Dominique Ramirez is responsible for beginning the DME Intern Podcast, and he works in the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs and is the Intern Program Manager on the Digital Media Engagement team, working mostly as a Public Affairs Specialist and in technology on the VA website. Dom had also spent ten years in the Navy and had started the Virtual Student Federal Service program with the VA a long time ago and is surprised at the growth and success with which the program has achieved. In addition to his many responsibilities in Public Affairs, Dominique works alongside other people within the VA, making sure that certain documents are accessible for veterans with disabilities, managing 300 interns and answering questions from different teams.
Returning after leaving the Digital Media Engagement team meant that Dom had to reboot the VSFS program, a program that is run by the Department of State that provides a platform for federal employees to acquire the assistance of interns to work on projects with them. In 2016, the program only had 16 interns in total and from there Dom expanded the program by bringing back the DME interns that he had originally worked with before. Knowing that the task of overseeing 300 interns would be too much for one individual, Dom made the decision to make leadership positions within the different departments. Dom’s military experience on a destroyer led him to base the command structure of the DME Internship around command positions on a ship like Division Officers, Department Heads, Executive Officers and Commanding Officers.
You can find Dom participating with other interns on Slack, for instance, on the #RoseThornBudThursday posts that allows interns to share a good experience (a Rose), a challenge they faced (a Thorn) or something they are looking forward to in the future (a Bud). Dom is a huge fan of the DME Intern Podcast and says that, “As many as possible of the interns on the team should take you up on your offer and sit down for an interview on the podcast because it really gives me the chance to get to know you guys better.”
Use the audio player to listen to Dom’s full interview, or read the transcript below:
Ep 21: Grace Yang – DME Interns
Shannon Moran: The Department of Veterans Affairs does not endorse or officially sanction any entities that may be discussed in this podcast, nor any media products or services they may provide. Hello and welcome to the Department of Veterans Affairs Digital Media Engagement Interns Podcast. This podcast will focus on the experience and work of various interns on the Digital Media Engagement’s team who are working with us as part of the Virtual Student Federal Service internship within the department of Veteran’s Affairs. This podcast is two interns having a conversation about their experiences in order to highlight the work, as well as encourage application to this program and friendship amongst the interns. So please join us as we highlight and get to know some of the many interns that are part of our program. Thank you for listening!
Hi and welcome back to the DME interns podcast. Today we are so excited to have Dom here with us. He is the reason that we get to this. He is the reason that all of the interns are a part of the program, and the reason this podcast exists was his original idea. We are so excited to have him today. Dom can you introduce yourself for us?
Dominique Ramirez: This is Dominique Ramirez. I work in the Dept of Veterans Affairs Office of Departmental and Intergovernmental Affairs and I am on the Digital Media Engagement team. I am technically a Public Affairs Specialist but I generally do most of the technology related stuff. I also now have this side gig going on with the intern program. It grew into something beyond the scope of anything I had imagined when I first set it up a long time ago. I should also point out that I am a Navy veteran as well; I spent 10 years in the Navy.
SM: So similar to when you and I have talked about the intern podcast: you’re learning a lot about the interns that you would not have gotten to know, and now we get to learn about you. For most of us you are the name next to the Slack reminders for signing in and out and all of that fun stuff. Outside of managing 300+ interns, what do you do in a day? What does a typical day look like in the public affairs office?
DR: Well I actually work with a lot of people across the VA. It’s interesting because you will find — this is a bit of a blessing and a bit of a curse — you will find that once people find out that you know how to do stuff, they come to you to do that stuff. If they find out that you’re the guy or girl who knows how to do X, they seek you out to do X in the future. So, you know, I try not to if you start a new job… It’s almost like trying not to do too much stuff. You know you’ll be eager and you’ll want to make a name for yourself and prove yourself, but at the same time keep in mind that you are setting yourself up to be the resource to be tapped for that thing in the future. It may not always be part of your job. It’s just if you say “oh I know how to do that”, you’ll be doing that from now on.
