Tiffani Bell: Why I Code for America

Give me your tired (of the status quo), your poor, your black, your brown, your multilingual, your hackers, your entrepreneurs — all yearning to improve government. If that wasn’t a remix of “The New Colossus,” it could have been the call to action I heard from Code for America once upon a time!

Go back a bit further, though, to Summer 2009, a year after my graduation from Howard University with a degree in Computer Science. The iOS and Android SDKs were introduced that previous spring, but thanks to finals and graduation, I’d had nary a moment to actually build anything. But, I suddenly had time. And an idea!

At least twice a day I’d zig-zag around a pothole at the entrance of my neighborhood. ‘Twas a pothole whose growth meant it might become a very public in-ground pool in the middle of the street if the city wasn’t alerted eventually. I wasn’t much for paperwork, so the idea of building an app to report the pothole made sense.

I posted the app I called “Potholes” to the App Store. Geocoded photos trickled in. But, ultimately, the project went nowhere.

Why? I was clueless about how to get government agencies using something like Potholes! Fast forward a few years through a job at a federal government contractor and then running a startup and here I am as Code for America Fellow, learning how to get governments to latch onto new ideas and methods for better civic engagement.

I’ve had a hunch for a while that technology can be the connective tissue between citizens who want to understand the tax implications of having their neighborhood annexed or those who want to quell crime, for example. Or technology can be one thing that optimizes how civil servants get their work done even in the face of crippling bureaucracy. Code for America has really given me the ability to see that hunch tested.

A few people have asked how it feel to be a startup founder and then transition to being a Code for America Fellow. Honestly, it feels just as intense. (Luckily, one aspect is absent: the push for revenue!) My talents in product development, negotiation, marketing + growth hacking, and penchant for plowing through adversity — all things you learn as an entrepreneur — serve extremely well working with government.

The past few weeks I’ve been translating for the city of Atlanta the metrics venture capitalists love to have us ramble off: things like ARPU, CLV, funnels, and conversion rates. More specifically, I’m working on increasing the number of bids for contracts. Outside of structural changes such as procurement policy, this feels like a conversion optimization problem. Entrepreneurs learn the importance of this stuff early on. You’ll be loved in government. A lot of the work we do in forging new paths and a new culture in government is entrepreneurial.

And just like in many startups, the code is the easy part.

Fundamentally, government is about people — we, the people — and people make up a culture. During our January fellowship training, I was particularly excited by talks of culture change. This is harder to do, even, than writing software. What I’ve seen, however, walking the halls of Atlanta City Hall, is that government wants change. Government wants to be all it can be for every citizen. Culture change is not so hard as to be impossible.

This gets to the heart of why I dropped everything to Code for America. I am many of those things I listed before: a black woman, a hacker, an entrepreneur, a military brat. I’m as multilayered and multifaceted as our government. Just like me, there are people in governments big and small of all shapes, sizes, and colors who dedicate at least 40 hours a week to improving their communities through government jobs. But we need more of these people. We need more doers with different perspectives, experiences, and outlooks on the way government should work who are willing to do a bit of heavy lifting to drive change on a massive scale to be a part of government.

Ultimately, this is why I Code for America.

Apply now for the 2015 Code for America Fellowship at http://codeforamerica.org/apply. Deadline is July 15, 2014.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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