We get to talk with Maya Benari and Hillary Hartley from 18F all about how writing code for the US Government works - and ways you can get involved with your own tour of coding duty.
CHRIS: Hey, everybody. Time for another ShopTalk Show. It is Episode #209 and the topic this week is going to be the government. We have two amazing guests to talk about what it's like doing, you know, big, important, Web work for the United States government, the biggest, most important organization in this country. It is our country. A pretty big deal, so we'll introduce those guests in just moment.
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But, for now, Mr. Dave, let's kick things off.
MANTRA: JUST BUILD WEBSITES!
DAVE: Hey there, Shop-o-maniacs. You're listening to another episode of the ShopTalk Show. I'm Dave Rupert, and with me is Chris, the President, Coyier.
CHRIS: Oh, what a relevant joke, Dave. I really like that.
DAVE: Topical humor.
CHRIS: As I said at the top of the show, yeah, we're going to be talking a little bit about the United States government and what it's like doing Web work for them. We have two super perfect guests. Let me introduce them.
First, we have Maya Benari. Did I get that right?
MAYA: Yep, that's right. Hello.
CHRIS: Hey, Maya. We met virtually because we're speaking at a conference together coming up soon called Clarity Conf in San Francisco and thus happened to be in the same Slack and got to chatting a little bit in potentially doing this show, right?
MAYA: Yeah, I'm very excited about it.
CHRIS: Yeah. It seems like it's right up your style guide because of some of the work that you've done, which we're going to get into in just a minute. I've had this idea, as I've met some people who work at a related organization to the one you work at called 18F, and the other one is called USDS, I guess, which is another related-ish governmental organization that does Web work for the government. I was like: They make such a compelling pitch when you talk to people who work for these organizations that say, "Come and do work that matters. Come and do work that's a big deal, that helps the world, that helps our country." I was like: We've got to do a ShopTalk Show on this. It's so interesting.
You suggested one of, I believe, the founders of 18F, right, Hillary. Hello, Hillary. Hillary Hartley, right?
HILLARY: Yeah. Hello.
CHRIS: Hello. I have that correct, right? You're the Deputy Executive Director of 18F.
HILLARY: Yep, that's my fancy title.
CHRIS: That's a pretty good one as far as fancy titles go. Can you tell us? Can you give us a little background on what 18F is, what it does, and that type of thing? I'd love to hear that.
HILLARY: Absolutely, yeah. 18F, we actually just had our second anniversary this past Saturday, so we are two years old, and we actually immerged out of the Presidential Innovation Fellowship. The Innovation Fellowship is something that got started in 2012. Todd Park, who was the U.S. CTO at the time, and a few other folks, had this idea of trying to bring technologists into the government for short, sort of "tours of duty" where we'd get technologists to pair with folks inside the government with really cool ideas and really just probably no way to kind of pull them off.
The PIF program, as it has come to be known, we were in the second year in 2013. I was a fellow that year. I had a six-month fellowship inside the GSA, the General Services Administration. During that time, there was sort of a lot of chatter about how to bring people like us into the government more full time, have a permanent team. And so, at the end of our fellowship, we had kind of the backing of the administrator of the GSA and lots of other folks to say, "Let's run with this and let's see what we can do," so there were about eight of us that stuck around after our fellowship to create 18F.
In a nutshell, 18F is a consultancy inside the government for the government, so we are all federal employees. We work at the GSA, the General Services Administration, and we work on sort of high impact projects for other agencies, helping them deliver on their missions. We're a client services organization. We charge our partners an hourly rate.
HILLARY: Yeah, act very similar to a consultancy, but we are inside government.
CHRIS: Oh, that's fascinating. Some of the stuff that you started with is the most fascinating part about it. I think that this concept of, I guess you call them, technologists. We need people that are straight up good at tech to come help the government, and that's what you were doing at the time. And so, maybe we could stick around and do it in a more significant way.
Then you said the "tours of duty." I'm so attracted to that concept, I guess. That's a military term, in a sense, right? It's like: Do you want to help this country? Well, one of the ways, perhaps, that you could do that is to go join the military and protect this country or whatever. Another way you could do that is if you're tech person. Come and help the government solve technological problems, but you don't have to do it just like the military. You don't necessarily have to do it for the rest of your life, right? You can come in and do a "tour of duty."
HILLARY: Yeah, that's exactly right. 18F is hiring semi permanent folks. When I say that, I mean we're full time. But, we actually aren't career civil servants. We're not hired into the civil service. We are hired as what's sort of known as an industry expert, so we all get hired in on these four-year contracts. Your initial contract is--
CHRIS: Right from the beginning, it's set up. It's not like come and then quit when you're bored. It's literally a four-year thing.
