In collaboration with Coding it Forward
All opinions expressed in in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.
Click to read the full transcript of this episode.
[00:00:00] Alistair Croll: [00:00:00] Hi, and welcome to another episode of FWDThinking. Back in 2017, a group of young technologists found themselves very frustrated with the way that their technical internships were going in government. And unlike people who just sit around and grossing about such things, they decided to do something about it. They launched a blog. And then eventually that blog turned into a series of events and a community and a newsletter. And finally, it became a movement. And today I want to talk about the topic of succession planning and bringing on new talent in the world of digital government. And I’m thrilled to be joined by three people who’ve been part of that movement and are now working as a result of those things that started in 2017. So, we’re going to talk to Coding it Forward, a fantastic organization that helps technologists find their place in government. And we’re going to be joined by three [00:01:00] people who’ve been part of that program. First of all, Ariana Soto, Diana Negron and Rachel Stone. And it’s my great pleasure to have all three of you here today to talk about this stuff. So maybe first we’ll start by explaining who you are and then we’ll get into a little bit about Coding it Forward and, and where things have gone from then, Ariana. Hi, nice to see you.
[00:01:19] Ariana Soto: [00:01:19] Thanks for having me slash us. I’m Ariana Soto. I work for Coding it Forward and I’m Coding it Forwards Director of Strategic Initiatives. I was not part of the founding crew in 2017, but I joined shortly after in 2018 and have been with them ever since. So I’m very much a part of, of the movement that we’ve tried to get going since our founding.
[00:01:44] Alistair Croll: [00:01:44] Awesome. And Diana, how are you?
[00:01:46] Diana Negron: [00:01:46] Hi, thanks for having me. I joined Coding it Forward as a fellow in 2018 in the Department of Health Human Services, and now serve as a policy advisor in State Government.
[00:01:57] Alistair Croll: [00:01:57] Awesome. Rachel,
[00:02:00] [00:01:59] Rachel Stone: [00:01:59] Hey. Yeah, Rachel Stone. Thank you for having me. And I’m here as the Chief Data Officer for the State of Utah, out of the Utah governor’s office of planning and budget.
[00:02:11] Alistair Croll: [00:02:11] And Diane and Rachel, you’re both products of Coding it Forward. Is that fair to say? Yes. Maybe not more than that part of our programs. So Ariana, can you explain what is Coding it Forward and how’s it different from other civic tech organizations that our viewers might be familiar with? Like the code for movement.
[00:02:30] Ariana Soto: [00:02:30] Sure. So, as you mentioned, we were started in 2017 by a group of college students. They were looking to kind of find tech internships in government in the summer of 2017. And all they could find was installing Microsoft, as an unpaid intern on government computers, which just wasn’t going to cut it for them. So as you said, we started kind of as a jobs board as a newsletter to kind of get students aware of what opportunities were out [00:03:00] there. And then we’re lucky enough to be connected to someone at the US Census Bureau who is looking to bring early career tech talent into the US Census Bureau that summer, and thus became our pilot initiative, which is no longer a pilot, but the civic digital fellowship, which is a 10 week internship for young technologists to work at federal government agencies. And we’ve been doing that ever since. We will be welcoming over a hundred students to federal government agencies this summer. We have over 200 alums to date, which include Rachel and Diana. And so that is kind of our big thing that we’ve been doing for the past couple of years. We just launched our first state and local government opportunity that we’ll be kicking off this summer, which Rachel will be a part of, but I’m sure we’ll get to that a little bit later. But that’s kind of what we do. We’re kind of, I guess, where we’re positioned in this space, you have folks like the US digital service and 18F Code for America who are doing [00:04:00] absolutely incredible work. And we’re so, so thankful to be a part of that community. But the little piece that we fit, I think is that early career pipeline. There are lots of awesome opportunities for mid-career and senior level technologists to kind of work in government. And we’re still a little bit lacking on opportunities fo, students and recent grads and people who are trying to make their first step in the job market, be government. And so we provide internships for students to kind of get a sense of what’s out there and in the hopes that they come back and they continue to serve after their touchpoint with us.
[00:04:40] Alistair Croll: [00:04:40] So, is it specifically people with a technology or coding background that you’re trying to place?
[00:04:46] Ariana Soto: [00:04:46] For the most part. So we mostly recruit software engineers, data scientists, product managers, and designers. So those are the kind of four skillsets. And I think we’ve had everything few and far between in those four categories, like history [00:05:00] majors who know how to code. And so it’s not, it’s not stuck to just people who are specifically studying CS. We have art history majors, and all kinds of people who just happened to also have kind of technical know-how and abilities.
[00:05:12] Alistair Croll: [00:05:12] Too. So, Dana, when did you know you wanted to get into public service?
[00:05:17] Diana Negron: [00:05:17] I think for me, it started, I did an internship with the Department of Agriculture in DC, and I think that really had started it off. But it was a pain. So it got me interested, but I really didn’t know how I could possibly move. Sort of move forward. I didn’t see too much trajectory from there. But definitely when I drank Coding it Forward in 2018 and saw some of the work and the different departments and agencies, I sort of realized I started as I started grad school as well that I wasn’t going to enter local, local, local state or federal government at that point. Just being exposed to that experience.
[00:05:59] Alistair Croll: [00:05:59] All right. [00:06:00] And Rachel were you a computer scientist first or a public servant first?
