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Holly Allen: Helping engineer a better 18F

Profile photo for Holly Allen.
Holly Allen, Director of Engineering


All throughout the summer, we’ll be profiling members across the 18F team. Holly Allen joined 18F in August 2015 after a lengthy career as a software engineer and manager at Dreamworks Animation and in scientific publishing. She currently leads 18F’s Engineering Chapter, and was previously the product lead for College Scorecard.

Melody Kramer: Tell me about your path to 18F.

Holly Allen: Before 18F, I was the head of the software department at the Public Library of Science (PLOS), which is a scientific publisher. I started at PLOS after spending eight years at Dreamworks Animation. Making movies was an amazing experience, and after many years of that I was looking for more social impact in my work. PLOS was good, because I got to work on interesting problems and learn about scholarly publishing. But when I heard about all of the work happening in civic technology and how people were finding ways to use technology to address big societal problems, I got really inspired.

MK: How did you find out about 18F?

HA: Through my alumni network. Megan Smith, the Chief Technology Officer of the United States, and I went to same college and when she became CTO, a story about that came through the MIT alumni network channels. In the same article, it said that former CTO Todd Park was coming back to Silicon Valley to recruit. I thought to myself “I wonder what kind of recruiting?” because I didn’t know about software engineers in government. It turns out, there are lots of software engineers in government, and I found out about the U.S. Digital Service and 18F through them.

MK: Why did you decide to join?

HA: For a few years I’ve been turning my career towards social impact projects. I’m very motivated to spend my working days actively making the world better in a tangible way. Finding a way to do that with a technology background was tricky before I found civic tech.

Looking at 18F and the projects it was taking on, it really seemed like it would be a way to use my strengths and experience while helping make things better for everyday people.

MK: What have you worked on so far?

HA: The first thing I got to do was be a Product Lead for College Scorecard. I worked with 18F, USDS, and the Department of Education, and it was a great experience. It’s a great example of the kinds of projects that skilled engineers and designers can help with, and I really liked that I got to work on a public-facing project.

After that, I became Director of Engineering, so my role is to make Engineering as diverse, inclusive, welcoming, and exemplary as possible so those engineers can create amazing government services for the American public.

MK: What has been the most impactful project you’ve worked on?

HA: In Engineering, we have functional leads who are each tasked with making Engineering better in a certain way. We have leads focused on back end development, front end development, diversity, operations, and security. Without creating a bunch of top-down rules, they’ve been able to do things like interview engineers on certain projects and get a sense of how things are the same or different across projects, what’s working, and what isn’t. We can then improve how we staff, kick off, or hand back projects so that we all get better in these ways, in a collaborative environment instead of a top-down system.

James Scott, who leads diversity, made an exit interview template to ensure we learn the right things from departing engineers about their experiences at 18F. I recently reused some of those questions in the mid-year performance reviews. By asking every current engineer the same set of questions I was able to create an engineering climate report which showed that overall engineers are satisfied, motivated, and feel they are treated fairly and can raise work issues. He’s also helping with engineering interview guides to make sure we have inclusive questions, and that our success criteria eliminate bias as much as possible. We don’t want interviewers to think “I want to work with this person because they’re like me.” We made success criteria that will assess ability and capability, teamwork and core values.

MK: Are there any anecdotes or stories that you can share about overcoming obstacles on your project.

HA: Like a lot of growing organizations, 18F has just passed Dunbar’s number, which is the limit to the number of people who you can sustain stable relationships with. (In other words, we’re now too big for everyone to know everyone within 18F.) As a result, we’ve had to learn how to communicate as a larger group of people. And so communication of decisions or changes coming or impacts of things continues to be a challenge, but we’re working on processes to continually improve as we grow.

MK: What was most surprising to you about joining 18F and the federal government?

HA: Something that was very pleasantly surprising was that everything I read on the blog and saw on GitHub and read on Twitter turned out to be true. It really is a place to come in and do great work that you’re skillful at and have a tremendous impact. And the caliber of people is incredible.

On a different level, I knew that I would come in and learn about government process but the size, scope, and complexity of that was surprising to me. That sounds naive but there is no end to what you could learn about how government works, and it’s a separate skillset, and I like that I’m learning that that’s a thing. It gives me a better appreciation that we can’t just rush into “fix things.” We have to learn the policies, and we have to create solutions together with our agency partners, as well as the public. It helps me appreciate the depths of that statement.

MK: What would you tell your colleagues from a previous job who were contemplating coming to 18F?

HA: I would say it’s the best job I’ve ever had. The mission is bar-none the most impactful mission you’re ever likely to work on and we have the right people here to move it forward. It’s also going to be really hard like most other things worth doing. And you have amazing supportive people working alongside you.

MK: What do you hope to take with you?

HA: Two answers: This is the most design-centric group I’ve ever worked with. I cannot go back from that. Our ratio of designers and engineers is nearly 1:1 and there are many different kinds of designers. I was used to having a single designer on the product team but not content vs. ux designers vs. ethnography experts vs. visual designers. I’m completely won over to the benefits of a design-driven organization.

The second thing is I don’t think I can go back to working on projects that don’t make immediate, really positive improvements to the lives of my fellow humans.

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