There is a tremendous sea of good will in the public to volunteer their time, energy, and services to support Veterans and their families. The Department of Veterans Innovators Network has a lengthy list of potential innovation opportunities to serve Veterans, ranging from developing reimagined service journeys for Veterans seeking mental health services to designing 3D printed personalized assistive technologies for Veterans with disabilities to developing a machine learning algorithm to scan retinal images to detect blindness in Veterans.

The question becomes: how to match the talents and spirit to serve of citizens of the United States with the opportunities and needs of employees within the Department of Veteran Affairs?

Our goal is to harness the ingenuity and brainpower of the public and pair this talent with projects in need across the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). On the platform “Serving Those Who Served Us”, the public will be able to come for an “innovation volunteer tour” and collaborate with VA employees, Veterans, and Veterans supporters on a portfolio of innovation-related projects across the Department. These are short term projects ranging from activities that could take a couple hours to a couple months and are in need of the brain power + talent of innovators, such as designers, engineers, developers, entrepreneurs, and data scientists! Most volunteer activities can happen virtually with volunteers and staff collaborating from different locations.

This is how it will work:

  • VA employees will post innovation project opportunities on to the “Serving Those Who Served Us” platform. These projects will list out their problem statement, a short summary of the project, and the potential tasks for the project and skillsets needed.
  • External innovators can create a profile and browse opportunities to volunteer.
  • When the external innovator finds a project of interest, they can then contact the VA employee through the platform and they can begin conversations to work together!
  • External innovators can earn “badges” and recognition for volunteering their efforts to serve our Nation’s Veterans and their families! Also volunteers who volunteer often (and earn the most badges!) or get nominated from their VA employee will earn a special award from VA leadership!

To help accomplish this goal, the VA is partnering with the Open Opportunities team to develop this platform and working with a local high school to build this platform as part of a STEM student project. We are looking for a team of developer mentors to help provide guidance to this team of high school students in leveraging the open source code of the open opportunities platform to build this platform to serve Veterans!

Anyone interested in volunteering to mentor the kids? It could be completely remote, though if you are in DC, we could probably set up time for you to meet the students in person too. We’re kicking off the project on Monday, but the kids don’t start for two weeks. We’re looking for a few more Javascript developers to help. Feel free to contact me directly or reply on our mailing list.

The Open Opportunities project is supported by:

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Presidential Innovation Fellows Foundation

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Cloud9 IDE

Last week was a big week for me. I started a new job at Google and my kid graduated from high school. These big changes seem to have arrived all at once, though in reality change is constant.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 4 months reflecting on US Government transformation and the small, yet significant impact that one human can make. When I decided to leave at the end of my two-year term at 18F, I knew exactly what I wanted: find a group of smart, fun people who are trying to do something challenging, yet possible, that has the potential to make a big impact on a lot of people’s lives. I wanted to make (or improve) products for regular people. I didn’t need to save the world. I wanted something intellectually challenging that would let me solve different kinds of hard problems, the familiar kind that I’ve been solving my whole career.

At this point in my career, given my tech experience, folks think it is easy to find a job. And, yes, it is easy to find a job, but finding the job where I’ll be happy and be able to effectively apply my skills is hard. Those of us who don’t look like Mark Zuckerberg need to do a bit of homework to validate that we’re joining the right kind of team, and a company where you can be an effective leader and collaborate with difference. I knew the kind of people I wanted to work with, but was pretty flexible of the kind of tech, so it took a bit of research.

I started to get together with people I’ve worked with before who I respect and they introduced me to new people… in almost 5 months I only got about a quarter of the way through my list and met many more folks. To keep track of my random schedule of meetings and introductions, I started tracking everything in a spreadsheet… since December 26th, I’ve had almost 100 meetings or phone calls with 83 people, which led me to seriously consider 10 companies. I interviewed with 5 of them, had job offers from 3, and finally had a really difficult choice. This was actually my goal. I’ve never actually done this kind of job search before, but it is similar to how I usually approach hiring. I like to have good, tough choices.

On of the reasons the choice was hard was that I was biased against Google based on their hiring process. I still think their hiring process is a problem for them attracting and selecting the best talent, but having spent the last three years working for the federal government, I have a lot more empathy for large systems and organizations. I talked to a lot of people inside Google to assess their internal culture and the groups I considered joining. I found a lot of genuinely good and caring people who share my values about building great teams and creating great software. Also, after working for the federal government, I joke that I’m ready to join a small company, like Google, which is about half the size of the US Dept. of Agriculture.

