GDL Presents: Women Techmakers and Code for America

Uploaded by GoogleDevelopers on 12.12.2012


LACY CARUTHERS: Hi, everyone.
Welcome to the Women Techmakers Give Back series,
episode two.
Today we're excited to have Jennifer Pahlka here with us
in studio, the founder and executive
director of Code for America.
And before we turn it over to Jen, let me quickly introduce
myself and my host, Chris.
I'm Lacy Caruthers.
I'm on the Google Giving team.
And our focus is on identifying and supporting
innovative nonprofits that are using technology
to change the world.
And I've been at Google for about six years, working
across a variety of our energy and sustainability, as well as
our giving efforts.
And I'm joined today by Chris DiBona, my co-host.
CHRIS DIBONA: Hi, I'm Chris.
I look after open source for the company, and I've helped
out the Giving Team now and then over
last couple of years.
I started at Google in 2004, which I guess we're telling
people, and I'm just happy to be here.
I've known Jen since Gov 2.0, but we'll talk
about that, I'm sure.
LACY CARUTHERS: Great, so now we'll turn it over to Jen to
introduce yourself.
JEN PAHLKA: I'm so glad to be here, thank you guys so much.
I always love coming down to Google.
I've been looking forward to this all week.
So I founded this organization called Code for America.
And we call ourselves a Peace Corps for geeks.
I have a background, as Chris alluded to, in tech media.
And it was through this Gov 2.0 work, where I originally
met Chris, that I became inspired by the notion that
geeks can really do something to fix our country right now.
There's a really high need for it, and we're at this
interesting moment where there's a real opportunity to
do something.
A lot of conditions that have been
holding us back are changing.
And so I created this program--
well, we actually do a number of things now-- but the main
thing that we do is a servicier program.
And so we get very talented developers and designers--
in fact one in our just past year is from
Google, Michelle Lee--
to take a year off.
And what they do is they work very closely with city
governments around the country.
And they're building apps, they're showing them lean
startup processes, they're showing them modern tools, but
what they're really doing is solving problems for cities
and showing how things can be done, showing what's possible
with modern technology.
And all sorts of amazing things happen when you really
deeply engage with people who are living in a little bit of
a different technological world right now.
Giving them the exposure to how a startup would solve a
problem, how the tech industry would solve a problem, and
letting them understand that they can do that themselves.
So we have just had a fantastic time in our first
couple of years trying out this model and seeing what
happens when you put geeks together with government.
LACY CARUTHERS: So tell us about some of the projects
that your fellows have worked on.
JEN PAHLKA: So this year we actually
worked with eight cities.
It's our second year, I should say.
We started out at our first year, 2011, we worked with
three cities and pretty quickly scaled up to eight.
I'll talk about one example-- and I think we can pull it up
there, if you want to go to the Blight Status app.
We were asked to come to New Orleans.
We sent a team of four fellows there.
And the problem there, which is not surprising to a lot of
people, that they wanted us to work on is blight.
Blight's actually a problem around the country.
It's not just Hurricane Katrina.
That's what most people think of.
But as our populations change in cities where there had been
manufacturing and people have left, you have a real issue.
It affects the economic development.
It affects the quality of life for people in neighborhoods.
So the mayor of New Orleans had asked the CIO there, why
can't I just pull up on my laptop, or my device when I'm
walking around the city, what's going on with these
properties that are obviously blighted?
We don't know if they've been inspected, if they've been
reported, if there's been a hearing.
And there wasn't a way to get that data available to people.
Now, there are huge numbers of people in
New Orleans who spend--
really, you would be shocked-- enormous amounts of time
tracking these things, and going after City Hall and
saying, what's going on here?
But there was no unified view of the data
around these things.
And so the CIO said to the mayor, well, it's going to
take us three years and probably millions of dollars
to upgrade all of our systems in order to be able to have a
view of that data.