[00:06:08] Rachel Stone: [00:06:08] I was attempting to be a public servant. I was kind of from the DC area. Grew up during my teenage years since I was around a lot of the sort of government environment and sort of that resonated with me. And I took that and started a political science degree at BYU as an undergrad. But very quickly as I imagined myself working in government, I was like, there’s no way I can solve problems unless I know how technology works. That’s how the world works now. So I went and took a lot of computer science and data related classes and sort of created a dual degree.
[00:06:49] Alistair Croll: [00:06:49] Is that reflective of most of your members area? Did you find most people are. They’re called to a life of public service and then decide they need to get technology. Are they nerdy? And like, [00:07:00] Hey, I can put this stuff to good use in the service of society afterwards.
[00:07:04] Ariana Soto: [00:07:04] I think that it’s, it’s likely a mix of both and all the things in between, I think as we’ve grown and continued to offer this opportunity across a number of years, we’ve found that more people are starting to realize that opportunities like this exist, but I can’t tell you how many people I’ve interviewed, who have been like, Oh my God, I didn’t realize I could use my tech skills in government. Like this is so cool. And so that’s always super fun. And I just hope that we get to a point where I think something that we always like to say is like, the world’s, the country’s top lawyers go to work for the government. So like, why can’t the same be true for technologists? Like we want everyone who wants to do technology to know that government is out there for them as an option. So I would say it’s a mix. There are people whose, I started out in local government and I was looking for ways to continue to do tech and government. But I [00:08:00] think there are tons of students who just like weren’t told that they could do this. And that’s what we’re trying to kind of dig into that yeah.
[00:08:10] Alistair Croll: [00:08:10] Of the 535 members of Congress that there are if I remember correctly, the count of lawyers in Congress is incredibly high, 168 representatives and 57 senators have a law degree. And I don’t think many of them have a computer science degree. So do you think that we’re going to get that to change or is it the. Politics is about laws, not technology. And therefore one, like how are we going to shift that mindset? Because when you have people passing laws that are not implementable as technology, or when they’re making policy decisions that don’t understand the consequences of underfunding certain technologies, and what’s, that’s going to happen down downstream, we’re kind of treating the extra and the future as an externality. So. is, is Coding [00:09:00] it Forward or other civic tech groups doing anything to try and push for greater technical literacy in our elected officials?
[00:09:07] Ariana Soto: [00:09:07] Yeah, I’ll defer to Diana and Rachel in case they know of other folks, but I know there’s one organization, Tech Congress, who is specifically placing technically capable and knowledgeable folks across a number of different areas. I think some people are more policy-related and some people are more technology focused, like hard technology. So there are one fantastic org that we love who’s doing that work with Congress specifically of, of placing people who do have that know-how there. And I think with the hopes of hopefully turning the people who actually have those seats in Congress to people who do have that knowledge firsthand. But yeah, I think that work is being done and is obviously very, very important. Rachel and Diane, I don’t know if you have other thoughts there.
[00:09:51] Rachel Stone: [00:09:51] I would just add, I mean like the school that you go to or has, or did you graduate?
[00:09:57] Ariana Soto: [00:09:57] I’m graduated now. It feels like [00:10:00] not though. Cause it just happened, but we’ve been sitting in this pandemic, but yes.
[00:10:04] Alistair Croll: [00:10:04] March was like one long month.
[00:10:05] Rachel Stone: [00:10:05] Yeah, exactly. I’m losing drags of everybody, but I mean Harvard has done a great job, especially, you know, in the past five years I think, especially, you know, with taking leaders that came out of the Obama administration and transforming the good work that they did into basically a curriculum for the future leaders that are attending Harvard Kennedy and Harvard and, and getting a government degree. You agree? I mean, the, I feel like that’s, that will have great impact, you know, if it hasn’t already definitely in years to come.
[00:10:41] Ariana Soto: [00:10:41] Yeah, no, I think I would agree with that. And I think we’ve seen it when, when Coding it Forward kind of started in 2017. There wasn’t even just civic tech at large, not even just in, in this congressional kind of vein that we’re talking about, just wasn’t fully developed. I think it was just starting to pop up and people were starting to define what that [00:11:00] meant. And then we’ve seen in the past four to five years, as you said, Rachel, all of these different organizations and movements kind of pop up, which is really exciting across a number of different schools. I know Georgetown’s Beck Center does a lot of work in this space as well. And new America’s public interest tech university network is bringing all kinds of universities into the fold. So yeah.
[00:11:23] Alistair Croll: [00:11:23] Are there any examples of this? Sorry. Are there any examples of this being done in other countries effectively?
[00:11:31] Ariana Soto: [00:11:31] That is a great question. I don’t have a good beat on other who is, Oh, you know what? We have friends in. Well, we have friends in Canada who, you know, we’ve talked about Alistair who are doing this work, but I’m trying to think of.
[00:11:47] Alistair Croll: [00:11:47] I’m like in some countries, government is cool again you know, when you see New Zealand and just sent the art urn and how they handled COVID, there’s this sense of like, [00:12:00] wow, I can do government tech. That’s a cool job. Right. And there’s other places where it seems like this onerous bureaucratic drudgery, it’s almost like a lot of the succession planning and modernization of government begins with a an advertising campaign to reposition government work as useful, fun, productive, and possibly even a career choice.
[00:12:21] Diana Negron: [00:12:21] Yeah, I definitely agree. I think we see a lot of the problem with the barrier to entry at all, all levels of government. Even as something as simple as starting an application process and like the way you apply for federal jobs and state jobs. And there’s, there’s sort of, I think also a misconception of what working in the government is like. And there really needs to be a massive turnaround with thinking of rethinking about recruitment and the hiring process, especially in federal government to start with, since that process can take anywhere from six months or more, and, and not everyone has that luxury of time.
[00:13:00] [00:13:00] Alistair Croll: [00:13:00] I’ve heard people say that government work is different from private sector work because in private sector work, you’re looking for a market opportunity. You can get to first that you can make money off and so on. And so you tend to be solving for the mass market and you tend to be much more interested in sort of the short term gains. And asking for forgiveness rather than for permission whereas in government work, you tend to be solving for the edge cases, tend to be solving for all of the different constituents and stakeholders. And you need to talk to everybody who might be able to say no before, moving ahead. I may be painting an unfair portrayal of that, but that’s certainly a perception I think that that government recruitment needs to overcome. If you want to convince people that the work in government can be fulfilling. So. Diane, Rachel, you’re both doing amazing things and, and working on cool problems at scale. What is it that you would say to someone [00:14:00] who looks at a possible career in government says, no, that’s not for me. It’s too risk averse. And so on. Rachel, maybe you can start that one.
[00:14:09] Rachel Stone: [00:14:09] Oh, well you have to be ready to put your seatbelt on cause it’s, it’s it is kind of a wild ride. I mean, you do. I was thinking about this you know, Gen Z. I’m, I was born in 1995. I’m like right on the border of being a millennial and a Gen Z. And, and so you could consider like, you know, Diana and Ariana and me to kind of be like this first gen Z,like making our way into government. Like, are we gonna last because government, you know, has been, like you said, one of these, institutions it’s about institutional knowledge and red tape and kind of, you know, building a lifelong career. And I think our generation is, you know, self-taught, we have the internet, we can learn anything. We can you know, break down barriers that have [00:15:00] been institutionalized with society, like a lot easier than in previous generations. And so we’re used to kind of the move fast and break things. And that’s not totally what government is, and, and so I think I think that, we have an opportunity to change government. I think government has an opportunity to temper us. And I, you know, we’re not here to necessarily save government, but I think it does take a certain level of bravery, I think from individuals our age to embrace the challenges that government has and kind of see them for the long game that some of them are.
[00:15:42] Alistair Croll: [00:15:42] It also requires that you, you assume that you’re going to be in government all your life. I mean, it’s always been like you’re a career bureaucrat or you work in the private sector. Are you seeing a model where people might do one and then the other, or like come into public service for a few years, then go back to the private sector or is that problematic as well?
[00:16:00] [00:16:00] Rachel Stone: [00:16:00] No, I think there’s definitely a new type of revolving door to be had. And careers, I don’t think our generation thinks of longterm careers. I mean, I was looking at retirement trends for people who are our age. We’re not even close to retirement, but I, it seems like there’s an idea that I’m going to have multiple careers throughout my career. I’m going to reinvent myself and I’m going to try solving problems from lots of different angles may that be public sector, private sector? I’m going to start a startup. I don’t, you know, I could be all sorts of things.
[00:16:35] Diana Negron: [00:16:35] Yeah, no, I definitely also agree into this revolving door between private and public sector. Usually I see a lot of people go to private sector and then public sector first. The one thing in the public sector though is the outdated systems that they have. So the, those skills that you gained the public sector in certain stages and certain systems are not trends trends you [00:17:00] can’t transform. It’s not transferable. It wouldn’t go back into the private sector and people want to be competitive in the job market. So we have to sort of revamp this process to have a modernization through all levels and really streamlined, streamlines in these processes.
[00:17:19] Alistair Croll: [00:17:19] That’s super interesting that the, the skills are not necessarily transferable. So if you switch from one of the other, you find yourself not as far ahead. I want to read you a quote from when I was a kid, I used to read a lot of science fiction books. This is by Arthur C. Clarke for Imperial Earth and he says “For the last century, almost all top political appointments on the planet earth have been made by random computer selection from the pool of individuals who had the necessary qualifications and it taken the human race several thousand years to realize there were some jobs that you’d never be given to the people who volunteered for them, especially if they showed too much enthusiasm. As one shrewd political commentator had remarked [00:18:00] we want a president who has to be carried, kicking, and screaming into the white house, but then will then do the best job he or she possibly can, so that they’ll get time off for good behavior.” And I’m updating some of the pronouns from an admittedly somewhat outdated book. That does strike me as a very different mentality that there’s this idea of being called to public service or being called to office. That immediately flags you as someone who’s a little too eager to have control over life of others. How do we rebrand? Like what, what should government be in a world where the job market is more of a revolving door where people are going to have multiple careers where you can definitely do service in public and in private. You know, you may have a day job, but be working hard in civic tech or blogging or researching, or being an activist in your spare time in ways that simply weren’t possible before technology came up, what do you three think the, the right government branding is [00:19:00] to ensure that the best and brightest people decided to devote some of their time to making their country a better place?[00:19:06] Ariana Soto: [00:19:06] Ooh, that’s a big, a big question. What’s the branding. I mean, this is not a fully cohesive thought, but I think what I’ve been thinking a lot about, especially in the past year is amongst the younger folks in this country there’s a, people are using technology and the mediums that we have to really make their voices heard and, and speak up about things that they want to change. And obviously there are government structures that make the way the country run happen. But I think a way to rebrand this work is like, Hey, like you want to do something about these issues and come, come join, come join the government, come do this work where it happens, where the decisions are being [00:20:00] made, like bring your enthusiasm to this space. And maybe all of us together can kind of reshape this old, clunky machine that has existed for the however many years. You know? I think Rachel and Diana’s work is really a testament to the impact that people can have in these places, in these spaces and how do we. I think it’s just really getting the, the knowledge and the know-how there to, to the younger generation, that this is an, an opportunity for them to kind of make that change that they’ve been wanting to see. And like I said, like, I can’t tell you how many people I interview, who just like didn’t know that this was a thing that they could do. And I think that’s like the first step step is like, let’s make sure that everyone knows that this is something that they can be doing. And then maybe once we kind of have that in control, we can think about how we rebrand and make government seem more fun. But I don’t think that there’s a, I think I’ve learned that there is not a lack of [00:21:00] people who want to do this work. It’s just, how do we get them those opportunities, we have over 1500 applications come in for our programs. And like, we can only place like 5% of the people who want to do this work. So there’s a huge gap in the number of people who want to do this and the number of opportunities available. So that would be my, not answer to your question is, I don’t know if it’s a particularly a rebrand issue at this at this point, at least not from, from my perspective.
[00:21:26] Alistair Croll: [00:21:26] Your marketplace to use a private sector term is supply constraint. You have a lot of demand for people in these positions. You just need to get places to place them. Diana, you know, what are you working on right now?
[00:21:39] Diana Negron: [00:21:39] For me, I’m working. I, so I work in economic development and work really closely with local municipalities, but also our governor’s office. And, and some of the things that I’m working on are really COVID related and being able to being able to sort of give these sheen lines of capital of access to capital [00:22:00] and access to funds, to a lot of small and midsize businesses in New Jersey.
[00:22:05] Alistair Croll: [00:22:05] And Rachel, you’re the CTO of Utah.
[00:22:09] Rachel Stone: [00:22:09] Yeah.
[00:22:11] Alistair Croll: [00:22:11] Does that entail? I mean, I, it’s probably faster to see what it doesn’t entail, but that’s a lot of work too.
[00:22:17] Rachel Stone: [00:22:17] It’s new for, for Utah to be thinking along the lines of like, Oh, you know, how do we use our data in such a way that like it’s beneficial to more than just one agency or you know, in a way that cuts through the silos that the data is owned by, or federal regulations like govern some of this data so that we can use it for a greater public good. It is an asset. So the more that we get out of it, the more value it. You know, it has, it provides us we’re not maximizing the value of our data. So I’m just involved in, in projects and, and conversations along that end of how do we maximize the [00:23:00] value of our, of the data that we have in very, you know, business goals sort of use cases.
[00:23:08] Alistair Croll: [00:23:08] So this may be a touchy subject and you can tell me to stop asking questions if you want, but I’d like to talk a little bit about age-ism and marginalization. One of the big themes at FWD50 this year is. The idea that we need to modernize technology. And then that often means either decommissioning legacy systems or reawakening them and understanding them again. But they tend to be built in fairly ancient monolithic architectures. They tend to use cobalt, power builder, lots of other technologies that we really aren’t that familiar with. And, you know, the last time we had to summon all the people that still understood those might’ve been Y2K. Certainly, there’s a need to do succession planning and to bring in new talent into government. But there’s also a risk that we marginalize older technologists and reinforce this perception that, that if they’ve been around for a while, they [00:24:00] can’t do the latest work and they’re relegated to maintaining old systems. How much of making sure that government employees are technically astute and can do the work of digital innovation comes from recruitment versus internal retraining and career building and how do you think that that’s going to play out as so many of these skills become digital? What are you seeing in your governments as an effort to sort of retool the existing employees while still bringing in new ones? And Rachel, maybe if you can say what Utah is doing there, but again, I don’t want to put you in an uncomfortable position, so don’t feel you have to answer it if you don’t want to.
[00:24:42] Rachel Stone: [00:24:42] No, that’s a, that’s a really hard problem. And we see that quite a bit and you know, government, was incentivized, our retirement systems were incentivized, you know, to kind of put people on sort of pension based [00:25:00] plan and basically slate them for years, years, years, years, decades, long careers in the one government system. And so we have a lot of of the people who are having to retool and they’re on the cusp of retirement. And so what do we do? And, we have programs like, you know, a Pluralsight subscription. I know that that DTS, our technology services agency has those kinds of like learning, programs and access to, O’Riley media and things like that to try to get up to speed. But, it’s been a difficult issue, I think forever problem in IT, of, you know, figuring out what’s worth, even maintaining and what’s worth going out to vendors. And those conversations are also really important as, as we hire new talent because if people with careers with us are shorter than we can’t rely on building [00:26:00] stuff, the way that we used to as well. So that’s a tough one to crack.
