In this episode, we’re talking about civic tech with Aidan Feldman, Technology Director at General Service Administration’s Technology Transformation Services. We get into the pros and cons, and hurdles and hoops of working in civic tech, as well as the skills you need if you want a career in it.
[00:00:00] SY: Tickets are now available for our fourth annual Codeland Conference, taking place July 23rd and 24th in New York City. It’s the welcoming conference that brings together code, culture, and community, which promises to level up your software career. You’ll experience amazing talks and workshops led by an inspiring lineup of speakers. Tickets are currently on sale at codelandconf.com. See you in New York.
[00:00:32] Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host Saron, and today we’re talking about Civic Tech with Aidan Feldman, Technology Director at General Service Administration, Technology Transformation Services.
[00:00:49] AF: So all these different things converge to like make it a really good fit where I didn’t know I was looking for civic tech specifically, but I got really lucky in finding it.
[00:00:57] SY: Aidan talks about the hurdles and hoops of working in civic tech and the skills you need to excel at it after this.
[00:01:11] Career Karma helps code newbies with free career coaching to help them learn to code and find a high-paying job in tech in less than a year. Download the Career Karma app to start your 21-day challenge and be one of the over 60,000 people who they’ve helped get started. Visit careerkarma.com/codenewbie.
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[00:02:37] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:02:39] AF: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:02:40] SY: So before we dive into your very impressive title at the very impressive agency you work at, I want to start all the way at the beginning. How did you start your coding journey?
[00:02:49] AF: Yeah. So I went into college as an undeclared engineer. I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I thought maybe something mechanical, and all of the engineers the first year are required to take a computer science class. The people who survived it sort of stayed in computer science or computer engineering, something like that, and everyone else did something else, and I narrowly survived it.
[00:03:14] SY: Tell me more about that class.
[00:03:15] AF: Yeah. So it was a pretty typical for academia, kind of CS 101 class, and you’re learning things like variables and loops, and that time the class was taught in C++, and so you’re learning about things like memory management and pointers, a bit of like how computers work as a result of that. It’s really just like the fundamentals of syntax and understanding basics of algorithms, data structures, those kinds of things.
[00:03:45] SY: So for someone who did not take an official computer science class, all that sounds very intimidating. Is it as scary as it sounds or what is it that makes it so difficult, such a weed-out class?
[00:03:57] AF: Yeah, it certainly was weed-out class. I don’t think it has to be that way. If I were in charge, I don’t know that I would do it that way. I think there’s a lot to learn about that sort of low level bits of the computer and using a program language like C++ as opposed to something more high level, like a scripting language, but it is not fun to start off. I’m not necessarily into that. And so I would not start people that way because I think it can turn people off really quickly.
[00:04:26] SY: So did you end up graduating with a CS degree?
[00:04:29] AF: Yup, Double Major in Computer Science and Dance.
[00:04:32] SY: And now you work in civic tech. How did you end up there?
[00:04:35] AF: After my last job, I had heard about this group 18F from a former coworker and had heard that you could work with smart people and work on really important problems to improve how government functions and improve the experience for the public. And that just sounded amazing to me. I was interested in not having to work on things that were meant to like drive profit and looked into it from there and just got a job as a sort of general engineer and then I think my experience or my interest rather really grew deeper with going in because there are so many like educational pieces, which I’m also interested. There’s a lot of interfacing with people who don’t have a technology background, which is something I like. There’s being really user centered, which is a big principle of the team that I joined. So all these different things converge to like make it a really good fit where I didn’t know I was looking for civic tech specifically, but I got really lucky in finding it.
[00:05:39] SY: So I want to hear a little bit more about this idea of civic tech because it sounds pretty straight forward. There’s tech and you’re doing it for civic projects and civic engagement and it’s kind of doing good with your technical skills, but what kind of projects are we talking about? What specific problems does civic tech address?
[00:05:58] AF: Civic tech, as you said, is very broad. You could define it as anything that is technology for the public good, but that even could mean a lot of things.
[00:06:09] SY: Yeah.
