Interview with Jennifer Pahlka
Code for America’s Founder and Executive Director, Jennifer Pahlka describes her company as “Teach for America or Peace Corps for geeks.” Working in cities across the United States, Code for America is building a network of civic leaders who believe that there is a better way of doing things and want to make a difference using web-based solutions.
An Interview with Jennifer Pahlka Founder and Executive Director, Code for America
Date: January 2, 2012 [intro music]
Lucy Sanders: Hello, this is Lucy Sanders, CEO and Co-Founder of NCWIT, the National Center for Woman and Information Technology and with me today, Larry Nelson from w3w3.com. Larry, what's going on with old w3w3.com?
Larry Nelson: Oh my goodness. We have so much fun, we interview so many people. We've even been doing it for 12 years now. I must say that this series is extraordinary for us, because what it does for young women, bosses, parents and the like, it's very good. So thank you.
Lucy: Well, listeners will know, we ask women who have started tech companies as part of the series, pretty much the same eight questions and the richness of the answers never ceases to amaze me.
Larry: Oh yeah.
Lucy: I think today we are talking to yet another great entrepreneur in the technology sector, Jennifer Pahlka, who is the Founder and Executive Director of Code for America. Now, this is an awesome effort and I am going to describe it the way that Jennifer did in a recent talk. She says, "It's like a Teach for America or a Peace Corps for Geeks."
Lucy: I just think that's so cool that people in government and city managers for example, who have projects that they think could benefit from web-based solutions and you can make an appeal to Code for America and get volunteer help to help build these projects out, really in some sense making government more open and giving citizens easier access to data. So, I think we are going to hear more about that. Welcome, Jennifer. We are so happy to have you here.
Jennifer Pahlka: Thank you. I am very glad to be here.
Lucy: This is not the first thing Jennifer has been. She is also a serial entrepreneur and has some extensive experience in gaming and media. Before we get off on your entrepreneurship discussion, Jennifer, why don't you tell us a little bit about the latest Code for America? Maybe you can tell us what projects like, "Adopt-a-Fire- Hydrant" are like? [laughs]
Larry: Yeah. Jennifer: Sure, I'd be happy to. We are a pretty new organization, and we just finished up our very first fellowship year. We had 19 fellows work with us all year along and work with the cities, doing great projects. One of them is Adopt-a-Fire-Hydrant app, which came out of the fact the fellows go visit the cities for Fire Weeks in February and when they were there, our Boston team was treated to a massive Snow Apocalypse and one of the things they saw is that, the city is struggling just to clear the streets. They never really get to digging out the fire hydrant. But that the citizens were right in front of them and they could dig them out. So we created a little web app that allows citizens to claim a fire hydrant and agree to dig it out when it snows and the game dynamics on top of it that make it pretty fun. What's cool about that is that other cities who've seen this and adopted it as well. You wouldn't think that Honolulu has anything to do with Boston in terms of something like snow, but they have a similar problem. They need people to check the batteries in the tsunami sirens on the beach.
Lucy: Oh my God.
Jennifer: Too expensive for them to send crews around, checking them every week. So let citizens do that. Now it's also become Adopt-a-Siren and in Buenos Aires it's becoming Adopt-a-Park Bench and in other cities they are using it for other assets that are important to them.
Lucy: Oh, it's so cool, because people who really care about being a good citizen are plugged in, in ways that they know they can make a difference and be helpful.
Jennifer: Exactly, yeah.
Lucy: Awesome. So, Jennifer, tell us a little bit about how you got into starting a technology company, like what got you into doing that?
Jennifer: I wasn't a technical person. My first exposure to technology was actually in the video game industry, which is an incredibly dynamic interesting group to be in, because they are so creative and yet so at the cutting edge of technology. Video games are often breaking grounds in terms of graphics and sound, business models. It was a wonderful introduction not just to technology but community that's so creative and that made me really love technology. But doing conferences both in video game world and in the Web 2.0 world you are constantly talking to some of the smartest, brightest, most passionate people. You see that all of their efforts go towards building products or building services for companies that create a lot of value in our lives. But they don't really go toward building the public institutions that we all pay into and that we all believe should represent us. And so, as a result, without that talent, the public sector is really falling behind. I founded Code for America because I want some of the talent that I have seen over the course of my career in technology, think about building platforms for the public sector as well as the private sector. Start to close that gap between the innovation curve that we're all benefiting from in our personal lives and the way that government works.
Lucy: How big do you think that gap is for the public institutions, just out of curiosity? How far behind are they?
Jennifer: Well, there's that phrase, the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed.