For example, 508 remediation, which is Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it has to do with making documents accessible for individuals with disabilities. So for my team, since I help manage the website VA.gov. So I have to know how to do that stuff, I have to make these documents accessible so when we publish content it is accessible for veterans with disabilities. And that’s the right thing to do, of course, but then people find out that you know how to do that and then teams that are not your team come to you. So I work with a lot of people, I’ve recently been working on rolling out Salesforce Social Studio. I worked with a co- well she’s not really a coworker with me in my administration. There’s the department of veterans affairs, but there’s the VA Central Office, then Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefit Administration, National Cemetery Administration, so there’s all these different administrations.
But I actually worked with an individual from the VHA, and we worked together to roll out social studios across the entire VA. So Salesforce Social Studio is now available to all of the Public Affairs Officers who work across the VA and that’s all work that I did. So it put me in touch with a number of Public Affairs Officers. I also worked with Web Development folks since part of my job is to update VA.gov websites from time to time. So… yeah there’s a lot.
SM: How did this begin to now having 300 interns? How did that happen? It doesn’t just happen overnight so what did that look like over the past however many years?
DR: Sure! Well, the internship actually, the first year we did the internship was in 2016. I had actually left the DME team. I went to the Veteran Employment Services office because they needed a webmaster and I liked it. Also they allowed me to work 100% remotely and I enjoyed that concept. I will say that my previous job was starting to allow me to work from home as well but they didn’t seem to like it all that much. Either way, I felt it was a good time to leave and they needed some help so I went. But I actually came back to DME and they were very gracious in allowing me to come back. Either way, I brought my interns with me is what I’m saying. When I was over at VES, I was basically a one man show as far as managing social media and web development. It occurred to me that I could improve my output if I had some assistance. So I asked and received permission to try out this crazy thing I had heard of called the Virtual Student Federal Service. It’s a really cool program that is run by the Department of State — or State Department? I don’t know how you say it. They basically provide a platform by which federal employees can acquire the assistance of interns for whatever project it is that they’re working on. So I submitted a couple projects, graphic design projects, social media projects, web development projects. And I got 16 applicants for my positions! I brought them on board, and that’s how it started! It started in 2016 and we had 16 or 17 people join the team. From there I just expanded it. I believe the next year we had somewhere close to 50-70, something in between there. I actually moved back to DME and brought all the interns with me. The year following that we wanted to expand it.
I realized at this point that I could not manage all of it myself. We tried something crazy. I fell back on my military experience and decided to begin building out a command structure for the internship. There’s no way that I can personally attend to and manage all 300 interns. So what we did was we basically built leadership positions for these interns. I kinda set it up basically as the command structure as a ship. I was on a destroyer so we had Division Officers, Department Heads, the Executive Officers, and Commanding Officers, so that’s how we set it up. It seems to be functioning, I like it. Smaller teams have a Division Officer or 2, since these are part time interns. We tried to get people into leadership positions to split the responsibilities up. The same for department heads, which may have multiple divisions reporting them. Then the Executive Leadership Team member for a team might have multiple departments. Then everybody reports to me via the XOs, which we just recently created. My ELTs were working in their teams a lot, and I wanted people who all they needed to do was keep in touch with me so I could get someone who I could talk to and communicate with. That’s how we have it set up and it has expanded to approximately 300 this year. In the past I’ve had people say that Dom is running an intern army over these. I’m like no. No. It’s a Navy.
SM: I think we had that conversation in one of the channels about what we were. I think we decided on a gaggle of interns. There were all sorts of words thrown out, it was funny.
DR: A murder of interns. We did have that conversation in Slack. Slack is fun sometimes! I really like it. One of the things that I like to do, when interns are trying to do their engagement things that they do like “Rose Bud Thorn Thursday” or “This or That Tuesday” I try and make sure to participate. I want other people to join in and also I get to learn more about you guys. I don’t always succeed but I try to participate whenever I can.
SM: Yeah it’s fun! Almost every intern we have spoken to through this podcast has talked about how much they loved “Making Connections Monday” or “Resume Friday” or all the little stuff we’ve thrown in there in between. We now have coffee pictures quite frequently and all sorts of different stuff. Somebody always tells us what “National Food Day” it is.
DR: I noticed that. I actually listen to the podcast and I said this before but I really think as many as possible of the interns should take you guys up on your offer to sit for an interview. It really gives me a chance to get to know you guys better.
SM: Yeah it’s great for us, it’s great for them. It’s a great opportunity all around. And it’s fun. So what has been your favorite part of growing the fleet of interns from 15 to 350?