[00:26:06] Alistair Croll: [00:26:06] Diana, you’re working in economic development stuff and obviously that’s heavily related to COVID right now. There’s a certain amount of elasticity needed in government programs, right? It’s something like economic development support at a time of pandemic is going to be different from let’s say, massive climate change or wildfires spreading everywhere. In the past, as Ariana said, we tended to have like, you know, this was your job. And I think we had, we had institutionalized as Rachel just said, this idea that you’re going to have one job in government and then retire. What are you seeing change in terms of the ability for employment and staffing to be elastic or for people to move from department to department? Is that, is that different from how it used to be?
[00:26:50] Diana Negron: [00:26:50] I definitely think that it is different from how it used to be, sorry, my headphone came up.
[00:26:56] Alistair Croll: [00:26:56] But it just to remember, if technology works, we’d all be out of [00:27:00] jobs. Right.
[00:27:01] Diana Negron: [00:27:01] You know, it definitely has changed. I think COVID has for, you know, for state government in New Jersey, it’sfor us, it has especially being on the economic hand in, in the state for small and mid-size businesses. We have had to really be all hands on deck. So there’s no, really this is out of my job description, right. Especially right now, if you’re in government, you know, everything, it’s an emergency at this rate, whether it’s getting some datasets over or funding. So right now, I think we’re seeing this sort of liberal more creativity with what you can and can’t do. And I think COVID has taught us that we have to be more innovative with our programs and with just how we look at economic development from a sustainable lens, both environmentally economically. But I definitely think it has, inspired a lot of people and a lot of you know, elected officials so to be more innovative and think [00:28:00] differently. Some examples of that can be you know, government startin, technical assistance program for e-commerce for their entrepreneurs. So it, it really is I think taking a turn with being more transparent and being more innovative.
[00:28:17]Rachel Stone: [00:28:17] All people of all ages and all backgrounds bring value to the work that we do here in government, because we serve everyone. We don’t get to pick our users. And they don’t even get to pick us. So, we, we nee, the institutional knowledge and the lessons learned from people who’ve served decades in government and tell us, yeah, well, we tried that before and you know, some of that might be folklore, but some of that might be really legit like, don’t go do that thing. And we tried that before. And so I, I there’s so much that we need to maximize from the different people who we have working in government. We should be grateful for the people we have. [00:29:00] There’s incredible public servants everywhere. And, I think the more likely we cross-pollinate the better
[00:29:08] Alistair Croll: [00:29:08] What do you mean by folklore?
[00:29:12] Rachel Stone: [00:29:12] Yeah, well, I know what you know, that is that folklore meaning the, the notion that, you know, there’s red tape and we don’t totally know why, but there’s probably a lot out there that says that we can’t do a certain thing. So we’re just, we’re not going to do it. We tried that. Don’t try that anymore. And, that’s, there’s a lot of that in government that we’re always trying to check assumptions around.
[00:29:43] Alistair Croll: [00:29:43] It does seem to be like a weird tension, right? If you, if you don’t listen to that wisdom, you wind up trying all the same things and making the same dumb mistakes the previous people did. If you do listen to it too much, then you never create change. So. How do you find that tenor? [00:30:00] Because when you bring someone straight at a school they’re idealistic and they’re enthusiastic and they’re willing to run through walls and stuff, and you don’t want to pour that molasses all over them but at the same time, you don’t want, you want them to pick their battles. Has that been something you’ve had to learn as you’ve entered the public sector?
[00:30:17] Rachel Stone: [00:30:17] Yeah, definitely. Ariana and Diana, do you have stories along those lines?
[00:30:22] Diana Negron: [00:30:22] No, I, I definitely do. Especially I, when I worked in local government sometimes you’re so idealistic and really coming out of out of, you know, undergrad or grad school and sometimes you have to just deal with, you think you’re going to try something new and innovative and then it fails. And sometimes that’s just part of the process, right? Everyone, you have something to learn from everyone like Rachel said. But I definitely do think you have, we have to, you know, be. Take everyone’s opinion, be mindful if you’re starting one thing, collect information [00:31:00] and really discuss those ideas with everyone across all those different boards. But I definitely do sometimes failure’s part of that process and being able to cope with that and, and learning about it. So that’s part of what I think.
[00:31:15] Ariana Soto: [00:31:15] Yeah. I would say that I’ve, I think what helps whenever I’ve been put on a team is to really understand the team and what the team’s goals in goals are and how you plug in there. I worked with the New York Mayor’s office of data analytics, which was a lovely experience and a lovely team. And I didn’t know what to expect when I came in, but I ended up spending the summer like finding a way to better utilize this triaged system they had for their open data portal which like doesn’t seem new and shiny. Like they just couldn’t acquire a new piece of technology given the constraints of government. And so my task was to be like, here’s this system that we know doesn’t quite work for what we’re doing, but like, can you make it better? And knowing, and I’ve I’ve now we have [00:32:00] we’re placing, Coding it Forward fellows with that team. But so I’ve gotten to reconnect with some of the people that I worked with and they’re like, we’re still using our new thing that you did for us. And so I think when you get to know the team and what the mission of that team is, you can better understand what your role is and not be like, Oh, you’re not having me build this new shiny thing. Like now, like the thing that I worked on that like wasn’t new or shiny, like actually ended up having a big impact. And I think there’s those kinds of pieces that you can plug into which may not seem super exciting right off the bat but when you get to look back on what your work did I think that’s a really, you kind of have to wait for the.