HILLARY: Yeah. Well, you don't have to stay four years, but that is the max. Everybody gets hired on these two-year terms, and then you can extend it up to four years. And so, it really is kind of set. We all turn into pumpkins after four years.
CHRIS: When you say max, do you say literally you cannot stay longer than that?
HILLARY: Sort of, yeah. There are sort of weird ways around it. Meaning, we're all in these things called Schedule A's. And so, when you're on a Schedule A, at the end of your four-year term you can do the same job in a different agency or a different job in the same agency.
One of the things that we're really hoping continues, which has continued from the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, is that this is really just a mechanism to get awesome people into the government. Then they continue their tours in other agencies. One of the things 18F is helping do currently is to help get teams set up in other agencies.
CHRIS: Oh, I see. You can move. You could be like, "Oh, I worked on something really interesting at 18F. Maybe I'll go directly to that agency that I was helping."
HILLARY: Exactly, and that's been happening a little bit so far. We've had folks go over to the Treasury to continue projects they've been working on, or to set up a new team called the Commerce Data Corp, which is focused on data, but is set up very similarly to 18F. We're seeing this ecosystem start to spread, and it's pretty exciting.
CHRIS: Maya, what was your experience like? Did you succumb to the idea of a tour of duty or what was your path to 18F, where you are now?
MAYA: Yeah. Well, actually, prior to 18F, I was doing a fellowship with Code for America, which does similar things of utilizing technology in local government, so in city governments. I had finished that up, and actually the founder of Code for America, Jen Pahlka, was serving in the White House during that year to essentially get the U.S. Digital Service Started. And, at that time, 18F had just started up. It looked very interesting and an interesting way to continue the work that I was doing locally, but in a higher level for the U.S. It seemed like a very natural transition to me, and I got to kind of see how 18F started and all the interesting things they were doing, so it was kind of a no-brainer for me.
CHRIS: Wow. You had an interest in doing interesting governmental work before this. 18F wasn't your first run at doing governmental work.
MAYA: Yeah, but it's much different going from local to federal, but we used many of the same. It's very similar. There are a lot of the same issues there that you face in both areas.
CHRIS: Interesting. One of the big things that I think, at least in my circles, that you were known for being a part of is this thing that was very impressive, I think, to a lot of people, the URL being that I guess you guys call it the Playbook, Playbook.cio.gov, which the big title on that page is the U.S. Web Design Standards, essentially a big style guide for governmental websites. Can you tell us about that journey, how you pulled that off, and how it's being used?
MAYA: Sure. In the summer of 2015, a team came together with the mission of trying to improve the user experience of federal websites as a whole. We pitched an idea to the thing that I mentioned before the show called The Great Pitch, which was a way for anybody inside of government to pitch an idea kind of Shark Tank style to improve government technology. It went through, and we had about four months to work on this.
CHRIS: You won Shark Tank for the idea, like there were other ideas.
MAYA: Yeah, exactly. We had a really short time to work on it, just a few months, and it was kind of like this big task to try to fix government websites in such a short time, so we really wanted to start with what was the smallest thing that we can do to show that this was valuable, and so we saw that there was an explosion of UI framework and pattern libraries happening, and we wanted to take the same idea, but apply that to government websites for potentially hundreds of agencies. And so, we came up with the draft U.S. Web Design Standards, which is a toolkit.
Basically it's a visual style guide and user interface components that can be used to just spin up government websites. It's been really, really excited to create and to continue working on. Yeah, we've been really enjoying the results of seeing people actually take it up and use it.
CHRIS: I think I saw it just the other day that the CIA is using it. Isn't it?
MAYA: Not exactly.
CHRIS: Oh, okay. Sorry.
MAYA: I was going to say that was actually an--
DAVE: They redesigned anyway.
MAYA: Yeah. It was an engaged citizen that decided to create a mockery design of CIA.gov, but it's really interesting to see.
HILLARY: He's actually working his way through a few different agencies right now just for the heck of it, and we're going to interview him for our blog.
CHRIS: Oh, wonderful. What has been the postmortem? It's been a little while since this thing has been out, right? Have you been seeing other developers pick it up and run with it, or is it not optional? When this thing is done, can you force it, in a way? It seems like sometimes the success of a style guide is because it's kind of mandatory.
