Jennifer Pahlka: What I learned as Uncle Sam’s tech geek

Jennifer Pahlka: What I learned as Uncle Sam’s tech geek

Catch Jennifer Pahlka in person at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27 to 30.

The late leadership guru Peter Drucker once wrote, "In any organization, regardless of its mission, the CEO is the link between the Inside, i.e., 'the organization,' and the Outside — society, the economy, technology, markets, customers, the media, public opinion."

Last year, Code for America executive director Jennifer Pahlka took those words to heart and headed to Washington, D.C., for a one-year "fellowship" as U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Her goal: to better understand the public sector agency that the organization's private-sector technology experts are trying to serve.

While she was there, Pahlka witnessed firsthand the passionate, 20-hour-per-day work of the private-sector technology advisers called in to rescue the ailing Healthcare.gov site. In June, she returned to her Code for America post in San Francisco, Calif., recommitted to her nonprofit organization's mission of harnessing technology to solve community problems.

"I now truly understand that every successful strategy is a people strategy. ... What I learned was very much what I have already learned in a more abstract way through the fellows that have gone through our program," Pahlka told me in early July.

"They have come back and said things like, 'The barriers are cultural, the people are amazing.' Working with people who don't, maybe at first, seem to have the same agenda as you is an amazing experience. Because what you find is that you both have a significant amount in common, because you are both working towards the same goal. You can use that common ground to build a bridge, and end up really partnering with folks and realizing the value of public servants in this country. The incredible dedication that they have, and their willingness at the end of the day to try these things."Code for America

Sometimes described as the "Peace Corps for geeks," Code for America arranges one-year fellowships that place developers, designers and researchers in local governments around the United States. Thirty fellows are on board. CfA's current staff of 34 also runs an accelerator program to help kickstart startups working on apps that have the potential to save money. Examples include Textizen, a messaging platform; and Captricity, a company that helps transform handwritten forms into digital formats.

There are five organizations in the new Code for America class announced in July, selected from 112 "strong" applications. They are:

  • AmigoCloud, a mapping service for mobile devices
  • MuniRent, a platform for helping municipal governments share expensive heavy-equipment
  • ProductBio, a database for guiding sustainable procurement decisions
  • SeamlessDocs, an electronic signature system
  • Trailhead Labs, a system for planning routes that don't require cars

But the real power of Code for America may lie in the crowdsourcing expertise of its "brigades" — 124 groups of technologists around the world, including the Code for All network, dedicated to hacking software for the community good. To date, these volunteers have come together on more than 350 projects – centered on helping serve vulnerable citizens, making vital community data and resources available on Web sites and other open platforms, and addressing operational inefficiencies.

Now that she's back in the Bay Area, Pahlka is redirecting her energy into the evolution of Code for America's strategy. Although she's not ready to be specific, one thing that she's thinking about a great deal what she perceives to be a talent shortage in technology — or, at least, talent focused on the wrong things.

In a blog post from late June, she gushes with excitement over the appointment of a new CIO for the city of Boston: Jascha Franklin-Hodge, who co-founded influential digital strategy firm Blue State Digital. In the same breath, Pahlka expresses concern over why so many talented entrepreneurs and engineers are focused on apps for things such as disrupting laundry.

"The problem is that the same talent shortage that makes startups go to such lengths to recruit affects the public sector even more seriously," she wrote. "And while we target mostly mid-career developers and designers through Code for America fellowship, entrepreneurs who've had recent exits are in the perfect position to take leadership roles in city, state and federal government, and to take seriously the business of making government work the way we need it to."

Pahlka's educational background actually has little to do with tech. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, she focused on American studies at Yale University. While the first part of her career was in the non-profit sector, most of her experience lies in managing events and conferences focused on game and Web 2.0 developers. This explains her fascination with the will to reimagine and her belief that the government, like any other system, is hackable.

"I spent my days surrounded by people who created worlds," she said. "In games, you are literally creating an alternate world and deciding how it's going to do. In Web 2.0, it was more of the real world. These were people who were changing the world they lived in, creating a way for people to interact that literally had not being invented before. Being around those people gave me a sense of what's possible when people believe that what we're given isn't necessarily what we need to live with."Streetmix

When I asked Pahlka to grade Code for America's progress so far, she qualified her answer, giving it an A- for early visibility. "We had to make everything up as we went along. Think we've successfully written a playbook that continues to evolve, but has gotten us in year 3.5 to a place where we have had an impact," she said.

Pahlka won't pick favorite apps, but is especially drawn to the bucket of applications and services that strive to make it simpler for citizens to access services that address fundamental needs while simultaneously making a program far simpler to run, therefore streamlining costs for a state or local government.

"It's a great win when we have both saved the county money and processing time in avoiding someone having to reapply for a program," she said. "The churn in food stamps [for example] is high. It's a cost to the county, it's a cost to taxpayers. As important, it's an outcome for a human being that is trying to live in society that is just much more positive: avoiding that bad outcome; someone who has probably got a tough time in life having a little bit of an easier time, that's very meaningful to me. So all the apps like that get a little bit more attention from me because of that."

Having said that, Pahlka is inspired by services — such as past Code for America project Streetmix -— that illustrate that things we sometimes consider to be rigid, immoveable pieces of infrastructure are actually changeable.

"These are choices that we make," she said. "The city is an adaptable system. … We could change the makeup of our cities or change the way our buses run. That's something that we all have a voice in, because we might know a better way. That has a profound social and cultural impact."