[00:06:10] AF: So as an example, working on technology for political campaigns could be considered civic tech. Working on systems within or for like city governments or state government or federal government could be part of that. Working on things for nonprofits that do work around government services, that can be considered civic tech. So even if the systems don’t touch the government directly, that is, they’re sort of meant to supplement. So it can involve all those things. My main focus professionally has been in government technology. So government systems that serve either people within the government or the public that use those services.
[00:06:54] SY: So when I think about the government, I don’t really think of tech or tech savvy. What were some of the projects or at least the problems that you solved while working within the government?
[00:07:06] AF: Yeah. So government gets a really bad rap around technology, and I think for good reason. It’s worth noting there are some really cool technology things that have come out of government like the Space Age. That was all government.
[00:07:20] SY: That’s true.
[00:07:20] AF: You know, a lot of funding around different research, like Velcro came out of government.
[00:07:26] SY: Really?
[00:07:27] AF: Yeah, like the way dinners came out of government, like there’s a lot of really interesting work that does get funded by the government, either through grants from National Science Foundation, those kinds of things. All of that being said, we can all point to different websites and government that we’ve had to interact with. They don’t work on your phone and they don’t work in a browser other than Internet Explorer and you have to print off a PDF and mail it in. Obviously, there’s a lot of ways that government’s falling short. And so yeah, that’s really what the teams that I’ve been on have been working to address the different ways and we can start to go into more specifics.
[00:08:04] SY: So why are government websites so difficult to navigate and just so bad? Because the things that we try to do on these websites, they don’t feel that complicated. A lot of times it’s just a website. It’s finding a form. You know what I mean? It doesn’t feel like it’s very complex. What makes it such a bad experience?
[00:08:24] AF: Well, the things that make it a bad experience are obvious, “Oh, it doesn’t work on your phone. It doesn’t have clear instructions.” Those kinds of things. I think the more interesting question is, “Why is it that way?”
[00:08:35] SY: Right. Yeah.
[00:08:36] AF: So one major issue is a lot of these systems are legacy, right? They’ve been around for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, right? Like running on a mainframe and maybe no one’s around that knows how it works anymore. So even if you wanted to update it, you can’t, like no one knows how or you have to hire very expensive contractors who know COBOL in order to do so or okay, we could get someone to work on it, but the government actually employs relatively few software developers or designers, these sort of subject matter experts. Okay, you have to go and hire people through contracts, and we don’t know what to ask for. And so we could get into a bad situation where the contractor isn’t like putting user’s needs forced or they’re kind of maintaining the system, but not improving it because we didn’t know to ask for that. So I think that lack of technical expertise on the inside despite best intentions can really be a shortcoming. There’s problems around like any change requiring major security compliance obstacles. That can be a big problem. And even if you did want to hire people to do all these things, hiring is really complicated and slow and doesn’t pay as well as private sector. So there’s all these reasons why it makes it hard to improve those experiences, which everyone inside and outside, know are bad.
[00:10:11] SY: And it sounds like a lot of these problems can be addressed by having an internal tech agency like 18F.
[00:10:19] AF: Yeah. I mean, obviously tooting our own horn there. I certainly would not say that all work needs to be done from the inside. I think a term that we say or a phrase that we say is, “You can’t outsource the vision.”
[00:10:35] SY: Oh, that’s a good one.
[00:10:34] AF: So even working with a contractor, right, there are great contractors out there. But because of that relationship, they are not able to like help you pick a contractor for obvious reasons, for conflict of interest. And so you’re trying to have these program managers who have no technology experience evaluate who the best software development group is to support them. How are they going to do that? And so having just enough technical experience spread around in the inside can really improve the results that you get from those contractors, should you use them. So it’s definitely not a replacement. It’s a yes, and.
[00:11:17] SY: So I want to go back to your current role as Technology Director at Technology Transformation Services. Let’s start with the agency. What is the Technology Transformation Services?
[00:11:28] AF: Well, there’s a lot of words so you know it’s important.
[00:11:31] SY: Yeah.
