INTERVIEW: Rachel Gregorio

INTERVIEW: Rachel Gregorio

What do caricatures, public speaking, and user experience design all have in common? I was fortunate to answer this question when I interviewed Rachel Gregorio. She’s tailored her career around her talent as an artist and passion for user centered design. In addition to being incredibly talented at the aforementioned disciplines, Rachel is kindhearted and can be trusted to handle any difficult situation with grace and professionalism. AKA, she’s the type of person any team wants around!

As a User Experience Designer at MITRE, Rachel is also a founding member of “Team Toolkit”, the group that curated a list of innovative tools for The MITRE Corporation [e.g., The Innovation Toolkit (ITK)].

Growing up in the “Disney Era”
Early on, Rachel recognized her love for art. As a young child, she started drawing her favorite Disney characters and was taking cartooning classes by age 7. For those of you wondering what is meant by “Disney Era”, all you have to do is ask anyone that remembers the releases (and classic sing-alongs) of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King, or Beauty and the Beast and you’ll get your answer. Rachel went from using the book How-to-Draw Mickey and Friends to starting her own caricature business when she was 11. By 16, she was drawing caricatures in Boston’s Fanueil Hall and conversing with strangers. She’s even illustrated a few children’s books! These communication skills and experiences being in front of an audience continue to help her today as she facilitates ITK workshops (more on this later!). Rachel promised to make a caricature of Team Toolkit if we can find our way into a major business or innovation magazine!

Making design part of your job
Pursuing an art degree seemed like a natural fit, but Rachel wasn’t sure this perfectly aligned with her career goals. Throughout her early career as an artist, she’d learned the importance of good communication. So, why not simply pursue two degrees? (um…because its hard?). And that is exactly what Rachel did, double majoring in Communications and Studio Art at the Boston College. Rachel started her career in marketing, as it seemed like a natural blend of her two majors. Not stopping there, Rachel went back to school for a master’s degree in Interactive Media. Some courses in UX design helped her discover an opportunity to combine her interests in design, communication, and business, and she decided that this is what she wanted to do.

Team Toolkit, enter stage left!
After starting at MITRE, Rachel found herself attending an innovation interest group organized by Dan Ward, a fellow Team Toolkit member. It wasn’t long before Rachel, Dan, and a few other soon-to-be ITK founders (Aileen Laughlin, Stephanie Medicke, and Jessica Yu) got connected with a Boston startup to provide some feedback on their products and user-centered best practices. They kept using repeatable methods, so they decided to make an Innovation Toolkit curated for MITRE. Thus, Team Toolkit was born. Rachel describes the ITK as methods that bring people together, allowing more affective meetings that enable them to achieve their goals, solving their problems together. Though the ITK is a significant part of Team Toolkit’s responsibilities, a significant amount of time is spent preparing for and facilitating “workshops”. Being front and center for what can be hours or even days is pretty normal. Rachel attributes some of her comfort in front of an audience to her involvement with Toastmasters, where she led the chapter at her first job. Not bad for someone that says they were a bit shy beforehand!

Have a Slice of Failure Cake?
When asked what some of her “best failures” have been, Rachel talked about the importance of experimenting with your career. She suggested finding roles and people that you like, searching for creativity, working it into your job, and constantly reflecting. Rachel noted that we put this to practice on Team Toolkit. We celebrate failure by learning from it. We’re lucky MITRE has been so supportive of our “intrapreneurship.”

The TEAM of Toolkit
If the reader takes anything from this article, Rachel wants it to be this: If you can find the right people that have the same passions and interests as you, you can make your job so much more than it is on paper. The challenge is finding those people; Team Toolkit is lucky to have done so.

Let’s All Eat Cake

Let’s All Eat Cake

Team Toolkit recently did an experiment. We observed, we learned, and were humbled. We want to do it again, and in this story we’d like to share it with you.

As we mentioned in an earlier blog post, our team celebrates unsuccessful endeavors with Failure Cakes. A week ago we were sitting around a table for an idea jam session with some really brilliant individuals and one of them asked “Why don’t you share a failure cake outside of the team?”