[00:32:42] Alistair Croll: [00:32:42] Yeah. There’s a line in, in Marianne Bellotti’s Kill it with Fire where she talks about or a part of the book where she talks about the need to celebrate things a little differently. That so much of this is human factors. It’s, it’s making the team realize they have agency and that while they might not get that sort of shiny gold [00:33:00] star for being best in class and making something remarkable, they have to take pride in, in the results of the things that were built to top them. That like, if you build a code and it, it gets refactored in a few years, that doesn’t necessarily mean you did a bad thing or wrote it wrongly. It means it was in demand enough that people felt they needed to refactor it because it was so important. And so it’s almost like learning how to celebrate different kinds of achievements from what we’re traditionally used to.
[00:33:29] Ariana Soto: [00:33:29] Yeah. A hundred percent. No, I think all the work that I’ve gotten to do at the, at the local level is just maybe like, not what I expected. I was rewriting like metadata standards and like creating a playbook for like how metadata should go on the open data portal. And like, that doesn’t seem, I wasn’t writing any code. Like I wasn’t doing anything like crazy, but it’s like, it’s a lasting impact that like will maybe help the people who are writing the code, do their job a little bit better, a couple months down the line. And yeah.
[00:33:57] Alistair Croll: [00:33:57] It’s just really hard to put it on Instagram and have your friends get excited about [00:34:00] it.
[00:34:00] Ariana Soto: [00:34:00] Yeah, exactly. No, it’s really excited. And I’m like, I found my stint in local government was the summer after my freshman year. And like, I was one of the only people in my group of friends who was doing that. And when I came back to campus, we were like, that’s so cool. I got like, you got to work. Like, it was like people didn’t, again, like people just didn’t know that you could be doing that quite frankly. Like, I didn’t know. Like I fell into local government. My dad met a guy in his building who was looking for an unpaid intern and I was already coming home to Los Angeles to spend the summer at home the summer after my freshman year, I was like, well, I’ll be sitting on my couch, may as well, like go intern somewhere. And thus like became the rest of my, my journey. And my hope is that that’s not like that doesn’t have to be the case, right. That someone doesn’t have to fall into the job to understand that people are using technology in government. Yeah, that’s kind of a roundabout tool we were talking about earlier, but
[00:34:50] Alistair Croll: [00:34:50] what should we do to make it not accidental? I mean, Diana, if you could, if you could rewrite the budget and allocate [00:35:00] $50 million to any program you wanted, that would improve people’s desire to spend at least some of their technical careers working in the public sector, how would you spend it? What would you spend that money?
[00:35:15] Diana Negron: [00:35:15] I would definitely spend that money on creating pipeline programs where they can sort of, depending on what level it is on the, in the federal agency side hop from one agency to the other, without feeling constricted to one thing. And I think that’s a major problem for me. I I’m also, I also like to jump around and do different things and I think our generation is very much, collectively wants to just try new and different things all the time. And so definitely a pipeline program where you’re not sort of only set for one thing and where you could, you know, begin being able to move around or also another same type of program, but you can [00:36:00] do sort of, you know, rotations in one room. Federal rotation in Boston one in Atlanta, just sort of keep people interested in going. I definitely think, you know, being able to pick up and go somewhere new and being able to, you’re not set on one thing or one place I think is definitely something that people look forward to.
[00:36:24] Alistair Croll: [00:36:24] That’s an awesome point that whenever you’re in marketing, you play to your strengths. And one of the strengths of the federal government is I can let you live in 15 cities in 15 years. If you want to see the world, especially with some of the work from home things we’ve got from COVID, that’s something most employers can’t offer, but for the federal government, it’s pretty well documented. I really liked your point, Diana, about You know, letting people move from, from department to department or task to task. Does not require a certain amount of standardization though, so that, you know, you you’re using the same tool set. Like if there’s a component that your government has built to do [00:37:00] notifications or to have people fill in forms or whatever, and that component is consistent, it makes it much easier for you to move from department to department and use the same tools, the, how much of the the government. How much of the employment mobility is dependent on the standardization of the platforms that you’re working with?
[00:37:19] Ariana Soto: [00:37:19] I would say my, I’ll let Diana kind of field this one with my quick two sentences. I think there does require some amount of standardization, but also we place students at 10 plus federal agencies and we’re not changing who we’re recruiting based off of the systems. Like there are actually a lot of awesome federal government departments and that are using modern tools. And so my two sentence would be like, maybe it is more like, maybe we haven’t looked into that. Like maybe it is a bit more transverbal, I think that’s the optimistic answer. I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of constraints that are in there, but we have been able to place somewhat of the same [00:38:00] students in different places across the federal government, but Diane I’ll let you feel that.
[00:38:04] Diana Negron: [00:38:04] I definitely do think a lot of those skills also, I agree with Arianna are transferable and being able to transfer those systems back and forth You know, you’re always going to learn something near wherever you go. And I think that’s just part of the process. And you know, being able to understand new regulations and policies. I think, for example, if you’re going from one agency to Atlanta, from Atlanta to Seattle, different agency, different department and to maybe something in Atlanta was more innovative than how they’re doing it in Seattle, you can bring those new ideas, policies, procedures, business, operations, whatever it might be to that new entity. And so there’s also that transfer of knowledge and information. That’s institutional from somewhere else to another place in the U S.
