Mikey Dickerson Reflects on IT Work in Federal Government as Appointment to USDS Ends

As Inauguration Day nears, IT leaders reflect on Obama’s tech legacy as they prepare for their next career moves.

by / January 18, 2017

The U.S. Digital Service’s (USDS) founding Administrator Mikey Dickerson, an Obama administration official with a passion for progress and the drive and know-how to reshape how the 44th presidency related to technology, will join the procession of talent leaving the White House on or by Inauguration Day.

Dickerson’s appointment ends Friday, he said on Medium.com in a post the USDS described on Twitter as a farewell letter. He’ll leave, he said on the website, after 893 days and two hours — having turned in his official cellphone on Tuesday, according to CNN.

Far more significantly, he’ll exit having stood up an agency charged with redesigning the “digital experience” citizens and entrepreneurs have with their government — removing barriers, solving management challenges and originating better ways to deliver federal services, information and benefits.

Under Dickerson, the USDS matured from a half-dozen people working in an unheated White House complex basement to 200 employees attached to a dozen federal agencies including Homeland Security, Defense and Veterans Affairs.

Dickerson, whose casual Silicon Valley garb made him an instant stand-out in formal Washington, D.C., culture, first entered the Beltway in October 2013, having been summoned to resuscitate HealthCare.gov, the government’s health insurance platform following its devastating breakdown.

That experience, the former Google site reliability manager told Government Technology in 2014, meant more than what he returned to in Silicon Valley, and influenced his decision to return to D.C. effective Aug. 11, 2014, to head what would become the USDS.

“What convinced me to change and come to the public sector — at least for a little while here — [was] just the potential to affect people’s lives in a much more profound way than what I had been doing in the past,” Dickerson told Government Technology in October 2014.

His work attracted the former lead developer on Google Chrome, Amazon’s third-hired engineer and Twitter’s former operations director to the USDS, which began within the Office of the Federal CIO.

Among their accomplishments, Dickerson, honored as one of Government Technology's Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers of 2016, and the USDS have:

  • Modernized the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration system, launching myUCIS in February 2015 to help applicants and representatives better navigate the process.
  • Streamlined processing of Veterans Administration disability claims, developing Caseflow, a new system to track and process paperless appeals.
  • Stood up a website for the Veterans Employment Center in three months, delivering it a year early, doing away with the need for three separate IT systems and saving $14 million in procurement costs.
  • Improved the visa processing system at the Department of State by bettering the Consolidated Consular Database, which many visa processing applications depend on.
  • Launched “Hack the Pentagon” at the Department of Defense, a program that placed a bounty on finding bugs — a private-sector best practice that resolved 138 vulnerabilities and saved nearly $1 million.

Dickerson, whose business card apparently carried the words “Don’t Panic” in serif type, hasn’t said where he’ll land. As he made clear in the Medium post, his job was rarely fun — his actual words — but his zeal for making a difference seems to have survived unscathed.

He offered a quote from Apple founder Steve Jobs that he said captured his feelings: “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it. …Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

And Dickerson offered a challenge not unlike the one issued by Obama, who called on Americans in his farewell address to get involved and do more, whether organizing or running for office or just talking to people with different opinions.

“Find something that needs your skills,” he wrote on Medium. “Don’t wait to be asked. Building a tradition of public service in the tech industry starts with you.”

Asked by Government Technology in 2014 where he hoped his agency would be in three to five years, Dickerson said taking a lower profile might not be a bad thing if USDS achieved its goals. "But, with one exception to that, I hope that we remain a strong brand name of our own, as in we become an organization that the country’s top technical talent wants to work for and they continue to seek out because we’ll still have a role for them,” he said. “That need is not going to go away.”

Numerous federal tech leaders are preparing for their next career move as the Obama administration comes to an end — and they took to Twitter to share their thoughts: