Dharmishta Rood: Why I’m Coding for America

When I was in college I wanted to be a fashion designer. Or perhaps I was a fashion designer, insofar as any 19-year-old with a sewing machine on her kitchen table and a screen-printing studio in her garage is a fashion designer.

I was fascinated with the way clothes made people feel, akin to the experience of inhabiting a well-designed building, or participating in a community. For me, clothing served as the infrastructure around people, allowing them to communicate with one another, as well as providing shelter from abrasive temperatures. For me, clothing was also the physical structural support, dictating the possibility of more (or less) ergonomic gestures. Clothing allowed the wearer to feel comfort, psychologically and physiologically, through the physical and cultural context of clothing. I wanted to affect the quality of individual’s lives, through fashion.

Then, one day, I had a total, life-altering epiphany. I realized that while clothes did surround people and affect them physiologically, emotionally, socially, and culturally, it was the everyday technologies that would be at the forefront of these interactions and infrastructures. I wanted to work with technology to better the world — and my interests shifted orientation from fashion to technology.

At this time, I had a newfound hunger for information. I had to learn more about how people used technology. My time was consumed by a hunger for understanding how the internet was used by people. Though as an undergrad I was no stranger to technology (at that point in my life I was writing code in Processing, and was making websites), I switched from reading fashion history books, to technology blogs. I started following technology academics, popular tech news, as well as reading historical texts about technology.

After graduation from UCLA with a degree in Design | Media Arts, I moved to Cambridge, Mass. to pursue this topic at Harvard. There I studied technology’s multiple perspectives: education, law and policy, research methods, cooperation, Comparative Media Studies, and of course spent a lot of time studying civic media.

When I completed that program, I quickly learned that I could further my education about technology by having fellowships and other research positions at universities. I became a fellow at the Center for Civic Media, at Media Lab at MIT. I researched the internet at Harvard Business School, writing cases and collaborating on other research initiatives. I co-founded and co-directed MIT’s first-ever festival for entrepreneurs, entitled t=0, and I worked in a Harvard Psychology research lab as a Fellow, and did research at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

When people asked my profession, I typically provided one of two answers: “I research the internet,” to which, their reply invariably was “I do that in my free time!” or I would explain that, “I bike in circles in Cambridge,” as I often worked at more than one of these jobs at once.

So, why am I coding for America? After I’ve searched and searched again (get it? re-search) I have determined that there is not only a huge market for civic technology businesses, but a huge social, cultural, environmental, financial, organizational, personal, governmental, and civic need for them. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be part of the revolution.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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