DR: One thing is that I get to meet a LOT of interns. Some of the interns… Well actually a lot of the interns are very professional. You guys do amazing work. Behind the scenes, the DME team we have another Slack and sometimes someone will pop in and share some of the work that you guys did. You’ll find me randomly going in the recognition channel and giving recognition to someone and that’s because we are over there just praising your work on our slack so I felt like I needed to give you some kudos or whatever. We get to meet a lot of great people.
Also, I don’t know if everyone realizes. But if you kinda think about what you’re doing or what impact you’re having. But I actually went back over the years and looked at the amount of hours worth of work that has been done by the interns on our team. It’s an estimation but in the past 4 years you guys have provided something like 200,000 hours worth of work. This is all in creating content for veterans, about veterans, to help veterans. It’s really impressive what you guys have been able to do over time. That’s another part that I am particularly proud of. It’s this resource that nobody has ever thought of. It’s just individuals that want to help do things for veterans and they are making a big impact.
SM: I’ve never met a more eager group of people to learn and try and fail and all of the things. Everyone is really willing to try something new and learn about new platforms and media.
DR: Yeah and when you step back a bit and take it in at a macro level, it is really impressive what you have accomplished as a team. Especially if you consider the past 4 years or so.
On that note, what happened with the internship when you first posted the 3 or 4 projects compared to where we are now? What was the original goal versus what happened 4 years later? I imagine those are two very different things.
The original goal was just to get Dom a little bit of help with his webmaster position.
You could say we’ve done that. 200,000 hours later you’ve gotten some help.
A little bit! Maybe a smidge of help. I was just looking for a little bit of help so I figured I would post some graphic design. I’m writing blog posts and I need some graphics. I can do graphics but I’m just one person, right. So I figured I could get someone to do graphics and I write more blog posts. Or if I get someone to write blog posts I have more time to work on the website. Or if I get more web development interns I can do something else, I don’t know. But it’s freed me up to do even more work to help veterans. The original goal was just to get help doing my job but now that I’m back at DME and I brought interns with me it has expanded. It’s not just help for me, it’s help for my entire team. On that topic, I’m looking for interns that can help DME with all the things that we do. So we write content, we make videos, we do graphics, blogs and whatnot. We do the podcast. So we have interns that volunteer to assist in all those different areas.
So we are helping not just me, it is my entire team now. Just the other day Tanner was talking about how he wants to set up a newsletter for his podcast and I was like “well we have a newsletter team, did you know this? Why don’t they help you with the newsletter?” And that’s awesome because it lets Tanner spend more time creating awesome podcasts. You guys are helping our entire team, and it doesn’t even stop there. Now we have expanded to an External Affairs team, the Department of External Affairs. The head of the Department of External Affairs, Victor Affairs, chose the name because it makes the acronym DEA. So now Victor is the head of the DEA. I was like “oh we are totally going with this. It has been decided.” We created the DEA to allow our team to work with other teams throughout the VA.
This goes back to what we talked about earlier. Once you become known for a thing, people come to you for that thing. Word got out about our fleet of interns, and that they do awesome stuff so people come to me looking for help. Maybe writing blog posts or remediating documents, basically anything our interns do. They come to me directly and ask me for help getting their project done. I would love to be the guy that does all of that but I don’t have that kind of time. So I created the DEA and put an awesome intern as the head of the DEA, Victor. Basically they handle incoming requests from offices outside of the DME team. They take a team of project managers and at this point, compared to little old Dom in 2016 looking for some help, now I’m trying to create a platform for interns to work on projects across the Dept of Veteran’s Affairs.
SM: You had a fairly long career in the Navy and now you run a fleet of interns. What was your transition from your life in the Navy to Webmaster Captain of all Interns?
DR: Here’s something interesting. I didn’t start at the VA after I got out of the Navy, I started at the Department of Education’s Office of Student Aid. So if you’ve ever filled out a FAFSA, that’s the office that I used to work for. I actually created that @FAFSA twitter account. We used to have the #askfafsa office hours every month. That’s where I went and I wanted to bring it back there because I have a couple of things to share with interns, maybe some tips here.
