changes and shared positive feedback in the chat throughout the call. For me, the key thing that made it successful was that we had built the changes with users, not for them. Our team had conducted many hours of usability testing with asylum officers. Because of that collaboration and building with the user, we had built a tool that was intuitive to them and supported their daily work.

Turning a QA session into a friendly competition between teammates — When at work, I try to insert some levity into daily routines to build rapport with colleagues to create community and strong partnerships. One particularly challenging QA session is a great example of that. We had been working on a complex release for over a month and it had a lot of small changes. We were finally at the point to do some QA testing to confirm that we were at a point to release the new features to a pilot. To do this, we had our designers and subject matter expert (a former supervising asylum officer) conduct user-facing quality assurance tests with the app to find any potential issues. Because we had done a big update and the legal requirements around asylum are complex, there were a lot of complex scenarios to test. To make a day of testing become more fun, I introduced the idea of a competition with a prize (baked goods made by me). This changed the mindset of everyone from “finding issues we need to fix” to “finding things I get points for” — and it instantly lifted the spirit of the room. We split into teams, with our single SME on one team, our three designers on the second team, and I was the neutral referee giving out points for issues found throughout the day. Throughout the long day of testing, it became a conversation of potential points with jokes and healthy jesting (even half points were introduced!). The winner of this mini bug-finding competition was our SME — up against the three designers! It was a bonding experience for everyone and was so much fun — while also producing some great results.

Using a salad mix from SF to connect with federal partners — On a regular basis, our team would regularly meet with our federal partners to update them about our app. Before the holidays we talked about the trips we were taking. I used to live in San Francisco, and mentioned how I was excited to eat at Burma Superstar, a Burmese restaurant with a famous tea leaf salad. One of our federal partners and worked for the Asylum and Refugee space and mentioned that she also loved the salad at this restaurant, and that it is the closest she’s ever had to the tea leaf salad served in Thailand near the border. When I was in SF for the holidays, I found that the restaurant started doing a “take it home” mix of their salad, so I bought extra mixes and flew it back to DC with me. In our next meeting, I replicated the salad with the mix and fresh ingredients and served it to folks. There were 7 of us munching this amazing salad together as part of our regular update. It was a great way to break the ice and connect with our partners on a personal level and build community. I really loved this salad moment because we could connect as people and build empathy for one another outside of a work product, supporting that trust you have with colleagues and partners. It is small things that create the bond between people, that build trust. In our work, we are sometimes asking government partners to try new things — and that can feel scary or risky. Having a foundation of trust is essential in building the professional relationship that allows them to try something new with us. So, why not try eating salad together?

I am so excited to be part of USDS at its 6th year — or really a family of colleagues. It’s been amazing to learn from people who have written the last chapter, and work forward with colleagues to define the next chapter.

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 and visit usds.gov/apply.

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The United States Digital Service is a group of technologists from diverse backgrounds working across the federal government to transform critical services for the people.

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United States Digital Service

United States Digital Service

The United States Digital Service is on a mission to deliver better government services to the American people through technology and design.

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