Jennifer: That's very true in city government. You've got some incredibly innovative projects. You've got a lot of very innovative people doing wonderful stuff. For example, here in San Francisco, they put sensors in the curbs so they know what parking spaces are taken and what aren't and they've got some complex algorithms that change the pricing of parking in real time in order to optimize to have just one space open per block in San Francisco. If you live in San Francisco, you know how important that is. There's never any parking in San Francisco. But if you do that, you reduce the number, you reduce congestion, you reduce people driving around the block, it had some environmental effects. That's an example of people. There's many others like that. They're doing really great cutting edge stuff, but then you've also got tons of departments and, even within the same city, you'll have different departments that are still running their technology on Coball databases, stuff that's extremely outdated. Not with just bad technology or outdated technology that doesn't have modern develop per community around it, but also with just very outdated approaches about how to provide services to citizens that's stuck in an 80s and 90s model. So, it really varies. I don't want to discount how great some of the government technology leaders are these days, but there's a very long tail behind that that we need to catch up.
Lucy: Well, and for all you listeners out there with Coball skills. [laughs]
Larry: Yes, Lucy, are you talking about yourself?
Lucy: Actually, I took Coball in college. [laughs] I'm thinking I could probably make more money doing that than what I'm doing.
Jennifer: You've got some cities that are going to their local community colleges asking them to teach Coball now so that they can fill those slots, which I'm not sure is really the way to go, buy hey. [laughs]
Lucy: [laughs] Now look, you've got to go after the age people who are thinking about retiring and lure them out you know, for sure.
Larry: I'm thinking when they have to and then deter from that a little bit to get to our next question.
Larry: Jennifer, why are you an entrepreneur and what is it about you that entrepreneurship makes you tick?
Jennifer: I don't think I thought of myself as an entrepreneur, really, until I came up with the idea for Code for America. I think what's important about that to young women who are thinking about this is that you don't have to feel like you're branded an entrepreneur from the time you're 18. I came up with this idea when I was 39, and I suddenly felt that I could be incredibly useful to the world if I made this happen. It was really the power of the idea and the notion that no one else was going to do it, that made me start this organization. It certainly took some risk. I'm not a particularly risk adverse person and that's probably one quality that's important. But it was really feeling like this needed to happen and that no one else was going to do it, that made me start Code for America.
Lucy: I love that answer.
Lucy: I think it's great. Along that path when you started Code for America, did you have people influence you, or did you have mentors, or role models, or who shaped your thinking, if anybody?
Jennifer: Well, early in my career I worked for a number of very strong, powerful but also so caring and nurturing women at the upper levels as media companies that I worked for. Actually, mostly one media company that went through a number of mergers and acquisitions. The president of our group when I was at the game that all the press conference is a woman named Regina Redly. I think the way that connect with technology, the way that she took care of her people all the way that she made the work environment as important as the work outcome, very much influenced me. Later on, when I was starting the idea of Code for America, I was very much inspired by Tim O'Reilly, the guy who's credit with the Web 2.0 and who's been a big thinker in open source. He continues now to be one of my mentors. I was also very inspired by Gwen Mellor who own the Sunlight Foundation D.C. She is a little bit more on the politics side. But someone who's very clear about the effects she wants to have in the world, very engaging, very kind and supportive person. Sunlight Foundation was initially the physical sponsor for Code for America because she actually very concretely helped Code for America get started and I'm very grateful to her.
Larry: Good, wow, with all the things you've done.
Lucy: So far.
Larry: So far, that's right. I can't help but wonder what is one of the toughest things or the toughest thing that you ever had to do in your career?
Jennifer: It's a difficult question. There's a lot of testing with the bum and bust cycles in technology. Certainly, when you have to lay people off, it's very painful because it's easy for them to take it personally. I've seen all this people well, moving on in so I'm less afraid of it than I used to be but it's hard to see people feel demoralized. I would have to say that now the hardest thing with Code for America is with very competitive process. We can only take 25 people a year right now to do our fellowship. We have 550 people apply. So when someone standing up and raising their hand and saying I want a Code for America, I'm going to move across the country work for some soft stipend, work long hours, and do this crazy thing. They're saying they want to do that and we say sorry you're not chosen. That's probably the hardest thing because you want to honor that instinct and that commitment and that generosity saying they are willing to do it.
Lucy: Interesting, so as a side question, are you funded through donations then?
Jennifer: Primarily, yes, from foundations, from corporations, from individuals. We also charge the cities that get a fellow team for the year a small participation fee so that it is not all on a charitable community.