First: I ran a facebook group in the Navy because I was a recruiter. It was a facebook page or a facebook group or whatever, and I managed to convince the Office of Federal Student Aid that my running a facebook group qualified me to be a social media professional. I got a position as a New Media Analyst. I had no formal education in social media, I don’t even know if there is such a thing. I was a business student. I was able to take that and my facebook group and flip it into a job.
SM: I think any intern or student listening will definitely relate to that experience of not feeling qualified but going for it anyway.
DR: That! Right there! So that’s the thing, that’s one of the tips I wanted to point to. You may not think that you are qualified for a federal position if you’re going to apply for it but do it anyway. Sell it the best you can and let the chips fall where they may. I had the experience of running a facebook group, so if I could do it you can do it too. I did have my Navy experience going for me, but that doesn’t help me run a twitter account. Don’t just make the assumption that you aren’t qualified for a position. At least try, and if they tell you no, let them do it. You try to get the position. I ended up getting the job at the Office of Student Aid. I really loved it over there, they have a great team. This leads me to my next tip. I’ll give you background.
I was brought in as a GS9, it goes GS9, 11, 12 so you can advance in the position. Currently I’m a GS13 so I’m kinda stuck at GS13 until a GS14 opens up. But I went through 9, 11, 12, and I was at GS12. I wanted to apply for a position that was opening up that was GS13, and it basically was my position but for more pay. It was all the stuff that I was doing already, but more pay. I asked my chief of staff if I could apply for that position and he said no. I received an email asking me to train somebody over at the main Department of Education office in how to do my job. And to me that was a slap in the face because I was just told that I couldn’t take the position because I just got GS12 so I didn’t have enough time to apply for it. But they want me to train somebody else so then they can get the better job? Hell no!
I actually left. That was my cue to go apply for a different position at the Department of Veterans Affairs. It was a GS13 position, and guess who got hired at GS13 over here. So I left and that was right before they went into a hiring freeze. Kinda sucks for them because they weren’t able to backfill me. I guess my tip there is “don’t think that you’re stuck. If you get a federal job don’t think you have to stay there.” If they’re not treating you right you can move elsewhere. If it’s not the right place for you, if different leadership comes in and they’re not treating you the way you should be then you pack up your toys and you go home. That’s another thing to keep in mind with these federal jobs. Take the position, get your foot in the door, and start applying to other positions as well.
SM: Yeah that makes a lot of sense. I know on the intern side of things, seeing the VSFS project list… we are often made aware of projects or things happening in departments that we did not know about which is really incredible. What is your tip for interns that are thinking about applying to DME or any other program as far as advice in the application process as well as advice if you are lucky enough to become an intern.
DR: One: I would say when you are filling out your application keep in mind that a lot of people think that by joining the federal workforce that it is a political position and it is not. We are basically banned from even political speech. You’ll have seen it all throughout Slack — hey let’s not talk about the election. You want to talk about that I hear Twitter is a nice place for it. But like we don’t talk politics in Slack and we’re not supposed to. We are intended to be here to support the American people, American citizens, and not specific subgroups of them except veterans obviously. Your politics should not matter. If you’re a veteran we are going to help you. This is not a political position that you are applying to and this is the case across just about every federal position that you find in the intern application process. Including your political activism… it’s nice that you do that but it is not really going to help you get a position at the VA. We are specifically not trying to be political so that’s a common misconception that I see when I am reading through the applications is that people think that joining the federal government is a political thing and it is not. It’s a helping American citizens thing. That’s all we are looking for. How much do you want to help? Not how much you are for this cause or that cause.
SM: What is your advice for new interns?
DR: New interns! Alright. One – get to know who your department heads and division officers are, and talk to them. Two – be active in slack. I’ve had this issue in the past where we might go a full year and then I’ll get a phone call from a potential employer or I get calls from the FBI investigating interns for a background check and I’m like “I didn’t really know that person to be honest. They never spoke.” It’s sad! If you want me to be a reference you have to talk to me. I’m not that scary. Talk to me from time to time, say stuff in Slack. If I don’t see you talking, it’s like me going to… let’s assume we have a brick and mortar. You guys all come over to the local VAMC and I was there. It’s like having a job and never showing up to work. Or never talking to your boss. I would recommend that… this is a whole new world that we are in with all this virtual stuff. When you leave here if you’re going to a place that work is virtual, we are reimagining how work gets done. You have to actually talk to your boss. You have to check in from time to time. For us, Slack is that method. If you’re not in Slack and talking to me on Slack, I don’t really know you. When it comes time to give you a reference or attest to your ability to handle classified information when the FBI comes knockin’ — and they have been to my house by the way — if I don’t know you it’s hard. I would say, be active in slack, talk to me from time to time, and talk in general so I know you’re here and doing stuff.