Sounded like a good idea to us, so seven days later we set up a great big cake on a table in our corporate cafeteria. The cake said “Congratulations on Failing” in big cursive letters. We also set up a giant whiteboard and invited our colleagues to share a story of their failure in exchange for a slice of cake. Three of us each put a failure sticky on the whiteboard to get things started.

Sitting behind the untouched sheet cake we couldn’t help but wonder – would sharing our failure cake be a failure?

It was not. What it was: scary, fun, interesting, emotional, & worthwhile.

We connected with so many people that day. Heard so many stories. It was fantastic to have people laugh when we said, “failure cake” and amazing to observe the thoughtfulness and courage demonstrated by those who did share a failure. Most touching was to see people standing in front of the whiteboard, carefully reading through the stickies, shaking their heads in recognition or reading one aloud and sympathizing. We talked with people who themselves were touched, and genuinely thanked us for reframing failures with cake. And believe it or not – we heard from a project leader who read Jessica’s blog post and shared a failure cake with his team following a recent project failure.

So, what did we discover from this experiment?

MITRE employees are not afraid to fail. They recognize the growth and learning that comes with – one employee said, “if not for this failure, I wouldn’t be here at MITRE”.

MITRE employees are also not afraid to share their failures, at least if cake is involved. This vulnerability and transparency is essential for building an environment that fosters innovation – so keep it up!

To each and every one of you who shared, thank you. We can’t wait to eat another cake with you.

To everyone who said you never failed, weird flex but we’ll save you a slice.

INTERVIEW: Niall White

INTERVIEW: Niall White

Earlier this month I sat down with Niall White for an interview, the latest in our ongoing Meet Team Toolkit blog series. Well, I’m using the word “with” loosely, because I was in Massachusetts and he lives in Utah. We talked about music, art, cake, stinky cheese, and – of course – innovation. Niall is smart, analytical, funny, and a genuinely nice guy. Hope you enjoy the interview!

Dan: Let’s start with a get-to-know-you question: Say one word that describes you… and then say some more words about it.

Niall: One word is probably optimizer. I’m very analytical and like to be sure about things. So I’m always considering my options to make sure I’ve picked the best one. I love doing a lot of research but I also try to avoid overthinking things or spending too much time on research. Sometimes I succeed in that…

D: How did you end up at MITRE?

N: I first heard about MITRE from my dad when I was a kid. He was an Air Traffic Controller who worked with MITRE and always had good things to say about the people. Then in grad school, I interviewed with the company and got a great offer. Two years later, I’m still here!

D: What did you study in grad school?

N: I got an MS in Information Security Policy and Management, at Carnegie-Mellon, which is a fancy way of saying I studied cybersecurity. While I was there I also took a few courses in design thinking, and that’s a big part of how I got involved with the Innovation Toolkit.

D: Aside from working on ITK, what else do you do at MITRE?

N: I mostly support Public-Private Partnership and Acquisition projects, helping to translate technology into requirements and building strategies.  But the ITK work overlaps a lot with my day job – it’s fun to pull design thinking and ITK into the cyber-type work, whether it’s cyber testing or program protection.

D: What’s it like to be part of Team Toolkit?

N: It’s great! We all have so many diverse skills and backgrounds, which is really cool. As someone whose primary expertise is in the cyber realm, I can definitely empathize with people who don’t automatically feel like they are part of the design thinking crowd, or maybe feel like these methods aren’t really for them. Because of my background, I can help show that ITK is really for everyone.

D: How might you explain ITK to someone who’s not really familiar with things like design thinking or innovation?

N: I’d say these are tools that help adults be kids again. They help us tap into a more creative mental mode. These tools change our speed, exercise a different part of our brain, and ultimately make us better problem solvers.

D: Do you have a favorite tool?

N: Yeah, I really like the Premortem. And Mind Mapping. And Problem Framing. So I guess I have three favorites, but they’re all sort of related. Too often teams jump right to a solution or end up being busy for the sake of being busy. These tools help make sure we know what the problem really is, and they give us permission to have really important conversations we might not otherwise have. Conversations like “What problem are we really trying to solve?”

