My guest today is Eduardo Ortiz. Eduardo is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and former Director at the U.S. Digital Service. More recently, Eduardo co-founded &Partners, a social impact design and engineering studio that works with organizations to help improve their communities. In this episode, we discuss how they manage their information to drive change.Listen to the full conversation
Jorge: Eduardo, welcome to the show.
Eduardo: Thank you Jorge. I appreciate it.
Jorge: I’m very excited to have you here. For folks who don’t know you, how do you introduce yourself?
Eduardo: I usually don’t. I’d say that I’m Eduardo and that I’m a failed engineer trying to make it as a designer. That’s about it.
Jorge: Well, you and I have been friends for a while and I’ve been following your trajectory and I think that you have a very interesting background. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that?
Eduardo: Sure, I went to school for computer software engineer, and as I was finishing my degree, I was thoroughly bored with it because my focus was on creating software for hardware. And I wanted to do something different and I started looking at what other people were doing so that a lot of my friends were in Parsons and they seemed to actually have fun doing whatever was it that we’re going to school for a while I was mostly, most of the time, miserable or in front of my computer. And I started developing a need and a want to do more of what they were doing. So I started taking design courses and just like playing with things trying to figure out what I could do with what I had learned in school, but not do what I was in school for. And I started working on higher levels of the stack and finally being in the front end. And from there, I stumbled upon the ASIS&T list and some guy named Lou Rosenfeld who had sent the message that he was moving to Brooklyn. I lived in Brooklyn, so I offered to pick him up from the airport because there was a strike in New York going on. And then just a bunch of jumps from places to places, I ended up calling myself an information architect then an experience architect then a user experience designer and now I’ve launched my own firm focus on leveraging search design and technology to help people be able to get it to live a better life.
Jorge: That’s a great articulation of your professional journey, and I didn’t know that little tidbit about picking up Lou at the airport. That’s great.
Eduardo: I actually never ended up picking him up.
Jorge: You didn’t?
Eduardo: But no, that is how I ended up even making it as an information architect or even taking that route, because of that conversation that we started.
Jorge: I pointed out the professional trajectory because I also recall seeing that you’ve served in the military as well, right?
Eduardo: Yeah, I spent 12 years in the Marines.
Jorge: And recently you were also working in government, right?
Eduardo: Yes, I’ve done two spins in the civilian side of the government. The first of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, working with the Technology and Innovation Group, and most recently with the U.S. Digital Service focusing on immigration reform.
Jorge: What is the U.S. Digital Service, for folks who don’t know?
Eduardo: Yeah, the U.S. Digital Service is a component of the White House that was established by the Obama Administration after the healthcare.gov nightmare with the vision of bringing thoughtful design, engineering, product, and research capabilities within different government agencies to focus on the most critical products and the most critical services provided to the public.
Jorge: So it’s sort of like an internal agency for the government?
Eduardo: Yeah, it’s sort of an internal Agency for the government. Very similar to to 18F within the General Services Administration. And it is the goal was to have technologies — and I’m using the word “technologies” in very general terms — that were able to, for a short stint of time up to a year or two, to focus on critical problems and do so from a position of strength because they had coverage from the White House. But also because they knew that they were not going to end up dealing with much of the bureaucracy that usually federal workers trying to do the same thing deal with.
Jorge: It sounds like an opportunity to impact a lot of folks.
Eduardo: Oh 100%. I don’t think that I’ve ever done something much more impactful than that. I mean you’re talking that any kind of work that you do, you’re impacting tens of thousands, if not millions of people. The U.S. Digital Service has had branches at the Small Business Administration, at the Department of Defense, at Homeland Security, at the Department of Education, at Health and Human Services. And you’re talking that these are folks that have partnered with federal employees to accelerate the go-to-market stage of a lot of services that have been critical.
Jorge: When I hear you use that phrase, “go to market,” it sounds like a phrase that I associate with an enterprise setting, right? Was part of it also infusing that spirit into government?
Eduardo: It very much is. And you will hear that in government, the terms that are used have been evolving for quite a while. The focus is no longer on the requirements, the focus is on people and people’s needs. The focus is not on meeting, but now on what are the goals? So the conversation has definitely been shifting to a more humane one, where the technology is merely an accelerator and an enabler rather than the “end all, be all.”