Lucy: It's a great effort. For all you listeners out there with big wallets... [laughter]
Lucy: Please yes.
Jennifer: In your holiday giving.
Lucy: Absolutely, so if you were sitting here with a young person and giving them advice about entrepreneurship, what would you tell them?
Jennifer: I think the biggest thing I would share with an entrepreneur about an entrepreneur is to really care. You have to care about what you're doing. You have to deeply care about the problem you are trying to solve and think it's an important problem, and care about the people that you work with. If you don't really care deeply about your work other people won't and you won't be successful. That's the heart I think of this notion that we want to inspire the tech community, men and women to work on stuff that matters. If you really care you are much more likely to be successful.
Larry: That's wonderful. Once again, all the things you've done and you did you start out to be an entrepreneur and now you've become one. What are the personal characteristics do you think that are giving you the advantage of being an entrepreneur?
Jennifer: A lot of people would talk about risk think that's an important when you do have to be able to take risk. I turned this organization with $10,000 in the bank for the Sunlight Foundation. That was it. When there was a lot more than was needed I quit my job, I didn't have any income for a while, that was important. I think personally for me I would have to say that my focus on a network in a community around what we do is probably in the most important. Somebody once said and I wish I knew who it was, "The time to build your network is before you need it."
Jennifer: I work in the conference industry. So my job was to know a lot of people and to have them care about the work we did and have them invest in the events that we did, in the content, in the ideas that we are promoting. I was lucky, and lucky that was what I was focused on for the first part of my career, because I did build a big network and I valued the people in my network very, very much. I am aware every day of how much the people who support our work and I am not just talking about our donors, though they are very important. I am talking about the people who come in and work, the fellows, the people who share our message on Twitter, whatever little thing people do because they care about our work. We exist because of them and I never want to take our network for granted. I think that's really helped build Code for America.
Lucy: Well, then that's so true about your network. You build networks, not necessarily with the intention that you are going to get something back from them, but because it's the right thing to do, to build those networks and to be in service to others and that's how the system works. I have seen so many people who really don't quite understand that. [laughs]
Jennifer: I think that's exactly why you need to build a network because you care about other people not because you want them to do things for you.
Lucy: I know it's a little backwards just looking.
Jennifer: No, I totally agree.
Lucy: You're totally self-absorbed. So your starting Code for America, obviously you care very deeply about it. You are very busy with the getting a non-profit off the ground. I know it's really hard work. What is it that you do or what sort of tips can you pass along for balance between all the hard work and passion for Code for America and then your side life?
Jennifer: That's an important topic for welfare for women, in particular, though I don't think should be for women in particular, I think it should be men and women. But it's always a challenge. It's been challenge for me before I started Code for America as well. There is a woman named Charlene Li, who runs Altimeter Group. She quit Forrester Group, but when she did, she blog something along the lines that's there is no such thing as work-life balances, its only disappointing and each party last which is a testament that you can see that that it is very difficult. I think I've seen this most effective for me is I have an eight-year-old daughter and my time with her is incredibly precious. I have her half time. When I am with her, I have the personal will, the power in me to actually turn off the vices, or if I have to respond to something else or tell her what it is and say, I am doing this. I am texting so and so for this reason and then I am going to turn my phone off. Knowing that that person needs me and that when I am paying attention to her, I get so much delight out of that interaction. It helps me create some boundaries between the work and home that I probably wouldn't have it, if I didn't have her. I am so grateful for my daughter in my life.
Larry: I can relate to that. I have four daughters.
Jennifer: Oh, you are very blessed.
Larry: Yes. We certainly are. Jennifer, let me ask this. You've already achieved a great deal and we really appreciate and have a great deal of respect for the track you are on, but what's coming up next for you?
Jennifer: It's funny, I don't think of myself as an ambitious person, but I do have some goals for Code for America that I would like us to see work not just in government technology at some point, but I think some of the approaches that we are taking to rebooting government should also be applied in education and that would be interesting for me. I don't know when or if it will happen, but I care a lot about education and I think that we could be putting more money into teachers and less money into administration if we find committees, principals that work, ++who you think was government. So that would be exciting for me, but beyond that I think hopefully what's next for me is more of work-life balance and I think that's really important.
Larry: There you go.
Lucy: And a great answer. Well, thank you so much for talking to us. Code for America, a great, great organization, growing and hopefully all you citizens, coders out there maybe can get involved. Thanks very much, I want to remind listeners that this interview can be found at w3w3.com and also at ncwit.org.
Larry: You bet. Jennifer, thank you so much.
Jennifer: Thank you very much for having me.
Larry: Yes. [music]