Checking In w/ 2011 Fellow Jeremy Canfield

I caught up with 2011 Fellow Jeremy Canfield to see what’s he’s up to and find out what it was like to wear one of those blue track jackets. He’s what he had to say:

In 50 words or less describe your Code for America fellowship experience.


What’s it like taking a year off from a successful career to hang out in city government (with 18 people you’d never met)?

I admit that when I signed on to Code for America, I felt that it was a bit of a gamble: a brand-new organization, offering a stipend that I wasn’t sure I could make work. But it was one of the best decisions of my life: I had thrown in my lot with the dreamers and the doers; and it opened up my eyes to how much fun work can be.

What’s one of your favorite stories from the fellowship?

I loved that the Boston fellows took calls in the city’s call center during snowmageddon. They got up-close and personal with the problems citizens were facing, and how the overloaded city staff dealt with them, and this informed several of the most successful projects and pilots that came out of the first year including Adopta and Where’s my School Bus.

What is one opportunity that you wouldn’t have gotten if you had not done the fellowship?

There were many, but if I have to list one: I had the opportunity to present at several important government technology conferences. This pushed me to be a better, more confident and persuasive public speaker.

How did Code for America affect the way you view city government? America? The world?

I had always been a fan of cities, but Code for America helped me to better understand that cities are by and large the way we as citizens experience government, even if we don’t recognize it. On our way to work, we interact with literally thousands of government programs, mostly administered by the city: the roads, trains, sanitation, water. These basic infrastructures we all rely on, and cities must ensure they work. These are non-partisan issues.

More than this, Code for America helped me to understand that this world is a world with levers – levers that are difficult but not impossible to grasp. They are often guarded not by people, but by well-worn processes that are no longer in synch with the heightened expectations garnered by our highly designed app and web worlds. These processes can and are being changed by heroes both inside and outside of government, and in many cases meaningful change means making it easier for these heroes to succeed and championing them when they do.

Do you think you’re a better designer than before the fellowship?

I am without question a better experience designer due to the growth and learning that CfA pushed me to undertake. I got to work with excellent product people and top notch firms; I now have a much better grasp on how to design in tricky civic environments and a better understanding of what makes projects and products successful, both inside and outside of the civic context.

I also gained a lot of ground in two programming languages. And even though I’m still not the ace developer that many of my colleagues were, I am much more confident in my ability to start interesting projects and build prototypes.

What are you up to now?

I’m a service designer for a design consultancy (Reboot) that focuses on bringing great design to some of the world’s thorny problems. I found out about it through the tremendously far-reaching CfA network, and it has been incredibly interesting and rewarding; among other things, in my short time there I’ve already had the opportunity to travel to Nigeria to research and design a text-message based citizen reporting system.

If you had one thing to say to someone considering applying for the fellowship, what would you say?

People ask me about the fellowship all the time. I tell them all the same thing: Code for America was simultaneously the single most important thing I’ve ever done and more fun than any job I’ve ever had. You get to hang out and work with really exuberant, top-notch people. While it’s hard work, it’s the sort of work you can throw yourself into because of the other people around you.

Also, don’t worry: it’s not only possible to live in SF on the stipend, but you can do so without having to scrimp too much. I lived in a cool neighborhood, ate well, and had lots and lots of fun.

Apply. Do it now. You won’t regret it.

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