September 10, 2020
My career in government began as it ended, by asking for a job that didn’t actually exist yet. It was my sophomore year of college, and I was spending the year on a study abroad program in Munich, Germany. That winter, I paid a visit to the U.S. consulate to get more pages added to my passport in anticipation of a year of border hopping. As soon as I entered the building, I knew it was somewhere I wanted to be: American flags, diplomats with locked bags, familiar accents, and a lack of the cigarette smoke pervasive in other German buildings. My parents had always told me that if I visited a place and liked it, I should ask if I could work there. So I asked the consular officer if they needed an intern. I wound up working there for seven months, supporting U.S. business growth in Germany. (So if you see a Starbucks the next time you’re over there, blame me.) The consulate had just gotten connected to the Internet and I had to learn how to use Lotus Notes and send emails from the Intern1 alias (I did not merit my own email address).
Once I returned to the United States and settled into my junior year at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR, I decided to apply for an overseas summer internship with the State Department. I woke up early one Tuesday morning to work on my application when the phone rang. It was my mother calling to say that the World Trade Center had been hit, and that I needed to find a TV because the world was changing. I don’t remember much of that week, except that I was able to finish my internship application and mail it to the State Department. The rest of the semester passed in a blur; in addition to the shock and confusion facing everyone in the country that year, I was double majoring in international affairs and foreign languages, and planned to visit Germany over winter break to research my honors thesis.
It wasn’t until the day before I flew out to Germany that I remembered about that State Department application. Had they made any selections yet? I contacted the address on the application and received a very troubling answer: Due to the anthrax attacks in September, the State Department hadn’t accepted mail deliveries and had posted to their website that all internship applications were supposed to be sent via UPS instead. Hadn’t I seen that? No, I had not. Having missed the deadline for a competitive internship by three months, a reasonable person would have shrugged and vowed to try again next year. I am not a reasonable person. “Could I resend my application now? Is it too late?” Perhaps feeling the spirit of the holidays, she said sure, send it within 24 hours. I said I would. Let’s pause for a moment and picture this scene. This conversation took place via pay phone in the basement of a shopping mall in downtown Portland the day before I was leaving the country for three weeks. All of my things–including a copy of my application–were in a dorm room on a closed campus. This was 2001. “The cloud” was only a weather term. Thankfully, I had a zip drive in my backpack so I was able to email the files from my cousin’s laptop before I left. I didn’t have a cell phone and wouldn’t be checking email often, so I left my parents’ home phone number as a point of contact.
A few weeks later, I was having dinner with a German friend in Frankfurt when his cell phone rang. It was my parents. I had given them my friend’s phone number in case of emergency–or in this case, if the State Department wanted to offer me an internship but I had to decide ASAP which location–Frankfurt or Vienna. Having spent the past few days in Frankfurt, the decision was easy: Vienna!
The summer in Vienna was basically a dream come true for a wanna-be diplomat like myself. I was fluent in German so I attended a lot of think tank events and Austrian government meetings to take notes for my colleagues in the embassy on topics ranging from Austria’s views on the war in Iraq to lawsuits about returning artwork stolen by the Nazis. The United Nations has a presence in Vienna, and I remember wandering the halls with another intern, seeing which offices had the best views of the city. When we were eventually stopped by a security guard, he loved our quest and even showed us some of his favorite spots. Perhaps most indicative of my future career in the IC, I spent many evenings at embassy parties, competing with my colleagues for who could score the most business cards from foreign diplomats. (Spoiler: A 20 year old female who speaks four languages will win this game every time.)
I returned to Oregon for my senior year of college, trying to figure out what to do with my life. Grad school was the logical decision to kick the can a bit, but what about the summer in between? Well, I figured, I had so much fun in Vienna, why not try to return? I asked my boss and she said sure–there would be a lot of staff turnover that summer and I would be a good source of continuity. Basically, I hit the intern jackpot: my own townhouse (free, courtesy of the embassy), my former boss’s office (complete with a couch and view of the famous ferris wheel), and helping to supervise the other interns (my first taste of power!). I also pitched a new project: the European Intern Network. Since the other State Department interns in Europe also had free housing (and often extra bedrooms), I created a contact list of the interns at our embassies and consulates across Europe. This was before Facebook or LinkedIn, but we at least had our own email addresses in the Global Address List, so I could cold email anyone with the title of “Intern.” While it may have started as a diplomat version of couchsurfing, ever the bureaucrat-in-training, I also organized a conference for the interns from across Europe. I’ve run into several of them in the CIA and State Department cafeterias, years later.
