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From Silicon Valley to GovTech: How a Data Scientist Turned Their Passion for Helping People Into a Career in Public Service

Dahianna Salazar Foreman

October 25, 2021

  • Data Science and Analytics
  • Health
  • CMS

This post was originally published on the blog.

When thinking about a career in government, not many people envision themselves working in tech, but you’ll be surprised at how many opportunities are available for technologists to make an impact in public service. I talked to Avena Cheng, a data scientist at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), about her journey in government tech and her impactful work at CMS. She works in the Office of Enterprise Data and Analytics, and specifically the Information Products and Analytics Group.

What was your path to a career in government tech? What made you consider public service in the first place?

Photo of Avena Cheng

I had known for a while that I wanted to work on something meaningful and impactful, and that public service is one way to do that. This was motivated by the fact that I lived in Silicon Valley long enough to see a lot of people with a ton of technical talent chasing after money and prestige in the private sector and big name companies, and not really thinking about the ethical implications of the work they do.

I knew that I wanted to try my best to work in a place where the mission was to improve the lives of the people in our society. I found an opportunity to do this through Coding it Forward. I became a Civic Digital Fellow at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I was able to meet a lot of people like myself who were passionate about public service, and we all got to meet leaders in this space who were driving that change in the government. That fellowship really motivated me to continue seeking opportunities in this space, and I was fortunate enough to find one at CMS.

I say fortunate because around the time that I started applying for jobs, the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) was piloting a new hiring process with CMS to make it easier for technologists to apply for government positions; you didn’t have to submit a lengthy resume or wait several months to get a response. It was a very smooth and transparent application and interviewing process that was respectful of your time—and I’m glad I was able to apply when I did because had they not done that, I’m not sure I’d be able to go through the traditional process and end up where I am today.

Can you tell us a bit about a project or two that you are currently working on?

I’m currently working on a few different projects at the moment. I coordinate between stakeholders each week and update parts of the new website. I’m working on making processes faster and more efficient. For example, we have a lot of scripts that were written in SAS that take hours to complete, and I’m translating them into Python and SQL, and using spark and databricks to decrease that time from 10-12 hours to 10-20 minutes.

In addition, every month I create a COVID-19 scorecard that summarizes the cases and hospitalizations broken down by various geographic and demographic variables. I’ve automated this process to make it easier to publish each month. I also present this to leadership and give them the key takeaways on how COVID-19 has affected the Medicare and Medicaid population.

What’s the work culture at CMS?

I’d say the culture is very collaborative; people are open-minded and have a growth mindset which makes it easier for us to improve our products and workflows. For example, I work with a fellow data scientist in my office who came to CMS around the same time as me, and we’ve worked on several projects together since. Oftentimes, we’ll hop on a Zoom call and just work together, even if we’re doing different things. It makes it easier for us to ask questions and support each other especially since we’re all working from home.

We also organized a data science office hours a few months ago just for our office, which quickly expanded to the rest of CMS. It’s become a place where people can come and learn about new tools and techniques. We have presentations and workshops on technical topics like Python, SQL, databricks, and machine learning algorithms, but we also have discussions dedicated to how we can create change at CMS in terms of breaking down silos within CMS. It’s great to see people from other offices calling in and sharing their pain points with the data systems currently in place. We get to see what data people work with and the challenges they face, and document them to bring to leadership who may not realize the magnitude of the issues.

We also talk about what we can do at an individual level and in our current offices to create the change that we want to see. I’d say our agency is very focused on making progress every day, whether that’s through a grassroots or agency-wide level.

What do you like about working in the federal government?

There are so many things I like about working at CMS and in the federal government. There’s the people who are always supporting each other and finding ways to make the office environment more enjoyable.

They’re very open-minded people who are accepting of change and are eager to learn about new tools and technology. I have wonderful managers who will defend us and help us navigate bureaucratic processes whenever we want to try something new or different. They really encourage us to grow and attend learning sessions and training, and they find opportunities for us as well. They’re very communicative and make sure that they’re doing the best they can to help us in our work.

I also really appreciate the work-life balance that comes with working in government. It really is a 9-to-5 job, and no one expects you to be up really late at night. I know people in the private sector who work 60-80 hours a week and don’t get paid overtime, and it’s really sad that they get off work and feel exhausted afterwards. We may not have all the perks that private companies have, but we also get to enjoy our life outside of work without repercussions, which is something I care a lot about.

Finally, I really like that our administration has set an agenda to focus more on addressing healthcare disparities. I’m really glad that I came into an agency that cares about expanding access to care and creating equitable healthcare outcomes. I’ve always valued these personally, and it feels great to work at a place that values the same thing.

Having a career as a technologist in government is a rewarding experience! If you’re interested in joining us, check out the U.S. Digital Corps for early-career opportunities (applications open soon!). For more mid-senior technologists, visit Join TTS.

An official website of GSA’s Technology Transformation Services