[00:11:31] AF: The Technology Transformation Services is a group within the General Services Administration, and it’s almost like a holding company. It is a group of these different sorts of smaller programs that came from different places. So 18F came out of the Presidential Innovation Fellows, which was created back in 2012, I believe, and these were fellows brought in for six-month, one year towards a duty like being embedded in agencies and helping them with the technology problem. Those people wanted somewhere to stay after their terms were done and so they created 18F and so the 18F is a sort of consulting and development group. Then there are other programs that have since been combined into TTS data.gov. So this sort of portfolio of all government open data sets at the federal level and others like usa.gov as well, cloud.gov, login.gov, like a bunch of programs that are sort of started at different times got collected as group that is technology professionals that are there to serve government agencies and then the public through them.
[00:12:41] SY: So now let’s go to your title. You are Technology Director at TTS. What does that mean?
[00:12:47] AF: So as I mentioned, TTS is a group of various technologists, designers, acquisition specialists, et cetera, that serve other agencies, if not the public directly. My group, the technology portfolio is there to serve them. In a lot of organizations, we’d be sort of the IT people, right? We make sure that people have the software they need and that kind of thing. But our group looks to go sort of further than that and having security expertise and software development expertise to where we’re not so much like gatekeepers and managing what other people can and can’t do, and granting access when they’re deemed worthy, but instead supporting the teams and looking for places that we can automate or looking for places that we can improve process to produce the amount of work or money or these kinds of things that are spent in different parts of the TTS portfolio as a whole. We’re their support. It is an IT shop plus, plus, I would call it.
[00:13:52] SY: And so as technology director, what kinds of problems do you get to solve?
[00:13:56] AF: Many, varied. So in a way the various groups are engaging with agencies or they have a specific site or service that they run and that kind of thing, but they may have problems that are outside their wheelhouse or something that might make sense to solve TTS wide. And so my group is there to coordinate and troubleshoot. And so we’ll do things like evaluates what tools people are asking for across the organization, look at what we have already and find places where we can streamline, consolidate these kinds of things and make a better experience for our staff across the board and reduce duplication of effort, these kinds of things around infrastructure as a service. In the past, people have sort of managed their various accounts in Amazon web services or what have you. Independently, we see a bunch of places where consolidating the management of users, let’s say, allows us to centralize the logging and have these specified in one place. It’s easy to do off-boarding, improving the monitoring and that kind of thing. And so looking for these opportunities where we can use a bit of code, a bit of configuration, right? It’s often not a lot. We’re not like building entire new applications or something like that, but looking for where work is being done multiple places where we can centralize it maybe with a bit of automation to reduce that burden across the group.
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[00:16:09] Career Karma is a free service started by bootcamp grads for bootcamp grads. Coaches are current coding bootcamp students who mentor people to help prepare and get accepted to bootcamps in just three weeks. We spoke to Kesha Lake who used Career Karma and is now an engineer at Stitch Fix.
[00:16:27] KL: I was really looking for a way to jumpstart my career, but not just getting me ready for the career itself, but to get me ready for bootcamp. I figured if I can do the 21-day challenge, then I can do the bootcamp.
[00:16:40] SY: So what was the challenge? What was it like?
[00:16:42] KL: The instructions were to speak to one person on your level and one person above your level every day and then post some sort of proof about it as a screenshot or a picture.
[00:16:53] SY: Did you know anything about coding before this?
[00:16:55] KL: I knew absolutely nothing about coding. So the 21-day challenge really set me up perfectly. I made friends, I started networking with people who would eventually make recommendations for me to get the job that I landed, but they also offered a lot of resources and support. You know, initially I was coding on my phone because I didn’t have a working laptop. Career Karma put me together with another one of their members who donated the first laptop and then I do get to upgrade to a Macbook so I’ve got another laptop from the Career Karma community.
[00:17:23] SY: So what kind of work do you do at Stitch Fix?
[00:17:25] KL: So I work on automation projects that help plan of ease the burden of our warehouse workers. So I kind of do a lot of telling machines what to do, which is exciting. It’s mostly back end work.
[00:17:34] SY: That’s fancy.
[00:17:35] KL: Yeah, it is. It’s kind of sexy and I’m really excited about it. I really leaned more towards back end development as opposed to front end doing bootcamp. So to find a job that would let me focus on that is kind of a dream come true.
[00:17:47] SY: Visit careerkarma.com/codenewbie to get started. So it’s interesting because as you describe the role, it sounds like a mix between product management, project management, maybe some administration in there, but it frankly doesn’t sound like it’s a whole lot of coding. How much coding do you get to do as technology director?