Jorge: Now, you were saying that you left the government and have started your own firm. What are you doing there?
Eduardo: I launched &Partners in the fall of 2017. And our focus has been on leveraging research and design and technology to try to solve critical problems that positively affect the social safety net. And we say so like this because for us, it’s critical to the work that we are doing is positive and is actually affecting people in positive ways, and helping people be able to live better lives. So since we launched, we’ve taken on number of paying clients, but we’ve also done…
I guess our first project was an unpaid, pro-bono work project. It was last year, when this administration callously started separating children from their parents. I was made aware that this was happening sometime in June when the story broke. And a friend from USDS, she asked me, “what are you guys going to do about it?” And I was like completely dumbfounded. I was like, “What do you mean we?” She’s like, “If &Partners doesn’t do something, no one will.” And I’m like, “We’re literally, it’s just three founders and we have no money. I’m not sure what you mean.” And we kept on chatting and then that was like the end of it. And that just like started eating at me, the “What are we going to do about it?” And this was very akin to a tactic that Dana Chisnell used on me when I joined the U.S. Digital Service, which was telling me that I needed to do something, know what’s meaningful, and that my country needed me. And that kind of call-to-arms was something that I couldn’t ignore. And the same thing happened here.
My partners and I, we started doing research to try to figure out what exactly what’s going on, which really meant making a lot of calls and starting to read the news to truly understand what was happening at the Southwest border. And when we kind of came up to an idea of what we could do or what the challenges were, I started talking to my wife who was a public defender, and she helped me kind of create this understanding, this framework for how children and families could be helped from a position of a legal expert, if you will. And once I had that I made a call out to pretty much anyone and everyone who had cycles to spare to join me. And about 40 people ended up volunteering to to join us and we ended up creating pretty much a relationship management system that we then partnered with New America and the Vera Justice Network, to provide a system that the legal providers at the Southwest border could use to reunify families.
Jorge: To me, this is so cool… To hear this, that you’re taking something that that you saw playing out in the public sphere and asking yourself the question, “Well, what can I do about it?” And then putting in motion this project to actually do something about it, is something that I think it’s inspiring. One of the challenges I think that we face in our time is that we have this illusion that because we’re, I don’t know, tweeting about problems, that somehow that’s helping the problem get solved, right? So it says it sounds to me like you’re doing actually something about it, which is cool.
Eduardo: It’s funny because tweeting sometimes can have that that effect of helping to address and solve problems because it helps amplify information, which oftentimes it’s critical. If people don’t know about something, it’s really difficult for someone to actually do something about it. And just a point of clarification, I had no intent on doing anything about the problem of unaccompanied children at the Southwest border, if it had not been for my friend who called me out, to Jennifer Anastasoff who was the Head of People for USDS before she left. If it had not been for her, I probably would not have done this. We probably would not have done this. But I think that kind of like ends up being what we all try to do, create these networks around us that help us be the best version of ourselves that we can be.
Jorge: Well, in any case, kudos because like I said, it’s going beyond talking about it and actually doing something about it. But now let me play it back to you to see if I heard correctly. So what you all did is you designed and built a system that makes it easier for folks that are working within the legal system to assist the people who are in need of their services. Is that right?
Eduardo: Pretty much, yeah.
Jorge: Do you know if it’s being used, if it’s had the effects that you hoped it would have?
Eduardo: So it was used for a little bit, but then the legal system kind of like caught up and threw some injunctions that, in theory, prevented this administration from continuing to separate families, even though we’ve read there have been a number of news reports that has not been the case. But through those injunctions it meant that the system was no longer necessary, since in theory, the government was no longer going to keep separating families.
Jorge: That’s an example of the sort of work that you all are doing. I think that would qualify in the pro bono space that you mentioned.
Eduardo: I said pro bono because no one got paid.
Eduardo: This is something that needed to be done and number of people jumped on board to get it done. There were almost like 40 people volunteering their time. I’m still flabbergasted at the names and the people that actually joined and I won’t start naming them because I will more than likely leave people out and forget about it. But for people that were involved with what was called project Quetzal and who had a hand in helping reunify children with their families know that you will forever have my gratitude.
