Lessons learned at USDS

by alex_gaynor

From 2015 to 2017 I worked for the United States Digital Service, a team within the US Government, created after the launch failure of healthcare.gov, dedicated to improving the government's ability to use technology. I learned about a lot of different things there: bureaucracy and PowerBuilder, organizational transformation and Classic ASP, to name a few. However this post will instead be about two meta-lessons I learned from my time at USDS.

The first lesson is that we live in a world of our own creation. For most people, certainly for myself pre-USDS, the federal government can seem large, abstract, and the people in charge of it distant. Even state and local government don't feel very accessible. It's easy to start to think that cabinet secretaries, congresspeople, and other folks in government are aliens. The truth of the matter is that most of them are normal people like you, except instead of deciding that they wanted to design and engineer products and infrastructure, they decided they wanted to run a VA office that processes disability claims or study and implement national healthcare policy.

I say that we live in a world of our creation because I've seen that if you want to have an impact on how things function at the national level (or any other level for that matter), you have to start by deciding that that's what you want to do with your time. Which is not to say it's easy, or that you always accomplish what you set out to, but my time at USDS taught me that you have to decide to try, because it is absolutely possible for a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens to change the world.

The second lesson is that there are things in life worth burning out for. For as long as I can remember, I've taken it as an article of faith that burnout was bad, and to be avoided at all costs. Avoid working too many hours, avoid taking on too many commitments, avoid excessive stressors. During my time with USDS, projects I worked on resulted in thousands of veterans getting their disability benefit claims processed significantly more quickly, 30,000 additional refugees being admitted to the United States, and hundreds of thousands of veterans being able to apply for health care online. I had teammates who worked on helping student loan borrowers avoid default, helping the immigration system scale to be able to serve more people, and helping millions purchase health insurance for the first time. Accomplishing all of these goals required doing precisely the things that lead to burnout. And it was worth it, I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Studiously avoiding stressors is a great strategy for avoiding failure cases like burnout, but it also precludes certain successes. Maybe somewhere it's possible to do as much good as we were able to, without needing to tempt burnout, but in the environment USDS operated in I don't think it was possible to accomplish what we did without pushing ourselves and accepting the extra stress. And we were fortunate to have successes to show for it, hardly a guarantee; I imagine I'd have a much dimmer view of my time if we hadn't been able to help veterans, refugees, and many others. My experience at USDS helped me understand that there are things you can accomplish for others that are worth some risk to yourself, and the inverse, that some tasks simply aren't meaningful enough to take any abuse for them.


Hi, I'm Alex. I'm a software engineer at Mozilla, working on Firefox security. Before that I was a software engineer with the U.S. Digital Service. I'm an avid open source contributor and live in Washington, DC.