[00:38:50]Ariana Soto: [00:38:50] And I would say that like a lot of the teams, which Rachel is a part of this summer with our Civic Innovation Corps, like a lot of our teams are interested in sharing knowledge and [00:39:00] using kind of the people that we’re placing with them over the summer to be like, Hey, like, can we share best practice across city and state government entities? So I think there’s a, there’s an appetite for that. It’s just, how do we make that happen.
[00:39:13] Alistair Croll: [00:39:13] Rachel? What was the Civic Innovation Corps?
[00:39:16] Rachel Stone: [00:39:16] So the Civic Innovation Corps is the newest iteration out of the Coding it Forward organization. And Ariana is leading it. So it’s basically, they’ve, they’ve put you know, students and early career folks in federal government for the past few years. Now they’re looking at state and local, and I think it’s there’s seven or eight different States.
[00:39:39] Ariana Soto: [00:39:39] Think we have, we landed on nine, I think.
[00:39:45] Alistair Croll: [00:39:45] Yeah.
[00:39:47] Rachel Stone: [00:39:47] So yeah, nine locales, I guess you can say that are, that are more local government oriented and where they’re gonna have students. And so I’m really excited this summer. We’re going to have four [00:40:00] here in our office. They’re remote they’re from all over the country. And so we’re going to get to try working that way. But you know, 2 cents also on You know that the rotation idea of talent. We have a new boss here at the governor’s office of planning and budget. She’s incredible. And she’s really creating a flat hierarchy for, or our organization. There are four people who are supervisors, because it’s helpful to have somebody like do your time sheet, but way more unstructured and way more, you know, here’s an assignment for now or you’re going to get to it and you know, here’s a backup and then we’re going to rotate in a few years. Let’s see how the first one will rotate and building that sort of redundancy, I think is awesome. Not only for retention and you know, recruitment, but for the work-life balance that people need, like parenting all of those things that happen. I, and I hope we can see more of that going forward.
[00:40:59] Alistair Croll: [00:40:59] Yeah. There’s [00:41:00] two really interesting things you touched on there. Diana, your point about the fact that younger federal employees can be agents of cross-pollination because they’re likely to move from place to place. They don’t have kids in school yet who keep them in a particular city. So they’re not at a part of their life where mobility is difficult. And then Rachel, what you were saying a lot of the mechanisms that hierarchies that we used to understand were because we needed sort of command and control top-down structure because we didn’t have tools like Slack or Teams in the workspace where you could now coordinate almost organically. You can go grab a trouble ticket, say I’ll work on this or collaborate on something, you know in a sort of very intangible or flexible way. So I’m super interested to hear about why you think technology makes it a more welcoming place for younger [00:42:00] technologists to come in. Like it’s not just that we need tech employment. It’s the tech being used in the government is changing the nature of employment and who’s willing to work there. Are you seeing a difference in the kinds of jobs people are doing other kinds of organizational structures? Like the one you just mentioned?
[00:42:17] Rachel Stone: [00:42:17] If I can start on that. I definitely yet. And we’ve rolled out a really robust telework framework. It was pre COVID even that we were rolling this out. We wanted to see as many state government employees work remotely and even removed to rural Utah and boosts our rural economies, you know, save our air quality, all of those things. We had that infrastructure coming on board and and so that really changed up like the way that people are working because they’re working from home and this was pre COVID and now we’ve learned even more. Another person who I I’m really a fan of Sahil Lavingia, he’s in the private sector, he is CEO of [00:43:00] Gumroad and, and a VC. But, he basically runs a company that doesn’t have any meetings at all. They worked completely asynchronously and they don’t have to work full time. And it’s kind of just, we’re going to move along at the pace we move along and they have the privilege of doing that because they have an established product. I’m not sure we could accomplish quite that in government, but there’s a lot to learn from like, You know, I don’t, I I’m going to write out what I need to write out and you’ll see it when you see it. And, you know, we don’t have to have the traditional methods of communication and we’re not working in physical spaces anymore. So we’re a lot more accessible in those ways. Those are awesome I think for the needs of our generation.
[00:43:43] Alistair Croll: [00:43:43] Yeah. And certainly open government up to the rest of the world that may not have considered that job. Okay. So we only have a couple of minutes, Rachel. I want to hear how you’d spend your $50 million if you want it to try and get more people, more younger people to consider spending some of their careers in the public [00:44:00] sector.
[00:44:01] Rachel Stone: [00:44:01] I don’t think I would use a $50 million. I don’t think I can use all that money. I would pay people what they ought to be paid though. I do. I spend a lot of time with our frontline workers in, in years past for projects and I just think they need to be paid way more. We’re working on that.
[00:44:24] Alistair Croll: [00:44:24] Yeah, definitely wage parody with the private sector is an important important factor when you’re doing a tech workers. Okay. Ariana, let’s bring it back to you since since you’d love to have that $50 million, although like Rachel, you might use it to subsidize people’s wages so they’re on par with the private sector. How would you spend that money to encourage people to spend some part of their technical career in the public sector?
[00:44:44] Ariana Soto: [00:44:44] This is not the first time that someone has posed this question and it’s quite, my answer is quite similar to Rachel, like. That number is enormous to me. Like, I can’t even think of the things I would do with that amount of moneycause I don’t even need that amount of money to get this ball rolling. I think I would start [00:45:00] with kind of a wage parody and making sure that we’re on par with the other opportunities that are out there for students. I think that would work in a positive direction and towards making these opportunities more inclusive and making sure that we have diverse voices in these positions in a way that we need the people that are working on these problems to look like the people that they’re serving, that’s always been a big deal for Coding it Forward. So I think this whole kind of wage and benefit parody would help that because now someone doesn’t have to be like, Oh, I.
