When I first joined the federal government I assumed an accurate metaphor was a giant ship, guided by the direction of the President and executed by agencies with varying degrees of success. I was very WRONG.
After spending the past couple of years as the Director of Product and Technology for the Presidential Innovation Fellows, helping recruit top tech talent to work alongside government change makers to solve some of the hardest problems, I came to learn the reality is quite the inverse.
Instead, what you find is a fleet of different shaped and sized ships, all focused on unique missions, powered by people with domain-specific expertise. Furthermore, each ship is influenced by different types of waters: Presidential, political, and external.
Over the past few years, one of the unifying threads that has started to connect these vessels is the demand for better technology. Because of this, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, alongside its sister organizations, 18F and USDS, have persevered to leverage the innovation economy to change the way our government engages citizens.
It’s been nothing short of an honor and privilege working with these amazing humans. As my “tour of duty” concluded and I reflected upon my experience, I felt there were three lessons worth sharing with those either currently or interested in serving our country.
1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Technology
Being an active participant and observer of the technology trends over the past decade, I liken the evolution of technology with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Broadly speaking, we’ve sufficiently addressed the infrastructure level (internet connectivity), which enabled the creation of services into our daily lives, the convenience level (e.g. Facebook, Uber, Venmo). The final level, labeled as social impact, of the pyramid turns into a self-reflecting question:
How can we as society leverage technology to better the world around us?
In the VC world we call this approach addressing the “double bottom line” or social impact companies. These are startups pursuing successful adoption, scale and unit economics, while also maintaining a core mission of systemic, positive change in society.
Similarly, a trend across techies raising their hands to serve their country through government service is that they are coming from companies fulfilling the first or second level. After spending time making efficient code more efficient, there’s a natural curiosity on how they can use their talents to have a more direct, positive impact on the world.
2. Tech is easy, People are (really) hard.
One of the things I always tell technically focused applicants is you’ll likely only spend 2–4 weeks building technology during the year long fellowship. The rest of the fellowship you’ll spend convincing people they should trust you as a technical authority and address a problem with a new, sometimes uncomfortable (for them), approach.
Here is, in my opinion, the most common fellowship experience lifecycle:
- Convincing people to say Maybe
- Prove It / Build Mode
- Turning the Maybe to Yes (a.k.a. #winning)
For government, technology should be viewed as a fulcrum to better engage and serve citizens and/or create efficiency. The technological complexity is relatively low compared to what you see in Silicon Valley, barring deployment scale considerations.
Technology is easy, transformation is hard.
The hard part is building coalition and making allies for why your approach is better by some considerable multiplying (10x or greater) factor. I call this the “Maybe” moment, whereby through trust and respect, agency leadership and peers agree to your proposal and allow you to “Prove It.” This is a critical inflection point as now the responsibility is on YOU to deliver a minimum viable product so the stakeholders can tangibly see, interact with and understand the concept.
If successful, you turn the “Maybe to Yes” and this is where true technology transformation begins to take hold. The hardest part of this entire process, which can take months of startup founder persistence, is the people, not technology.
3. Timing is everything.
The most common question I’m asked when it comes to the fellowship is, “What do you look for when selecting a fellow?” While there’s no set rubric the program uses when selecting fellows, I can share my personal approach.
I’ve found the following combination of characteristics: emotional intelligence (EQ), technical expertise (TQ), and the desire to serve one’s country result in the most meaningful and successful experience for the fellows, agency partners, and program.
The second most frequently asked question is, “When should I apply?” This is a much more difficult question to answer, but can be summed up with a simple response:
When you’re ready.
The fellowship isn’t for the faint of heart. I describe the expectations for fellows as simply: 1) meet cool people and 2) solve hard problems. Assuming a position of public trust as a civil servant and representing the President’s brand is an honor and one that requires mindfulness and intention.However, if all these characteristics align, the fellowship will be one of the most rewarding and life altering experiences of your life.
I share these lessons in hope the people who pick up the preverbal hammer will build upon the progress made over the past four years and continue to create a better government for the people, by the people, leveraging technology. If these “truths” speak to you, I implore you to consider serving your country as a Presidential Innovation Fellow (info on the Spring 2017 Cohort applications can be found HERE) or some other similar platform.