MAYA: Right. Well, it was never going to be mandatory when we set out to do it, so we essentially had sort of the carrot, not the stick, and our goal was to create something that was the best quality and make it really easy to use. That being said, there are some, I would say, conversations happening about what would it look like if this were an actual Web standard, an actual policy in government. We're just kind of starting the conversations around that.
But, in terms of what's happening with the project now, we kind of shifted from this joint effort between 18F and USDS initially and have kind of moved it within 18F, specifically a new initiative called The Federal Front Door, which is also hoping to reimagine how people experience government services as a whole. So, we're kind of shifting into a different area and hoping to explore a lot of other higher level patterns, a lot of higher level issues like what does it mean to trust a website from the government and different issues around that.
CHRIS: Wow. That's big stuff. What does it mean to trust a website?
I'm learning as we go here, too. For some reason I had it in my head that it was maybe like an external agency. You know how some external agencies are like, "We make fitness websites," or, "We're a Drupal customization shop," or whatever. I thought it was maybe an external agency that was like, "You know what we should specialize in? Government." And then it just kind of went from there.
But, that's not the case. The whole thing was kind of created internally to the government for the whole time, but yet it's operated, interestingly, on an hourly thing. When a new organization wants your help, do you have to do a request for proposal? Is it mandatory that you help them? How does the client services world map over to this thing when it's a part of the government?
HILLARY: Yeah, it's all been a big experiment, honestly, but it allows us. Since we are a federal agency doing business with another federal agency, it's pretty easy. We don't have to do RFPs, and we don't really have to do a contract. The government can't contract with itself.
What we do is called an inner agency agreement. Part of that inner agency agreement contains a statement of work. Our statement of work usually isn't kind of a traditional statement of work where there are requirements and all that kind of stuff because we are an agile team. We're trying to discover as we go, do user research. But, it's really more of a statement of objectives: this is our goal, this is what we want to get out of it, and this is what we're going to do to head in that direction.
Plus, we like to bake in a lot of our values into that statement of work. For instance, from the top, we sort of let folks know that we are an open source team. We work in the open. We talk about our projects before they launch. We don't wait to talk about something until launch day. We want to be blogging about it along the way. We're really trying to get the partner agencies to sort of understand what we're about and how we work from the get-go.
CHRIS: Yeah, that's interesting. Another organization might be like, "We really need help with a project." Then you say, "Hey, well, we work super in the open." They're like, "Maybe that's not for us." I'm sure not every organization has the same opinion about that.
HILLARY: Yeah, sometimes it's a little bit of an education process. But, honestly, we really haven't seen much pushback in that direction.
CHRIS: Ooh, that's nice.
HILLARY: Yeah, it is. As government employees, all the work that we do is naturally and legally in the public domain, so it just honestly also just makes sense.
CHRIS: It's funny how well open source maps to government.
HILLARY: Yeah. Yeah, it really does.
CHRIS: I can see it appealing to somebody like an Apple employee or something who is working there now and it's so mandatory for them that they can barely talk about what the did. Maybe they're working on some cool stuff, but they can't talk about it. That may be appealing to possibly leave the Silicon Valley, at least for a little while, and come work for something on a similarly large-scale project, but have the benefit of being able to go out and talk about it and stuff.
Maya, you get invited to talk regularly about this stuff, right?
MAYA: Well, actually, Clarity Conference is my first speaking conference, so I will say that it is the first one I'll be invited to.
CHRIS: Oh, wow! Well, I'm sure it will explode from there. I hope it does. And it's not a problem, right? I'm sure you have some internal permission stuff about what you can do, like most of us have. But, unlike Apple where you absolutely aren't allowed to do that, you are allowed to do that.
MAYA: Yeah, especially because we were open on day one with all of our projects, generally. So, yeah, we have a process to go and talk in the public like any other organization, but it's very doable and encouraged.
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CHRIS: Let's say you've got a brand new project kicking off at 18F. Are the chances high that you'd reach for this style guide because it's going to save you time and be more consistent with other projects and stuff? Is the style guide at that level?
MAYA: Yeah. I'm actually starting on a new project around payroll in the government.
MAYA: I'm definitely hoping to make use of it because it's a really short prototyping project that's just ten weeks. So, I hope I can make use of it as well. We're definitely seeing a lot of people inside 18F starting to use it for various projects, and a lot of them are just using it as a starting point and kind of building off of it.
DAVE: I can't imagine how much time and money this is going to save our government over X number of years. I think everyone has the schema of a government website in our head, and it is just a site that was never designed. It just somehow exited a computer by accident, and there's some degree of accessibility, you'd think, because they are using kind of ugly form elements, but this playbook and all these tools you're building seem like they would be just a huge gift to, I guess, producing websites for the government and also a time saver, a quality booster, all of these things. Is that what your experience kind of is?