CHRIS DIBONA: Or tens of millions of dollars.
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah, he didn't say number.
But if you're talking about three years of government
development, it's pretty expensive.
It tends to be a lot more expensive
in the public sector.
So we had this wonderful woman, Denise Ross, who said,
you know what, let's see if the Code for America Fellows
can do something about this.
So they applied to the program the previous year, and we sent
fellows down there this recent February.
They did about 100 interviews in one month down there, and
not just people in City Hall.
They're talking to these activists in the
neighborhoods, they're talking to librarians,
they're talking to cops.
They really get an amazing view from all perspectives of
the problem.
They came back to San Francisco, and in six weeks
they had an early version of what you're seeing here, this
Blight Status.
They got all the data.
It wasn't that hard for them.
The hardest part was actually getting the data.
They unified it.
You can now type in any address in New Orleans, and
you get back whether it's been reported, inspected, if
there's been a hearing, if it's scheduled for demolition,
and if so, when.
And that doesn't seem like the most difficult project in the
world, but convincing the people in City Hall to give
you the data is difficult.
Normalizing all this data that's in ridiculously
different formats.
Some of them were spreadsheets, some of them are
ledgers, some of them were government databases that they
had been using.
But it was a lot of work that's not all technical work,
but the impact was enormous.
When they rolled this out in New Orleans, they told the
fellows, you have fundamentally changed the
conversation in New Orleans right now.
We've gone from this defensive City Hall and angry citizens
to two groups that are now working together towards a
common goal.
And it's just been amazing.
And the CIO was very happy.
He stood up onstage at our summit, and he said, I'm so
glad I was wrong about this.
Yes, they still need to upgrade their systems, but
that's not an excuse not to provide accurate data to
citizens, and to provide it.
And I think what's unique about this when you look at
these interfaces is that most government software doesn't
have interfaces like this.
So we call these interfaces to government that are simple,
beautiful, and easy to use.
And that's part of a message, not just to the developer
community and the government community, but to citizens.
You should expect to have interfaces to government that
are simple, beautiful, and easy to use.
And society really fundamentally changes we have
those interfaces.
CHRIS DIBONA: I think you might have mentioned this at
the summit, but was this made generalizable for another
city, like say, a Detroit, Or pick another
blight-stricken city?
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah, this one in particular is a little bit
hard to generalize, because every city has their own mess
of data on the back end.
But all the apps that the fellows built are open source,
so some of them you can just pretty easily re-implement.
And maybe we could talk about Adopt-a-Hydrant, which is an
example of that.
Others will require a fair amount to work on the part of
the city to reuse it.
But everything is built with the intention that we're not
going to solve a problem only one city has, because we want
to see cities adopt a really new model, where they're not
just going to vendors and saying, build this at high
cost to taxpayers.
But how can we shop from each other's closets, how can we
use the solutions that have been already implemented?
And in fact, the New Orleans team, I'm so
proud of these guys.
They are one of the three teams that coming out of this
year, at the end of 2012, who are going through an
incubator with us.
They are taking this-- they already have a contract with
the city of New Orleans to continue working on it.
They've got other cities interested, so they're taking
it and making it, really a commercial product.
And they just didn't want to stop doing what they were
doing, so they're going to get paid to do it now.
CHRIS DIBONA: That's great.
LACY CARUTHERS: Yeah, that's great.
So you spent a great majority of your career in the games
industry, and then later running Web 2.0.
So tell us about how your career evolved, and how you
ended up launching Code for America, and what
sparked that change?
CHRIS DIBONA: How did you come to be you, Jen?
JEN PAHLKA: Extremely accidentally.
I have the craziest career path, because I came into San
Francisco after college to work in nonprofits, and I
hated them.
And now I run one, so go figure.
Yeah I took a job working, actually first, initially on a
software development conference back in 1994, with
really no technical understanding at all.
I had no idea what anybody was talking about for the first
several months on the job.