[00:18:15] AF: Not much.
[00:18:15] SY: Yeah.
[00:18:17] AF: That was a move for me. And I started in this role four months ago. My background, you know, I’ve been working for the past like nine years or so as a web developer. So that was definitely a change. What I found coming into 18F, and again, 18F is a group within TTS, joined as an engineer in 2014 and I was doing web development, but what I realized is that that wasn’t the hard part. Obviously, you need smart people to do coding and that kind of thing or design or what have you. But building a form it’s not like rocket science. It takes some skill. It can be challenging to troubleshoot and whatever, but the thing that makes it challenging is working in the government context. And that government context has high scrutiny in terms of security and compliance and privacy, and has a lot of challenges around budget. It’s really used to paying too much for things. There’s a lot of process that comes out of being sort of fear-based and a lot of government as fear-based, right? They’ll sort of assume no until you’re otherwise. And so building the form isn’t the hard part, it’s sort of clearing the way for people to do that work. And so whether that’s at a platform level of, “Hey, it actually shouldn’t be that hard to use platform as a service.” We should just be able to like deploy an application and get it up and running really quickly. We shouldn’t have to buy physical servers and get them set up in a data center, right? We should figure out how to use the cloud in a smart way and reduce that amount of effort and the security overhead and these kinds of things for the various teams. And so being the person that pushes on those things while having a coding background allows me to call out things that aren’t true or say, “This is crazy that we’re spending all this time on this. You can automate it here. Let me prove it.” You know?
[00:20:15] SY: Yeah.
[00:20:15] AF: That goes a long way. So having that knowledge, like backing up the work, and then plug holes where necessary really goes a long way. So it’s definitely a generalist role and that’s new for me.
[00:20:25] SY: Yeah.
[00:20:26] AF: I’ll be honest, I do miss coding.
[00:20:28] SY: Yeah, I was going to say.
[00:20:29] AF: And so side projects and that kind of thing. As we try getting a lot of the tedious stuff, a word I like a lot is toil, that comes from the Google Site Reliability Engineering Practice, which is kind of tedious work that doesn’t add a lot of value. So as we figure out, identify those places that different parts of TTS or my team specifically are doing those and clear them out, I’m hoping that we have more room over time to do more coding projects to where we can actually automate to make our team more effective and more secure in these kinds of things. So I’m hoping it’ll actually be more over time.
[00:21:10] SY: Tell me a little bit about the skills that you need in order to do this job well because it sounds like being a coder, being a developer for nine years is definitely coming in handy. You talked about being able to navigate bureaucracy in the government. What are some of the other skills that you get to use and that are important for this job?
[00:21:27] AF: Number one is patience. No question. Right? That comes from coding too. It can be very, very helpful in coding that you don’t give up right away, that you don’t just try one solution to a problem and if that doesn’t work, quit. Nothing in government works that way. You have to be diligent. You have to be a good communicator. You have to be empathetic, right? You have to assume that the other people you’re communicating with, even if what they’re doing is frustrating to you that you assume best intent and assume competence in these kinds of things. Don’t assume that you’re the first person that had this idea, especially as someone who’s like relatively new to government. I mean, I’ve been in five years and I’m like a baby. You’ll talk to people who’ve been working for 25 years.
[00:22:14] SY: Oh wow!
[00:22:15] AF: And so it’s nothing coming in and like, yeah, with these ideas of like, “Yeah, that’s nice, like how do you actually get that through all these various hurdles that we have to go through. So finding the allies in different parts of the organization, people that will advocate on your behalf and the people who maybe feel trapped on their side that you can help out and in turn help yourself. All of those things are really important. Way more than the technical, but that being said, like having the technical background is something that can make a big difference when you are in those conversations to be able to say what’s realistic and isn’t.
[00:22:54] SY: I imagine it’ll give you a lot of authority too.
[00:22:57] AF: Yeah, I hope so. The trick is not coming off as a smart aleck, right?
[00:23:01] SY: Yeah.
[00:23:02] AF: This like hotshot thinks they can come in and just like say what we’re doing is wrong and make us look bad, right?