MAYA: Yeah. I think so. Aside from building in the open, another thing that's required by law for us is to build accessible websites, and a lot of people have traditionally thought of it as kind of an afterthought, even though it is the law. I think we're also baking in accessibility into actual components itself, as well as providing documentation about if you do modifications, how to make sure that it stays accessible. I would say that that's something that I think people are really, really loving about it and taking up about it.
Yeah, and I've heard from people that, number one, it's been saving them a lot of time, like a coworker said, "Oh, this would have taken me several days to start up, but now it took me just a few hours," so a lot of people are really grateful and excited about it. And then, yeah, also our end users, we get reports back from people using it on prototypes. People have commented that it's much easier to understand, read, and usually people used to have to use glasses and have to squint to read government websites, but they can just read it fine now.
DAVE: I'm curious about this prototyping flow. I guess, because you have this framework, you can kind of build sketches of Web pages and kind of show off prototypes. How does the prototyping flow work for, I guess, the client service aspect of 18F?
MAYA: I'd say every team is different. Some teams, prototyping starts in a design studio and starts in sketches. Sometimes that elevates to sketch, like the program sketch or illustrator, or PhotoShop, whatever a designer feels comfortable with, but other times it can just go from sketches straight into code, into HTML and CSS.
DAVE: I guess, do people respond to the code differently? What has been your experience there?
MAYA: To seeing prototypes in code versus something else?
DAVE: Yeah, like a static image.
MAYA: Yeah. I think there are more expectations. When you have something in code, I think people see it as more of a real thing, so they kind of probably take it more seriously.
HILLARY: We actually have a few folks that have experimented--we wrote a blog post about it about a year ago--with something called ProtoSketching. The idea is that, while sitting in a meeting sort of gathering those initial ideas or actually kind of prototyping something in code so that it's real and so that we can leave the meeting and say, "Is this kind of what we were talking about?" Of course this is not even an MVP, but it's just something to sort of get the gears turning in folks' heads. We really love to show, not tell, when it comes to a lot of that stuff.
MAYA: Yeah. Then, traditionally, I don't know if it's in government or other industries, but there' a lot more talking and a lot less showing. I think we really like to show and then talk about it.
CHRIS: How big is it? Is it hundreds of human beings that work for 18F?
HILLARY: We are now at 178.
CHRIS: That's a number right there.
HILLARY: Well, we just wrote a blog post about it for our anniversary, so yeah.
CHRIS: Oh, did you? Oh, interesting. I didn't check super recently. It's fun. The blog is fun to follow because you have fun with it. I saw, for Valentine's Day, there was some fun, coding related Valentine's cards you put out and stuff. It's a fun blog to read.
Hiring, probably, right? If a new, big job walked through the door, would you staff up, like anywhere else would, to handle it?
HILLARY: Definitely. We have the ability to sort of scale to meet need and hire for specific things. We haven't done that too much regarding specific projects, but we've just kind of been on a steady pace for the last couple of years. But, for instance, right now we're working on a really massive project to sort of rethink identity and authorization management for the federal government.
CHRIS: Wow. Wow, I bet that's huge. Would it be cross-departmental, like if I have logged into an immigration website or something, then I'm logged in when I go to the DMV too?
HILLARY: That is the idea. DMV is state, so we're not sure it would go down to the state level just yet, although it will be open source, and the idea would be that hopefully you could take it and use it. But, yeah, it would be absolutely sort of cross-governmental at the federal level, at least to start. That's sort of what we're working on. We've got a big project going on, so we are actually hiring specifically for that right now.
CHRIS: Nice. Okay. It's big, but it's not huge, right? It's sub 200 still. I'm sure you aren't maybe as much of an expert in this, but I'm sure you know a heck of a lot more about the government than I do. I've talked to people who work for this other organization that seems sort of similar called USDS. The big thing that stuck out to me about the difference is that when you're in USDS, you have to go to D.C. and work in D.C., and that's not the case with 18F, right?
HILLARY: Yeah, that's right. In fact, Maya and I both work out of our San Francisco office. We are a fully distributed team. Our largest team is in D.C., but it's about less than half. It's about 45% of the whole team is in D.C.
Then we have about 35 folks in San Francisco. We have teams in New York, in Chicago, in Portland, and Austin. Then we've got people working from home in, I think we counted, about 30 different cities. So, we are fully distributed.
