So many government electronic devices. And a few books.

My first couple months as a Presidential Innovation Fellow

As 2020, both the most and least eventful year of my life is coming to a close, I’ve been reflecting on some of the year’s decisions.

I’ve been working in Silicon Valley for the past five years and it has been a whirlwind. The caliber of the people I’ve had the opportunity to work with and the tech I’ve had the opportunity to help build have made these years memorable. I’ve spent my career working with awesome people to develop products that enhance individual professional growth across the world (LinkedIn) and make ancestry and health learnings from the human genome accessible to everyone (23andMe).

But 2020 has been quite a year.

The worst U.S. pandemic of my lifetime hit. All of a sudden my city life ground to a halt in March. All of the hours I spent commuting and exploring city culture had suddenly freed up. I was just bored in a time when so many were, and still are, suffering. I shifted to spending my weekends working on personal projects, such as this and this, but still felt that something was missing. I wanted to do more.

I’d known about the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program for a number of years and it has always seemed like an awesome opportunity to work to drive technology innovation within and across government agencies. This program works to get highly motivated folks into government for a time-limited tour duty and, most importantly, helps them gather the resources to drive innovation and positive change. Generally speaking, technology jobs in government are not seen as desirable. The pay is lower to work in a bureaucratic and typically slow moving environment where it is difficult to advance. PIF takes folks from outside of government and places them 80% of the time at a specific agency and 20% of time driving projects with other PIFs across agencies. A key component is that PIFs have visibility and access to people and projects in many agencies across the government.

The agency I’m detailed to is Veteran’s Affairs where I joined the Office of the CTO — a small group at the central office working to improve technology services at the VA. I’m rounding out my second month with the program and I’ve mostly focused on Covid-19 clinical trial recruitment. Multiple VA sites are part of Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials and the VA needed new and faster methods of recruitment for these trials. Clinical trial recruitment has always been a challenge and usually involves reaching out to people while they are at a doctor’s office. During the pandemic there have been far fewer people going into clinics, so we needed new ways to recruit people very quickly. I’ve been incredibly impressed at the speed in which folks on the team set this up. I’ve seen a lot of overbearing bureaucracy in the past couple of months, but this is one example of a small group of people coming together to quickly and successfully accomplish something of real value in government.

I’ve missed Silicon Valley, but have appreciated the opportunity to have a more direct impact on pandemic response. Also, who knew government would be a crash course in using dozens of communication technologies at once? I now use 3 computers, 2 phones, 2 virtual desktops, Slack, Microsoft Teams/Powerpoint/Excel, Gmail, Outlook, Github, Mural, Google Meet/Docs/Drive, Zoom, Sharepoint, AWS and Azure all to communicate on a daily basis due to various policies and contracting.

I’m still learning how I can best make an impact in government and it has been a memorable experience thus far.