You Just Have to Try: A Conversation with Reshma Saujani

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 posting interviews with civic minded technologists who share a similar mission to the U.S. Digital Service.

Reshma Saujani is the Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a national non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. Through its Summer Immersion Programs and Clubs, Girls Who Code is leading the movement to inspire, educate, and equip young women with the skills to pursue 21st century opportunities.

We spoke with Reshma about building a movement, civic tech, and closing the bravery deficit.

David Kaufman, U.S. Digital Service: Tech founder, political candidate, lawyer, civil servant. You have quite a diverse resume, but all your work seems to weave together technology and civic engagement. How did these interests come together for you?

Reshma Saujani: While I’ve had so many different jobs — I’ve worked in law, I’ve worked in government, I’ve run for office — there’s a common theme. The theme for my entire life has been about giving back. My family came here as refugees from Uganda, so I love this country. It literally saved my parents’ lives.

My journey was about finding the right industry that could help me bring about real change. I was participating in marches, I was an activist, and I was really interested in women’s issues and poverty reduction. And I’ll be honest, I always thought my place would be politics. It’s funny, because it turned out that my journey would be about building a movement of young women coders. And that’s the way I’m making a difference. You really never know where your path will lead you, but working with technology was truly the best way I could make a difference.

DK: There’s a great line on the Girls Who Code website: “what started as an experiment has grown into a national movement.” Girls Who Code will reach more than 40,000 girls in every state by the end of 2016. At USDS, we’re similarly interested in building a movement — building a tradition of public service among technologists. What lessons can you share?

RS: You just have to do it. You just have to try. Too often, we’re just having conversations, and we talk to too many people when we should be just trying, or incubating our ideas. I’m not a coder. So I should have been afraid that I’d get asked a coding question I couldn’t answer, and I’d freeze and be frightened. But oftentimes, because I didn’t have that professional experience, and maybe because I wasn’t traumatized by any bad experience as a female in the engineering space, I was able to actually do something to change the space. I didn’t know any better! Just going out, trying and starting with a simple idea — and not necessarily trying to build a movement — is such an obvious, but important first step. A movement only takes form from that first act. Exploring a curiosity, or a real passion, and being motivated by a desire to solve something — that’s really the best way.

DK: You gave a TED Talk in which you discuss “the bravery gap” — the idea that girls are raised to be perfect, while boys are raised to be brave. Organizations like Girls Who Code are important for closing the gap with the next generation of professionals, but how do you we address this issue in existing workplaces?

RS: We have to encourage people to try and take risks and we need to prove that there will be no repercussions for failing. In the workplace, we’re taught to worry about what happens if we don’t have full, complete knowledge of every detail. But if you create a culture and an environment that rewards people for taking risks, even if they don’t succeed, you can start changing behavior.

DK: I think culture shift is especially important in government. It’s not just about building products and services — so much of transformation is dependent on culture. The idea that “done is better than perfect” doesn’t just have to be a Silicon Valley way of thinking.

RS: Especially in government, there’s a sense of risk aversion. If you take a risk, and it goes wrong, you’re going to be punished for it. When that’s your culture, it’s always easier not to try. How do you change that? It’s about internal culture. Bringing about that kind of cultural change is hard, but it’s so important.

At Girls Who Code, we’ve tried to highlight and applaud examples of successes and failures — whether that’s calling out projects that didn’t work in staff meetings or sharing them with others. It’s small, tactical changes that help drive a culture of risk-taking. I’m also a big fan of talking about my own failures and celebrating them. I let it all hang out and am honest about the bets I’ve taken that haven’t paid off and how you learn and recover from failure.

DK: From your time working as Deputy Public Advocate for New York City to your being the first political candidate to ever use Square for campaign contributions, you’ve done a lot of work around improving the democratic and political process via technology. What do you think the next big steps are in this area?

RS: There are a few things. First, I worked on this in New York, but open-source data and giving your data directly to outside parties is really important. It enables things to get done — and progress to be made — that requires reaching outside the walls of government.

Second, I think the more government opens itself up to citizens — and especially in my biased opinion, young women — the more likely we are to solve the really big problems. A couple of weeks ago, our New York clubs made presentations and two young girls — Lucy and Maya — presented a technical solution for providing information about lead poisoning because of what they saw in Flint. And these girls are in seventh grade!

And the third piece is around diversity. Government — especially through its use of technology — can help foster diversity. In many instances, homogeneous pools of people are in charge of finding solutions for our biggest problems. We need to do better, and I believe government can help change that.

USDS is a great model for how a team can innovate in their hiring practices to recruit and retain a more diverse team. I hear that you’re 50% women on your team, and that you’ve done things we can all learn from — whether it’s developing relationships with organizations that fall outside your immediate network to holding events that invite candidates into your office to see your culture firsthand.

DK: It seems that a lot of the girls in your programs naturally gravitate towards using technology for civic causes. How much of this do you attribute to the culture you’ve built versus the natural disposition of this generation?

It’s a little bit of both. When Girls Who Code was just getting started in 2012, the DREAMers movement — which I was very active in — was picking up a lot of steam. That summer I asked friends from the New York Immigration Coalition to come in and educate the girls about the DREAM act — legislation that would create a path to earned citizenship for immigrant youth who want to come out of the shadows and contribute more fully to the country they love — and the challenges faced by undocumented youth. Together we ran a mini hackathon for the girls to build something to help solve some of these challenges.

I think using technology for good has always been infused in our culture. It just comes down to getting our girls inspired. After the events of the last few weeks, I put up a Medium post because our girls have been exposed to so much hate and so much violence. Our work is about more than code — it’s about using technology to make a difference. So in light of the recent issues, I think this can become a call to arms for our girls. This is a problem they can work on solving through their work, through their code. I personally can’t think of a more important, pressing problem for our young people to solve.

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.