[00:45:37] Rachel Stone: [00:45:37] I’m a new mom childcare maternity leave.
[00:45:43] Alistair Croll: [00:45:43] I am here in Canada so we have a different set of.
[00:45:48] Ariana Soto: [00:45:48] But I think that’s a big thing to like, make sure that someone doesn’t have to make a decision between government and something else because something else is offering them better. So I think that’d be the first one. And then I think. I would [00:46:00] use a lot of it to help us continue to spread the word about the fact that these opportunities are out there and give some money to the people who are already doing that work. Because I think the first step is still making sure that people know that these opportunities are great. And not they’re there, but I’m sure.
[00:46:17] Alistair Croll: [00:46:17] Well, for a new kind of civics class too, like we all take civics in high school and we all have STEM stuff and we all take computer courses. Maybe it’s time to say civics is now a computer science course. And your job is to build some apps and stuff on local data for something that’s always bothered you about society. And no. Yeah, we can make it. Part of the curriculum.
[00:46:39] Ariana Soto: [00:46:39] The folks in New America are trying to wit their university network are trying to find way to get kind of ethics and civics into CS curriculum and do it the other way so that we kind of plant that seed in people’s minds. But yeah, I don’t think it would take that large sum of money for me to do some big things. So I think maybe we’d hold onto the rest of it so we could keep, could keep thinking [00:47:00] cause I don’t even think I’m in that far of a direction yet. And yeah, you can do a lot with a little. Fantastic.
[00:47:07] Alistair Croll: [00:47:07] Well, it’s amazing to see what Codingit Forwards done already just four years. And Diane and Rachel, you’re both doing amazing things in very important parts of government. Where do you see yourselves and we’ll end with this? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
[00:47:22] Diana Negron: [00:47:22] Well, I I’m actually starting my PhD, so hopefully I’ll be finished with that in 10 years, but
[00:47:28] Alistair Croll: [00:47:28] What is the thesis, do you know yet?
[00:47:31] Diana Negron: [00:47:31] No, but I’m doing a PhD in city, regional planning. I started in the fall actually, but I’m hoping that that’ll take a few years. So but I definitely hope to be serving in, in some, some capacity in, in state or in state or local government. And definitely we’ll have to do probably in some kind of like economics economic development. But I definitely think I’ll have an odd trajectory [00:48:00] you know, being an academia and being a practitioner. But I think that for me, the goal is still some somewhat consistent.
[00:48:08] Alistair Croll: [00:48:08] Right? So you’re gonna have an odd trajectory?
[00:48:10] Rachel Stone: [00:48:10] Yeah, I could not even begin to predict. Sorry. And that’s the privilege that, that this generation gets to enjoy Ariana? Yeah, I think
[00:48:20] Ariana Soto: [00:48:20] It’s like I just graduated a year ago, so wow. 10 years is a, is a big question. Yeah, I think the sky’s the limit. My other fun fact, I guess, is that I’m also an actress. So who knows will the civic tech will that take over? I think that’s a tenure look, but I think where I would hope to be in terms of what I’m currently doing is that we either fix this early career pipeline in a way that like, my work is no longer needed because it’s a ship that is sailing or that 10 years from now, I’m still doing this, but we’re far ahead of where we are now would be my big, my big 10 year.
[00:48:54] Alistair Croll: [00:48:54] Awesome. Well, thank you all so much for spending some time talking about this succession planning, [00:49:00] modernization, none of this stuff happens without humans, and it’s amazing to see what we can do to change people’s perceptions of a career in government. Particularly, as some of the technologies are making those choices different from what they were for our parents, for example, or at least your parents, because I’m old enough to be your parents. But thank you all for spending some of your life in public service, at least. And for spending some time today with us talking about this stuff, it’s been great chatting with you all.
Talk to anyone who’s spent more than a short while in government modernization, and they’ll tell you it’s a people problem. The move from physical to digital delivery changes everything: What was once scarce (personalization, for example) is now trivially easy; what we took for granted (in-person identity) is now a deep, thorny problem. What was permanent in the physical world is easy to update in the virtual one. And getting people to recalibrate their behaviour in these new conditions is tough.
Compounding this is the public perception of government. Politics and a 24-hour news cycle mean that public service isn’t at the top of the list of career choices for many new graduates, particularly technical ones. While civic tech organizations like Code for Canada/Code for America bridge the gap between private-sector urgency and public-sector scale, reaching candidates earlier in their careers—only 7% of US Federal employees are under 30—is vital if we’re to navigate digital transformation and swell the ranks of a public sector that needs new ideas and tech-smart teams.
Coding It Forward is a movement launched in 2017, when a group of students realized there was a real shortage of positions in public service for them to try out. Since that time, the nonprofit has grown to a community of hundreds of fellows, placing technical talent in government fellowships.
Alistair Croll sat down with Ariana Soto, the group’s director of strategic initiatives, as well as two of its fellows—Diana Negron, now a Policy Advisor at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority; and Rachel Stone, now Chief Data Officer in the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget—to discuss the program, succession planning, digital transformation, and how the movement started.