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Technical Training: AU in The Defense Digital Service

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Two people wearing military uniforms in a helicopter
1LT Connor Eckert (left), and Katie Olson, DDS Chief of Staff; courtesy of the Defense Digital Service

Defense Digital Service (DDS) isn’t your typical Department of Defense organization. In fact, they’re far from traditional.

According to its website, DDS is "a SWAT team of nerds working side by side with end users to develop comprehensive solutions to the Department’s most pressing problems utilizing the best in technology… We hire world-class designers, engineers, product managers, and bureaucracy hackers from diverse backgrounds to work on high-impact projects at the Pentagon and across the globe.” The DDS team is composed of both service members and civil servants working together to use technology and design to improve military processes and digital services. One might ask, where does the Department of Defense find these world-class designers, engineers, product managers, and bureaucracy hackers? American University, of course.

The Defense Digital Service is currently home to five AU graduates, working in all different facets of the organization. Sam Stowers, SIS/BA ’10, SIS/MA ‘13, a digital service expert at DDS, credits AU for his interest in working for government. “I have always cared deeply about public service, and American University helped me find ways to serve in government and impact global problems while stewarding responsible and effective organizational changes,” says Sam. 

Clair Koroma, CAS/MA ’02, works as a bureaucracy hacker in the department, where she uses her background in technology, policy, budget, and procurement to develop key relationships and navigate layers of bureaucracy to help her team achieve its mission. Clair says a key part of her job is considering how decisions made in DDS impact other parts of the world. “Part of what I do is calculate the total risk versus the total benefit, and a lot of that thinking was expanded during my studies at AU,” says Koroma. “For a team like mine in the DoD, it is even more important to consider as our influence and ability to make meaningful changes in the DoD will have impacts across the DoD and beyond.”

Katie Olson, SPA/BA ’08, who serves as Chief of Staff for the Defense Digital Service, remembers lessons from the SPA Leadership Program as she leads her team. “We focused on servant leadership. Leaders have a responsibility to provide a north star, then get out of the way and focus on supporting teammates to achieving outcomes.”

All in all, these graduates of AU agree that their time at AU helped guide them to their jobs today at the Defense Digital Service. Amanda Cummins Burger, SOC/MA ’13, credits her professors at American for their advice and guidance during her program and job search. “I can truly say that I would not be where I am had I not completed my MA with the School of Communication. An adjunct professor from AU made connections for me to receive an internship, which led to my first full-time job. I use my skills—including design and event management—which I only learned from my AU program, in my work daily.” Kevin Carter, SPA/BA ’09, a product manager for a counter-drone project, added “At AU, I learned the most from the adjunct faculty who were leading practitioners in their fields, in addition to being great teachers.”