And I had been traveling around Southeast Asia.
I needed a job, and they hired me.
It was like no interest in the subject.
But I had gone from this top-down structure in the
nonprofit, which not so much fun, to landing very
accidentally in first the software development world,
which was more interesting, and then the world of game
developers, circa 1995.
And as much as I was lost, I was finally so happy, because
it was this crazy, creative, incredibly smart community of
people who were doing things that people really didn't
largely understand them, or the general populace didn't
understand, soft of right before games broke out to be
really mainstream.
And I think that what ties that to what I'm doing now is
it was such a transformative time for me to understand what
the technology world was.
I had been an American Studies major in college, and
technology was something I felt like I didn't understand.
And it was really the people, and the creativity, and the
magic of development that just completely enraptured me.
I had an amazing time.
That conference was very small when we started it, and when I
left it was, I think, 12,000 people.
But it really just gave me a love for what
developers can do.
And that carried on.
Then I left that.
After I had my kid I came back and was working on Web 2.0,
and it was the same thing.
2005, Web 2.0 was just when all of this
amazing stuff was happening.
And you really felt like you were at the center of
something that was being created, that was
transforming the world.
And that really led into, I think, this
notion that the talent--
not just the talent, but I think the spirit--
of those communities had a lot to offer this system that we
all rely on, called government.
Which just needs--
government has many amazing, wonderful people
as you know, Chris.
But it's just stuck in a lot of old ways, and it needs to
be a creative force, not just a stagnant,
bureaucratic force.
So I think that really informed this
idea of Code for America.
CHRIS DIBONA: One of the really refreshing things I
found about Code for America is, you didn't go into cities
and governments and say, you're all broken.
You didn't go in and, we're going to fix it.
You were like, hey, how can we help?
What would be something that would be really useful?
And I think your first year was kind of
figuring out that process.
Would you like to talk more about that?
Because I know it was a really tricky time for you guys.
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah it was great, though.
It was in some ways the best year.
Definitely one thing we found is that I think we were so
lucky to get that particular class of fellows that year.
There was just something about them.
And you had to be pretty brave to do the program.
We had no track record.
It was not clear that we would be able to pay people.
CHRIS DIBONA: Because our donation income until after
that first year, right?
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah, that's right.
I was very month-to-month.
And the first month, we started with three cities,
Boston, DC--
oh, sorry, four.
So it was Boston, Philadelphia, and Seattle, but
originally there was a fourth.
We had a fourth team that was deployed to Washington, DC.
And what happened is, we got our signed contract there
right before Fenty lost the election, and
Mayor Gray came in.
And we were talking to the new people--
actually, it was the old people who
hadn't been fired yet.
And they said, no, no, it's fine.
Send the fellows, send the fellows.
It will be fine.
The fellows show up on the first day of work in DC.
They get their badges, and they get assigned seats, and
they're getting walked around the office in the way that
people do on their first day.
And they are about to go to lunch, and the general counsel
comes over with security, and they escort
them from the building.

CHRIS DIBONA: Welcome to DC.
JEN PAHLKA: We had a reasonable idea that this
might happen, just from the signals.
So, actually, they went to Clay Johnson's place.
I said, don't worry, I've got a place for you.
Actually they called in for their first check-in meeting
with me, and it was very clear they were not
calling from an office.
I said, where are you?
They're like, we're in the National Portrait Gallery.
It was cold out on the street.
So lots of chaos the first year, but to actually answer
your question--
CHRIS DIBONA: What ever happened to that team?
I've got to figure that out.
JEN PAHLKA: They worked on the Civic Commons Project, which
we now call the CFA Commons, which is really a way that you
can see a lot of these civic technology projects, see where
they're in use, and be able to get a sense of what's working
where in terms of mostly open source civic tech.
But to get back to the thing, those fellows were amazingly
emotionally intelligent, and they were humble, and they
were curious, and they were kind.