CHRIS: Yeah, you can work from home. If you're good and you want to do your tour of duty, you can apply to work at 18F and maybe get it and maybe work from your living room.
HILLARY: That's exactly right, yeah. Yeah, USDS, they do move to D.C. They are part of the CIO's office there. They're sort of working, I think, more on the ground with agencies. Again, we have a large number of folks in D.C. that can do that work, which allows us to sort of spread out for the rest of it.
DAVE: I can't shoot a gun. I can't drive an aircraft carrier. I can't drive a space shuttle into space, but I can make Web pages. And so this tour of duty concept, I love my country. It would be great to volunteer my time and energy for it. What are your requirements in hiring? How do you hire people? What do you kind of look for to make the government better?
HILLARY: I'd love to hear Maya talk a little bit about it too. But, at a very basic level, we are looking for folks that are mission driven, so folks that sort of recognize the impact that they can have working at a government scale, and are just sort of in it for the mission. We sort of deliberately screen for that and have long conversations with each candidate about why the heck would they want to come to work for government because we find that if we address that directly, we have fewer people that, at the end of the day, walk up to that first bureaucratic wall and, instead of hitting their head and giving up, they find a way around it.
CHRIS: To filter out Ron Swansons. You don't want some subversive person joining just to slow down the government.
HILLARY: Yeah. Not even really from a subversive level, but just very, very--
CHRIS: I understand. I could be easily frustrated by that. I could see, like, I'm going to go help my government. Then as soon as I run into a little red tape or something, I'd be like, "Oh, I can't believe this doesn't work exactly like the last startup I was at," and quit.
HILLARY: Yeah. We've done a lot to try to make the way we want to work, work inside the government. We're on the cloud. We've built a tool that allows us to deploy pretty fast. We are a continuous delivery organization, so we're pretty good, but we're still government, so things go a little slower sometimes.
HILLARY: But, yeah, we're looking for folks that are really good at what they do and they have a big heart. They want to come help.
CHRIS: What have been the big wins? Do you have any big wins you can share, like some of your best projects that made the biggest difference?
HILLARY: Yeah. I mean I love them all.
DAVE: I love all my projects.
HILLARY: That's right. I was a designer, and so I think there are a couple that stand out to me just from that perspective. One is obviously the design standards. That's having a huge impact.
There are a few things that we've built internally, like I feel like we would have wanted to build this anyway, but we're sort of building things because we want to be an efficient team and then we're turning those out. The design standards is one. Another one is called our Method Cards, which you can find a Methods.18F.gov.
The Method Cards sort of started as an internal project for our design team just wanting to share the best practices: Okay, so how are you doing this type of user research; what are you doing in this situation? And so we sort of collected all of these different methods and then ended up realizing that we had a pretty good set of things to put together, so we made these kind of downloadable, printable cards.
The reason they're kind of cool, especially for government, is because, like the design standards where it's sort of make the easiest thing the best thing, we're trying to put into folks hands a very simple snapshot of what a specific method for user research is and then tell them how it sort of impacts their work inside government or what the implications might be inside government because we do have some restrictions around how we talk to folks and how we gather information. And so, kind of just being clear with if you do this type of research, there's really no reason to worry. And, if you do this type of research where you're collecting the same information from more than ten people, then you're going to run into some issues and you need to think about this. So, the Method Cards are pretty cool.
CHRIS: Oh, I see.
HILLARY: Yeah. Those two things, in terms of kind of like just really dog-fooding things for our team, those are pretty cool.
CHRIS: I saw the other day you released some kind of user archetypes that you use. That seems a little bit related to this, right? We're going to start a new website. We need some help to who are we building this thing for.
MAYA: Yeah, and that was done through our user research process, and we use that directly to create user stories about figuring out what we actually want to work on and what we actually build. We always look back to who we're building for.
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CHRIS: Yeah, wonderful. We'll have links to all of this stuff, of course, in the show notes. I'm looking at the links now, but that's not useful to you listening later. I have to put them in HTML for you to click them.
There was a little ShopTalk Show behind the scenes action here. Before we start a show, we often ask our guests if there's anything that they don't want to talk about. There wasn't a lot in this one, but there was a thing like, oh, I think we can even talk about the Great Pitch now, and I was like, the Great Pitch? What's the Great Pitch? I should have researched a little bit more. What was the Great Pitch? Was it a fundamental, 18F defining moment?
HILLARY: A little bit. 18F has a sister organization called the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. Our larger office is called OCSIT 18F. The leader of that office was essentially trying to find ways to use the money allocated to that office in new ways, to find new ideas, and to figure out if there were things that seemed like they would be good to pursue and good for government ideas. How could we spend some of the money allocated to that office in unique ways?
