The Work Outside the Work

Learning not to code

In commercial work, I often measure my productivity by the completion of specifications. When evaluating the success of a client project I ask, “Does it do everything it needs to do?” If it does, I’ve succeeded, if it doesn’t, I keep working until it does. Rarely am I required to advocate on behalf of an eCommerce feature, or speak before my City Council in the name of an order fulfillment app.

Civic technology is different. You have to get up from your computer, go out into the world, and provide value through the clear articulation of big ideas. This peripheral work, or work outside of the work, can be challenging, and even exhausting, but it is an essential component to a successful civic technology project. It is often where the most value is brought to a project, and derived from it.

Our Code for America Community Fellowship project, The State of Black Asheville, is the continuation of a 10-year-old disparity study that began as an undergraduate research project founded by Dr. Dwight Mullen, a retired professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Using modern technology, we are bringing this project into the future, with new features and functionality to make it an even more useful community resource. In a commercial project, delivering on these technical components would be where our task as developers ends. As Community Fellows, that’s where it begins.

A video of Dr. Dwight Mullen plays as the Asheville Fellowship team presents to members of Asheville City Council. To best communicate Dr. Mullen’s vision, we interviewed him about the project to help audiences gain better context.

This was especially true as October approached, and we barreled towards a series of events that our Fellowship team internally dubbed “The Gauntlet.” Sure, this may have been a bit dramatic — two weeks of travel and project presentations isn’t too difficult a task in a vacuum. But my Fellowship teammate Patrick and I are also small business owners. We would have to carefully juggle these commitments with our existing workload of technical tasks for our Fellowship project, all while finding time to make sure we’re keeping the lights on at the web development firm we operate. It was a stressful two weeks that pushed us outside of our comfort zones, but it was also an essential component to our work that we knew we had to capitalize on.

In a commercial project, delivering on these technical components would be where our task as developers ends. As Community Fellows, that’s where it begins.

The Gauntlet kicked off during the second week of October, when we received a late-breaking opportunity to attend the Public Interest Technology Summit at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. At first, we had no idea how we could fit a 5-day trip into our already booked schedule, but after some internal discussions, we deemed it an experience that was too valuable to miss. We shuffled some things around and made it work, and we were thankful that we did. As a person who attended a small liberal arts university in Asheville, it was fascinating to hear some of the famed Harvard lecturers speak to their own experiences doing things like advising U.S. senators on the Facebook hearings and organizing laborers with Cesar Chavez. The summit speakers focused much more on the theory of ethics and policy than any specific tech solutions. I had always believed that this is the type work that is most essential in our field — what I hadn’t realized is just how much interdisciplinary effort goes into it. The common theme of the event seemed to be that tech can amplify this work and empower those doing it, but it can’t be the driving force. Tech is only as good as the movement behind it.

The 2018 Community Fellows (minus Britney Lyons) at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Public Interest Technology Summit.

After we returned from Cambridge, we immediately began preparing for phase two of The Gauntlet: a Fellowship site visit with Code for America, where we had blocked out a full day for presentations to Asheville City staff, City Council, and finally Code for Asheville (Asheville’s local Brigade). While we do present our community work fairly frequently, we typically don’t do it this many times in such a compressed time-frame. By the end of the day, I was tired of hearing myself talk and a bit exhausted… but when the dust settled, we had achieved some big wins. Alongside our community partner, Dr. Mullen, we demonstrated the value of The State of Black Asheville project to the City’s top decision-makers. We gained support for the project’s sustainability from the City — both from members of staff and policymakers — and we were asked to submit a plan for what ongoing support would look like. Our project took its biggest step forward yet on that day, without a single line of code being written.

Tech can amplify this work and empower those doing it, but it can’t be the driving force. Tech is only as good as the movement behind it.

After building some local support for the Fellowship, we were feeling good as we entered Phase 3 of The Gauntlet: Brigade Congress in Charlotte, NC. Brigade Congress is Code for America’s annual gathering of members of the Brigade volunteer network, and we were slated to present our project in a breakout session. As the weekend approached we worked tirelessly to perfect our presentation. We worked closely with our community partners to craft a story of our project in a way that was both purposeful and authentic. It was challenging to find the right words with which to present the sensitive racial themes that our project addresses, so we worked closely with Dr. Mullen to ensure that we communicated his vision for the project as clearly as we could.

The presentation was a success — not just because we did a good job in the room, but because we had found the right tone and messaging by rehearsing and revising it again and again. While we deliver many of our presentations to our local community and government with minimal rehearsal, we felt it was critical to put a significant amount of time and care into the presentation of our Fellowship project. It was worth it. Through these efforts we discovered an effective way to communicate the story of our Fellowship project’s history and future, something that is essential to its success as we continue to build support through community engagement.

All four Community Fellowship teams at Brigade Congress in Charlotte.

After our presentation, we were able to relax a bit and enjoy the rest of Brigade Congress more fully. We had survived The Gauntlet, and on the car ride home from Charlotte to Asheville, we could finally exhale. We were somehow drained and energized at the same time. It was two weeks where we had written almost no code, but had found value that couldn’t be quantified in a list of specifications. What we did in these two weeks — including the stresses and challenges — was the real work of civic tech. It required us to shift priorities, to overload ourselves, and to venture outside of our comfort zones. For now, I’ll be taking a little break from weeks like these, but next time the work outside of the work creates a “Gauntlet” situation, I’ll remember the opportunities that come with the challenges — and that despite everything, it’s undeniably worth it if you put in the time.

With thanks to my Community Fellowship partner Patrick Conant for his great ideas and editing help on this post.