And so I think when people heard about the idea-- and we
had this video that we used to promote Code for America the
very first year that had Mark Zuckerberg, and Caterina Fake,
and Biz Stone in it.
And I think people thought we were going to be like, hi,
we're here from the cool part of the internet, and we're
going to fix you.
CHRIS DIBONA: We're going to make you cool too.
JEN PAHLKA: We're going to make you cool
too, because we know--
CHRIS DIBONA: --we're going to sprinkle cool on you.
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah, we know how it's done.
And the fellowship--
CHRIS DIBONA: --boring, old government people.
JEN PAHLKA: --They were so nice, and they were disarming.
And I think--
not [? to slag ?] on consultants, but I think in
government, they're so used to having McKinsey and other
consulting companies come in, and be like,
OK, we've got a process.
We know what we're going on.
And these guys came in, they were like, hi, we're so
excited to be here.
Could I help you do anything?
And it set the tone of a real collaboration from the
beginning, so thank God.

LACY CARUTHERS: So for those folks that are tuning into
this and are interested in being a fellow at Code for
America, what types of folks are you looking for?
JEN PAHLKA: That's a great question.
So the name is Code for America, but really about 2/3
of our fellows code, somewhere between 1/2 and 2/3.
We're also looking for great designers, graphic designers,
user experience designers.
CHRIS DIBONA: Your women participation for the fellows
was actually pretty amazing last year, when [INAUDIBLE].
JEN PAHLKA: Last year, we had 26 fellows overall, and 12 of
them were women, so just one shy of half, which is good.
And a number of them actually were engineers, and a number
of various flavors of designer.
And we actually really have a very diverse group of fellows.
So some of them have some technical skills but their
background is city planning or law.
And what you really have to show is a high degree of
skill, the emotional intelligence to do a job like
this, and passion.
We want people who really, really care about what we're
trying to do.
And when you pay a very small stipend for a year, and you're
supposed to live in San Francisco, you really only get
people who are passionate about it.
So it's a little bit of a filtering thing.
But we'll be opening up--
our current class is 28 fellows that they'll be
starting January 3.
But we'll start recruiting again for 2014 soon.
And if anybody out there is interested, we can always hook
you up with fellows who've done the program.
They can tell you really honestly what it was like.
And they've all been really positive about it.
Two years in a row now, basically every single fellow
has said, this was hard, it wasn't everything I expected,
but I would totally do it again.
And they grew, and they made great friends, and they
learned something.
So we're very pleased.
LACY CARUTHERS: And so in addition to the fellows
program, you guys also have a civic start up accelerator.
So tell us more about that program.
JEN PAHLKA: Yes, thanks to
So one of the things we see is that the fellows go into the
cities, and they're exposing people in government to things
like cloud-based applications, and services that cost a lot
less than what these guys are used to paying, have much
better interfaces.
And what happens is--
and also I would say in sort of a hacker way.
What happens is we create a lot of demand.
Then they go look at the tool set they currently have, and
they go, wow, why are we paying so much for this, and
couldn't we start to buy things in a different way?
And there is now something of an ecosystem in the civic
space that you would call 2.0 or--
I don't know what the right term is there.
But there's not enough, right.
There need to be more smart entrepreneurs, and developers,
and hackers, and designers that say, I'm not just going
to go try to do my Facebook killer, or whatever.
I'm going to solve a real problem for our country, for
government, for citizens, whatever, and offer these
kinds of services targeted at the real needs
the government has.
So if we're going to succeed in our mission long-term, we
have to build that ecosystem.
And we wanted to pick some companies that were already
trying to do this.
We sent out a call for applications, and everyone
said, there's no such thing as a civic startup.
Who's going to apply?
Except you guys.
You were great.
We had 235 companies apply for the accelerator.
CHRIS DIBONA: How big were they?
JEN PAHLKA: It really varied all over the map.
We chose seven of them, and they were all pretty small.