Fast forward a couple of years, to 2007. ODNI was on its first director (of six), Liberty Crossing was only one building (now two), there was free valet parking in the garage, and I was a very junior contractor supporting the Iran Mission Manager (now called the National Intelligence Manager for the Near East). So junior, in fact, it was assumed that I must know something about technology (incorrect!), and that I should be in charge of creating an online community of interest. So I dutifully read Sharepoint for Dummies, learned to use Intellipedia, and tried my best. However, as you can imagine, foisting a collaboration tool on a community that lived by the mantra of “need to know” was not a recipe for success. I had an idea–if I did some outreach and training, maybe then more people would use the website. I pitched it to my boss: I’ll do a few outreach sessions and if the site’s metrics show more usage, then I’ll keep doing it; if not, I’ll stop. She agreed. And thus began my work doing user research to support innovation.
I also became more practiced at asking for things. When I was offered a job to join ODNI as a staff employee, I asked if they would count my years as a contractor as federal service so I could start at a higher vacation accrual rate; they said yes. I asked a senior ODNI leader if he wanted to host a flash mob, and it became a regular occurrence (instant messenger is great for the kidding-not-kidding request). I later asked this same senior leader, now at CIA, if he knew of any joint duty opportunities. He introduced me to the office that would become my home for the next four years. While at CIA, I kept asking. Could we host virtual interns? Could we sponsor a problem for Hacking 4 Defense? Host mindfulness classes? Create a walking map? A scavenger hunt? A white noise channel? E-Cards? In most cases, my leadership was extremely supportive. They gave me top cover, introduced me to the lawyers, and sent me “Nevertheless, she persisted” quotes when I ran into roadblocks. However, there was one question, that despite asking it repeatedly, I couldn’t get to yes: “Can I stay here?” Or more specifically, “Can I stay here at my current GS level?” Because there was the rub–if I wanted to convert to CIA employment, I’d have to drop down one (or multiple, depending on the directorate) grade levels, go through several months of basic training, and spend years rising up through the ranks to try to get to my current level.
So I decided to ask different questions. What is ODNI doing related to innovation? What should it be doing? What role might I play in this? In the spirit of innovation, I talked to some people, came up with some ideas, made a rough prototype (a blog post), and shared it. I had heard that ODNI was doing a re-org and that one of the goals was to create an office related to innovation, so this seemed like the perfect time to share my thoughts. After all, if they liked what I said, then I’d come back and work on it; if they didn’t, then I’d go elsewhere. A few weeks later, one of the people to whom I had sent the blog called me and said to apply for the Director of Lateral Innovation position; even though I hadn’t used those words in my post (to be honest, I’m still not sure about that term), the job was based on my writings. So I did.
And here we are, two years later. This will be my last week in the Intelligence Community, at least for a while. Technically, my last day will be on 9/11, but I don’t think I could handle that extra emotional baggage, so I’ll hand in my badge on the 10th instead. Why am I leaving after 10 years and a career that has taken me to real Afghanistan, fake Afghanistan (a training center in Indiana), the White House, podcasts, and the podium of South By Southwest? Because I realized the IC can’t give me the things I’m asking for, at least not right now. Can I work remotely in the long-term? Leave the DC area? Use modern technology? Speak and publish about my work? Grow in my career other than via the senior executive track? I realized that I needed to pivot, so I reached out to my network to see if they had suggestions. A friend at AFWERX introduced me to a company I had never heard of, and I talked to their founder about my dream job–talking to people, learning about their goals and challenges, and then partnering with designers and developers to make their lives better. He agreed that this would indeed be a dream job, and called back a few weeks later to offer it to me. I will be the first-ever Director of Research and Strategy for the product design and innovation group TM, helping to design AI-powered tools aimed at keeping soldiers safe on the battlefield, the elderly healthy at home, and so much in between.
It’s always difficult to leave a place. Is it better than when I joined? Did I make a difference? Or am just I the fist in the bucket of water, the liquid rushing in to fill the void as soon as I disappear? I hope that by sharing this story and encouraging you all to ask questions, my legacy will be a positive one. As I shared versions of my IC origin story and career advice with my interns and mentees over the years, I noticed that while the technologies and mission challenges may have shifted over time (I do have a cell phone now, though I can’t use it much of the time), the importance of asking for things has remained. And while you won’t always get what you want, you’ll always be better for trying.