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Navigating the civic tech terrain: Lessons, reflections, and parting words from 10 U.S. Digital Corps graduates

June 21, 2024

  • GSA

In June 2022, 38 early-career technologists joined the inaugural cohort of U.S. Digital Corps Fellows. In the last two years, they’ve contributed to high-impact efforts across more than 15 agencies in the federal government while developing professional skills and growing a supportive community of peers. As this first cohort prepares for graduation this month, they reflected on their experiences as USDC Fellows.

Jillian Gilburne, Design Fellow

I think what has surprised me the most is the sheer diversity of work being done across the federal government, even for Fellows within the same track. Designers in this cohort have been tasked with everything from launching websites to managing innovation challenges to wrangling legacy systems to doing research that drives product strategy. It has been incredible to see such varied opportunities for designers to contribute across the federal government. Of course it hasn’t been easy—oftentimes design education and the complexities of implementing design in the real world are not in sync, and the past two years have required a lot of adjustment and pausing to look around and understand the context of my team, my agency, and the systems (social and economic factors) that impact children and families in this country. It has required using the full design toolbox to tackle problems as micro as what options a dropdown menu should have to as macro as developing culturally competent outcomes for assessing services provided to unaccompanied children arriving in this country. The work I’ve done during this fellowship has been incredibly rewarding and at times endlessly frustrating, but it has left me feeling so hopeful about the impact that user-centered thinkers have made and will continue to make in designing government services that work right the first time around.

Kathleen Carroll, Design Fellow

Something that surprised me about my fellowship experience is the speed with which I transformed from a new hire—absorbing all of the information available to me—to leading design projects and initiatives, speaking to public audiences about my projects, and offering guidance about design to offices across HHS. Many people, including people in the U.S. Digital Corps community and my mentor, have empowered me to achieve those milestones. My experience of learning rapidly and leading multiple public-facing initiatives demonstrates the need and opportunity for design work in the federal government. Being the designer in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health at HHS is challenging, but I’ve found my work extremely rewarding. My role allows me to pave the path for future designers and technologists, advance my agency’s technical maturity, and work on impactful projects—all of which align with my initial goals for joining federal service.

Kira Tebbe, Product Management Fellow

My respect for public servants has only deepened since becoming one. It is an enormous undertaking to keep our country running and deliver diverse services, to diverse people, in diverse places. Each time I take on a new project, I learn about a new team, function, or service that keeps things going. Whether it’s how the federal budget is decided, how government documents are printed and secured at scale, or how policymakers ensure the American public has a voice, there are numerous processes happening behind the scenes. Government is almost like a symphony. Public servants each play their respective instruments, and all of the work coalesces into something bigger than itself.

Lacy Kelly Ramos, Design Fellow

During my two years as a Fellow, I encountered several surprises, three of which have left a lasting impression. First, the camaraderie and support among federal practitioners, especially in the customer experience (CX) and civic tech realms, provided a sense of belonging and a shared purpose I didn’t expect would come so quickly. Second, the unexpected encouragement from individuals and teams empowering me to ‘pick up the ball’ and run with an idea was surprising as someone who felt like I had so much to learn. Third, it has been eye-opening to witness how many hard-working, multi-talented people invest their talents daily across the federal government. These often-unseen public servants reflect the country’s diversity, continue to improve its resources, and will likely go unrecognized. My understanding and appreciation for public service have deepened. Although I entered civil service mid-career, these experiences and my time in this fellowship have shaped me in a new way as a professional and practitioner, and I plan to carry it forward.

Anjenica Celine Ramos, Design Fellow

In a way, my USDC experience has been a firsthand proof of concept about how anyone, as you are now, can “move purposefully and fix things” and also why that can be hard. True to the fellowship’s calling, this was my first foray both into civic tech and the workforce, and it’s been an adjustment for everyone involved.

