2018 Code for America Summit — My take…

Approximately 1200 public servants, civic technologist, vendors, and brigade members (spanning the globe) converged on the city of Oakland for the 2018 Code for America Summit which concluded earlier last month. The three-day conference included a mix of main stage presentations, workshops, break-out sessions, and networking events that tackled a number of topics from diversity and inclusion to changing the government from the inside out.

Admittedly, when I was asked by the Open Charlotte (formally Code for Charlotte) brigade captain, Jill Bjers, to attend the Code for America Summit in Oakland, I didn’t really know what to make of it. I mean, sure, I’ve been part of the local brigade for the last two years, taken on a role within the leadership team, and been involved, at least cursorily, in some initiatives. However, I am still very new to this, and by this I mean, I am as junior as developers come and I am surrounded by developers and people with skill sets in the real world that still leave me in awe. These guys are simply amazing. The brigade is made up of developers (both junior and senior), project managers, writers, CIOs, and many others with any number of skills that make it all come together. And, they have accomplished quite a bit. But, more importantly, these are citizens giving back to their local community by donating their time and energy for the greater good. So, this provides some context of my experience within the local brigade, but little did I know that my education was just beginning.

The Code for America Summit began with humble enough beginnings and has grown into a full-fledged, high production value complete with organizers from around the country, celebrity guest speakers, both within and outside of the tech community, large corporate sponsors, and a full assortment of C-suite from a variety of technology companies. I even had the opportunity to meet several of my peers from Code for Japan, Brazil, Germany, Pakistan and Romania!

Brigade members(L-R), Andrew Natoli (Open Charotte), Nehemiah Dacres (Open STL) and two members of Code for Japan

Our first day on the ground began with the obligatory getting lost on the BART from San Francisco to Oakland, checking into our boutique hotel (an adventure in and of itself), and of course, partaking in the many fine eateries and craft beer that Oakland has to offer. Open Oakland was kind enough to invite all incoming brigade members to their Civic Hack Night, hosted at city hall, where we were able to meet a number of other brigade captains and members. We spent the evening making introductions, discussing projects, and eating food (there’s a theme here!).

Civic Hack Night hosted by Open Oakland

Brigade Day kicked off the first day of the conference with sessions lead Laurenellen McCann who spoke on the nature of the some of the challenges faced by brigades at the grassroots level like retention and conflict resolution among its members. For those who have never seen them speak, they are very dynamic and Laurenellen’s, tell it like it is, approach is very engaging, sobering, and educational. There were times during their presentation when I felt uncomfortable for some of the people in the room, and they were speaking in defense of people like me or other protected classes (minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community). I found their worldliness and candor to be both refreshing and appropriate given the day. The sessions were very informative and provided a wealth of knowledge to take back to our respective brigades.

Brigade Day at the Code for America Summit 2018 — photo credit Andrew Natoli of Open Charlotte

The days that followed at the Code for America Summit weren’t without plenty of pomp and circumstance. Summit goers were greeted by a vast hallway lined with recruiters manning booths and peddling their wares. Present were also tech and media giants like Git and O’Reilly publishing and government agencies like the United States Digital Services and 18F offering (the obligatory) laptop stickers, pamphlets, and opportunities for employment. Yes, a buffet of potential employers await budding and mid-career developers looking for career changes and new opportunities as they made their way down the hall for the main stage presentations.

The main stage presentations had a little bit of everything for everyone. Jennifer Pahlka and Dan Hon opened the Summit and introduced speakers from the tech world and beyond who discussed a number of topics related to tech, the government, and life in general. I was particularly struck by something Jennifer stated when she quoted a colleague who said, “sometimes you can’t find the right people, you have to become the right people”. Truer words were never spoken. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I didn’t take the time to look at the list of speakers for the main stage presentations prior to attending the Summit. With that being said, you can imagine that I was pleasantly surprised to see former professional skater and Bones Brigade member, Rodney Mullen, take the stage and give a moving presentation on learning to handle failure and operating within that framework. The conclusions and analogies to my recent career change really hit home and the presentation by a childhood hero was both nostalgic and enlightening.

Former professional skater and Bones Brigade member, Rodney Mullen, at the 2018 Code for America Summit

For me, the real meat and potatoes of the Summit was the breakout sessions. Everyday, beginning at 1:30pm, a mad rush ensued to attend one of the many sessions tackling any number of topics by a host of speakers. Some of the sessions were so popular, in fact, that it was standing room only or, if you were late, too bad…

*Queue flashback of signing up for college classes back in the old days*

The topics were extremely varied from “Changing the Government From the Inside Out” to dealing with the census count in communities, security threats, and diversity and inclusion. I was able to attend a couple of session on the Agile process which is particularly cool as I will need to have some understanding of it in my chosen profession and have never had occasion to use it in my career as of yet. I also had the opportunity to attend a breakout session that dealt with working in the government during difficult or challenging times. I found this breakout to be particularly fitting given today’s political climate. Several current and former members of government agencies were in attendance and I found the discussion to be quite enlightening.

Brigade members at the Code for America HQ

All in all, it was an excellent trip! I made new friends. I got to visit the lovely Bay Area. I learned a little something about myself. And, more importantly, I got to meet my brothers and sisters from around the country (and the world) who are fighting the good fight; citizens giving back to their communities.

You can watch the main stage presentations from the 2018 Code for America Summit here.