Jorge: You mentioned that the focus of the company is on problems that affect the social safety net, and it’s pretty clear how something like the one that you’re describing falls into that category. Are you also working with corporations, with for-profit businesses?
Eduardo: We are. And funny that you ask… One of the first things [inaudible] when we started was that we were not going to be working with any corporation, that we were not going to be working with the government. And in hindsight. I had no clue what we even thought we were going to be working with had that been the case. But smarter minds prevailed and we shifted our approach and instead what we have articulated has been this rubric that allows us to clearly determine whether an organization is going to be a Good Shepherd in the social space and someone that we actually want to be associated with. So whether it is a government agency, whether it is a corporation, for profit or not, we put everyone through this rubric that we have developed to make sure that they meet the minimum standards that we have set for the organization that we want to work with. And once that actually takes place, we still have an internal vote to determine whether it is something that we should be doing or not.
Jorge: Without naming names, can give us examples of the types of projects that you’re taking on in that domain?
Eduardo: Yeah, of course. We helped develop the future generation of a system that allows lawful permanent residents to apply to become citizens with legal assistance. We have been for the past eight months working on developing a future generation electronic health record system that is focused on the provider’s perspective rather than the billing and encoding perspective. And we are working on helping farmers get the workers to work their farms faster by leveraging technology to address the bureaucracy.
Jorge: Those sound like really complex, meaty systems challenges.
Eduardo: They are and they are so exciting to be working on because it’s not just a technology problem. It’s not about writing code, it’s about taking into account the whole ecosystem around it, like a true people, process, and technology approach.
Jorge: You said, when you were telling me the story about offering to pick Lou up at the airport and such, that you start calling yourself an information architect. And I’m wondering as you’re describing all this what role information plays in in all this, and more to the point, how you all manage your information to get things done.
Eduardo: Yeah, information is central to everything that I do. Relationships, which to me are the the avenues through which information flows, are critical to what we do and how we do things because we are not in a position that everyone knows about. So who we work with is through those relationships, because someone has mentioned to someone else that they should that they should talk to us. And as such, when we are afforded those introductions, for us that relationship and that information that is captured is something that is cherished, very something that is… That is actually taken care of. So yeah, permission is simpler for us.
Jorge: Well, I feel like I want to unpack that because you mentioned that the project that you did in the Southwest border revolved around relationship management. And now you’re you’re highlighting the fact that relationship management is also critical for your own business in getting the word out and all that. How are you managing relationships with some kind of system?
Eduardo: So we have developed our own system based on technology, but it is not its own technological system, if you will. We use a series of tools to allow us to document the connections that we have, what information we have on those connections, what actually matters, what we should be sharing, what is often important to that person, the projects that are either linked to them or the referrals that are coming from them. And then we track everything through a number of buckets that allows us to understand where things are during the lifecycle of a relationship.
Jorge: When you say “we,” how many people are you talking about? How many of you all participate?
Eduardo: There are nine employees, including myself, right now in &Partners, and pretty much everyone has a hand in doing this.
Jorge: And you said it’s a homegrown system. Is it based on anything like open source technologies? Is it web-based?
Eduardo: Well, it’s just so it’s a system of systems if you will. So we use Asana, primarily but we use Google forms as well and we use a lot of the Google Docs aside from formed to develop the information and capture it.
Jorge: That’s fantastic. I feel like I want to unpack it a little bit because these are tools that pretty much everyone has access to, right? And knowing you and your and your trajectory, you’ll have probably given a lot of thought to the structuring of these things so that they can serve these purposes. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Eduardo: I mean I said this during my keynote of the IA Conference: said I have never invented anything in my life and the same the same is true of now. I think that we took a system and a series of tools and we just mashed them together to achieve what we need.
Let’s take for example this relationship management that we are talking about. So specifically, on the project intake, on that rubric, so we first started working the developing what a rubric was using Google Docs. Once we had a good narrative and a good approach for what it was, we then shifted to using Google Sheets because we needed to provide criteria for evaluation. And this is where we started trying to figure out, well, are we saying that something is good bad or okay, or are we giving it a ranking from 0 to 5? What is 5, what is 0? What does bad mean? What does good mean? And in order to do that we had shifted to Google Sheets rather than Excel.
