Code for America Yearbook is an ongoing series of interviews with 2013 Fellows to document their year at CfA.
Name: Richa Agarwal
Fellowship City: Oakland, Calif.
Hometown: Los Altos Hills, Calif.
Current Neighborhood: SoMa
Q: So—to get started, how did you find out about the Fellowship?
Last year I was volunteering for the Obama for America re-election campaign, and that was how I met Catherine Bracy, who now works here at CfA, but back then she was opening up the Obama field office. Bracy had actually retweeted @codeforamerica. But I had never heard of Code for America before that tweet, so I followed the link to it last June, and then I applied.
Q: What was your reaction when you found out that you were accepted?
When I got accepted I was really excited. But I was still not quite thinking about next steps. I thought, I’ll figure this all out after the campaign, but it became this process of deciding sooner than anticipated where I would be going to next. But I was surprised—I really didn’t think that I was going to be accepted.
Q: Let’s rewind—so you’re a programmer, how did you build the skills you have today?
It’s sort of an interesting story. In the summer of 2008 I was about to start law school at University of California Davis but I got cold feet and decided not to go. And so I talked to my parents about it and said “I think I’m gonna go learn how to program.” My dad wanted me to have a degree behind it, so I went to school and got my masters in computer science…and I’ve been in the industry ever since. It wasn’t until early last year when I got involved with the work on the Obama campaign and now at Code for America that I’ve been able to use those skill sets towards the kind of work I want to do.
Q: How was your move to San Francisco?
So, it was actually a move back to the Bay Area. I’ve been in and out several times and it’s always great to come back home. I grew up in San Jose, Calif. and I went to high school in Palo Alto, Calif., so I have a lot of family and friends here…But, yeah, it was a pretty easy move since I already had lived here.
Q: What’s your neighborhood like?
I live in SoMa. I live about a mile east of the CfA office actually. It’s a developing neighborhood. Even eight years ago there used to be nothing around the building I live in. Like, if you wanted to eat, you better have had groceries around. Back then there were no restaurants, and now there are a lot of startups, office spaces, and restaurants opening up. There are also a lot of homeless people which is kind of an interesting dynamic. It’s definitely an area of San Francisco that’s going to continue to develop.
Q: What’s your favorite place to hang out in San Francisco?
I would say that my happy place is Mission Cliffs, a rock climbing gym in the Mission. Indoor climbing is great because you can take risks you might not take outdoors, and at the end of the day you’re basically walking up walls which is an incredibly playful and fun experience.
Q: Who are some of your role models?
I’ve never really felt like I had a role model. There are a number of men and women I admire, but I don’t think there’s anyone that I look to and think, yeah, that could be me.
Q: What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during the fellowship?
It was in February, which was our month of residency, so I was living in Oakland. We were immersed in meetings at City Hall and introducing ourselves on a daily basis to so many different people. Explaining who we are and what we do was surprisingly really exhausting. It seemed like a lot of people had questions I didn’t know the answers to quite yet.
Q: What has your experience been like as a woman in government? In tech?
I wouldn’t necessarily identify as woman in government. But as a woman in tech, it’s been interesting. I’ve pretty much exclusively worked in tech companies. My first job out of college, even before I was a programmer, was at a tech startup. I’ve usually been the only woman, (or one of the few women) on a team. Mostly you get used to it—but I do feel like there’s a real lack of female mentorship.
Q: What book(s) are you reading right now?
“The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin and “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” by Mindy Kaling.
Q: Favorite quote?
“Be kind-for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Q: Any advice to future Fellows?
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. The staff here are incredibly open to feedback and supporting your needs, but the organization is biased towards people empowering themselves as opposed to holding your hand.
Q: Where do you see yourself a year from now?
I have no idea. I could be backpacking somewhere. I could be working at a civic startup. I might sell out. I have no idea. Well, maybe not the sell out part.
Questions? Comments? Keep the conversation with Richa going and tweet @richaaaa.
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