D: One of the things Team Toolkit does is celebrate failure with cake. Do you have a favorite flavor of Failure Cake?

N: I like failure cake that tastes OK. All too often failure does not feel OK, so I’d love it if failure cake was an OK flavor. Maybe vanilla? And let me add that if Team Toolkit was a cake, it would definitely be my favorite kind of cake: Funfetti, with all the colors and flavors together. Confetti is my favorite thing.

D: I borrowed that last question from when your wife Kaylee interviewed me, and this next question is from her too. If ITK were on the cover of a major business / innovation magazine, what would you want the cover to look like?

N: I’d want it to be an art montage by Lane Smith. He’s the illustrator who did Stinky Cheese Man, and I really like his visual style. It would be so cool to see how he would represent Team Toolkit.

D: Final question – is there anything else you want to tell the world about ITK?

N: It’s such an amazing team, and I hope more people can find themselves on teams like this. Everyone deserves this at least once in their lives!









The User Centered Design Challenge

Why is being user-centered such a challenge in the DoD?

U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Brooke Davis, Operations Group, National Training Center

I first asked myself this question while working Human Systems Integration (HSI) as a Systems Engineer for a large defense contractor. As I explored this difficult topic, I realized I might have more luck driving change from the other side of the table. So, I made my way to a FFRDC to work more directly with the Government and help shape programs and projects to be more user centered.

Six years later, I’m happy to report that Cyber is the new thorn in everyone’s side! Jokes aside, user-centered design has not yet achieved its full potential. While I’ve seen more programs understand and embrace user-centered design than before, it is still frustrating that so little has changed in the larger environment. Every program I join struggles to bring human-centered practices to bear.

The challenges I most often see: missing or cryptic SOW statements, outdated / incorrect MIL-STDs, insufficient expertise / staff planning, and no or poor requirements. In the worst cases, only a handful of people on the program understand the user’s actual mission, and even fewer have ever spoken with users.

There’s a lot we can learn from commercial industry on this point. Commercial products that succeed tend to have a strong customer-focused value proposition – in DoD terms, they help users accomplish a mission. Delivering a successful product or service requires knowing your customers, the jobs they need to get done, and the associated pain points and gains. That’s true no matter the domain or industry — involvement with users should not be limited to generating requirements. It should not be treated as a contractual checkbox to fulfill, nor as the sole responsibility of an expert or team. Instead, it should be early, frequent, and meaningful.  Being user-centric is how the commercial world works because it has an impact on their bottom line. We see this in manufacturing and software alike, where user engagement is a core principle of commercial practices like agile and Lean.

And yes, I understand that traditional DoD acquisition approaches can be limiting. However, it is possible to make designing for and engaging with users a part of how we work. Start by considering these questions:

  • If we’re so risk adverse and cost conscious, why aren’t we be making user-centered design a non-negotiable part of our approach?
  • Why do we spend SO MUCH TIME writing limiting and insufficient requirements? What might a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) requirements document look like for your program?
  • As we read proposals for design and development, shouldn’t we be looking for appropriate expertise and design process-related words like research, prototype, and iterations?
  • Why don’t we kick off programs with mandatory visits to engage with users?
  • Why don’t we leverage user ingenuity and “field fixes” as valid sources for upgrading systems?
  • Why can’t we have multiple user assessments during discovery and design? Why wait until test?
  • Why aren’t we inviting or incentivizing or making opportunities for users to be part of engineering teams (e.g., Kessel Run) or directly tapped for ideas and solutions (e.g., AFWERX)?
  • In a nutshell, why do we keep doing business this way?

If you haven’t heard, there’s some good news on this front. The AF recently appointed a Chief User Experience Officer. I’m excited to see what that will mean for the Air Force. As an Army Brat, I wish we had named one first. (Call me Army – I want to help Beat Navy!) I’m still holding out hope that the other services will follow suit and, more importantly, that the DoD taking a Warfighter-centric approach to research, engineering, design, acquisition, and sustainment shifts from being novel to our new normal.