Sixer Spotlight with Aaron Ponce

Engineering with Purpose and Trust in Civic Tech

^ Listen to the Interview above ^

Curious about the world of engineering in Civic Tech and its impact on people's lives? Today's Sixer Spotlight features Aaron Ponce, a software engineer at Agile Six who is making a remarkable difference in this space. Join us as we explore Aaron's unconventional path from artist to engineer and discover how his work with the VA is impacting the lives of Veterans. We'll discuss the challenges, rewards, and significant experiences of engineering in the government contracting space, where technology intersects with the public sector. But our conversation won't end there. We'll also shed light on the realities of working in Civic Tech, where patience, process, purpose, and trust converge to drive innovation.

Aaron's Background and Journey

Who is Aaron Ponce?

A. I'm from San Diego, and I live here with my wife and four kids, a seven-month-old, a 12-year-old, a 15-year-old, and a 19-year-old, who keep me extremely busy. I'm an engineer, and it's a part of my identity. I even engage in engineering during my free time. I'm also actively encouraging my kids to get involved in engineering by creating little JavaScript exercises for them and helping them build their own eCommerce stores on platforms like Etsy. Recently, my daughter opened her first Etsy store. Apart from engineering and spending time with my family, I enjoy playing video games and surfing as hobbies.

Tell us about your journey to Agile Six.

A. It was kind of an unconventional path for me. I didn't own a computer until I was in my twenties. However, I had a passion for art and drawing. In my twenties, I decided to pursue courses in graphic design and 3D animation. Through these experiences, I discovered a curiosity for the engineering side of building video games. This newfound interest ultimately led me down the path of software development in general. And here I am today, working as a software engineer at Agile Six.

Impacting Veterans' Lives

You're currently involved in a project at Agile Six that significantly impacts our Veterans. Could you share some insights about this project and how it aims to assist Veterans?

A. Right now, I work on the VA benefits and debt resolution team, focusing on the financial status report. Our objective is to help Veterans navigate complex forms in a digital format. Currently, we're expanding the report to make it more personalized and interactive. The goal is to alleviate the burden on Veterans who are tasked with providing personal information and instead ask them only the pertinent questions that can provide the necessary help. I have the privilege of working alongside incredible engineers, designers, project leads, and professionals in this extensive ecosystem. Despite its magnitude, we have managed to find our space. It's truly rewarding to know that we're making life a little bit easier, especially when it comes to the highly stressful issue of debt.

Team Dynamics at Agile Six

Tell us about your team.

A. My team consists of five engineers, including two back-end developers, two front-end developers, and myself as the third front-end developer. Additionally, we have three designers, one user research specialist, a product owner, a Scrum leader, and the overall project lead who represents the VA. It's a great team.

They're all so talented and smart, and they all contribute so much on a day-to-day basis. And everyone is following the purpose-driven mission of, we're doing this not for the VA, we're doing this for the Veteran. We're doing this to make the end user's life easier.

Navigating the Landscape of Civic Tech

What is it like being an engineer in the civic tech space, because it is a little different? Can you talk about the challenges you've faced and offer some insights for those considering a similar path?

A. There are a few aspects to being an engineer in this space. It's challenging to get new technology adopted or approved to be implemented into an existing workflow. Sometimes you're working with code that's extremely outdated, so you have to be flexible and creative in how you introduce new things.

You have to be patient. The process is something you really need to be ready for when you're coming into a government open environment. You're not going to pick things up immediately. There's actually a gradual process. There's almost a two-month onboarding process for some projects. My project, in particular, took a really long time for me to even get into the code because of authorizations, access permissions, filling out forms, and documents. Another big thing is you need to have clearance when you're working on some sites, so the background check is very involved if you've never done it before. And there are a lot of forms, a lot of paperwork. It's kind of a process that can be a deterrent for some engineers who just like to get in there and start working. You have to wait and go through a lot of different things to become a contributor on a government-level project.

However, once that's all complete, once you've gone through the process and you are building and contributing, it's extremely rewarding to see your work being used on such a large scale. You know, millions of people will be interacting with code that you might have contributed to, and that is a good feeling, and it helps a lot of people.

Considering the challenges and rewards you just discussed, could you share a specific instance where your work in the civic tech space had a significant impact?

A. There's a recent experience that comes to mind, and it involved user research with Veterans who are using a financial status report form that we are currently digitizing. It was a paper form, one of the longest forms that you have to fill out. It's very personal and sometimes invasive if you're not prepared to answer these types of questions.

However, if you want debt relief, the VA needs information to understand your situation. During the user interviews, I saw a side of the Veteran that I've never seen before because I'm on the other end writing code and not interacting on a personal level. Some of them had heartbreaking stories about why they are in debt and why they need to fill out this form, and some of them were upset by the questions we are asking because it felt like a slap in the face to them to have to answer personal information when all they need is help. They don't understand why it's so complex.

One of the key aspects of my project is to filter out and streamline this process, where we can eliminate unnecessary questions for the Veteran. We want to move them down an easier funnel to get the answer from the VA, whether they're going to be forgiven or they're going to set up payment plans or whatever they need to do. We just want to make it easier and we don't want to offend people, so we have to keep that in mind. When building this project, it hadn't even occurred to me, so it was eye-opening.

