6 months into 18F

An update

Several months ago, I described my intention to leave a happy job in the law and join the emerging government technology office known as 18F. Today, 6 months after starting at 18F, I want to give an update about how it’s going.

tl;dr It’s better than I could have ever imagined.

... our flag was still there

Before I begin, I need to disambiguate two things. One, I am only speaking in my individual capacity. None of the words in this post represent the views of 18F, the General Services Administration, or the United States Government. I did notify folks in my office about the post, but other than constructive criticism, no one influenced or edited the post. Second, although there are lots of conversations on the Internet about joining the United States Digital Service, this post is not about USDS; it’s about 18F.

Ok. So, I’m going to group this post into three categories: the Amazing, the Meh, and the I can’t believe I get to do this everyday. In truth, I often feel all three of these things every single day. But the latter category dominates: I am ridiculously privileged to be part of the organization.

1. The Amazing

The people.

I’ve never been to an internal 18F meeting where someone was less than brilliant. That doesn’t mean every meeting is great–many meetings still stink. But in every… single… meeting… the people are brilliant.

This is sometimes hard to convey, and it’s led to some unfortunate assumptions and branding problems with 18F. It is undeniable, though, that the people at 18F are incredibly accomplished and driven. They’re also pretty fun to hang out with.

Let me give three examples:

  • Ozzy Johnson. According to his bio: “Ozzy has spent the past 18 years in systems administration and engineering for non-profit, private, and public companies, as well as for local government entities.” Let me say this, the bio does not begin to describe the vast knowledge and wisdom that Ozzy brings to bear. He has thoughtful opinions on just about any topic you can imagine. He’s also exceptionally humble and eager to help out. Although he’s soft spoken, there’s a phenomenom on our team slack: when Ozzy is typing, I stop.

  • Jesse Taggert. Jesse comes from Silicon Valley, where she most recently “led a design team at Pivotal Labs.” Jesse is a fearless design thinker who challenges folks (including, cough, me) to think differently about how we approach our problems. She’s capable of digging deeper than just about anyone I know to gain empathy for our customers and to help them identify solutions. To illustrate, Jesse flew across the country from San Francisco to DC and led a room of initially skeptical government employees through an amazing design/dev charette… while fighting through a stomach virus. If there were TV cameras in the workplace, Jesse would have had her Michael Jordan moment.

  • Jay Finch. Jay’s so damn busy amazing clients and bringing out the absolute best in people that he hasn’t even put together a bio. That’s ok. Forbes already did that for us. I also found this little nugget after some googling. This guy –> “While still in college, he worked at the World Bank and in the United States Congress. Goldman Sachs hired him out of college, where he worked as an investment banker helping to grow two new businesses, each with an average of $2.5 billion under management.” Did I mention the fact that, before joining 18F, Jay started his own company and then served as a Senior Advisor at the US Treasury Department? Oh yeah, did I mention that he’s under 30? There’s a reason he’s been so successful, no one can match Jay’s ability to ask difficult questions, internalize the response, and make sure that everyone in the room is aligned.

These are just three examples. There are so many, many more. The people. Full stop.

The awareness of culture.

On my second day of the job, I showed up at our mandatory Tuesday all-hands meeting. There were two things that hit me pretty hard: (1) the fact that we really are a distributed team with offices across the US, and (2) that people felt absolutely comfortable openly challenging leadership on difficult topics, and that the leadership did not view this as hostile, but as constructive.

I’m going to dwell on the second point, but I don’t want to give short shrift to the first. Caveat: I’ve never worked in a professional environment where people did not all work in the same office building, let alone different states. That said, it is a core value to 18F that (for the most part) people can work from where they live. To make this work has required a lot of, well, work. But, it’s a wonderful part of who we are at 18F that we take the time to actually make it a Thing.

Now, on the second point. I don’t know what the question was, or what the answer was. I remember thinking that, in most professional settings, the question could have been characterized as a bit… incautious. And I remember the Executive Director patiently trying to answer the question. But what I really remember was the sense in the room that this was business as usual: we’re peers, we have questions, we expect answers, we command respect, and we treat each other respectfully.

