I recently returned from my first trip to California to where I attended the annual Code for America Summit. If you’re not familiar with Code for America (CfA), the best way to describe it is as a sort of Peace Corps for tech geeks. The Code for America Summit is an annual conference where political leaders, government workers, software engineers, volunteers, and community organizers gather together to focus on singular goal: building the governments and communities of the future.
As a captain for Code for Nashville, an official of Code for America Brigade, I and a small group of other hyper-motivated people have spent a significant chunk of our spare time over the last year attempting to build a volunteer-led techno-activist group from the ground up. We’ve had some guidance in this, Code for America’s primary mission is very clear: “Make government work in the 21st century”. However; while the mission is clear, the way you go about making this a reality is significantly less so. Indeed, I’ve spent a significant part of the last year struggling with exactly how a volunteer group like Code for Nashville is actually supposed to “improve” government.
To give you a clearer picture of the challenge, let me put it this way – In your spare time, with no money, working with people you may or may not ever see again who may or may not have any programming experience, with little exposure or understanding of existing political and community structures, build impactful technologies that address significant social/government problems.
Going into the summit, this was the challenge, and I had really only one question – How do you do it?
The Code for America Summit – Why this matters.
During the Summit I heard a number of fantastic talks from passionate people doing the good work all across the United States, but it was actually a day one introductory talk by Code for America Health Product Manager Jacob Soloman that really drove home not only Code for America’s mission, but also how far we have to go as a nation to get there.
The pitch was basically this: Imagine you get laid off. It’s no fault of your own, but downsizing occurs. The same day this happens you get a text message from your local unemployment insurance office, letting you know they have automatically enrolled you to receive your benefits, and have also been forwarded some resources for job-training opportunities and support. You are given the contact name and information of someone to contact in case you have any questions – all with no effort on your part.
What Jacob is describing above is the digital equivalent of the public works projects launched by FDR’s New Deal. The issue here isn’t whether or not you agree with unemployment insurance or whether a volunteer organization has any hope of contributing to such a system, the real provocative question here is can you imagine your local government functioning like a modern, tech savvy, and efficient service provider? Dwell on that a moment.
I for one, at least given current circumstances, can’t. This isn’t cynicism, this is an objective evaluation based largely on three observations of the world of software engineering.
1.The demand for software engineers dramatically outpaces supply. For all levels. Senior ones are even harder to find.
2.Companies spend a LOT of money attempting to attract, retain, and steal talent. (I.e game rooms, secret passages, open bars [I’m serious], crazy benefits, flexible work hours, salary, etc.)
3.The average starting salary for a junior software engineer is right about the median income of a US family of four.
While this may sound like three reasons you should become a software engineer, they are actually three reasons local governments have the odds stacked against them. I know several solid engineers that work in government, but much of their work is related to the maintenance of legacy systems, not the automated deployment and continual enhancement of realtime-streaming cloud-based services.
At one point in time, communities got together to do “barn raisings”. As a group they built community resources because it was for the benefit of all. At some point in the 20th century we appear to have lost this tradition, but I believe that when it comes to the digital infrastructure of future Smart Cities, it is going to take technologists, communities, and governments working together to make it happen. The “barn raisings” of the 21st century are going to be citizen developed IOT-sensor networks, community contributions to open source government websites, and groups of techno-activists meeting with civic workers to figure out how to make things work even just a little bit better – to address real challenges that we face as communities, together. Without this, I see very little hope of Jacob’s vision coming to fruition.
So where do we start? There are certainly tactics I picked up at the summit. Code for Nashville is moving to a weekly format for its hack nights. We spent a year frustrated at our lack of ability to make things happen, and in large part this was due to the fact we only met once a month. It’s hard to build anything meeting 12 times a year, and in that context what we accomplished on a purely volunteer basis last year is actually quite impressive. The other point where we’ve struggled is when it comes to people. New comers would show up at hack nights and we would tell them, “Build things that matter”, but this is a pretty hard target for anyone to hit, and I’ve come to believe the emphasis is totally wrong. The message should really be, “Build things together”, and this is what we want to do moving forward.
The weekly hack nights will be open. They are “sanctioned geektime” for people to work on what they will. Have no programming experience? Come to a hack night and do some tutorials. Talk to other programmers and engineers and develop your skills. Working on an open source project? Hack it out here, we’ll respect the headphones and leave you to build it out. Want to build the next innovation in civic technology? Well, we’re definitely interested in that. Come check it out, it’s your hack time.
Jon Staples M.S.^2: Data Scientist – NextGxDx; Brigade Captain – Code for Nashville
Image created by Ryan Walker