The Evolving Role of Human-Centered Technology, Key Strategies for Effectively Leveraging the Potential of AI and More: A Q&A With Bixal VP of Technology, Erica Stephens.
October 26, 2023
Bixal recently welcomed Erica Stephens as our new VP of technology, tapping into her extensive knowledge and adept problem-solving capabilities, complemented by a servant-leadership approach that is poised to guide and empower our committed and innovative tech team. With nearly 20 years of experience in data operations and software engineering within the automotive sector, Erica made the transition to the U.S. Digital Service, contributing to the White House initiative aimed at enhancing government services for millions of daily users. In a recent discussion, she delved into her journey into the world of technology, explored strategies for professionals to harness the power of AI and shared her visionary outlook for the advancement of Bixal's tech practice.
Can you share some insights into your background and the path that brought you to the role of VP of Technology at Bixal?
I have always been a tinkerer. When I was growing up, I often disassembled things around the house: phones, toasters, anything I could open and explore. When we got our first PC for Christmas, I was elated. I spent countless hours customizing it. There was no question that I wanted to pursue a future in computer science once the time came to decide. I attended Lawrence Technological University for my computer science degrees because they are known across the state of Michigan for their engineering capabilities.
After graduation, I spent almost 20 years in the automotive industry, building and delivering digital products, and it was through working on automotive intelligence products that I built a foundation of skill in both data operations and software engineering.
During the pandemic, my colleague said to me, "You should go work for the President. They need technologists badly." Jokingly, I said, "Sure, let me go send them my résumé right now." I applied to the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) in November of 2020, not expecting anything to come of it.
I thought it was spam email when I heard from the talent specialist a few months later. I almost deleted the email, but then I saw the domain of the email address was from the Executive Office of the President.
I spent two years on my tour of duty at the USDS, where we jumped into some of the nation's most pressing emergencies. I worked on the infant formula shortage of 2022 and assisted the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in keeping the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (for recipients of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)) operational. I advised the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on data strategy and supply chain intelligence for critical non-medical goods. I fell in love with public service and solving practical problems that had a positive impact on millions of people.
Given my practical problem-solving, broad engineering background and government experience, I proved to be a good fit for an opening at Bixal. I had the opportunity to connect with Bixal's CEO, Carla Briceno, and she suggested I apply for the VP of technology role. Six months later, the rest is history.
Bixal was a perfect match for me in terms of mission and my servant-leadership style. I could see the global, positive impact Bixal had already made in its many years of putting people absolutely first.
How do you envision the role of technology evolving in the next few years?
Technology will always evolve, and we will always have engineers pushing boundaries and limitations.
Where we have the most positive impact is merging the grit and relentless spirit of problem-solving with a broad spectrum of technical tools and capabilities alongside human-centered design (HCD) frameworks that center people in the solution.
Technology should enable us to problem-solve more effectively and with fiscal responsibility. With more advanced technologies, we can solve existing and new problems with a broader toolset. With emerging technologies, such as distributed ledgers (blockchain) and AI, there are already real-world problems that these can solve better than before.
I see a hybrid of current tools, structures and traditional systems integrating with emerging tech in both highly experimental and practical realms. For instance, a responsible and well-trained AI system can be built to reduce administrative burden on government employees. Training alone is a massive responsibility and load on already-strained staff. Imagine the benefits of implementing an AI system without the limitations of training fatigue and with the capability of serving multiple trainees simultaneously. I can see how distributed ledgers can replace traditional databases in speed, cost and maintenance, while still relying upon the safety and protections of traditional banking systems but as a more modern and cost-efficient way to handle micro payment transactions.
How do you maintain a balance between innovation and stability in technology-driven projects?
Make space, fund and organize your team members to support both.
For innovation, that means:
- Creating tech incubators —To nurture development and growth of emerging technology and provide an environment for developers to fail safely and explore boldly .
- Hosting Hackathons — These are events or challenges with a limited timeframe for team members to focus on a specific problem. This helps unleash creativity and scrappiness for innovative purposes.
- Holding contests — These can be part of a hackathon or solving a real problem for a prize. Sites like challenge.gov are good places to watch for fun opportunities.
- Participating in academic research — Look for partnerships with nonprofit research institutions and engineers. Programs like the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) enable these partnerships.
- Integrating site reliability engineering (SRE) concepts into every practice area — SRE is a discipline that combines aspects of software engineering and applies them to infrastructure and operations (and other tech adjacent areas) to create reliable, scalable and performant software systems. With these concepts, we can drive and maintain a certain level of operations (uptime) and key performance indicators (KPIs) that are must-haves in our spaces.
- Committing to excellence while keeping the user's experience at the center of our work.
There are going to be times where we have to prioritize innovation or stability, but ideally you would have two or more parallel workstreams supporting these goals.
As technologists, we must fall in love with the problem and not the solution.
What key strategies do you believe technology professionals can employ to effectively leverage the capabilities and potential of AI?
