July 28, 2022 7 minutes read

Cyrus was driven from a young age to make a social impact. This led him to work in some cool places like the US Peace Corps mission in Guatemala, the White House, and now with the founders of NAVA PBC, who were recruited by President Obama to fix healthcare.gov.

Transcript (auto-generated)

0:24: My mom is a software engineer and my dad is an attorney, an immigration attorney.  Growing up, I always had these kind of like— not competing, but you know, different influences in my life from my mom, and from my dad. My mom was always encouraging me to do, you know, technology projects and my, you know, outside of school and in my free time encouraging me to work on computers and learn to code and you know that was kind of her influence on me and my dad always pushed like civic impact, right? Like what’s the difference that you can make in the world? What’s the difference that you can make in our society? What’s the difference that you can make in people’s lives? And those kinds of two influences took me all the way through college. I studied political science. At the time there was not this thing that we know now called civic technology, right? And so I kind of felt like, you know, at the time, this was more than 10 years ago, I had to choose between public impact and technology. I love technology, but at the time it was people making products, that was the tech industry and it still is a large part of the tech industry right? But there wasn’t this drive for social impact and public good companies like NAVA where I work now have right? And so I studied political science with the idea that I would you know get into policy and you know maybe attend law school maybe you know pursue an impact in that way. But that those studies in university led to my first job or I worked in a state senator’s office and I realized pretty early on that I really enjoyed like the communications, the media relations, the messaging part of that work and that you know took me on to service the Peace Corps. I served in the U.S. Peace Corps mission in Guatemala where I led their media and communications team. That was a really cool experience. We produced a number of different types of materials. It was mostly program communications, so not as much press, but a little bit of owned media and program communications. It was neat because that was my first true experience in like a cross-cultural environment like bringing American programs and services to indigenous Maya communities in Guatemala that speak you know 27 different Maya languages, was pretty neat. From there move back to the US worked for GSA, which is a pretty large government organization in their marketing and communications division. Doing more marketing, realized that you know the marketing part of communications isn’t really my favorite most favorite thing. You know click-through rates and all that stuff conversions but learned about it a little bit. I think it’s an important skill to have from there. That was kind of a moment for me when I realized that there are in fact people that are working on technology in like a public impact capacity. At GSA, there’s an organization called 18 F that specifically uses technology to modernize government services. I joined up a nonprofit group called Code for America. We created Code for Chicago which is still exists. It’s like a nonprofit small chapter of code for America that exists in the city of Chicago. They work on technology projects that impact local government. When I was there we worked with the Chicago public library and I realized like from these kind of volunteer opportunities and tangentially being exposed to this in my day job that I wanted to pursue this. You know this kind of like civic impact public impact technology as a career. And so after that I joined the US Digital Service. I worked for three years with the US Digital Service at the White House. That was really cool. Being there being kind of at the tip of the spear and government is a really unique and challenging experience. You know you have autonomy, you have a lot of influence but you also have a lot of challenges and you can kind of like there’s a US president said the buck stops here and kind of that’s sort of how it is with US DS, right, like any kind of high impact technology fire it’s not possible to just to just blame somebody else right? Like we need to take responsibility and ownership and address an issue that potentially impact you know millions of people across the country. So that’s a term limited role. You know many positions at the White House are limited to you know tours. So the USGS kind of maxed out at four years time. So in my third year, I left midway through my third year  I joined the US Department of Health and human Services, this is like 2021 the newly created office of the Chief data officer there that’s a mouthful but a lot of data and is in the midst of the pandemic. So, their whole thing was using data from different sources but nationwide data to forecast trends in the pandemic to protect outbreak trends to you know more specifically target like how therapeutics are distributed, things like that.Right? And so that was a really exciting opportunity to kind of get in from a comms perspective from the ground you know the ground up right? Total green field in terms of creating a brand a narrative like colors, logo? You know, we hired an art team and, and got to art direct, you know, some of the more visual elements of that, that was a lot of fun. And that led me to where we are now with Nava. Nava is a public benefit corporation. Our founders were recruited by President Obama when healthcare.gov crashed in 2013. And, they, you know, they worked on a part of the healthcare.gov rescue and went on to create Nava public benefit corporation, which is a company or a private company, but we work on projects that specifically have a public impact, public good and you know, clearly demonstrable, sort of, you know, demonstrably vulnerable populations.