The design standards were one thing that came out of that process. We built a sort of lightweight Jekyll CMS called Federalist. It's Federalist.18F.gov. That came out of that process.
Essentially, it was sort of like Maya said, sort of a Shark Tank thing. You had to pitch. You had to pitch to a panel of judges, and all the ideas were weighed against one another. Then, based on how much money you were asking for and the top ranks, then each project got a little bit of money allocated to it to sort of put together an MVP to see what might work, a minimum viable product. Yeah, the Great Pitch, now we've iterated it, and now we do it monthly. It's on a much smaller scale, but we're still trying to surface those great ideas from all across our office, and we do that monthly.
CHRIS: That's kind of nice, little mini sprints or allocated time.
CHRIS: Kind of back to the early days or the inception of this 18F thing, you said it was kind of a presidential decree or something. It's kind of part of Obama's legacy.
HILLARY: Yeah. The Presidential Innovation Fellowship absolutely is. It started as an idea, basically. Tom Park, who was the U.S. CTO at the time, Steve VanRoekel, who was the U.S. CIO at the time, and then a few people on their staff helped pull it together. Essentially, if you go to PIF.gov, you can read a little bit about the fellowship.
The idea is just sort of bring amazing technologists into the government to sort of partner with agencies and help them work on really high impact projects that they might not otherwise kind of get a chance to run at for a period of time. It was 18F that spun directly out of that, but the PIF program continues. In fact, this last year, Obama made an executive order so that the PIF program is a permanent part of government, which is really exciting because 18F, its client services, we will always be responsive to the needs of our partners. But, I've said from the beginning that the goal is to really not need to exist. That there are amazing teams of technologists across the government doing what we do.
I kind of think that having a centralized team be responsive to the needs of other agencies is a good thing, and maybe we do need to exist. But, sort of in that utopia, hopefully 18F wouldn't need to exist. But, PIF is kind of interesting because it really acts as this spark. It can be that, you know, I just have a wacky idea, and I have some money that I can put toward it for a short period of time, so let's try it out. The innovation fellowship, I think, will continue to be those sparks that set off cool ideas across the government.
DAVE: I heard Todd Park speak at a Brooklyn Beta maybe four years ago, probably, so pre 18F. He made a really amazing point about how the government is kind of that slow moving ship and they need people who are great technologists to kind of jump in and help. His example was opening up health data. Am I wrong that Todd Park is kind of responsible for the great opening up of government data? That's kind of his charge.
HILLARY: He was definitely one of the folks on the federal level that really made that happen because, before he was the U.S. CTO, he was the CTO at Health and Human Services, and that was a huge part of his platform there was just getting data out. Yeah.
DAVE: Yeah. He made the point that they'd have hack days, host hack days and say, like, here's a bunch of health data. Try to make something cool. People would kind of do these hack day projects.
I can't remember one, but he even made the point, or he kind of tied it up, and it was super sentimental. He was like, "I have to leave right now because my daughter is going to have heart surgery," or something of that nature. It was really intense, just tying up a conversation about how you can help the government by basically upgrading the services and apps that it provides through the open data APIs. And, you can kind of impact things. You can make people's lives better. You can hook people up with kidneys or whatever.
There is lots of opportunity that the government just can't do because it's tied down with, I guess, its bandwidth or it would be the most expensive organism on the planet. I think it's just this idea is neat, and I'm curious to hear more about these fellowships and just what you've seen happen with them or what you kind of envision happening with them.
HILLARY: Yeah, so the fellowship, it's a pretty unique and amazing thing because it does have the presidential moniker, which helps for branding and for marketing. It is a lure, for sure, to essentially get folks into the government for a somewhat short period of time. The fellowships are a year long.
Just in the last few months, the fellows have shipped things like Vote.USA.gov, which then Facebook found out about and made a direct integration with in your Facebook stream.
They just launched something called Apps.gov. Apps.gov used to exist and was shuttered a couple years ago just because it didn't have the right program management, really. But, we have resurrected Apps.gov really now as a marketplace, so it's something that we're trying to build to help emerging companies and emerging ideas, things like Slack. GitHub is probably in there.
We're trying to find these kind of emerging technologies and help them get cleared for use in a more streamlined way because there are sort of lots of things, hoops that you have to jump through in order to use technology as a federal employee. Apps.gov is going to be kind of a proving ground for cloud apps and for collaboration tools and things like that.