SM: You and I had a phone call or something and I was sitting with some friends. I was like “oh I have to go talk to my supervisor for my internship” and a couple minutes go by and I’m still sitting there. My friend was like “don’t you have to go take this call?” and I was like “he’s talking to the FBI just give him a minute I don’t know what’s happening.” But you sent me a Slack message and you were like “The FBI just called, I’ll talk to you in a second.” Sure… ok I guess that’s normal. This was within the first month of me being a part of the internship so it was a little confusing but really funny.
DR: Yeah that happens multiple times throughout the year. Surprise surprise, interns applying to internships with the federal government tend to try and get jobs with the federal government. So I get contacted by the FBI frequently.
SM: So, anything you would like to say to veterans who have just found the work that you do? Or maybe don’t fully understand all the work that the VA does or the need for a fleet of internet interns? What do you wish you could say to veterans who are listening?
DR: Well the first thing I would say to veterans listening is come join us if you’re in school! We advertised this internship in the VA newsletter this year and we ended up getting a record number of veterans to join the team. There’s like 20 of them that are working with us. If you would like to get a little bit of experience, hey Salesforce Social Studio is an expensive tool. Come here and I will give you an account and you can learn how to use it and put that on your resume. If you want to help veterans, write content about veterans, share stories about veterans. We have interns who’s whole job, well a big part of their job, is to find content for us to share on social media. Oftentimes that is about veterans, or content about veterans. That’s interns deciding content to be shared with more than 1.2 million people on Facebook and even more on Twitter and Instagram and whatnot. This is a good opportunity to help other veterans if that’s something that you are interested in.
Additionally, maybe it’s a pet peeve, but it’s just sad because I don’t think everybody knows this. It’s been said that a third of the VA workforce is veterans. I think people don’t realize how many veterans work here at the VA and that myself included we actually do care. We go out of our way to help veterans. The media is kinda rough on us sometimes, and sometimes rightfully so. But keep in mind there’s also veterans working here and we care a lot. That’s what I would say.
SM: You are, probably our #1 listener to this podcast. What is something… You’ve joked that you listened, didn’t know we were doing. What is something that you listened to and you were like “that’s a project that I didn’t know was happening?”
DR: Oh. I know what you’re talking about and I’m trying to think if I remember what it was. Ok I don’t remember exactly what it was that stood out to me. You were interviewing somebody and they were just telling you about what they do. This is a good example of one of the reasons I like the podcast. You have people on here talking about what they do in the internship, That;s great for me because you guys are very independent. I give you a task and then you come up with how to do it.
So like Trello. I didn’t set up the Trello board. I created a board, and people like the department heads created all the lists and you guys decided what lists need to exist and made the checklists. I didn’t do that. I just had to do with a method or something to get something done. I wish I remembered exactly what it was. I thought it was really interesting because it’s like “wow I’m tuning in to a podcast to learn how my internship works.” I don’t know the exact thing.
SM: No it’s ok, that’s awesome. We always end on a fun fact.
DR: Ok. Let’s see… fun fact. I am very good with nunchucks. I was actually… Someone saw me playing with nunchucks while I was in the Navy. When we do refueling at sea on a ship we come alongside an oil tanker and they transfer stores (food and other stuff) but they also transfer gasoline to the ship. At the end we have something called an emergency breakaway. We do it every time just to practice in case there’s a fire or something and we have to separate and another ship is coming and we have to get out of the way. They actually put me out on the front of the ship with… in the Navy at night we have glow sticks. They made me do a nunchuck show with glow sticks during an emergency breakaway. Somebody volunteered me for that so I ended up doing it. I’m really good at nunchucks.
SM: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much for doing this, it was a lot of fun. Thank you for tuning in to the DME Interns podcast. We hope you learned something about your fellow interns, more about our program, and that you come back and listen to us soon. Have a great rest of your day!