But they ranged from Mind Mixer, which already has
something like 250 city government clients, to, very early stage, fantastic application
that's been in the media a lot, because they were able to
respond to Hurricane Sandy.
They help communities organize online for all the aid that's
coming in after a disaster, and they were in very high
demand at the end of October.
So these companies are just fantastic.
And it's a real market.
There's an enormous amount of money in this market.
We're spending something like $172 billion a year.
CHRIS DIBONA: You personally?
JEN PAHLKA: Yes, us together personally.
Taxpayers are.
And for a point of comparison, the video game business is now
about 10 to 15 billion.
So this is giant.
I'm not saying you should go take a piece of a
$172 billion market.
I'm saying we should be cutting that number in half.
But that's still a big business, and it's doing
something to make your country better.
So speaking of mentorship and the mentorship you guys
provide in your accelerator, going to your personal
background, who have been your role models and your heroes as
you've come on this path as a woman in tech?
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah, it's been interesting because I'm a
woman in tech, but I'm not really a developer.
I have--
CHRIS DIBONA: So you hate developers?
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah, I hate developers, I
can't say that on here.
No, I feel really strongly that we need to fix this
problem of fewer women in the industry.
I'm not answering your question, but
I'll get back to it.
My niece came out to spend the summer at Code for America two
years ago, and I was like, she'll hang out with all these
developers for the summer, and she'll get the coding bug.
And I want that for her, because I see the kind of life
you can have, the kind of things that you can do.
And I think increasingly it's about access to
power in this country.
So I really think it's important, and I'm connected
to a lot of those efforts.
And I just want to see more role models for women in
My role models have been like my parents.
I'm sorry to say it.
But you know, you grow up and you--
CHRIS DIBONA: I'm sure they're not sorry to hear it.
Hi, Dad.
My dad's a teacher and my mom's a nurse midwife, and
they both--
I think later in life, you realize how
they've influenced you.
They both care deeply about those systems.
Our health care system has to work for us to live well in
this country.
Our education system has to work.
Both of those are deeply broken.
And they're the kind of people who worked way harder than
anyone expected them to work, because they cared so much
about doing the right thing.
And I think as I've thought about it later, this turn into
government, which seemed really unlikely for me, had to
do with growing up in a household of people who cared
about the public sector.
But in the tech world, I think Sheryl Sandberg's done a lot
to forward this conversation and to say really specific,
brave things about women in the workplace.
And I'm just really impressed with that.
But she's not the only one.
I think there's a lot of people who are standing up and
saying, I'm happy to have this honest dialogue
about women in tech.

LACY CARUTHERS: To those young people, especially young women
that are interested in pursuing this path, what would
your advice be to them?
JEN PAHLKA: I think that what I would say is--
so I just sort of set up this whole big thing about how
there need to be more women in tech-- but the truth is, if
you're not coming in it from a place of just really feeding
your own passions, it's not the right thing.
I think it's, tap into what really jazzes you about what
you're doing.
Any I think a lot of women get--
the government technology space, I think, can be great
for women for a lot of reasons.
But one is that I see women really wanting to solve a
particular problem.
It's not just tech for tech's sake.
And that's a place where you can do it really clearly, and
people come tell you, you've had an impact on my life
because of this application that you put up.
But I think it's sort of own your own and career path, own
your own passions.
Own what you want to do in tech, and that'll be the best
role model for others in the end.

CHRIS DIBONA: So when you go to a city, and you talk to
them, do you go in and say, I'm going to do this to
Detroit, I'm going to do this to [INAUDIBLE].
And then do you find yourself disappointed, do you find
yourself energized?
What happens when you have those first discussions?
Especially in the first year, were your hopes and thoughts
just dashed upon the rocks and then recover?
What happens?
JEN PAHLKA: We don't really go in and tell them
what we want to to.
