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Reina Staley

Reina Staley

Defense Digital Service

Washington, D.C.

I started to question whether I was even qualified to take on such a task. Then I leveled with myself - why should I be afraid? Everyone started with a blank slate to his or her field at some point in their life – I just happened to be starting out in the heart of the world’s largest, male-dominated bureaucracy.

I grew up in a military family and had the great fortune of spending my childhood in beautiful places across the United States, Europe and Asia. Of course, this lifestyle has its downsides – I was frequently uprooted from my new homes and forced to start anew in unfamiliar places. I endured my father’s long deployments to the Middle East, and I gave up any hope of stability. While these experiences were difficult, it helped build a natural resiliency and adaptability early on in my life that became invaluable as I progressed through life.

In high school, these qualities evolved as I sought to challenge myself physically and mentally – I joined the men’s wrestling team for both my junior and senior year, embarked on a 3 month solo trip to Florence after graduating at 17, and enrolled at Indiana University to study communications and business.

Shortly after graduating IU in the summer of 2015, I landed a job as a government contractor working within administration for the Department of Defense in Washington, DC. The days were admittedly slow and dull, but I was grateful for a starting point and knew that the environment itself was a great launch pad for future opportunities. Little did I know that the opportunity was just around the corner in the Pentagon.

A colleague approached me to share details about the newly formed Defense Digital Service. “It’s a group of tech nerds who are coming in for “tours of duty” to tackle some important technical projects. They’ll need some operational support. If you want, we can meet with the team’s Director to see where it goes from there.”

I knew nothing of the team beyond what my colleague just told me, but I welcomed the idea of a stretch opportunity. Some quick Googling revealed that the Director I was about to meet was a highly successful serial entrepreneur from Seattle. His list of accomplishments was varied and intimidating, and I suddenly felt a cold pit of unease in my stomach. I was aware that the team was to be composed of brilliant technologists, but being confronted with the idea that I would be their support system and DoD “insider” suddenly seemed daunting. At 22, I was already arguably one of the youngest people working inside the Pentagon, possessing only foundational knowledge of how the DoD works. How could I possibly support this brand new team when I myself still got lost in the enormous maze of hallways?

On the morning of December 7, I met the Director, Chris, for the first time. I opened the door to the Defense Digital Service (still under renovation), and was greeted with a smile from a guy in an orange hoodie and Mizuno sneakers, surrounded by loose cables, construction materials and dust.

Chris provided an in-depth overview of the mission and purpose of the Defense Digital Service: bringing the best private sector software development practices into the DoD to change the lives of Americans.

I knew just as little about the tech industry as I did about the inner workings of the Pentagon, but learning how the Digital Service was involved in helping veterans get access to their healthcare touched a special place in my heart. As opaque as the DoD was to me, it was clear that this team is here to make a tangible impact on the lives of the American people. The opportunity to support this mission would be extremely gratifying.

After learning that DDS operates on behalf of the Secretary of Defense, the gravitas of the role began to weigh on me. I started to question whether I was even qualified to take on such a task. Then I leveled with myself – why should I be afraid? Everyone started with a blank slate to his or her field at some point in their life – I just happened to be starting out in the heart of the world’s largest, male-dominated bureaucracy.

I decided right then that I wanted to take the plunge and face this opportunity head on. I started that very day and haven’t been back to my old desk since.

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