(Photo by Jusna Perrin)
Nava is a Technically Talent client and reviewed this article before publication.
You’re a person who likes weighty but important work. You’re not scared of taking on complex government projects that make a difference. You believe that scalable, user-friendly services are just the start.
The D.C. startup works on projects involving healthcare.gov and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), among others. The VA, for example, manages the largest hospital system in the world, and the team at Nava is developing a replacement for the VA’s 30 year-old appeals management system, improving the system for managing veteran records and reducing years-long wait times for veterans and their families.
Software engineers Mark Benjamin, Sharon Warner and JD Pagano and designer Shelly Ni joined us in a round table conversation to discuss what it’s like to work at Nava.
Nava’s Veteran Affairs team spends half of its time onsite at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the other half at Nava’s U Street office. What are some of the key parts of an average day?
JD Pagano: Some parts of my day are spent writing code and building the tools that we need to be build to improve this process. Another part is doing research into the unknown, which might be interviewing people who work at the board at the VA office, and looking into existing technologies to uncover how things currently work, in order to rebuild.
Shelly Ni: You’ve caught us on Tuesday, which is a day we are at Nava. My day to day changes a bit depending on whether I’m working from Nava or if I’m working from the VA. When I’m at the VA, I do more of the research JD mentioned. I like working really closely with our government partners.
Mark Benjamin: We work closely with our users. For many projects, everyone we’re developing for works in the same building as us. This allows us make tailored solutions that enable us and the Board of Veterans Appeals to serve our veterans.
What are some of the fun challenges of being embedded in government departments for projects?
JP: I’d say one of the challenges is mentally getting an understanding of this rather complex process. It’s probably the most complicated system I’ve ever worked on. There are many unknown and external forces involved. The board has appeals coming in from dozens of different places. Even trying to make changes to the system is hard because we have to anticipate what may be affected.
SN: It’s kind of like playing detective. I like it. Here’s how things should be right now, here’s how they actually are, but how should they be in the future.
MB: I’m always worried that there’s a thread we’re pulling on over here, and thinking, “Why isn’t anything unraveling?” Then I turn, and, “Oh! My whole shirt’s falling apart!”
Why is working at Nava different from working at other startups or medium-sized companies?
Sharon Warner: It’s really nice to work on projects that have almost immediate impact on so many different people. We’re creating code that’s going to help somebody get benefits more quickly than they would have otherwise. That’s true of Nava’s other projects as well, like Medicare and healthcare.gov. It’s nice to know this work is meaningful and impactful.
The VA project was just getting started a couple months ago when I joined Nava. The codebase was pretty small. It was easy to catch up to everything. Everyone’s been super welcoming. The onboarding process is great. It’s nice to have two different groups of people to go to for help. Here at Nava, and there’s also everyone at the Board of Veterans Appeals who you can go to with questions.
MB: I’m constantly amazed by how much everyone cares at Nava. I think there are a lot of amazing things we’re working on at Nava. When everyone cares so much about our mission, it makes everything else so much easier. We can disagree about how to do it, but we all believe really strongly that we need to do it.
JP: Compared to other places I’ve worked, the focus that Nava has on culture and diversity is unique. We spent a lot of time improving the interview process to remove bias so everyone has a fair chance while applying. That’s not something I’ve seen elsewhere.
For example, we’ve converted a couple rounds of our interview process to “take homes,” so we ask for a written response from an applicant rather than a video interview or face to face, where you may have an accent that would subconsciously carry bias.
SN: When we’re looking for folks, we’re interested in people who are generally interested in impact. You don’t need to already be an expert about government technology, we hope to give you enough information to be successful here. In my experience, I’ve found that the more I wrestle with the complexities of working on big systems, the more excited I am to dig in more.
Another thing that really touched me, and a great example of how much people here care about each other, is our parental leave policy. The policy is not only very generous (16 weeks of paid leave for new foster, adoption or birth parents), but Nava also sends prepared meals to new parents while they’re on leave.
It’s easy to access and collaborate on Nava company policies and practices. They’re just in Google documents, and nothing is totally secret. If I were to say, “I have an opinion about the way we do interviews,” I could easily read how it’s done and initiate a conversation with the person who owns that particular process and hopefully move toward an action.