Innovation and Impact: U.S. Digital Service through the Lens of Women Technologists | Pooja Shaw

Innovation and Impact: U.S. Digital Service through the Lens of Women Technologists | Pooja Shaw

Written by Women Who Code

Career Navigationtech leadership

In this monthly blog series, Innovation and Impact: U.S. Digital Service through the Lens of Women Technologists, we spotlight some phenomenal women technologists at the forefront of transforming the U.S. Digital Services (USDS) — the government’s digital agency for technology and innovation. They share their expertise, leadership insight, and impact on shaping the nation’s digital landscape, representing diverse software engineers, data scientists, product managers, and UX designers who drive innovation within the U.S. government.

Each blog delves into their unique journeys, career paths, challenges faced, and pivotal projects they’ve undertaken, sharing insights into the dynamic intersection of technology and public service. 

Pooja Shaw is the Senior Advisor for Delivery at the White House. She has led cross-functional delivery teams at the intersection of policy priorities and agency implementation, including programs focused on students, families, and immigrants. Prior to joining the federal government in 2021, Pooja spent ~10 years in the health technology industry, most recently as a Director of Product Management at Flatiron Health. She holds a B.S. from Columbia University and an MBA from Wharton Business School.

Can you tell us more about your career journey and what led you to your current role as Senior Advisor for Delivery at the White House?

Early in my career, I did a crash course in the (very different) worlds of non-profits and management consulting and then found myself at business school. After earning my MBA, I had a general goal: to use “tech for good” to support underserved populations and move into the health technology industry. Fast forward to late 2020, between the pandemic and the change in the presidential administration, I was interested in exploring public service. I was fortunate to get an intro through a friend to a U.S. Digital Service alumna (shout out to Marina Nitze if you’re reading this!) who explained this whole world of civic technology to me. It immediately clicked that this work is the best way to deliver on my ambitions to use “tech for good.” My mind was kind of blown that there was this whole world that, somehow, I had not known about until then. 

With your background in the health technology industry for about a decade before joining the federal government. How has your private sector experience helped inform the day-to-day work in your current role?

A lot of people talk about the difference between the private and public sectors. My experience is that while government work can come with more barriers to getting things done, which you could argue is true in any large bureaucracy, regardless of sector, my day-to-day work and skillsets are similar. As a product management leader in the private sector, I developed a strategy that met the leadership’s business goals and user needs and worked with a team to execute that strategy. In my current role, my job is to work with policymakers and agency partners to develop a product strategy that meets the policy goal and the needs of the American public while working with teams to execute that strategy. My job in government and before the government is often to be the glue and force function across teams and interests to find the path to move work forward. 

What aspects of your work do you find most fulfilling in terms of your interest in using tech for good?

While it’s cliché, it is very true for me that the best thing about my job is the people I get to work with, both the White House teams and agencies. I am always mindful that so many of my agency partners have dedicated their careers to public service. They’ve dedicated themselves to delivering products and services to the American public, and it’s a privilege to do what I can to move that work forward with them. 

Secondly, I am always curious about how things work at an organizational level, and I entered civil service to get a broad view of how our government works. I’ve been fortunate to work on programs ranging from student debt to child care to criminal justice, and every single day, I learn something new, which is important to me in any job I have.

Could you explain the concept of a feedback loop between policymakers and delivery/implementation teams in government and how do you see this evolving?

Sometimes, in government, there isn’t always a fast feedback loop between the policy and delivery teams, creating a potential disconnect in that the end result of a program or website may not meet the original goal.

Technologists are familiar with usability testing and user-centered design. When that feedback loop is not there, the delivery team may learn something in usability testing that they feel they need to be empowered to change because the policy team specified it. When the feedback loop works well, a delivery team can bring that feedback to the policymakers and agency leadership and say, “Hey, we should do something differently than you originally had in mind because of what we heard from users.” Slowly but surely, we see more policymakers and agency leaders understand that this feedback loop is critical to moving in the right direction.

What do you believe are the key challenges or obstacles that prevent more technologists from pursuing careers in government, and what advice would you offer to those considering such a transition?

There are the obvious ones, like the idea that you may get lower compensation or experience confusing hiring processes. I often wonder whether many technologists who might be interested are just not aware that this is an option, a thought I had prior to joining. Despite a lot of online research and discussions with my circle of friends and family (who mostly worked in the private sector), I didn’t know that the government had roles like ours at USDS. It’s very much an option!

My advice to people who are considering it but aren’t sure is to go ahead and apply. There is truly no downside, and you may learn more about whether it is a good fit for you. 

I will also shout out civic technologist Rebecca Heywood’s #publicsectorjobboard as an excellent resource, updated weekly with government tech and innovation jobs at both the federal and local levels. If you’re looking for more information about joining USDS, check out the Hiring FAQs and sign up for a USAJOBs account to see all of the federal jobs available.

What would you say about your leadership style as a product manager?

I focus on ensuring that teams have the information they need to be successful and that senior leadership — which in the context of my current role means White House leadership and federal agency leaders — understands the value of the work so they can support you or unblock doors for you when needed. So often, work will stall or not go as planned because teams aren’t communicating well with each other, they don’t understand what the other party is expecting, or leadership doesn’t understand their challenges. I lead by greasing those wheels and communication channels so that teams can move forward. 

What are you passionate about outside of work?

I have two young children, so I’m most passionate about them. I was never big on arts and crafts, but my kids are obsessed. So, I’ve really had to up my game and find my inner creative, and I recently rediscovered Bob Ross to get some pro tips.  

What pro-tip do you have for diverse women technologists who may be interested in bridging the gap between technology and policy by working in the government?

Never hesitate to reach out to contacts — warm or cold — to ask for advice! The majority may not respond, but you never know who will. I always found the term ‘networking’ a little intimidating and imagined awkward mixers. Once I thought of it as a means to an end, reaching out to people to get advice felt much more manageable, especially in government technology. Given that the mission is both to do the work and spread the gospel about the importance of this work, I’ve broadly found people to be very receptive to talking about their experience.