[00:23:08] SY: What’s the feeling to manage?
[00:23:11] AF: So many. Yeah. But at the same time, it’s like, “Hey, so this thing that you proposed that seems like it costs 10 times what it should because like I understand how to make changes to systems and there’s no way it should cost what you just said.” So I’ll dig into that and figure out why. Being able to speak to people’s concerns with technical confidence can go a huge way.
[00:23:36] SY: So talking more about why certain government tools are not that great to work with or even to handle, to manage, when you think about the tech issues of government, how much of it is actually fixable and how much of it isn’t with the support of TTS and 18F and a lot of developers doing civic tech, doing good things, their technology skills? Is there kind of a limit of how far all that will go?
[00:24:06] AF: I think it’s all fixable, right? It’s a matter of having leadership that values those changes and understands the tradeoffs that they need to make, like control they might have to give up and these kinds of things. That is something that it’s not in our control. That said, you can certainly work to win over people who are skeptical. That can certainly go a long way. So it is all possible, but it is just such a giant landscape. I mean, last I heard the government spends $80 billion a year on technology, and that doesn’t include the military.
[00:24:43] SY: Wow.
[00:24:45] AF: so it’s just vast. Every agency has a mainframe that they’re still running or many. That’s just the existing stuff, right? That’s assuming you don’t move anything else from paper to digital. So the trick I think is seeing where you can solve the problem once and knock out a bunch of problems as results, right? And so platforms can go a long way, improvements in process around like acquisition, acquisitions buying things by the way, acquisition or security compliance, these kinds of things or hiring. That’s my other big third one. That’s a constant nightmare. If you can streamline those within your agency or across government or what have you, those pay dividends for everything else you’re trying to do. So it’s all possible, but it’s not technology problems really.
[00:25:41] SY: Yeah. Yeah. So, as you know, developers love their tools and love picking their technologies and what they get to build with. And you mentioned security and compliance being a huge thing in civic tech and working with the government. How hard is it to use technologies that you want to use? What are some of the limitations about getting to pick your tools?
[00:26:03] AF: Yeah. So this is something that we’ve solved for a few ways. One way that it could go, for example, in terms of streamlining is, okay, we will have this approval process that is fast and cleared of all the roadblocks, but you have to use Python II and build it with this specific framework and that kind of thing and then your life will be easy. Well, okay, maybe that’s fine for some of the projects, but that’s not going to work for everything. So how instead can we make pathways that sort of allow for flexibility within some guardrails that are reasonable? So for example, like cloud.gov, the platform we offer, has built-in support for, I don’t know, eight languages or something like that and with those come a lot of like security upgrades on the underlying operating system and of the language itself, et cetera. And so if you’re doing that, if you’re using one of those languages, which like most things should probably be doable in one of those languages, right? If you’re doing that, then the underlying platform takes care of these things. So we use an abstraction to manage all of that for us rather than trying to directly support all those languages. So in that way, we’ve kind of solved the problem once, but in allowing for flexibility. And so that’s kind of a sweet spot in allowing for the right tools for the job and that kind of thing and different scopes of projects, but not everything is fair game.
[00:27:39] SY: I imagine between the procurement process, between the hiring process, it might be also difficult to use open source technologies. What’s the government’s take on open source?
[00:27:50] AF: In a way, it’s the opposite actually. So when you have to buy every single piece of the technology that you use everything has to go through acquisition because you don’t want to have people just giving money to their cousin or something like that. There’s a lot of protections in doing so. But it becomes very troublesome and burdensome to biotechnology. And so yeah, there’s different like thresholds at which it becomes easier if you’re spending under a certain amount, but spending any money is harder than spending no money. That is one reason we use a ton of software as a service and infrastructure as a service and that kind of thing. So this is not a [inaudible 00:28:31] commercial project, but if you can use open source where possible with the caveat that you then have, maybe more compliance burden and that kind of thing, that allows your work to be more portable because you’re maybe not locked into a vendor, it’s maybe more likely that it’ll be built on open standards and so the data will be more easily exportable and that kind of thing. You can customize it. You have fewer legal concerns. Maybe a service may restrict you from doing something, and that’s not even to say the whole like 18F and TTS like work for the public good. And so if we’re able to improve open source projects as we go, that’s good for everyone as well. So there’s the transparency angle. There’s the sort of like public good angle. There’s the fact that actually in a lot of ways sidesteps a lot of the procurement issues. We’ll still hire contractors to work on things. So it’s not like no money is being sent to the private sector but on the technology itself where we can use open source that allows for more portability.