CHRIS DIBONA: But in the back of your mind, you have this
idea of a digital city, or [INAUDIBLE].
How did that hit [INAUDIBLE]?
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah, I've always had a couple applications in
my mind that I'd like to have built, and we're
just not there yet.
I mean it's early stages in this industry, and I would say
in this movement.
So more important than building any one thing that
might be the thing you think will get everybody on board
with reporting issues in your city, or being involved with
civic life is just, again, showing what's possible,
offering new models to approach problems in.
So if we come in and say we want to do this,
they don't own it.
They have to say, we're starting to get that there
might be a different way to solve this problem than the
way we've solved it in the past.
Can you help us prove that point?
And it's very responsive.
In fact, I talked about New Orleans, where they knew
really clearly, this is the problem.
Clearly the biggest thing in the city, clearly an
opportunity where tech can be a small intervention that
changes the conversation.
But we went into Honolulu.
They said, we don't care what the fellows do.
We pushed them, what's their area?
Can you give us schools, what is it?
We don't care.
Have them come and spend a lot of time talking to people, and
they can tell us what they want to do during the year.
And we were a little nervous about that, but the folks in
City Hall in Honolulu were fantastic.
And they ended up doing this amazing project that actually
just won an interaction design award.
I think we pulled up a screenshot of this too.
It's called Honolulu Answers.
I'll tell that story.
Interesting one.
So, by way, I love Honolulu.
CHRIS DIBONA: Yeah, that's a rough place to have to work.
JEN PAHLKA: It really is, I know.
I was supposed to visit all of the cities last February, and
I ended up visiting just Honolulu.
CHRIS DIBONA: We won't tell anyone [INAUDIBLE].
It was really great.
One thing is you think of it as Hawaii, like beaches.
It's a real city.
It's giant.
It has traffic problems.
We're talking about a real American city, but on a beach.
And it's beautiful.
So the fellows went to Honolulu, and one of the
things I heard consistently from everyone-- and I'm not
just talking about people outside of government being
critical, but people in government--
was that the website, not really serving citizens.
And if you look at, you'll see.
And it's still up there.
It's just not the information that you want.
And what they did is they went, and they looked at the
search logs.
And they said, when people come to, what are
they trying to do?
And the top search result, for instance, was driver's
license, which doesn't make sense to those of us that live
in a state where the state handles driver's licences.
In Honolulu, the city does--
or it's actually a city and county.
So they type driver's license into, and you get
back about 25 different pages of information
about driver's licenses.
Never do you get back a page that tells you how to get a
driver's license.
But there's a lot of information, a lot of words.
So what they did was they ripped off an interface that's
starting to be popular now in government that the UK has
done and has done, which is basically a big,
beautiful background screen and a search box.
So instead of tyring to push a bunch of information, what is
it you're trying to do?
And they created custom content for those top 10
searches, driver's license and the other ones.
So it's a simple, beautiful, easy-to-use interface that
actually does what you want it to do.
But then they had the problem of how are they going to
create the rest of the content.
And they held something that's not a hackathon.
They held something called a write-a-thon, first ever
They got 60 people in Honolulu--
citizens, people in government, across the board--
to come together on a Saturday.
And they put all the next set of questions up on the board,
and people came and took them down and wrote clear, plain
language answers to the next 50 most commonly asked
questions in Honolulu.
And they continue to do that.
And so, basically, it's now growing on it's own as a
replacement to that is, frankly, just a lot
better at actually serving citizens needs.
And we had no idea that's what they were going to do.
And it worked out great.
CHRIS DIBONA: That's terrific.
One thing that was really interesting to me is the first
year you had the Hydrant app, and then you said it's
migrated into a whole new kind of app for a different city,
with I think is really exciting.
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah, that story was amazing, and it's part of
the Honolulu story, too.
2011, our first year, one of the fellows--
we sent all these fellows to Boston in the
winter which was--
CHRIS DIBONA: That's dedication.