MAYA: And also the Opportunity Project, which is Opportunity.Census.gov, just launched, and that, I think, is trying to surface a lot of open data from federal and even I think there are some state and local, so people can access it more easily and start working with the data. I think they even partnered with several people in companies in the private industry to kind of use this data and come up with something useful.
HILLARY: Yeah, that one is also super interesting because, if you just look at the data, for instance like if you bring up a view of the data of grocery stores. What they're trying to build is a tool that could allow folks to build things like Walk Score, that website that shows you. You put in your location and it gives you sort of like what's your neighborhood like in terms of being able to walk to a grocery store or to your school or whatever.
A lot of the data at the Opportunity Project is trying to surface things like that. But, for instance, if you bring up a view of the grocery stores in your area, it might show you lots and lots of dots, but then actually if you were to crowd source some of that information, you'd go talk to people, or you go stand on that street corner, you find out that it's not a grocery store. It's a bodega with barely a banana in it. And so, the Opportunity Project is actually also pairing with community organizations and with community members to make that data even better from a crowd source perspective.
CHRIS: Wow. Yeah, data is only as good as -- I don't know -- as good as it really is.
I'm curious about how, just because it seems so relevant right now, that partisan stuff is such a big deal. For example, my social networks, I don't follow people because of their politics. I don't care, really. It's not something I think about all that often. But, I have large social networks full of people who I've followed because they do interesting things in tech, or we've run into each other and become friends for whatever reason, and tech is such a big part of my life. It's probably a part of that relationship.
My social networks are fevered right now with political stuff, and there's so much stuff about Trump and whatever. Are you worried about that? "Come do a tour of duty," says the government. The people in my Twitter stream, I feel like, are going to be less excited about doing that should the cards fall the way they clearly don't want them to.
HILLARY: Yeah. I'll sort of speak from my perspective, which I've been working with the government for almost 20 years, mostly on the state and local level. Becoming an innovation fellow was the first time I worked with the federal government. Being on the inside, as Maya said, is both challenging and very, very rewarding.
I would simply say that I think no matter where the cards fall in November, there is going to continue to be huge opportunity to make your government better and more efficient. I don't think that that opportunity is going away. Specifically with 18F, we are inside an independent agency, the GSA, and we operate like a business. So, our theory is that as long as we continue to ship, and as long as we continue to have happy customers, that that business will continue.
The genie is out of the bottle in terms of digital government. That's not going anywhere. Unless the next president has their own Healthcare.gov moment, they might not be as invested in it as Obama has been. He has absolutely been an amazing just umbrella and protector. He's given air cover to a lot of different teams to try to get things done.
CHRIS: I've heard, in a sense, that it might be one of his more interesting legacies, as history looks back upon him.
HILLARY: I mean I definitely think so. We were lucky enough to be part of that Fast Company article that came out over the summer, and so it was the one with Obama on the cover. He gave an interview. If you read that interview, some of it reads like maybe it sounds like he was prepped because a lot of it really sounds like it could be any of us giving the interview, but that's him.
He gets it. He has internalized it. He grasps it. He really understands what we're trying to do, and all of that language is his just about being agile, iterative, and all of that stuff. If you reread that article, it's pretty incredible to just sort of realize. Todd gave him some talking points and things like that, but he gets it.
But, to your point about maybe people won't be as excited, I kind of hope that's not the case because even if you don't agree with the person that's sitting in the White House, governing is different and governing is hard. The stuff that we're doing is trying to make government better and more efficient.
CHRIS: Maybe it'll even fuel it, occasionally, if you're like, "Well, I'm going to come. Now they need my help more than anything." Although, you've got to be bummed out if you're like, "Immigration is a big deal to me," like maybe my parents went through it or somebody close to me, "and I want to come to the government, and I want to make the immigration Web experience better." Then all of a sudden something goes through that clearly, in your opinion, makes it worse. That would be a blow, I would think. I guess there's no avoiding that.
HILLARY: Yeah. It's hard to say, but we are still going to be taking immigrants into this country through whatever processes exist, and those processes need to be much better.
CHRIS: Right. Okay. Well, that's a lovely way to put it.
DAVE: Yeah. I was going to say it seems like it could benefit both sides. A more efficient government is always the kind of conservative point of view, like we need a more efficient government, less waste everything. Then from the liberal point of view, just people getting access to services the government provides, like not being obscured in some awful website, would be helpful.