Understanding data

I think that all of the exposure that I got from my mom in, you know, computer science as a kid is was, you know, it’s really helpful to me every single day, right? And in terms of talking to engineers, understanding what they’re, what they’re referring to. But I think, you know, one thing that’s really important for people in this field, in technology, communications is kind of the ability would have to be experts. I’m not an engineer, I couldn’t, I couldn’t do those things, those projects as well as they could, but being able to kind of extract from the technical bits, you know, be that data, be that code, being able to being able to extract like what does this actually do and why does it matter? Who does it help? Who does it benefit and using that to tell your story right? There are of course there’s audiences that are interested in like the under the hood, the twiddling bits, the raw data, but I think most people, most audiences are more curious about the implications of, of data, Right? And why it matters, why it helps people.

Integrating data into stories

7:37 So, for example, if we are launching a a new software platform that helps people access, say like, you know, paid leave programs for instance, right, what kinds of folks are going to be interested in that, what who’s covering these types of topics? What are the important things that we want people to know in terms of like, you know, getting new users on board and so on and so forth. And then when it comes to data figuring out like what’s salient to people right? For that audience, they’re probably not interested in, you know, are like load testing for example, right? Like that’s important. That’s important, maybe for program managers, important for stakeholders, it’s not really important for the user base for instance. And so understanding more about things, you know, more things like data is a broad term, right? But like understanding stats about like what, you know, how much, how much funding is vital for this program, how many people can be on boarded, what are some successes that we have now? Right from a numerical perspective, those things can complement the narrative that we’re trying to tell which is hey, there’s a new platform that makes it easy to enroll in these benefits. You should sign up for it essentially. Right. 

The go-to metric

I always look for like the human interest component. So you know, things like, you know up time and loads decks and things like that are like kind of interesting from a technology perspective and so if that’s your audience and that’s definitely something you can go to it. But I think most of the time when one more pitching stories are working together with our partners on stories, we try to lean into the things that underscore kind of like the human interest, who has helped, how are they helped and like what does this mean for the future? Why does this matter for other people?

Tools for data insights

9:37: I typically ask people with more strong technical skills to help me understand those insights that come with the questions of like how many people were able to enroll in this in the first day, hey, you know, do we see any trends in terms of like, you know, people abandoning their application midway through. I’ll ask some of those questions, but I don’t specifically have the skill set to extract some of those or the access, right, to extract some of those insights from our from our projects. So I rely on, you know, members of the technical project came to help with that. 

My 2 cents

10.15: I would say if I could give myself my 10 years ago self some advice. It would be that sometimes in communications there’s a lot of like cooks in the kitchen, you know, we have executive stakeholders, we have partners, we have like other organizations, sometimes there’s, you know, news outlets involved, Right? And so there’s a lot of like cooks in the kitchen. It is like a phrase that we use in the US that can be hard, but I wish that I would have learned this is a lesson I learned from my time at USCs at the White House. But everybody wants something right? And that can be like some personally or like for their job function or something like that, right? So, like, everybody has something that they’re trying to get out of their job, which is why they’re doing it. And so if there’s a way to kind of like make, you know, make up particular comms deliverable good for everyone, it makes it easier to kind of like get through, you know, approvals and get to yes. Like we all people in our field like dread this idea of like the approval process, right? People ask in interviews, you know, like what you guys like, typical approval process looks like. And like, well, the answer is it depends, it depends on the project, depends on the situation, but nobody nobody likes that. And so in any in any field in government, in business, like there’s always some kind of stakeholder, right? And so as communications people, we are a support function, that’s like something else, you know, I think important to remember it doesn’t mean that we’re again less important, but it does mean that we have to try to align with the preference is a lot of other folks. That’s how we’re going to be successful in our role.And so If I would have known that like 10 years ago, you know, who knows what I would have got.