Once we determined what that was, we needed the input facing side of it. And so, we went back to Google Docs to document what kind of information do we need in order to be able to determine whether something is good, bad, or okay. And we started documenting the type of information that we needed, the type of information that would be good to have, and the type of information that meant — that didn’t mean anything and that there was no reason for us to capture it. And once we had those two things together, then the two things we created a Google Form that allowed for the capture of the information for the data entry side, and we created an Asana project along with a number of stages that then allowed the Google Form to dynamically populate the Asana project with those with those things that we’re putting through the Google Forms. And then the stage after that, when something has made it past our intake if you will, we will manually take that card, develop it into its own project that has its own structure and then we start the process all over again.
Jorge: So this is a way of evaluating the leads for projects that you’re going to be working on?
Jorge: I was very intrigued when you said that that you have Google Forms feeding the Asana project directly. So it really is a mash-up of these various tools.
Eduardo: Yes, it is 100% a mash-up. A better way that did not involve me having to deal with Salesforce, or having to hire a Salesforce expert, I would greatly look at it.
Jorge: I was about to ask you, you know, if you all had evaluated other solutions. Because I know that there are some tools — and Salesforce is one of them — but there are some tools that do this sort of thing. Why did you choose to do the mash up?
Eduardo: We did. The mash-up was done in order to allow us to have historical information about any project in about anyone that we work with. So we make Asana work as our CRM through a number of customizations that we have made, and that allows us to be able to track that a project that we that we did came in through a specific person, and everyone that was part of that project, and what were the rules for those different people? What were the things that they had a hand in? Because that will then allow us — which is something that we do at the end of every project — is we develop an after-action report for everything that we do. So it allows us to evaluate how we worked., what were the results, what were the expectations coming into the project, and what were the things that made the project work or not. And allows us almost to compare different projects or projects that actually worked and went well and projects that didn’t, and try to in a way, say well, why didn’t this project work? Why did this project work? What did we have here that we didn’t have there? And allows us to then tweak our rubric but also it helps us understand what we are doing wrong in order to stop it, what we are doing that needs to be improved, and to improve even further on the things that we are doing well.
Jorge: There’s this aspect of learning to the system somehow, which I’m guessing that by using fairly — you alluded to like having to deal with Salesforce developers, and my sense is that The Google Suite and things like Asana, they don’t require this development know-how, right?
Eduardo: They don’t. The curb to learn how to develop this system into something that works for you is very very low, so it’s easy to deal with.
Jorge: I can see that. Especially when you have a distributed team. Are you all in the same place?
Eduardo: We are not. We are all distributed. We have folks in New York, New Mexico, Seattle. Myself, I am in DC. We have some co-workers in Virginia. We have folks in in LA and we have one of our colleagues in the Netherlands.
Jorge: Wow, I didn’t realize that you were even International. That’s fantastic.
Eduardo: Things have happened organically, and I am still trying to figure out why everyone has trusted me and jumped onboard into what is to me an experiment. That an organization that is solely focused on doing the right thing can be profitable and can help everyone be able to go to sleep at night and say, “I did something good today.”
Jorge: Well Eduardo, congratulations. That seems like a really great place to wrap it up.
Eduardo: Thank you, I appreciate it.
Jorge: Good luck with the experiment. And why don’t you tell us where folks can follow up with you?
Eduardo: Yeah, so if folks want to follow up with me, I’m on Twitter at Eduardo Ortiz. I am on LinkedIn, I think under my same name, is Eduardo S. Ortiz. Or if folks want to figure out what &Partners is doing, we are on both Twitter and LinkedIn as well. On Twitter, it’s andprtnrs, and on LinkedIn it’s And Partners, all spelled out.
Jorge: Fantastic, I’m going to include the links in the show notes to make it easier for folks.
Eduardo: That is perfect.
Jorge: Well, thank you so much for your time Eduardo, it’s been a pleasure talking with you.
Eduardo: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. And I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you and to your audience.