You’ll Never Be The Same Again

Mikey Dickerson, Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service, says farewell and reflects on the importance of building a tradition of public service in the tech industry.

Three days

When I first came out to Washington D.C., I had agreed to spend three days away from Google to join the team looking at HealthCare.gov. Three days became three weeks became three months, and not soon after, I traded in my Google badge and phone for a PIV card, a Blackberry, and a position with the Federal government. At the time, I had a lot of conversations that went something like this:

“So where are you going?” a friend would ask.

“Washington D.C., to work for the government.”

They’d laugh, then after an awkward silence, they’d reply “Oh, you’re serious? Working where?”

“A place that doesn’t exist yet; a startup at The White House. The President wants to rebuild and redesign the government’s most important digital services.”

From there, the awkward silence got even longer. People who had worked in the government themselves were the most skeptical. “That’s a cute idea, but it’s the Federal government. Do you actually think you’ll be able to get anything done?”

“Honestly. I don’t know. But if we don’t try, we never will.”

And away I went. People made bets about how long it would last.

My early (and still favorite) mantra

From 6 to 200

After 893 days and 2 hours serving President Obama, my appointment as Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service ends on January 20th. I’ll be honest — this has been difficult. I, and so many others, have invested figurative blood, literal sweat, and too many literal tears into this work. The team tends to poke fun at my flat affect and often serious facial expression, which has earned me the nickname “Grumpy Cat.” But when I look back on my time here, I can’t help but pause for a moment and (almost) smile when I think about what we’ve accomplished.

The U.S. Digital Service started as a half a dozen people in an unheated basement in the White House complex, tasked to work on three projects: HealthCare.gov, modernizing immigration, and Veterans’ benefits. We knew we’d need a lot more people to meet our goals, still I wasn’t convinced we could recruit even ten who’d trade the comfort of the tech industry for the complexity of government technology. Fortunately, I was wrong.

Two years later, the team has grown from six people in a basement to 200 folks spread out across a dozen agencies, including Homeland Security, Defense, and Veterans Affairs. Three projects became five, five became ten, and ten quickly turned into dozens. Recently, we published a rundown of our most important work to date, linked below. It’s humbling to see all of this in one spot.

You’ll never be the same again

Earlier in the year, a few of us came across an interview with Steve Jobs where he reflects on finding purpose in life. One part seemed particularly relevant:

“Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it…Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
These videos were inspired by the words of Steve Jobs. We hope they motivate technologists to put their talents towards helping those who need it most.

Nothing better sums up how I feel at the end of my time leading the U.S. Digital Service. I’m often asked what the biggest difference was in my work here versus my previous life as a Google site reliability engineer. My answer is simple: the magnitude of the impact. When I look back on the last two years, I’m astounded by how difficult this work has been to do, but those struggles pale in comparison to the positive impact the team has made on the lives of millions of Americans.

Today, my friends’ questions have narrowed to one:

“What comes next, Mikey?”

Unfortunately, this margin is too small to contain my thoughts on that. What I have today, however, is a charge for anyone with technical talent.

Today, it’s more important than ever that technologists put their skills to work helping those who need it most. You don’t need to move to D.C., you don’t need to do it eight hours a day, and you don’t have to work for the government to make an impact. Find a cause you care about. Find a non-profit in desperate need of engineering help. Find a local organization who needs a designer to improve their donation experience. Find something that needs your skills.

For a vast majority of us, it’s state, city, and local government that truly touches and shapes our lives. They’re also in desperate need for tech expertise to help them better serve more people. There’s endless opportunity to get involved at those levels and grapple with some of the most interesting problems I’ve ever heard. Don’t wait to be asked. Building a tradition of public service in the tech industry starts with you.

It’s a quote we’ve beaten to death over the last two years, but it remains relevant as ever today:

“Decisions are made by those who show up.”

If you have an opinion about the future of our country, if you’re frustrated with the status quo, if you don’t like the future you currently imagine and you want a better one, it’s time to show up.

Leading the U.S. Digital Service has rarely been fun (see previous reference to my relentlessly cheery disposition), and has always been hard, but today I thank everyone I’ve shared this experience with. It’s been the honor of a lifetime to show up every day and fight for the American people. I look forward to seeing how you continue this fight at such a crucial moment in our history.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Mikey Dickerson

Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service | Aug 11, 2014 — Jan 20, 2017


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