In selecting a new job, I found that the journey, as well as the destination, helped me figure out some things that really matter to me.

An Open Source Project

I hadn’t really understood until last month that open source is not only something I believe is important for government services and non-profit work, but that I value how it enables me to work. I love the impromptu collaboration with like-minded strangers that happens when you work in the open.

Some time ago, Google quietly released Vanadium on github. If you search for it on google you find lots of information on the element which is an essential mineral in the lives of sea squirts.

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The technology emerged from a research group at Google, and allows for secure peer-to-peer messaging.

Connected Applications

Connected applications have become widespread in the last decade, with the rise of social networks, messaging apps, and online collaborative tools like Google Docs which let people see each others’ edits in real-time. For the convenience of developers, these online interactions require people to be connected to the Internet. We have transformed the Internet from a resilient, distributed network to a more fragile place where we all have to be connected via central servers. I love Google docs, and understand how powerful it can be to use in the classroom; however, I agree with parents’ concerns about privacy. There’s really no technical need to store all of our personal information in the “cloud.” Technically we could create local clouds, where information never leaves a classroom, home or office. This could have a significant positive impact for privacy, and also for the developing world where Internet connectivity is expensive, intermittent or simply unavailable. So, I guess part of me wants to keep trying to save the world, after all.

What’s Next

I’ll be leading a small team within the Vanadium group. For me, this connects to the work I was doing at the turn of the century with multiparty communication. Under-the-hood it’s a lot like what I was working on when we created the Flash Media Server, except it’s not focused on media, and it doesn’t require a server, and it has nothing to do with Flash. I have a lot of ideas about how technology can help humans connect with each other, and maybe I can help bring some of those to life… or, even more exciting, develop new ideas that make sense in this future we’re creating.

I just started at Google. I’m not sure yet whether all of my ideas align with theirs, but I can already tell that I’m joining an ambitious group of talented engineers who aspire to create a positive impact on the world. I’m looking forward to whatever happens next!

frances-braggI was the only grand-daughter of Frances Clara Kiefer Bragg who passed away on March 11 just 15 days before her 108th birthday. She was a loving, yet formidable force in the world. As a child, we would often visit her in her home in Cambridge when we lived near Boston and when we lived in other countries, she would visit us for a few weeks or months. Small lessons were embedded in our interactions, and there was always a proper way to do things. We needed to know how to conduct ourselves in society: when you set the table, the knife points toward the plate, always hang paintings at eye-level. There was a right way to make borscht and chicken soup. I learned sewing, cooking, and appreciation of fine art from my grandmother. She told funny stories of her travels, and family history, sprinkled with anecdotes of poets, writers and presidents.

As a teenager, I rebelled and stopped doing all of the things I was told to do. I figured maybe one didn’t always need to write a thank you letter – sometimes a phone call would be even better. And also, as a teenager sometimes I just didn’t feel like doing what was right and proper.

Now, reflecting on those early lessons learned from my grandmother, I wonder if the impression stuck with me that whatever my grandmother did was the appropriate and proper thing to do in society. I followed her lead in other ways. It felt appropriate and proper for a young woman to travel alone in Europe, and that one must speak one’s mind, as long as it is done politely.

Somehow it all seemed normal that my Grandma visited my cousin in India and rode on the back of his scooter. I couldn’t find that photo, but I found this one, I think from that same trip…

fran-in-india

Fran spoke French, German and Russian quite fluently at times, along with quite a bit of Spanish and Italian, and random phrases in half a dozen other languages. She lived in the real world of typewriters and tea. She could remember when the ice-box was kept cold with real blocks of ice. She told stories of when her family got a telephone, and when her father proudly drove their first car.

In the 90s, I tried to get her connected to the internet, telling her that she could send email in an instant for $20 per month. She asked, “why would I want to do that, when sending a letter costs just 32 cents? I don’t send that many letters every month.”

While we lived on this earth in some of the same decades, during these years of my adult life, we inhabited quite different worlds. From my world of software and silicon, I recall that people used to say of Steve Jobs that he created a reality distortion field, where people would believe his vision of the future — a future which would otherwise be unrealistic, yet by believing in it, they helped him create it.

I believe Fran had that power to create her own reality distortion field where people are witty, and heroes emerge from mundane events. Memories are versed in rhyme, silliness is interwoven in adult conversation, and children are ambassadors of wisdom. Memories of my grandmother are splashed in vivid watercolor or whimsical strokes of ink. Postcards can share a moment. Words have layers of meaning, which evaporate upon inspection.

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