[00:30:13] AF: Yeah, well that’s another one of those things that there’s a reasonable protection that has maybe gone awry or causes other problems. If it was a lot easier to buy from big companies and small companies, you would only buy from big companies. Now all of a sudden, we’re not supporting small businesses, which is something that I think most people would be in favor of. And so if we don’t want only monopolies, we want there to be competition, which drives down price, features, that kind of thing, we want it to be fair for different sized vendors to compete, for example. The government incentivizes buying from like women and minority-owned small businesses. Total incentive, but a lot of the big companies are not that. So it makes sense that you want it to be a sort of a fair thing, but that means that, yeah, the tool that everyone else in the tech world is using, it doesn’t mean you can just say, “Oh yeah, well, everyone else is using it. I want to use that.” You have to make it fair for anyone to compete. This is not my area of expertise, but the general way it goes is for purchases over $10,000 up to I think $250,000, $350,000 a year or something like that, you are putting out a solicitation saying, “We’re looking for something that meets these requirements. Here’s how you prove it.” And then people can bid and then you evaluate them and then you pick one. But all of that takes time, right? You need to leave it open for a certain number of days, et cetera. Once you do the evaluation, pick one. It can potentially be protested, which again, reasonable that we don’t want. If this system that we set out to be fair and allow for competition, if a vendor feels that it was not fair and that there was favoritism, they’re allowed to protest. Reasonable, but that means that protest is often used as a weapon and to kind of throw a wrench in the gears where the [inaudible 00:32:15] they didn’t get picked. Just another example of a thing that’s well-intentioned but can be really burdensome and really long as a result.
[00:32:27] SY: Coming up next, Aidan talks about what draws him to civic tech after this. With DigitalOcean’s cloud infrastructure, you’ll be able to build faster and scale easier from predictable pricing to flexible configurations, to world-class customer support. You’ll get access to all the infrastructure services you need to grow. Plus, DigitalOcean’s community provides over 2,000 tutorials to help you stay up to date with the latest open source software, languages and frameworks. Get started on DigitalOcean for free with a free $100 credit at DO.co/codenewbie. That’s DO.co/codenewbie.
[00:33:18] If there’s one thing that comes up over and over again in our podcast, it’s that everyone has a different way of learning. We had our producer, Levi Sharpe, try out Educative to level up his Python skills. And he really took to the service’s text-based courses with in-browser embedded coding environments. And Levi, what did you take?
[00:33:38] LS: I took learn Python from scratch, so I’ve been learning Python a little bit. So I was a little bit familiar, but I found that these courses, they’re laid out in a really intuitive way. There’s like these sections that lead seamlessly one into the other. The Python 1 goes from data types and variables to conditional statements, functions, loops, and then each section has a quiz to make sure that you’re not just blasting through and like the information is going in one ear and not the other.
[00:34:10] SY: I love the quizzes.
[00:34:11] LS: Yeah. It really called me out on my BS because I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I get it. I get it, I get it.” And then I took the quiz and they were like, “You don’t get it.” And I was like, “Ah!”
[00:34:21] SY: You got me.
[00:34:22] LS: You got me. And then throughout all of these different sort of sections, you can code within the service itself. So you don’t need like an external coding thing. I should know what that’s called. Do you know what that’s called?
[00:34:37] SY: I’m not going to tell you. I’m not going to give you an IDE.
[00:34:40] LS: Yes, that’s what it says, an IDE. Did you know I’m a producer for a coding podcast?
[00:34:46] SY: A technical podcast.
[00:34:48] LS: Yeah.
[00:34:48] SY: Two actually, two technical podcasts.
[00:34:50] LS: That’s true.
[00:34:51] SY: Get 10% off site wide by going to educative.io/codenewbie. So the more you tell me about working with the government, the more frustrating it sounds and more unpleasant the whole experience sounds. What is the draw for you? You’ve been there for five years now. What keeps you there?