In settings with more experienced peers and varying digital maturity, I’ve been grateful for the warm welcome from my colleagues at USCIS and here at GSA. With much of my learning curve being orienting my bureaucratic compass (and processing the responsibility of life-impacting service delivery), I made each of my perspectives (as a beginner, a Fellow, a designer, etc.) count. I channeled my beginner questions into discovery research, initiated conversations that became coalition-building, and carried over learnings across agencies. In the process, I’ve become attuned to how to do effective work, yes, but I have found the enduring optimism, empathy, and resolve of the people behind it most compelling.

Pierce Lowary, Cybersecurity Fellow

My fellowship experience has afforded me the opportunity of a lifetime to appreciate not only the people we serve as civil servants, but also those we serve alongside. During my time with the Department of State, I have been fortunate to have the chance to travel around the world and collaborate with some of our closest allies. But what has impressed me the most is the dedication, spirit, and ingenuity of those representing America in both our domestic offices and overseas missions. Time and again, I have witnessed our civil servants, contractors, Foreign Service personnel, and Locally Employed Staff rise to the many challenges of modern diplomacy—from establishing Internet connectivity across volcanic mountains to defending against cutting-edge cyber threats. My fellow Fellows, both at the State Department and placements throughout government, have only reinforced this trend, working tirelessly to resettle political prisoners, improve care for children in need, and ensure public services are accessible to everyone. Despite the challenges of our modern era, I am more confident than ever that our nation, her people, and her public servants will continue to rise to the occasion.

Samantha Chai, Design Fellow

I remember feeling intimidated during our first ever in-person meetup, where we spoke to so many federal employees in grand, government buildings. Once the initial scares and excitement settled, it was time to start actual agency work. Being new to the civic technology space, navigating wasn’t easy – from remembering all the acronyms to learning the art of bureaucracy hacking. Fortunately, throughout the fellowship, I never had to navigate these challenges alone. There was always a supportive community of Fellows to rely on. Over time, I’ve come to look forward to every in-person meet up because it meant that we could catch up and reconnect and have even more meaningful knowledge shares – interactions that aren’t the same virtually. As the fellowship draws to a close, I’ll certainly miss everyone.

Samira Sadat, Software Engineering Fellow

What we build is not as important as who we build it for. I’ve learned that as federal employees, we are here to serve everyone, not just a “target audience.” This makes solving technical problems complex, as we need to account for everything in our product designs, including accessibility, diverse backgrounds, and various language offerings. On top of that, we need to balance user needs and compliance with federal laws and regulations. As difficult as this is, it has also made the work incredibly rewarding. As a software engineer, I have been able to see the real impact of the features I have built for users. One of my favorite moments was seeing a user navigate our redesigned site with ease, and compliment our new design. I’ll continue to take a user-centered mindset with me as I move forward in my federal career.

Selyne Singh, Product Management Fellow

I was able to shape the trajectory of my career by ‘picking up the pen,’ which is a phrase that actually represents stewardship. It’s about identifying and taking care of an identified but neglected need. From my experience, ‘picking up the pen’ has intrinsic and extrinsic values. When you ‘pick up the pen,’ you’re able to work on projects that deliver tremendous value, and it gives you the opportunity to influence the direction of your career. I’m really grateful that the federal landscape has opportunities for early-career employees to ‘pick up the pen’ and as I move beyond the U.S. Digital Corps, I’ll continue to look for opportunities that will allow me to make an impact.

Tiffany Feng, Data Science and Analytics Fellow

When initially joining federal service, the robust civic tech community was a pleasant surprise. People are supportive and eager to help one another. There are a plethora of guides and resources for navigating the field that are both general and discipline-specific, which was so helpful for me as someone new.

It is incredibly rewarding being a public servant. Over the past two years, I’ve learned that technology within government comes with unique considerations, since the end result is meant to serve all of the American public. Ensuring the products I work on are accessible, user-friendly, and addresses the needs of the diverse public is paramount. As a member of a data team, one of our major goals is to measure if user needs are being met using data so that targeted action can be taken to improve. Such considerations of user experience and access have been a driving force throughout my time in the fellowship, and I will continue to carry these values with me throughout my career.

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