All too often in government (and outside of government, too), we let titles or hierarchy dictate our behavior. Lord knows, I’ve done it. But, at 18F, this is simply not how we do business. We realize that we don’t have all of the answers, but we do have methods of work. Our methods require honest dialogue, introspection, and naming problems. Again, this is not accomplished through fiat. It is the product of significant effort, and continuous improvement.

Another vignette. A few weeks ago, we were in a staff meeting. It was weird; every one could tell that something was off. About 20 minutes into the meeting, an amazing thing happened: the meeting leader (i.e., management) stopped and acknowledged that the meeting was weird, quickly pivoted the meeting to try and unpack why we were off course, and helped keep us generally on track. But what happened after the meeting is the key. There was a continued discussion about what was wrong, and a frank realization that the meetings were no longer productive in their current form. Most incredibly, one of the team members stepped up to lead the staff meetings under a different format. And since that day, he’s been leading the staff meetings. This may not be the stuff of Profiles in Courage, but it is the sort of quotidien iterative process improvement that our leadership embraces and the rest of government could do well to learn from.

2. The Meh

We could stand to be even more aggressively transparent

18F is pretty aggressive about transparency. We have a dashboard. We publish a lot of what we’re doing on twitter and on our blog. Our actual work is published in GitHub from day one by default. We acknowledge our successes and where we feel like we haven’t yet succeeded.

So in the spirit of our aggressive transparency, I still think we can do more. I say this because we still have the instinct to only talk about “wins” or “launches” and we haven’t done enough to describe the processes or the challenges. So much of what makes 18F great are the small, daily, unremarkable practices and experiences that we should be talking about. It’s the water-cooler conversations about testing frameworks and good accessibility practices. It’s the militancy of our Director of Infrastructure on using multi-factor authentication on All The Things. We should be talking more about that.

We also should be more open about the pain points, of which there are many. Because we don’t talk about our challenges in, say, hiring or in procurement, people assume that we have some special exemption from the traditional blockers in government. Believe me, we have our blockers too. Because we don’t talk about the (sometimes self-imposed) friction, and how we get through it, we miss opportunities to help others get through it. And if we can’t get through it, we should talk about that too.

Even more important than talking, though, we could be making more inroads into nurturing a government demoscene. If there were even more spaces for people to share openly about those small things, we’d all be better off. Because the transaction cost associated with a blog post is just too high. And even then, the format is restrictive.

In short, we’re pretty damn transparent but we can do better.

3. The I can’t believe I get to do this everyday

Last week, I had a pretty frank conversation with a colleague that ended with a guess. We guessed that if we were to poll 18Fers, a supermajority would agree that working at 18F is the best job we’ve ever had. For me, it’s definitely true despite the fact that I’ve had some killer jobs before this.

We get to come into work everyday and do high-quality public service for our country. Some of the projects I’ve worked on are projects of national importance, and some are important only to the program office or a small constituency. But on all of them, I have had an opportunity to make a difference and contribute. I have personally helped the government save millions of dollars since joining 18F, and am working on very very boring things that nonetheless matter a great deal. And in each of these endeavours, I have the autonomy to operate, get things done, and work with great people.

We’re building great products, for our country, and consistent with our values. Most of the products to date are not necessarily going save lives or fix systemic social problems. Some of them will. But taken together, the products are proofs of concept: that we can build great things in government.

It’s truly hard to explain in this medium how intensely grateful I am that I get to participate in this little government experiment. It’s even harder to explain how important the work feels. One of my colleagues, Kara DeFrias, wrote:

I’m leaving the private sector to serve my country again. Where I can do the most good for the most people. To infuse design thinking across federal government. To make the digital services the people interact with more usable, and useful. To make it easier for people to connect with their government. To influence experiences that yes, maybe even make the interactions delightful. #AspirationalFTW

It’s #AspirationalFTW indeed. But, like, we’re also kinda actually doing it. And we’ll keep getting better at doing it. It’s breathtaking to consider that, at its core, the result of our little experiment may be turning “historically awful” into “delightful.” That sort of government alchemy, if we can do it repeatedly, in small ways, might just be most damn exciting thing I can think of.

Oh, and did I mention the people?