How do you change mindsets at an organization as slow-moving as the U.S. Government? To start, Courtney Eimerman-Wallace suggests finding common ground and building trust. Courtney was part of one of the first U.S. digital services teams, working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. She was part of multiple projects during her time with the USDS, all aimed at leveraging technology to improve the lives of veterans.
Courtney quickly realized that some things that felt second nature to her ran contrary to other people’s understanding. She cites a situation where she met with a security officer to discuss using GitHub in order to manage the release of new code each day.
“This guy looked at us like our faces were green…’how can you release something every single day?’ Continuous integration was totally new for him.”
These moments were a “reality check in privilege” for Courtney and her team, many of whom grew up with the internet and had previously worked at places like Amazon or Facebook. It felt bizarre to enter an organization not known for its tech savviness. She realized she needed to recalibrate and explain things differently.
Part of this recalibration involved demonstrating the underlying value proposition. She focused her explanations on how a new approach could deliver a better experience for veterans. They all shared the same goal; it was simply a matter of understanding where the other person was coming from in order to reach the goal. She focused on the end result they all wanted to achieve and explained her thinking in terms that others would understand.
This focus on where other people were coming from helped establish common ground, but it also benefited the veterans they aimed to serve. Courtney recalls how valuable it was to learn more about accessibility, the design rules that allow someone with a disability to use your product on the internet. Because accessibility was so important to everyone at the VA, she and her team made accessibility an important part of their work as well:
“We were able to think beyond ourselves. This ended up being better for our team and better for veterans. Plus, I ended up learning a lot about accessibility.”
Courtney shares three projects she’s especially proud of, all of which required her team to seek common ground and bring others along with their thinking. The projects include:
- Improvements to an online patient portal that had been fraught with gender identity issues. Gender data was collected in an imprecise way, triggering errors in the military database and preventing some veterans from accessing their benefits. In this case, her team worked closely with a contractor who had been working on this for years but had struggled to get traction on resolving these bugs. By bringing people along on the journey, they gained buy-in on fixing the issues.
- A system called ID.me on VA.gov that ensured the right people had access to veteran services, (rather than people trying to access services fraudulently.) Courtney and her team had high-level personnel navigate the process themselves, in order to witness firsthand how challenging it was. This underscored the value of showing, rather than telling.
- The discharge navigator: Courtney helped launched this passion project, aiming to help homeless vets. She shares the fact that about 1 in 5 homeless vets were dishonorably discharged, in large part due to PTSD before the disorder was properly diagnosed in our country. Some of these vets also suffered from the ramifications of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. They focused on using digital tools to help these vets get access to the services they needed.
Post-USDS, Courtney is now Director of Product at Color of Change, the largest online racial justice organization in America. They’re building a searchable prosecutor database to help empower people with knowledge about who their local district attorneys are. Because DAs are elected positions, knowledge lets citizens take action if don’t like the way their DAs do business.
Courtney cites a number of factors that allowed her to thrive in these scenarios where differences of opinion abound. Being a gay, black woman in America certainly helped prepare her, as did parents who devoted their time to helping others. Her father is an electrical engineer who gave his time to installing ceiling fans for elderly members of their church. Her mother started a food bank in Colorado, where Courtney helped throughout her childhood. She was also bolstered by a sense of gratitude to be working on behalf of veterans. Her respect for those who have served, as well as for others who have worked for the VA, helped instill a sense of duty to do her best.