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah, and they were mostly from California,
and didn't have warm coats, and they also didn't have
ties, and they were in City Hall.
There are some of the things we learned the first year.
That also happened to be the year of Snowpocalypse, so they
were in City Hall--
CHRIS DIBONA: Don't they have those every year now?
JEN PAHLKA: No, there was no snow last year, hardly any.
And there's not that much this year either, which you'll hear
is actually a bummer for us.
We needed more snow to test the app.
So they're in City Hall when everybody's talking about
trying to plow the streets.
The dialogue in City Hall becomes all about what streets
are plowed.
And what they realized is, when you plow a street and the
snow gets pushed up to the side, it covers the fire
hydrants so that you can't find them or use them in the
event of an emergency.
Very little thing, but Eric Michaels-Ober, one of the
fellows, said, well, let's just see.
I'm going to write a very quick little app that will let
you adopt a fire hydrant.
Because people are on the street.
They're shoveling out the sidewalks in
front of their houses.
Why don't they take the extra step and shovel out the fire
hydrant, so that it's available if their house
catches on fire?
Sort of trivial app that didn't get used that first
year, because they took a month to roll it out, and then
it wasn't showing anymore.
But a great concept.
And then when we had the second set of cities, our 2012
cities, come visit us that fall in preparation for being
in the program the next year, our great partner, this guy,
Forest Frizzell, in the IT department in Honolulu tells
me, oh, I was poking around in your GitHub account, and I
found this thing called Adopt-A-Hydrant, and I'm going
to use it in Honolulu.
And we're like, not a lot of snow.
CHRIS DIBONA: It doesn't snow here.
Sanddrifts after a big surf?
JEN PAHLKA: A little strange.
And he said no, I'm re-purposing it as
And people steal the batteries out of these tsunami
sirens on the beach.
Also big public hazard.
You need to know if there's a tsunami coming to hit.
And so that was the first reuse of it,
which I think was brilliant.
No one had said to him, here's this thing; you
could use it for this.
He just got it and did it, and now a bunch of the sirens are
adopted in Honolulu, which is great.
But I think it's in about eight of nine
cities right now already.
So Oakland where I live just rolled it out as
If you think about it, why are we spending a lot of money
having crews go around and clear the leaves
out of storm drains?
I live a couple doors down from the storm
drain on our block.
And if it gets stuck with leaves, I can pull the leaves
out just as well as a municipal worker.
So I've adopted the storm drain on my street.
CHRIS DIBONA: Do you ever have anyone accuse you of trying to
subvert the authority of the
government with these projects?
Actually, no.
But I will say it's a little weird to put your hand in a
storm drain.
I'm getting over it, but you're like, ew.
CHRIS DIBONA: Have you ever gone inside them and
JEN PAHLKA: No, no, they're just like this, you can't.
CHRIS DIBONA: No the aboveground part.
Especially rainy cities, there's substantial
aboveground spaces.
It's fun.
JEN PAHLKA: No, I haven't.
I'll put that on the life list.
CHRIS DIBONA: Don't do that, just for the record.
We are not endorsing that.
JEN PAHLKA: OK, so you want everyone else not to do it,
but you want me to do it?
CHRIS DIBONA: No, I want no one to do it.
CHRIS DIBONA: But it's interesting.
JEN PAHLKA: Anyway, so you can-- and by the way, this is
an app that's pretty easy to stand up in other cities.
And one of the other programs that we have is called this
brigade, which basically means that you don't have to take a
year off and come work with us to Code for America or do
civic apps.
You could, right now, wherever you live, go to your city
government and say, hey, can I stand up this thing?
Give me the locations of all the park benches or whatever.
And I'll stand this up for you, and then we'll get
citizens to start lending a hand.
And just do it.
It's not that hard.
LACY CARUTHERS: Well I was just going to ask, what have
you seen after--
I know you've just had a couple of years of fellows,
but what have you seen after the fellows
have left these cities?
