Sixer Spotlight with Jill Adams
^ LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW ABOVE ^
Curious about what lies beyond the realm of big tech? Today's Sixer Spotlight features Jill Adams, a delivery manager at Agile Six, who found more than a new career path when she moved from prioritizing stockholders to empowering stakeholders. Discover how Jill's work with the Department of Veterans Affairs is making an impact, and learn about her journey from Amazon to Civic Tech, including the surprises and fulfillment that came along with it. Jill shares how ending up in Big Tech was a veer off of her path of wanting to help people, and coming to Civic Tech felt like returning to a more values-based fit for her. We'll have a frank conversation about finances, values, and the profound sense of reclaiming one’s purpose in work that genuinely makes a difference. Join us as Jill unfolds her Values-Driven Path to Civic Tech.
Who is Jill Adams?
I am a Midwestern farmer's daughter. I am an East Coaster. I became a grownup on the East Coast, but I am West Coast best coast now, learning to relax the older I get. I am a doer by nature. My ethos in life is bias for action and having as much fun in the sunshine as possible. I'm an auntie. I would rather be barefoot at all times if it were allowed.
Tell us about your journey to Agile Six. What inspired you to take that leap from big tech to civic tech?
From my perspective, Amazon was a blip on an otherwise more consistent radar. If I stepped back a few steps before Amazon, I studied journalism in undergrad. I have always been interested in people's stories and the human side of things. I worked in public relations, which was not a good fit for me. And when I graduated from social work school, it didn't pan out. At that time, it was 2009, the financial crisis was in full swing, and I ended up working in tech somewhat by accident. I had a friend who was building WordPress websites. He taught me how the internet works, how to do front-end coding, and project management. That launched my tech career. I went from there to Idealist.org, which I think describes where I wanted to be headed, but I got laid off from Idealist, and that's how I ended up at Amazon. Ending up in big tech was a veer off of my 'I want to help people' path, and coming to civic tech felt like returning to a more values-based fit for me.
How would you explain civic tech to somebody who's not familiar with it?
My understanding of civic tech is that it's a movement of people involved in technology who want to use those skills to improve the services the government offers to citizens.
Let's discuss your role at Agile Six and its impact on Veterans.
So, I work with a team that serves the Department of Veterans Affairs. My role is Delivery Manager. If you go to VA.gov and click on the header for 'Find a Location,' that's one of the products that one of my teams supports. So any information on VA.gov related to a physical location, like a medical center, a vet center, or places where you can receive care, is something we focus on. We ensure that the appropriate source of truth data is presented to Veterans to make it easy to know, for example, if a clinic offers a certain kind of specialty care, what the wait times are, and whether they can schedule an appointment. That in and of itself is making sure that Veterans who need to visit the VA can figure out how to get there, what they'll find when they get there, how to schedule appointments, and what kind of care they can expect to receive.
One of my teams deals with facilities. My other team deals with bigger, broader portions of VA.gov that are accessible to people who are not logged into the site: things like search on VA.gov, or forms, like finding the appropriate form, figuring out how to fill it out, and a variety of other things. Our public websites team manages the Va.gov homepage, and we just shipped some updates to that at the end of last year.
I feel like my team's impact is trying to help Veterans not have to experience as much runaround to get what they need in tapping into their benefits and figuring out what resources are available to them.
How do your experiences at Amazon compare and contrast with your role here at Agile Six?
I had very similar duties at Amazon. I was a technical program manager there, and I had two or three teams, depending on the season – sometimes one team. And I was responsible for a lot of Scrum activities there as well.
You know, they are very similar ecosystems, honestly, like lots of different teams, and you need help from a lot of people that maybe don't have a mandate to help you, so you have to do a lot of influencing to get what you need sometimes.
The difference between Agile Six and my time at Amazon is significant. I hate to speak this way, but at Amazon, the human factor didn't seem like a factor. Employees often didn't feel respected or valued for their contributions. There was a constant relative evaluation, performance monitoring, and a lingering fear of repercussions and difficulty in advancement. Amazon does attract top talent, and everyone I worked with there was smart, brilliant, and lovely. However, the system we were in felt suffocating; you were always expected to increase your revenue numbers quarter over quarter, no matter what.
That's hard on people and their morale. Whereas at Agile Six, I just came out of a meeting this afternoon with a coach and another delivery manager trying to mitigate some tension between our two teams. We deal with feelings, and we really respect people's humanity. We take accessibility, accommodations, diversity, and inclusion seriously. We're not a perfect organization, but everyone here is open to feedback, and everyone here shares the common value of wanting to be doing work that matters and wanting to be living a full human experience. Both of those things can coexist, and we can get paid decently.
The nonprofit world also grinds people under the wheels of capitalism. I've worked in nonprofits, and I feel like Agile Six is such a sweet spot that gives people the chance to do good work for a reasonable living wage, and feel respected and taken care of while you're doing it. It's not perfect, but the work that we did today was meaningful. And the people who are here, we're doing our best to take care of them. That's good enough for me.