HILLARY: Yeah, you're exactly right. This issue, in general, has, I think, the most bipartisan support of just about anything. 18F takes money from the agencies in a client services manner, but USDS gets money from the President's budget. They are fully appropriated from Congress. They got their entire budget request two different times, which considering the fact that Congress hasn't really given much budget out over the last couple of years, in general, is pretty amazing.
They do have very good bipartisan support. I think, like we were saying, nobody wants to point and be able to say, well, I'm the next "Healthcare.gov." Nobody really wants that.
DAVE: Well, yeah. I know how much it costs from an agency side perspective to design a website, and I know how much I would multiply that number just to work with the government, so it seems like creating things like a design system offsets a lot of costs.
Well, thank you so much. I know you have a time cap. You've got business meetings and government meetings to head to. I think we should probably wrap this up.
Maya and Hillary, thank you so much for coming on the show today. For people who aren't following you and giving you money, how can they do that, and what's one thing you'd like to plug before you go? We'll start with Maya.
MAYA: Number one: You can work with us. You can do this work with us, really important work, at Join.18F.gov. That's one thing to plug. But also, I'm just going to steal this moment because even if you don't want to join the government, all of our work is already open source, so we would love contributions from everybody to just help make our software better. You can do that on GitHub. We are on GitHub and are 18F. Come over there and help us out, and make our CSS and HTML awesome.
CHRIS: GitHub.com/18F: that was the perfect pitch. You, Hillary?
HILLARY: Yeah. I would say our recruiting pitches is always sort of first and foremost, given that we do "time out" after two to four years, so we're going to need a steady stream of folks wanting to join us. But, there is sort of the other side of this, which is to say even if we're 300 or 400 people, we are still just a very, very small team trying to do this work. It's an $80 billion industry to do IT work with the government.
One of the things that has really been in our DNA from the beginning is recognizing that we can't do it alone and that we need the vendor community and all the small businesses to work with us. So, I would just encourage folks listening that either have a small business or have a cool idea or are working on a startup to pay attention to some of the things that we're doing kind of around things like Apps.gov.
We also have a thing called the Agile BPA, which is a blanket purchase agreement, which is just a way to get vendors kind of pre-vetted and collected into a "blanket" that we can then kind of task projects to, to work with us. We've got 17 vendors in that BPA right now. And, over the next several months, we're going to be kind of testing that out, but then doing another round of getting new businesses onto that. So, kind of watch our blog about that.
We're also experimenting around ways to do kind of bug bounties or small feature builds with something we're calling a Micro Purchase because we figured out that we could buy code on a credit card, but the limit there is $3,500. So, we actually run these reverse auctions at MicroPurchase.18F.gov. We run them every couple of weeks where we're looking for discrete feature builds, or we're doing a bug squash or something.
CHRIS: Wow! Let me just get this straight because it's very interesting to me. Let's say there's an open issue sitting on some governmental website. Somebody can come on and say, "I'll fix that one for $2,000." You might be like, "Okay. Do it."
HILLARY: Yeah. We pick them out, and we put these auctions out specifically, but everything else is open source. You can just fix those. But, yeah, for these it starts at $3,500, and it starts bidding down from there. It's very exciting and it's really cool.
CHRIS: Oh, like I'll do that, but I'll do it cheaper.
HILLARY: Yeah, exactly.
CHRIS: Really? This is fascinating.
CHRIS: Oh, that's wild. I see there's like: Set up Docker Compose for a Tock Django app, and the winning bid was $400 for that one.
CHRIS: Wow. Wow. Set up Docker Compose for a micro purchase Rails app. The winner for that got $3,199.
HILLARY: Wow. Yeah.
CHRIS: This is awesome.
DAVE: Hopefully it was the same person because it was like the same job.
HILLARY: We're running a bunch of experiments just to try to get more people into the ecosystem of doing business with government. I think that's the last word I would put out there is, even if you don't feel like you can join us, there are lots of ways to actually join the movement.
DAVE: Great. Thank you very much, and thanks for coming on the show. We really appreciate it. It's always good to know what's going on in our country, our great country that Chris and I share that most ShopTalk listeners maybe don't share. But, you should get this going in your country, wherever you live.
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You're going to be writing code that is very cutting edge kind of good stuff, working with React, Redux, Webpack, Gulp, NPM, and writing in ES6, transpiling it, and writing unit tests and stuff, working with Node and SVG. It says this is an ideal job. If you are the ideal candidate, click the link in our show notes to go check this out. Again, that's at Ticket Arena in Leads in the U.K. It kind of sounds pretty dream jobby.
DAVE: It sounds good. Thanks, everybody. Chris, do you got anything else you want to add there?