Company Culture

Agile Six's company culture significantly shapes daily operations and overall employee experiences. Can you share another moment that exemplifies this culture in action?

A. This is a two-part answer, and it really comes down to my overall experience at Agile Six. One of the things I appreciate the most about working with Agile Six is the autonomy of decision-making they give us when we're on a project. Outside of the normal company conversations and when we're working for the VA, CDC, or any other project we're involved in, we're trusted.

They put a lot of faith and confidence in the ability of engineers that they hire to represent Agile Six. And to me, that's a really nice feeling to have the trust of the hiring team. I think it was evident in the initial interview, the hiring process, and the team is pretty skilled at identifying individuals that fit with our culture.

Because we're a teal company, we don't have so much hierarchy like in a normal job. You just feel like a teammate instead of an employee. That's a really good feeling for me.

A lot of the engineers that I've spoken to are looking for purposeful work. They really appreciate the wholesome values that we encompass with wellness and taking care of your family first. And if you're not bringing your best self to the project, then the project's going to suffer. So you take care of yourself and make sure that you're in a good space to give the best version of yourself to the job that you're doing.

Agile Six has five core values: purpose, wholeness, trust, self-management, and inclusion. Which one resonates with you the most and why?

A. Trust is the core value that resonates with me the most. To me, it's important to know that your team believes in your skills. And when you are on a project, they trust that you're going to make the decisions that are best for the project, and they allow you to do so without interfering or making you justify why.

Challenges and Rewards

What's the biggest challenge that you've tackled and how did you overcome it?

A. The biggest challenge I've tackled is dealing with code owned by other teams that I couldn't change without going through a formal process. Communicating my needs to another team and getting them to prioritize my requests was quite challenging. In most companies, you have more control over shared components and can make changes without such a formal process. However, in my role, I had to be adaptable and effectively communicate my needs, which is not something everyone is good at.

What's the most rewarding part of your job?

A. For me, it's when I have overcome an engineering challenge, and I hit that merge button, sending it into the pipeline for deployment in production. Seeing the check marks for the unit tests and the CI build and everything going smoothly brings me joy. It's satisfying to witness the code being deployed. Additionally, watching users benefit from something that I might have built or contributed to is rewarding. The merge process at the end is a good feeling.

Unique Interview Experience

You mentioned that your interview with Agile Six was a unique experience. Could you elaborate on what made it stand out from your other interview experiences?

A. The technical interview at that time was a conversation. It wasn't a code challenge. They weren't trying to catch you in some kind of code-style algorithm that you need to prove yourself to under a stressful environment. They really just dig into your technical background based on the information provided in your resume. They actually got really deep into your skills through this conversation, but they made you feel comfortable. It was a lot different than any interview I've had in the past.

And I've actually carried it forward. So now, I'm interviewing engineers that come onto various projects, and I kind of do the same approach. Agile Six also talked about their values a lot through the interview process and reinforced what kind of employee they're looking for. And I instantly aligned with those values. So for me, it was kind of exciting to move through the process knowing that they're a company that cares about the individual and they will kind of help you become the best version of yourself when you're representing a team on a contract. That's a nice feeling.

What would you say to someone considering a career at Agile Six?

A. Ask yourself if you are the type that can be independent and communicate with other teams, and feel comfortable with creating your own work or researching what needs to be done. If you are, and you’re also looking for purposeful work, then Agile Six is a good fit because we seek out that type of work.

What is something unique about Agile Six that, in your opinion, is hard to capture in words, but is a crucial part of the experience of being part of the team?

A. I think it's the consistency of the type of employee that we hire. There's a commonality among Sixers, and we all seem to be on the same wavelength. So, I believe we're unique in the sense that we can identify like-minded individuals, and those like minds complement one another on projects.

You expressed to me how happy you are with where you've landed at Agile Six. What makes Agile Six the perfect fit for you?

A. At this point in my career, I feel like Agile Six gives me the autonomy just to do my job and the trust to make decisions. I don't have to spend a lot of time trying to compete with other engineers. Sometimes in the private sector, it can get very competitive, and people want promotions or there's something going on that creates this competitive nature. To me, that feels super toxic. Some people actually like that. I'm the opposite. I like stability and I like the culture of a flat organization where everyone is just focused on the general purposeful work.

What is it like working for a fully remote company?

A. For me personally, I love it. I feel more in control of my schedule. I attend the meetings, but because I have four kids and my life can get a little bit hectic, I can adjust my work hours to suit my needs. Whether it's working later in the afternoon or earlier in the morning, I feel like I have more control over my day. Some people prefer more face-to-face interaction and being in person, but we have found solutions where we can co-work in group meeting rooms, providing an open channel for communication and collaboration at any time.

There are ways to adapt if you're used to being around people on a daily basis, but for me, the remote culture - I can't imagine going back to some kind of in-person role.

Final Thoughts

A. Agile Six is a better place to work because of the people and the mission. We're excited for new applicants and engineers who are interested in civic tech. If you want to get involved in government and find more purpose, Agile Six is a great place to start.

Sixer Spotlight is an ongoing series to share the stories of our team. If Aaron’s story piqued your interest in a career with Agile Six, explore our open roles.