Agile Six is a fully remote, self-managed company. No managers here. Did you find that challenging coming into this environment?
I was a little worried. I have always avoided being a people manager because I don't want the responsibility of firing to sit with me. I understand why it's necessary sometimes, but I don't want it.
On self-management, one of my concerns was if there are no managers, does the delivery manager end up holding the bag for anything that needs to happen on the team? Sometimes, the answer is yes. I am responsible for initiating processes around performance if people are not thriving. I’m responsible for some coaching and input on staffing decisions. There are challenges of having a flatter structure, and in a hierarchy, it's very easy to say, 'this is not my problem.' It goes up the chain, and somebody handles it. But every time I have felt overwhelmed on those grounds and waved a flag to say, 'Hi, I am freaking out,' folks within Agile Six have pointed out that you don't have to do this by yourself. We have coaches available. You can talk to HR, you can talk to leadership, and you can go to your community of practice.
The Delivery Community of Practice at Agile Six is the first time in my career that I've had more than one other person who understood my role and could provide support and feedback. It's incredible. You don't have to do it alone, which is a nice trade-off, and there's a lot of support and creative problem-solving.
Can you talk about the impact you can make now in civic tech and how it aligns with your values?
I am very hopeful that civic tech is my last professional stop. I feel like civic tech aligns with my personal values of just supporting people with your talents and trying to improve conditions so that everyone gets to have a just and equitable life.
Let’s talk about work-life balance.
It can be challenging; the days are very full and busy. I recently had a couple of conversations with friends about this because there was a season when I inherited the second team in March of this year. So it's been about six months. In the first three or four months, it was just a lot, and I struggled to figure out how to balance it all. I talked to a friend of mine who's a principal where I live, and she has a very high-powered job. She deals with a lot of personnel stuff, she has a lot of activity and I asked her how she thinks about managing herself.
She said she makes sure to give herself a lot of downtime after work for her brain to recover and just to reset back into her personal life. She reminded me that we're never going to get everything done in one day. There's going to be an infinite to-do list, and you just have to focus on your strategic priorities and make sure that you're delegating what you can, and accept that there are some things you're just not going to be able to get done.
Focus on the most important things and just accept that you're not going to get through everything and don't let that stress you out. It's just the job, and the work you're doing isn't about you. It's meaningful, it has a bigger picture, and that's okay. I've tried to take that to heart.
In the last four-ish months, I've given myself that time at the end of the day just to walk my dog and let my brain be like, 'Whoa, what was that? What a day!' And then come back down and say, 'Yep, what a day.' But at least you weren't just cranking out more dollars for some shareholder's stock dividend thing. At least there was a reason for it.
We touched on work-life balance, but I'd like to know your approach to self-management and maintaining balance.
Having a team that's very supportive and will call out, you know, 'You don't have to own all that, right? You could delegate,' is really helpful. Also, I'm not as prone to take random wellness days when I'm feeling tired, only because it racks up work that you have to get through the day after. I have developed kind of my own mental model, which is if I have a day where I'm like, 'Man, I wish I could just call out today, but I can't,' I have given myself permission to have like 50% days - I'm going to be there, I'm going to hit the high points and make sure that we don't go completely off the rails.
What I appreciate about Agile Six, honestly, is that I remember a recorded session with Robert Rasmussen, our founder, a while ago. He talks about our responsibility as a company to leave people the bandwidth to go home and be good citizens, parents, or family members. That's our job as a company. That spoke to me so deeply. Reserving enough capacity to do the human things that I'm passionate about in my personal life after work is critical, and it's really hard even when you're told that that's okay. In general, American culture is not built for that. We don't champion value outside of productivity, and I certainly struggle with that. My measure of my own personal success is closely tied to productivity in a problematic way that I have to constantly talk to myself about and find mechanisms to give myself escape clauses.
One of the escape clauses I have developed is what I call bathrobe magic, where I've given myself permission that if I have my bathrobe on, I don't have to be productive. If my bathrobe is on, I am sitting around, I'm allowed to relax and recharge. And so I think there are those mechanisms and you have to find a way. For me, my job for myself is to find a way to give myself permission to chill out. I think Agile Six champions that kind of thinking.
Let's talk about culture. Agile Six's company culture significantly shapes daily operations and overall employee experiences. Can you share a specific story or instance that exemplifies the culture in action?
The thing that comes most readily to mind again is our Delivery Community of Practice sessions. Our Community of Practice is led by our delivery coach at Agile Six, Stephen Smythe. Every time that we have the meeting, [I think] it's the kind of meeting that it would be easy to skip. It's optional, but once it got rolling, it's tough for me to miss that meeting now. I value the time spent with other people like me, and I think the Agile Six culture shines through. The entire principle is having each other's back and learning from each other, figuring out best practices and how to navigate sticky situations.