When it comes to practical implementation of a solution, we must look at all the tools and budget we are working with, the sustainability of that solution and the skillsets of the future teams owning it. Some solutions simply do not require AI and the cost and skills associated with it. We must be wise and deliberate in choosing our tools for a solution. With that said, it's difficult to imagine any industry that will be untouched by AI in the future, so Bixal's next step is to pick a few real-world problems where AI is the best tool to use and continue our own exploratory AI buildouts.
First, we must identify appropriate use cases where AI can bring value, automate, enhance or optimize for a specific problem. Domain experts will be key, and we must design and build solutions with users and not for them, using HCD principles. These partnerships will be key in the entire process of experimentation and prototyping and in helping create feedback loops on performance.
We must be aware of our knowledge gaps and when we need to close them. Continuous exploration and learning are requirements in this space.
Lastly, we must learn not just the technology but also areas of regulation of ethical considerations and inclusivity.
Here are the fundamentals I usually start with when thinking about incubating a new idea or technology:
- Know when to use it — Find good use cases; ask yourself, "Are we using the right tools for the right problems?"
- Bring some friends — Find great domain-expert partners, bring them along for the entire journey.
- Keep learning — From the fundamentals of AI (machine learning, neural networks) to deep learning, NLPs, AI frameworks, platforms and AI-specialized hardware. It's okay to learn as you go, as long as your budget allows for experimentation (but watch for those runaway hardware costs!).
- Become one with your data — We've all heard "garbage in = garbage out." Become a master of data engineering, data management, cleansing, transformation and preparation for your downstream AI system.
- Be legal — Stay informed about AI regulations; even if they are not in your country yet, you should know what rules and legislation exist around the world. Understand and responsibly implement models with legally-protected classes top of mind.
- Be responsible — Be ethical when modeling; continuously test for performance and for bias; integrate measurements to monitor and protect underprivileged, vulnerable communities and legally-protected classes.
- Be inclusive — Share your learnings, thoughts and journey across your organization and other areas, like academia. AI will transform just about every industry in some way. Bring others along and you will continuously add to your pool of domain-experts.
What attracted you to Bixal and what is it about our organization's approach to tech that resonates with you?
Bixal's core value of "people absolutely first" attracted me. And it's clearly visible in every facet of how we think and work together. It's this foundation of centering people in decision-making processes that keeps our tech team motivated to deliver; to drive positive impact and results. Bixal's approach to technology isn't just building tech for tech's sake, it's building human-centered solutions and solving real world problems alongside our federal partners, gov tech communities and international partners and organizations. This low-ego approach and ethos of compassion and being of service to others that's at the heart of why we do this work. When we know why something is important and who it has the potential to positively impact, the motivation is always there to push us to deliver, discover and keep leveling up our capabilities to solve more and more complex problems.
Bixal's default to open-source software also sends a signal that we are not interested in creating vendor lock-in — we believe in enabling our clients and partners with a sustainable, flexible and secure approach.
What is your vision for Bixal's tech practice? Is there anything you're particularly excited about?
Bixal already has an impressive, passionate and capable tech team. My vision is to build upon these strong foundations to broaden our capabilities and deepen our impact.
We have already led our federal partners in data and technology modernization efforts, but the demand for more work here is growing exponentially and so should our teams. As governments increasingly digitize their operations, we now must assist them in managing large volumes of data not only according to the demands of regulation, policy and cybersecurity, but also to inform more efficient practices and tell clear stories of the user journey.
The Federal CIO, Clare Martorana, recently wrote the blog post "Why the American People Deserve a Digital Government" alongside the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) releasing their digital-first policy guidance. My vision for Bixal's tech practice is to be go-to experts in advising on and implementing this policy for individual agencies, leaning into our many strengths and past performances.
I am most excited that we are incubating and innovating AI solutions to solve real-world problems, like reducing administrative burden and assisting government employees in their day-to-day activities. We are finding the federal and nonprofit partners to carefully listen to their problems and learn about potential data sources to further our understanding and identify data gaps. This helps inform how we can shape our teams, roles and responsibilities to most effectively solve those problems. Identifying data gaps and understanding the limitations of that data and any unintentional bias gaps also helps us approach problems with equity and fairness.
Bixal is gifted with heaps of aspiration and the willingness to make a positive impact. I see it as my duty to bring these aspirations to fruition and partner with our business development team to find matching opportunities and, even further upstream, ask our federal partners the simple question, "How can we help?"
Where and how can we see more of you and Bixal's tech practice?
I'll be attending ACT-IAC's Imagine Nation conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania, at the end of October. I'll be there with our CEO, Carla Briceno, our VP of strategic growth, Fred Jorgensen and my colleague, Gerardo Maldonado, who is our senior director of software engineering. We're all really looking forward to connecting with and attending sessions by folks in the government technology community.
I'm particularly excited that six of our team members have been chosen to present at the upcoming Drupal GovCon 2023 conference at the beginning of November. We're facilitating a workshop on how to hit the ground running with the U.S. Web Design System (USWDS) led by Bixal developers on the USWDS core team as well as sessions on everything Drupal, from KPI frameworks to help make your next Drupal migration a success to transforming Drupal data into smart decisions. We have such a talented dev team and I'm so proud they'll be out there sharing valuable information with the community. Stop by and see them if you're planning on attending!