[00:35:15]AF: Yeah. I mean, I’ll go to meetups or go to talk to other friends who are working in technology and they’re talking about working on banner ads, right? And I’m like, “Well, I worked on the program that helps people get green cards or I worked on the program that help support vote.gov that helps people to register to vote and got announced by the presidents and like video music awards or whatever,” right? Like these are really big deal programs and have impact on people, often people who are really in need. It’s very hard to replicate that in the private sector. And so for like people having cushy jobs and things like that, but I just can’t imagine going back at this point.
[00:36:06] SY: So what is the most important piece of advice that you’d give folks who want to get started in civic tech?
[00:36:13] AF: Oh, getting started in civic tech, there are different ways you can get involved, especially as a volunteer that are very low barriers to entry. A lot of cities have Code for America Brigades or other sort of volunteer groups that you can get involved with. So definitely look for that. There are certainly distributed projects, so open source communities, these kinds of things that you can find. So pass that if you’re ready to get a job or interested in kind of switching in. Try to find someone who is working somewhere that you’re interested in. It can be really hard because of all the blockades around hiring. It can be really hard to just look at a job description for government and understand if it’s actually interesting or not. They always sound not interesting because there’s kind of forced to be worded that way. So if you can get a connection on the inside to understand like, “Oh, what is the actual job and where are the rooms for improvement?” And that kind of thing. Where can change actually be affected? Like that’s where you find interesting things. So I definitely recommend networking though. I know multiple like job boards and that kind of thing through Code for America and other groups that you can find cool sort of tech things to get involved with those jobs.
[00:37:41] SY: Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Aidan, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:37:49] AF: I’m ready.
[00:37:50] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:37:54] AF: That I had to pick one interest.
[00:37:56] SY: Tell me about that.
[00:37:57] AF: I had professors in college as I was double-majoring try to say that you can’t have a career in both of these. You have to pick one. And that was wrong. You really can have it all, as they say. And you have to make tradeoffs in terms of time and that kind of thing, but I personally find that well-rounded people are more interesting than not well-rounded people. And so it’s worth pursuing multiple interests and not feeling like you have to give up one thing in order to go sort of fully into another.
[00:38:28] SY: Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:38:32] AF: Empathy is the strongest skill you can have as someone in technology.
[00:38:37] SY: I like that. Tell me about that one.
[00:38:39] AF: It comes up in all sorts of ways, in the maybe more straightforward ways of all the people you’re interacting with around a project, right? The designers on your team, the product people, the business people, the lawyers, if you get that lucky. There’s all these different people that you’re going to interact with around your projects and assuming best intent assuming that they’re not there to be out to get you that if you kind of try and see problems as you have conflicts with these different groups, if you’re trying to understand that they have a job to do in this and that your job is to work through it, not to work against each other, you can get a long way, but it even comes up in sort of non-direct human ways in terms of documentation for your projects that you’re thinking about future selves and future people on the projects and speaking to them. so it really plays into all sorts of different parts of technology.
[00:39:37] SY: Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:39:41] AF: It was something around for-loops or variables.
[00:39:45] SY: Fun stuff.
[00:39:46] AF: Yeah. I didn’t have any exposure to computer science before college. I was kind of brought in through this computer science class. So it wasn’t a fun project to start. It was really just the first homework assignment.
[00:39:58] SY: Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:40:03] AF: That it continues to be frustrating. I think a lot of people think I’m just getting started and so I’m hitting all these roadblocks and don’t get it. And if only I got it, then it would be better. Obviously, you become more efficient as you grow and that kind of thing, but if you are advancing in your career, you’re solving harder and harder problems. And even if working around one system, you’re going to run into new bugs and that kind of thing. And so learning to appreciate that that is the job and problem solving is the job and learning to be patient with it, if not appreciate it and be at peace and not mad at yourself all the time.
[00:40:42] SY: Well, thank you so much, Aidan, for joining us.
[00:40:44] AF: Thanks for having me.
[00:40:52] SY: This episode was edited and mixed by Levi Sharpe. You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us for our weekly Twitter chats. We’ve got our Wednesday chats at 9 P.M. Eastern Time and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 P.M. Eastern Time. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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