Silicon Valley Meets Washington D.C.

My notes on the Code for America Summit 2018

Caleb Wursten
Jun 14, 2018 · 4 min read
David Plouffe, Obama ’08 Campaign Manager, at the Code for America Summit 2018

“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” In 1983 Steve Jobs famously persuaded John Sculley, the CEO of Pepsico, to quit his job and join Apple. The allure of changing the world was ultimately successful, and for the same reason 1,200 people trekked to Oakland California for the Code for America 2018 Summit.

A bit about Code for America: Jennifer Pahlka founded the organization in 2009, it’s backed by Google, Microsoft, and Reid Hoffman, to name a few. They have weekly public meetups, brigades, in dozens of cities across the USA (including Boston; hit me up if you’d like to get involved). They connect aspiring tech oriented civil servants to roles in government, working at state and municipal CTO offices; they will recruit people for internal projects. One internal projects is GetCalFresh.org, a service that has significantly reduced the barrier for eligible Californians access to food stamps. Another is Clear My Record, a service that streamlines the criminal record clearing process.

A bit about civic tech: it’s a coalition movement of individuals, companies, nonprofits and government organizations. The ultimate goal is to digitize government services in order to create a more wonderful world. It works towards delightful user experiences, scalability, reduced manpower, and all of the usual Silicon Valley mumbo jumbo…but in government.

My key takeaways from the Summit:

Civic technology is an unprecedented movement. The supply of citizen dissatisfaction of government is vast. Visiting the DMV is miserable, Veterans wait years to receive promised medical benefits, millions of eligible food stamps recipients go untended and the list goes on. This has always been a fact of life, that government sucks, but what’s new is our ability to solve these problems on our own. At the Summit a common theme emerged, that “no one is coming, it’s up to us.” That sentiment was expressed in every room, by every one; I had never seen so many awesome, passionate and capable people in one place. While the exact parameters of what is “civic tech” and what is not are still being hammered out, thousands of thoughtful, excited citizens have bought in.

Civic tech employment is not for college students. For the same reasons that Apple and Netflix seldom take interns, neither do the top echelons of government. While yes, of course, a handful of star student software engineers will breach the walls, and some students will find themselves in the few civic tech startups, they are far and away the outliers. The major players in the space (Code for America, 18F, USDS) told me, in incredibly kindly ways, that they look for candidates with 3+ professional work years in software development, product management or data science, etc. The people working in these groups impact millions of people, so it’s fair to wait for interns to turn into seasoned professionals. The positions are tours of duty by talented civilians, like public service was meant to be.

We need political leaders to get onboard with tech. Plato articulated this prior to the Summit, “There will be no end to the troubles of the state or indeed of humanity until philosophers become kings or until those we now call kings really and truly become philosophers.” The great philosophers of user centered design. In several workshops CIO’s/CTO’s from around the country expressed the challenge of finding tech “champions” in their political leadership. To make change in any organization the leadership eventually needs to signup, and that’s just not the case today. Right now, our political leaders, from town to federal, are mostly lawyers and traditional business men. Security and compliance are the primary focus in these roles, forget user-centered design and agile development. According to Summiteers, there is an eternal conflict between security (current) vs user-centered design (hopefully future) mindsets in government.

Real people made this happen. Civic technology is nothing short of a revolution in the making, and we should thank Jen Pahlka, Don Hon, Matt Cutts, David Eaves and so many for sacrificing their time for the greater good. They could be off making loads of money, but they are not. They organize summits, mentor future leaders of the movement, connect people to civic tech employment positions, and articulate the mission at hand. They set examples for us all.

In sum, this movement is legit. It delivers serious value to society, and from an informal 20-ish person survey, I found people are really feeling their contribution to society. So if you feel like you’re selling sugar water, consider joining civic tech. If you’re a student and don’t want to sell sugar water, let’s connect and get there together.

Caleb Wursten

Written by

COO & Cofounder @ Gravitate AI. Two previous startups. Past internships @ U.S. Senate, White House, Quicken Loans.

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