USDS Alumni Network: Hana Schank
When you join USDS, you become part of a community that extends to life after your tour of duty. In this blog series, we share the stories of USDS Alumni. Find out what they worked on, where they are now, and why you should join us!
Hana Schank (she/her), New America. Previously Travel Team Director, USDS @ Deptartment of Homeland Security. From New York, NY.
What’s your background?
I’ve been in tech for so long that the first projects I did were on CD-ROM. I was part of the team that launched the first CBS News website, and was a part of many other firsts as an Information Architect and User Experience Designer at a bunch of consultancies. Before joining USDS I’d run my own UX and Research consultancy for about 15 years.
What inspired you to join USDS?
When healthcare.gov happened, I thought, I’ve been in this industry so long, I could have told them that was going to happen. So I started looking for a way to bring my skills into government. It happened that my company had gotten a project with NYC 311, and immediately after that we had a few healthcare related clients, and those projects were so much more interesting and fun to work on that it solidified my interest. A colleague of mine told me that Dana Chisnell, who we both knew from the UX world, had joined some government thing. I figured if Dana had done it, it must be legit so I looked around and ended up applying. I was living in Brooklyn with my husband and two small children, and obviously the job was in DC but I thought, well, if I get the job I’ll figure it out. So I did.
What was your biggest challenge during your tour-of-duty?
Probably the hardest thing was that I did not move my family to DC. I thought I would just stay for 6 months and that I could commute back and forth, and sort of looked at it as a motherhood sabbatical. Of course, I ended up staying at USDS for a year and it definitely put a lot of strain on my family. They did move down with me for the summer, which made life easier, but the job was demanding and it would have helped to have my family around to support me.
I wouldn’t trade my USDS experience for the world, because it completely changed my career path and my life.
It was definitely hard and to this day my kids, who are now a teen and a tween, get nervous when I say I’m going to DC.
How did you see your work make an impact?
I think this work takes a long time, so you don’t always get to see the impact of your work. I saw that recently two components with DHS hired or posted jobs for UX people. I think that is a direct result of our being there, being around on projects even if the projects didn’t always unfold in the way we were hoping or recommending, and reminding people at the agency how things should run. Simply exposing people in government to modern design practices and thinking is huge for a lot of agencies. Having someone there championing doing things a different way or looking at problems in a different way can open doors.
Did you feel effective in your short time?
Yes and no. Part of how I ended up in my current role is because I wanted to spend a good chunk of time thinking about that question.
What did I really accomplish? What could I have hoped to accomplish?
I think a lot of the work USDS was involved in back when I was there was just laying the groundwork for future possibilities.
I think it takes a while to realize procurement and hiring are not just boring admin tasks, but central to how everything happens.
USDS needed to go through that process to get to where they are today in those areas. You don’t just show up one day and say, hey you should have some metrics in place, or hey you should talk to some users, and expect agencies that have had a SOP in place for 100 years to go, “oh gee that’s a great idea, we’ll get on that.”
But I think there is more pressure building from the outside world, and more expectations around how government should function, that will help encourage those changes. So when those changes do happen more globally throughout government, it will be in part because USDS has been there on the inside saying the things that people outside of government are now starting to say. I like to think that I was a small part of that. So if I didn’t fix anything big, at least I was part of a large cultural shift that is still ongoing.
What would you tell others who may be interested in shorter tour-of-duty?
Hah — don’t expect to be able to leave!
When my six months were up there was no way I could turn my back on the most interesting, challenging job I’d ever had.
It took me a while just to be able to decipher all the acronyms and get a handle on what I could accomplish. I think if there is a specific program that needs targeted help short tours might be feasible, but there is nothing like going deep into government world.
What advice can you offer those currently serving through civic tech?
Pick your battles. There is no possibility that you will be able to do ALL OF THE THINGS. I have written about this elsewhere, but it is particularly true at USDS. Success may be small. It may be just getting a few lines in an FAQ changed. It may look like getting people from two components who don’t like each other very much into the room for an all day working session. Celebrate those, and adjust your big dreams accordingly.
What have you been doing since USDS?
After USDS I joined a fledgling fellowship program at New America that Vivian Graubard and a few others from USDS were putting together. My plan was to spend a year interviewing people doing USDS-like work at other levels of government, around the country, to better understand what people knew about doing this work effectively. That project morphed into a report on the state of the field, and a series for Fast Company that then got published as a book.
One of the things we learned from that project was also that there wasn’t a go-to publication for people working in civic tech, and that the field was pretty fragmented, so we ended up launching a publication (wearecommons.us), which I have been Managing Editor of for about two years.
I am now the Director of Strategy for Public Interest Technology at New America, and I am coming up on three years of working there. At New America our team is dedicated to growing the field of public interest technology, which it turns out that USDS is a big part of. We work to generate awareness of the basic problem solving principles USDS and others use, hold up examples (because we know this work spreads through exposure), and grow the pipeline of people coming into the field. In addition to managing our monthly publication I oversee a bunch of hands on projects which we run as a way to build awareness of PIT, we continue to provide valuable research to the field, and I also do a lot of writing. I report on success stories at the city and state level to help inspire others in government to follow suit (here’s my piece on blight in mobile and recycling in phoenix , and am currently cowriting a book with my colleague, Tara McGuinness, on public interest technology, to be published next year by Princeton University Press.
How has USDS impacted your career and life after your tour?
USDS changed my life.
I had been working as a UX designer for a long time, since before it was called being a UX designer, and honestly was not finding it to be all that compelling any more in the private sector. I felt like I could do that work with my eyes closed. I’d also had a side career as a writer and journalist, but I never saw how those two careers could be combined into one. So one day I’d be reporting on the growth of board game cafes and the next day I’d be overseeing a portion of the redesign of the New York Stock Exchange website. I also felt like if I had to have one more conversation with a client about not hiding the “unsubscribe” button or why we shouldn’t put 37 things in the navigation I might disintegrate. USDS gave me great stories to tell, a whole new perspective on why those stories were important, and also relit a fire under me when it came to UX. When I started out in the private sector every meeting began with me explaining what UX was, why I was there and why people should care about users. Being in government is a little like going back to that time, but with so very much more at stake. Some days I feel like I have the best job in the world. I get to write, I get to think about design, and I get to work with really sharp, dedicated people on stuff that matters.
USDS also gave me a whole community to be a part of. I’d been running my little company for so long, and was tangentially part of the UX design community, but really lacked having a peer group of committed, motivated people to bounce ideas off of. I am still in touch with a lot of my USDS colleagues — some on a social basis and some on a work basis — and honestly can’t imagine that I once had a life without this kind of community. Before I joined I worried about being the oldest person there and not having anyone I could relate to.
Yes, I was on the older end, but it turns out that smart, passionate people are very relatable, no matter what their age.
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