Coding and Volunteering as a Love Language
In Conversation with Aditya Sridhar
by Barbara Niveyro
“Love is an action. Never simply a feeling,” said bell hooks, the well-known educator, and writer. February, Valentine’s Day Month, isn’t just about romantic love, but here to remind us that we can love what we do, and we can do what we love… daily.
We had the chance to chat with Aditya Sridhar, a product engineer on U.S. Digital Response’s Economic Stability Program. Aditya has been a software engineer for almost a decade, and he shared his thoughts about open-source, language access, the importance of making grants accessible for small and medium jurisdictions, and how volunteering helped him find love in what he does.
This interview has been edited for reading purposes. We hope you enjoy it!
Barbara Niveyro: Hello Aditya, thank you for taking the time to share your experience with us. Let’s start with your career path!
Aditya Sridhar: I initially joined a very small company in the restaurant technology space, on the operations side. My role was to onboard new restaurants and install software for their sales systems, and develop customer success and customer support. I quickly realized that a lot of the job was repetitive, so I learned Python to write some automation and scripts. This was a time when there were no low-code/no-code tools available like Airtable. Soon after, I moved to New York City and worked for Justworks, which is in the payroll space. And over there, from my experience in internal tools, I helped build tools for specialists in 401K benefits — this helped me see how a more mature set of software internal tools operate.
BN: How did you connect with USDR?
AS: I was trying to find meaning in work and how I can better help users directly. I noticed that student loans were a very big problem, so I joined Pillar, a seed-stage startup with about six people. The idea was that we would build a mobile app for students to better understand their finances and pay down their student debt. I noticed from the app user behavior that borrowers across the country were struggling to make even a $4 principal-only payment toward their student loans. To me, this indicated that the solution to the student-debt crisis has to come from a policy change rather than a budget app. Unfortunately, I got laid off from Pillar and was trying to find out what was next.
“I was not contributing anything to the pandemic recovery, so when I noticed that USDR was looking for volunteers, I raised my hand. I got onboarded and immediately started working.” — Aditya Sridhar
In 2020 I connected with USDR as a volunteer, and the work was immediately meaningful for me. At that time, I didn’t think there was a pathway for me within civic technology because the resources that you find in the private sector are stronger and I wasn’t sure if I needed a full-time career within it.
But then, as a volunteer at USDR, I got placed in the NYC Innovation Fellows Program. We worked on language access, with the horizon of translating websites quickly and accurately for all the languages that New York City supports for its population. It’s a very manual process that’s done by language experts within each of those agencies. The question was: how do we get a bunch of tech experts and try to solve this problem not only for New York City but also open it up as open-source to other cities that might be interested in solving this as well?
The end of our project was pretty interesting because language access is a very complex problem. We only had 12 weeks to solve it, so we tried to make a minimum viable product that showed if the automation was possible. We showed that the problem is solvable, and there is a need to keep developing software in this direction.
When a staff role opened up at USDR, I decided to take the opportunity to transition full-time to civic tech. Now at USDR, I help out with the Economic Stability Program which advances federal grants access for states and municipalities, and I’m supporting projects with plain language translation work.
BN: You said these tools should be open-source. Why?
AS: I personally believe that open-source software brings a lot more transparency to what’s happening. Open-source software has been shown to be more reliable and more secure than not open-source software. Because if there’s a vulnerability, everybody can see it and share a patch to fix it very quickly.
BN: What are the priorities of the Economic Stability Program? What are the challenges?
AS: At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is ensure that the people that need benefits have access to the benefits, are able to receive them, and use the money. One project that I’m working on is the Grants project. The Federal Government has a lot of Federal Grants that are available to states, local jurisdictions, and nonprofits through the www.grants.gov website. But many smaller jurisdictions and mid-size jurisdictions might not apply for these grants because it’s too much administrative overhead. They have to not only find a grant, which are posted daily, but constantly analyze if the grants match their needs. And if they receive the money, they have to report the expenses. That’s a lot of administrative work for a small county or jurisdiction. We want to make sure that they get the money that they deserve. So we are making
tools that make it easier to report and reduce that administrative overhead. It includes a “discovery tool” to find grants that match their needs.
“In civic tech, what I’m looking at, is if citizens are living a better life because of the code that I wrote” — Aditya Sridhar
BN: Wow, that’s incredible!! That’s great! Changing the subject, I wanted to try something different and include a section that is in sync with the very important international agenda. Are you ready?
BN: February is the month of love. How do you connect your work with love?
AS: I don’t know about love, but the opposite of it is paperwork, right? I think humans shouldn’t be doing paperwork. And for some reason, as technology has gotten more and more complex, there’s more and more paperwork, and there are more and more forms to fill, and there are more and more fields. I feel the burden for folks within operations — and there are a lot of operators around the country in various startups, mortgage companies, tax departments, budget offices, and all sorts of agencies — and their administrative overhead. I don’t think we love to do that kind of work. I think that’s where software is pretty powerful. With my experience in the operations field, I decided that I want to use my time to deal with more interesting problems. And that’s what motivates me to develop software these days.
“In the public sphere, I get to develop things to make sure that Federal Grants tools work for more folks. This benefits my community, and those are more exciting things to be thinking about. That itself reduces a lot of stress and what you gain in health is invaluable.”
— Aditya Sridhar
BN: I love the angle that you chose for that question! Thank you! The last two questions are for those that are not familiar with civic tech. How would you define it? And what’s your advice for people that are trying to get into civic tech or are trying to volunteer for the first time?
AS: To me, civic tech is anything tech that helps the public as opposed to anything else. So if I’m working in a private company, I’m responsible for my shareholders and maybe my shareholders really benefited if my users are benefited as well. But in civic tech, what I’m looking at is if citizens are living a better life because of the code that I wrote.
Volunteering is a great way to get involved. There are a lot of local communities, a lot of online communities on Slack and Discord, and things like that, where you can find like-minded people that are solving interesting problems in your jurisdictions. And the second piece of advice is, yes, civic tech may not pay as well as private tech does, but what I’ve personally found is that there are a lot of mental burdens that you take on when you’re working in the private sector because, at the end of the day, a company needs to make money and stay in business. In the public sphere, I get to develop things to make sure that Federal Grants tools work for more folks. This benefits my community, and those are more exciting things to be thinking about. That itself reduces a lot of stress and what you gain in health is invaluable.