People are honest and vulnerable about what they're struggling with and what's been hard on their projects. [This culture of] seeking support over time has bred a more family-like relationship where people having a bad day post on our Slack channel: ‘Does anyone have time for a coffee kvetch today? I really need to get something off my chest.’ And again, it's a valuable cultural mode of support. Our product management also has a community of practice, and we’ve had crossover sessions where delivery and product get together. That's resource sharing, and taking the time to be thoughtful about your discipline and what it looks like together.
In many other places where your entire motivation is to make money, that kind of activity isn't supported. Nobody cares if you workshop with other people in your role, and it's really up to you to seek it out – whereas Agile Six tries to foster, encourage, and expect it.
Agile Six has five core values: purpose, wholeness, trust, self-management, and inclusion. Which one resonates with you the most and why?
I wouldn't have thought about it until you just read them out like that, but it's trust. It's just really evident. We have a lot of aspirations, and Agile Six believes in hiring in such a way that if you've got aspirations and want to make something happen, why don't you go make that happen? It's very liberating. You don't have to worry about whatever you might worry about if you didn't feel trusted.
Now, let's talk about the most rewarding experience that you've had here. Is there a specific accomplishment or moment you're particularly proud of?
I wouldn't have thought this would be my answer, but I am proud of my team's work on the VA homepage. We came in late to that process and inherited that project while it was in flight. The homepage was a banner initiative for the VA last year. It had been built a long time ago, like five or six years ago, and hadn't been iterated much since then.
Our team stepped up to the plate and figured out how to own it ourselves, do the work in a clear, accessible way, and work with our government client to earn his trust on something really big politically, internally for him and his job. I think we aced it, and it did a lot for the team to have that achievement under our belts and to say, 'That's what we did in our first year of the contract.' One of many things, but we all learned a lot from that process.
We just had a meeting in DC last month with several folks from the VA. They reviewed how they plan objectives and goals, and [the homepage] was in their top five goals for last year. To have been a part of something like that, to look at the homepages as a casual observer, you might not notice much, but there's a lot that goes into the decision-making and the process of shipping something like that, and it felt really good.
What would you say to someone considering a career here at Agile Six or looking to make a career move?
What I have said to friends in big tech thinking about making a move is you may not get the golden carrot of stock options, but you will get your soul back. You'll get a chance to look at the work you did at the end of the day and feel like you did something that contributed to the greater good. That's true for people coming from anywhere, not just from big tech.
When you were making the leap from Amazon to Agile Six, what were the key factors for you? Were you considering aspects like finances or culture? What was going through your mind at that time?
I think big tech knows that to get people to stick with their program, you've got to incentivize, and money's the easiest way to do that. I financially benefited from my time at Amazon, to the point where I could become a homeowner, something I might not have achieved otherwise or at least not as soon. Of course, everyone has their own reasons and motivations, but for me, my take-home pay at Agile Six is comparable to what I was making there, which is amazing. It's something I didn't think was possible. While I don't receive big stock options, which I referred to earlier as the dangling carrot, Agile Six does have an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). I can't claim to fully understand it, but it's essentially an employee-shared retirement vesting business. If you stay for two years, you vest, and then everyone in the company gets an equal disbursement through a profit-sharing agreement.
So, how did I think about the decision? Well, I needed the soul win, but I did not financially suffer as a result of coming to Agile Six. I gained peace of mind, knowing where my money's coming from and what it's doing in the world. I wanted my time to have a direct impact for good, and that's primarily what I got out of it, along with the feeling of support from the organization I'm in. It's a place where I feel like I'm being treated like a whole person and where I have permission to treat my teams like whole people too.
I'd like to jump in here and give more insight into the ESOP, Employee Stock Ownership Plan we have at Agile Six. This is one benefit that gets lost in translation, so I'll be short in sharing my interpretation and why it's important.
Essentially, the ESOP, as Jill said, is a retirement plan where we, as employees, get shares in the company. The best part? We don't have to put in any of our own money to get these shares. What's unique about Agile Six's approach is how these shares are allocated. Instead of a complex system where things like your job title, salary, or how long you've been with the company might affect how many shares you get, Agile Six does it differently. Here, it's all about equality – every qualifying employee gets an equal share, no matter their position or salary. It's a straightforward and fair approach, reflecting our values of inclusivity and shared success.
Final Thoughts from Jill
Agile Six is scrappy and conscientious, socially engaged and aware, and growth-minded. I don't mean bottom-line growth; I mean personal growth-minded. It's a great little company. We're doing great things. We're involved in all the right places. Everyone's friendly, and if you have suggestions for improvement, folks will listen to you. You'll get paid decently. Everybody's nice, everyone is so nice, all the time. And if you have thoughts about things we could be doing better, you'll get to help us do them better.
Sixer Spotlight is an ongoing series to share the stories of our team. If Jill’s story piqued your interest in a career with Agile Six, explore our open roles.