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

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

Written by Yvette White

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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 journeys, career paths, challenges faced, and the pivotal projects they’ve undertaken, and share insights into the dynamic intersection of technology and public service. 

Yvette White is a software and data engineer who led technical teams in building platforms to centralize data inputs to reduce data redundancy and improve experimentation for the Data Science community. Currently, she’s an engineer at U.S. Digital Services providing technical expertise to improve government services. 

Can you tell us more about your career journey and non-traditional career pat, including how you arrived at your current USDS role?

As a technologist, I’ve been employed at a non-profit, a start-up, and at established corporations across the real estate, consulting, and financial sectors. However, this is my first time working as a government employee, and it wasn’t until a government talent recruiter told me about available engineering opportunities that I decided to find out more.

Throughout my career, I’ve pursued employment opportunities based on some aspects that appealed to me at the time: the type of technology used, working for a company with a known brand, or trying out multiple roles at a startup. My move into the government was about working in an environment that is mission-focused.

Data wrangling is a complex but crucial aspect of tech. Can you share some challenges or success stories from your experience organizing and sharing data in an enterprise setting?

Seven years ago, I was the engineering lead of a team that created an enterprise service that catalogs all data moving in and around the company and served as the gateway for searching and discovering enterprise data. Imagine working at a company that receives and generates substantial quantities of structured and unstructured data daily and the only way to locate any information is to rely on someone else’s prior knowledge of its existence and whereabouts! While this sounds unmanageable and inefficient, it represents the data landscape for most enterprises. Our catalog service was an essential data discovery tool that eliminated word-of-mouth resourcing, so engineers, data analysts, data scientists, and risk management teams could find relevant data.

However, one challenge we faced was building trust around the data. If the data was processed, data consumers wanted to know where it came from and how it was created. Otherwise, they would be wary of it and set out to recreate a version that they trusted. As a result, our product and engineering teams embarked on generating lineage for all data to provide processing transparency.

Given your expertise in data engineering and backend, how do you see the evolution of these technical skills in the next 5-10 years? And for young engineers looking to specialize in these areas, what advice would you offer?

My advice is to be open to learning. Technology has a history of evolving, and your skills and career will do the same. 

I consider backend work to be foundational. It’s the services used to process social media or shopping sites, run apps, handle claims, provision services on cloud platforms, and so much more. Languages, data stores, and architectural approaches all evolve. Yet, understanding programming principles, systems design, database systems, and CI/CD, for example, are essential to backend work and are transferable to other technical disciplines.

Data engineering is an area that came into popularity in the past 10 years as the amount of data generated and collected exploded. I’m sure it’s an area that will evolve in the next five to10 years. Since data engineering focuses on gathering and transforming large quantities of data for downstream purposes, it’s important to have a strong understanding of data formats and data storage systems, as well as understand techniques for analyzing data and gathering insights to make informed decisions.

Realize that if you start in one technical discipline, you can always move into another. You don’t have to be locked into one area of expertise forever.

Tell us about your experience with being in management versus an individual contributor. Can you share the most fulfilling aspects of each and the challenges you’ve faced while transitioning between them?

Throughout my career, I often feel the push and pull of serving as an individual contributor and as a manager. As an individual contributor, the point is to focus on the technology. I enjoy creating a service, pipeline, notebook, platform, or data store and then building it into existence. I relish the back and forth when discussing designs with my engineering teammates. There’s even a flood of joy when all the seemingly meaningless tasks and tangents lead to figuring out a problem. 

As a manager, I am removed from full-time creating. However, it’s thrilling to be able to shape the direction of a project and work with various stakeholders from across different departments. In addition, I enjoy the interactions with my direct reports; they have expanded my knowledge and compassion. Finally, I feel honored to have the opportunity to help elevate my direct reports by understanding their career goals and interests and working with them to achieve it. Each of these roles are rewarding. The biggest challenge of transitioning between them is feeling somewhat rusty in the role for a few months. Ultimately, when I feel a twinge of desire to do the other role, I seek it out.

How do you envision the role of women, specifically women of color in tech?

I was fortunate to have my first experience in tech, where half of the software engineering team members were women. On subsequent teams, there were always women engineers; however, men made up the bulk of the engineering staff and their opinions drove the discussions. In my more recent work environments, I’ve noticed that team members are more supportive of giving space and consideration to all team members, regardless of gender or experience. This is a big shift.

What hasn’t shifted much is that I am often the sole Black engineer on the team. In a trusting environment, diversity can push creative thinking by tapping into additional perspectives. Increasing the population of underrepresented groups also helps improve feelings of belonging as well as retention. Being the only person of a demographic may be fine for some people but can be incredibly isolating for others. Also, working in a diverse environment allows us to build relationships outside of our own demographic. 

In an effort to increase diversity, I have participated in recruiting efforts on behalf of my employers to find and encourage women engineers to interview. Also, I participate in programs that expose middle school girls to coding. These programs encourage the participants to come up with an idea that appeals to them and then build it. Not everyone finishes that program excited about coding, but they have been exposed to technology in an encouraging environment. I think about these efforts as playing the long game.

What are you passionate about outside of work?

I am very passionate about finding alternative modes of transportation that do not involve me driving a vehicle. This means that I often bike, walk, and take the bus and train to travel locally. For most people who don’t live in a city environment, like myself, eschewing the car is radical and unappealing. But, for me, it’s a lifestyle.

What pro-tip do you have for diverse women technologists who may be interested in working for the government?

I found my position by randomly talking to a talent recruiter. While I wasn’t seeking a government position, this one conversation informed me of the technical opportunities and made me dig deeper. Since this is my first government position, I don’t have any special pro-tips. However, there are groups, forums, and social outreach spaces that focus on Civic Tech. I would recommend investigating these platforms to learn more about what Civic Tech and technology in the government entails. Furthermore, reach out to government recruiters and technologists. The best way to find out if this area is a fit for you is to have conversations with people who know the space well.