Two college students planning careers in tech told Steve Kelman why they chose to prioritize government service.
In 2017 Chris Kuang, then a Harvard undergrad, started an effort together with former Clinton administration Deputy Chief Technology Officer Nick Sinai called Coding It Forward to create summer digital fellowships for undergrads in the federal government. This program has since become established as an annual activity to introduce digitally interested college students to working in the government. Kuang has moved on after graduation to a full time job at GSA running a program to bring early-career techies into government. Rachell Dodell, who was one of the original Coding It Forward co-founders is now working full time as executive director of the organization.
This year's program has 98 Fellows, the same as last year, working with 10 federal agencies, which includes one new addition, the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The agencies with the most fellows are the U.S. Census Bureau (30 Fellows), the IRS (24) and the National Institutes of Health (16). Students are paid up to $7,000 for the summer, the money provided by the sponsoring agency.
I spoke with two fellows about how they landed in the program and what they had learned from their experience. (They are currently about two-thirds done with their internships.)
Arla Sutton is a junior at Olin School of Engineering outside Boston, majoring in engineering with a concentration on human centered design, which she describes as "using tech as a tool to match needs of the community." She describes herself as more interested in user experience than in programming.
The school has an internship program that makes available opportunities in non-governmental organizations and government, and indeed this was a reason for Sutton to go to Olin rather than another school. She looked for an internship in government to get a chance to work there, and landed at the Census Bureau. She chose a new organization in Census that continues partnerships with non-government groups created for the decennial census in-between censuses. Like many young people, her interest in public service is driven by an interest in social equity.
"Equity means making data we collect accessible to a wide variety of people. We are asking how Census can help better serve your communities—particularly hard-to-count, underserved, LGBT communities. We are looking at data collection (how to reduce the undercount), data analysis (how the data are shown on the website), and data dissemination (both the Census sharing data with federal agencies and tools outside organizations can use to analyze census data for their own communities)."
Why is this attractive for her? "Something unique about government and the public sector is that its stakeholders are all of the American people, not just a specifically identified subset," Sutton said. "No matter what level, government is intended to serve people of all income levels, races, ages, sexual identities, abilities, and walks of life, and that feels to me like it has an incredible potential for impact. Working in government also means that you work alongside people who are very committed, driven, and dependable—something that really can't be overstated."
How are the people she has met in government different from what she expected? Her stereotype was that "people in government are slow and inefficient, not excited about new things." What she's discovered is that "people are in government because it's a way to make change." She has dealt this summer with people who have been working for Census for 40 years. "But they've had lots of different jobs. I am surprised that people move around so much in the same organization. And sometimes it is hard for them to understand people who haven't been working at Census for 35 years. They know so much and forget that others don't know what they know."
She complained a bit that Zoom is slower in government than she is used to, but when I pursued this further, she accepted that this was because of understandable security requirements to protect government data on behalf of citizens.
Could she imagine working in the government? "Yeah, I think so. I imagine coming back in several years."
Sebastian Cabrejos is a just-graduated computer science major from Johns Hopkins. He has had no private-sector tech work experience, though he has hung out with kids with private sector experience. He had worked part-time for non-profits since starting college. One of the NGOs he volunteered for was subsidized by the city of Baltimore. "I thought that if I worked for government I will have an impact that is positive for society, which I couldn't have in a private company, have a broader social impact. I also thought it would be interesting to work directly for the government because I could, perhaps, get an understanding of how the U.S. government system functions, and evaluate differences between the public and private sectors." He learned about Coding It Forward from a job board at his university. "It seemed Coding It Forward would be an exciting path to work for the government since the program was built for college students or recent graduates like myself."
When he got into the summer program, he was randomly assigned to work at GSA's Technology Transformation Services, which he had never heard of before. His job is to work on the ground-up redesign of USA.gov—which he had also never heard of before—to make it more accessible to citizens.
I asked him what he imagined federal work to be like before his summer internship. "My stereotype was that they are up in age—all over 40, no young people. That's not what I see at all—I've seen different ages." Interestingly, he added that he thought they wouldn't "understand modern computer science." But "that has been disproven, I've met older people who have an understanding of newer stuff." Another stereotype is that "I thought civil servants would be serious and perhaps rather emotionless. However, I have found that all my co-workers have been quite welcoming and make you feel comfortable bringing your full self into the workplace."
Cabrejos had already accepted a job with Accenture before applying for the Civic Digital Fellowship. Could he imagine working for government at some point? "I would say so, doing that will have an impact that is positive for society that I couldn't have in a private company."
These two young people share a commitment to making a social impact – which is not so rare these days—but also a commitment to doing that from a perch inside government. That is not as common. But these Coding it Forward fellows suggest that, happily, some do seek an outlet for their commitment from inside government. We should be overjoyed that such young people exist and are stepping up to government service.