Every day, technologists across the country work through similar challenges to those faced by the U.S. Digital Service. In all types of industries, innovators are moving analog systems to digital, modernizing software development practices, and designing with users, not for them.
To help share what we’ve learned, we’re interviewing civic minded technologists who share a similar mission to the U.S. Digital Service.
David Kaufman, USDS: At Homebrew, you focus on investing in companies that are powering the “Bottom Up Economy.” Tell me more about this space and why it’s your focus area.
Hunter Walk: My co-founder and I think that one of the greatest uses of technology is to create new marketplaces, businesses, data, and efficiencies that benefit not just the largest corporations and wealthiest consumers, but have tremendous potential to impact smaller businesses and mainstream consumers. The Bottom Up Economy became a filter with which we could ask: is this transformative beyond benefiting the wealthiest corporations and consumers?
DK: What do you look for in founders and their early teams?
HW: The team at The Skimm— along with others in our portfolio like UpCounsel or BuildingConnected — they’re doing what I call “disrupting with love”, not contempt. The Skimm was created by young ex-NBC news producers. One of the founders of BuildingConnected came from the commercial construction business. The founder of UpCounsel went to law school and saw too many legacy systems that weren’t necessarily the best for lawyers or clients. These are examples of founders stepping off the path they worked hard to get on, not because they were disenchanted with the industry, but because they thought they could build something better.
Disrupting with love, not contempt.
Sometimes people say “software eats the world.” I think about it as software enabling the world. The best businesses are being constructed by founders who have empathy for, or a connection to the problem they’re solving. It’s not about disdain for an industry. We like to see founders who have a real connection to the problem that goes beyond excitement about a market opportunity. Founders need a “why” that is very personal.
DK: I can’t help but get the sense that you believe tech can be a greater force for good. And when we first met, you said “those in the tech community have a responsibility to their country to do more than tweet.” Can you expand on that?
HW: One of the things I get inspired about is community and citizenship. For a long time, citizenship was so tied to your identity and your nation state. But I think about citizenship in its broadest sense. What are the communities I’m a part of and how am I accountable for participating in them and making them better?
When I think about what sort of things we can be doing as citizens of the tech community, I also think about what that means — in my case — as being a citizen of San Francisco, a citizen of the United States, and a citizen of the world. Especially when I had a child, I started to think more about the communities — and the world — that she will live in.
Sometimes people say “software eats the world.” I think about it as software enabling the world.
Over time, I also realized that the tools we were building and the work we were doing could be beneficial to the country and the people around us.
I look at it in two ways. First, how do we apply our skills to important issues that we care about, whether they’re civic, governmental, or community based? And two, how do we make sure that tech leverages its current privileged economic standing in the business cycle? How can we create an environment that isn’t just good for innovation, but good for innovation that helps people?
I care less about people supporting a particular issue, and more about the tech industry just caring. People can disagree with me on an issue, but I’d still like to see them involved. And whatever you support, it only takes form when we don’t just say we care about something in a social media post, but when we put in time and dollars. That’s the dividing line between being noisy and being productive.
DK: You’ve written a lot about the importance of organizational culture and diversity in early startups. What’s your message when you talk to these companies?
My belief is that your company is your first product. Your organizational culture — especially as it relates to diversity — is established the moment you start a company. Once your team grows, once you have your first twenty employees, it’s very difficult to change a culture. Early hires are your culture.
We look for founders who think with these principles. What we saw very early on were founders starting to ask questions around diversity. They had read articles or seen diversity reports from larger companies, and they were wondering what they should be thinking about. I’m not the expert here, but we put together a resource guide from those who are experts, to help our startups prioritize diversity from the early days.
We think that this is so important for two reasons:
First, it’s practical. It’s been proven that diverse teams lead to better outcomes, have more personal experiences being brought it, and because of it, have a broader, better set of ideas.
And second, it’s moral and philosophical. Sometimes people lead with that and say “we care about diversity because it’s the right thing to do.” And of course it is. But I think saying it’s the right thing to do allows diversity to be prioritized or de-prioritized amongst a number of other things that are also the right thing to do. I don’t think that’s the right way of thinking. The same way capital can be a force multiplier on your idea, diversity is a force multiplier on your ability to achieve success.
When your investors are saying they want you to focus on that versus just moving fast and maybe hiring people that don’t look like you later, it gives it a lot more weight.
The same way capital can be a force multiplier on your idea, diversity is a force multiplier on your ability to achieve success.
DK: How do you help startups move from the philosophical side to actually implementing these practices?
We never say let’s sit down and write out a bunch of mission documents. It comes down to hiring. We lead people through this discussion:
“You’ve raised some money and you’re ready to post your job descriptions. Besides looking for tech skills, what are you looking for in the people you hire? What are the interview questions you’re going to ask to assess these attributes or characteristics?”
And founders nod and list a few attributes. But the real test is when you ask:
“Let’s say you’re interviewing someone who is off the charts from a skills perspective, but lacks the attributes or characteristics you want to hire for from a culture perspective. Would you hire that person?
And if a company says yes, they’re not being intentional about their culture. If they say no, they’re being diligent about screening by more than hard skills. We believe this is so important from the start.
The U.S. Digital Service works with other players inside and outside of the government to rethink how we build and buy digital services and attract top technical talent into public service, to improve the efficacy and efficiency of information technology in the federal government. By engaging technologists from outside of the U.S. government, the U.S. Digital Service will illustrate best practices and methodologies by sharing examples of how this work has been approached and completed in other industries, inciting future action across the government technology ecosystem.