A New Silicon Valley Narrative

I had the great fortune to join Code for America just in time to attend our 2016 Summit. To say I came away inspired is a massive understatement.

We heard about the impact the Code for America team has made towards putting food on tables and keeping folks out of prison and in the workforce. We also heard success stories from our many friends and partners in local, state, and federal government.

It was a different kind of talk that stuck with me most following the Summit though, especially in the aftermath of the election on Nov 8th. John Hagel, co-chairman at Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, spoke to us about the power of narrative, and the distinction between a narrative and a story. A story is self-contained, and it’s about the story-teller or perhaps a third party. But a narrative is open-ended. A narrative paints a picture of a world inhabited by a great opportunity or threat, and includes a call to action for the listener to play an active role in grasping that opportunity, or avoiding that threat.

It’s clear that Code for America was already at the center of a very powerful narrative. It’s the one that US CTO Megan Smith and Code for America founder Jen Pahlka wrote about during the summit:

We can join a proud and growing tradition of technologists in public service extending back to George Washington’s Army Corps of Engineers, created before the country was even founded. Think about what we can accomplish by solidifying and celebrating civic engagement in tech for this generation and beyond. We need to take up the “glorious task” we’ve been given, because our country can only be as great as what each of us brings to that task, together.

This narrative of technologists engaging in public service for the good of our country resonated with me in a big way, and is in large part responsible for my decision to join CfA.

But I think there’s an opportunity, now more than ever, for technologists to be a part of an even more important narrative. It’s simple:

We can help the people in this country who are most in need live better lives.

At Code for America, our vision is government for the people, by the people, in the 21st century. That means all the people. But we’ve decided to focus our efforts at the outset on helping the people in this country who are most vulnerable. By working to provide poor, hungry, and otherwise underserved citizens better access to more effective government services, we think we can have the greatest impact for good.

And now, at a time when millions are uncertain of their future and even safety in this country, this focus is more important than ever. As Erica Joy wrote last week:

Millions of people in the United States are potentially in danger. Those are your customers. Build for them.

She goes on to highlight the need for tech leaders to double down on diversity and inclusion, and to focus on improved privacy and security. I couldn’t agree more. I would add that without serious reform in these areas throughout Silicon Valley it will be next to impossible for the devoted public servants who remain in government, as well as the people we serve, to trust the tech community enough to engage with us in addressing the most pressing issues faced by the vulnerable and underserved in our society.

In short, if we’re going to fulfill this critical narrative of helping people in this country who are most in need, Silicon Valley as a whole has to become more humane, and the time to get to work reforming tech is now.

At Code for America, we’re devoted to building an organization that is as diverse and as inclusive as the country that we serve. We believe technology is a means of creating a positive impact in the lives of people who are truly in need, and that those people deserve to be treated humanely and with respect, through thoughtful, human-centered design, responsive and determined customer service, and a deep concern for privacy and security.

We hope you’ll join us in this devotion and in these beliefs, because we can’t afford for this narrative to get lost in the noise. This is your invitation to play an active role in pursuing the opportunity to build a society that works for all its people. Only a humane and diverse tech community will be able to partner effectively with our government and our people to deliver on this vision that is very much within our grasp.


I’m the CTO of Code for America. We’re making government services work better for the people who need them most. Join us.