Are they leaving some kind of legacy?
Have you seen the programs continue once they've gone?
JEN PAHLKA: It's a good question.
That really is the point of the program, is that if we
come in and do magic and then leave, what's--
really, why?
So increasingly we're figuring out what are those changes
that mean that there's a long-lasting
difference in a city.
And I think there's a bunch of signals
that things have changed.
And there's no indicator on the wall that you can look at
that says, culture change in government now 25% complete.
Well done.
But you can see--
like in Honolulu, Honolulu Answers is a Rails app, so
they taught the staff Rails.
That's not something you see that often, but there's a
bunch of developers who actually do Rails now.
You see things like policies being changed generally around
openness, open data, open government.
You see people who had been previously marginalized now
having the limelight, having more power, getting
promotions, getting more resources.
That's really common.
Because they go, oh, that who was--
LACY CARUTHERS: That's what you do, yeah.
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah, that guy who was saying all these crazy
things that we didn't understand?
Now we understand what he or she was saying, and we get
that this could be valuable.
And that's great, because you really want it
to come from inside.
You want to take all that internal, great spirit.
And people who work in City Hall, they're
also regular people.
I mean, they have Android phones.
They know--
CHRIS DIBONA: That's madness.
JEN PAHLKA: They know how it is.
JEN PAHLKA: Exactly.
It's not like that.
CHRIS DIBONA: I was [INAUDIBLE] for a while, yeah.
JEN PAHLKA: You were what?
Yeah that's right, that's right.
Even the people in government will eventually start to say
bad things about bureaucracy.
But, really, it's not immutable.
It really isn't.
It takes people who care and see something
better to change it.
And we see that.
It's really, really gratifying and exciting.

LACY CARUTHERS: So one thing-- just shifting gears a little
bit-- that my team thinks a lot about and has seen on the
giving side is a huge opportunity for nonprofits to
really leverage technology and integrate it into the work
that they're doing.
And so I think you guys are a great example.
You're not only innovating within the government space,
but also within the nonprofit space.
So could you just talk a little bit about your
experience there and what you have seen from the inside of
that sector, and if there is an emerging
trend in that space?
JEN PAHLKA: Of the nonprofit sector?
LACY CARUTHERS: Of the nonprofit sector using and
taking advantage of technology in better ways.
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah, that's a good question.
I don't know that I've seen that much of the nonprofit
sector now.
I really spend a lot of time in government.
And I'll tell you what I want out of the nonprofit sector,
is fewer emails.
I think sending a bunch of emails advocating for things
is useful, and there's a lot of stuff that's going on.
But ultimately, technology can do something a lot more
fundamental, a lot more powerful.
And I think that there is a fair amount of the nonprofit
sector that's stuck in the, we lobby and we educate, and we
used to send enormous amounts of direct mail, and now we
send enormous amounts of email.
And one of the things I think that set us apart--
and you were kind to say this when you first looked at us--
is we write real code that does something other than send
you an email.
And I think all nonprofits should start looking at what
they can do and get beyond this notion of engagement,
where engagement means they clicked on
the link in the email.
I had one guy come to me last year and say he wanted to do a
Code for America for nonprofits, to try to get them
to think more innovatively about government.
And I would say--
he didn't do it.
Someone else should.
Take it up.
It's a great opportunity.
There needs to be more true innovation,
not like better MailChimp.
CHRIS DIBONA: We've run some hackathons for nonprofits, and
it's always really surprising how underdeveloped
their system is.
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah, and it's unfortunate,
because they also see--
when you talk to a lot of nonprofits about technology,
they're coming at you with, like, our server doesn't work.
They're really at a very operational level around it,
and you kind of want to go, I totally hear you, but we need
to get these basic needs met so you can move forward.
And it's a resource issue.
We need to resource them better.
LACY CARUTHERS: So I think we have time for
about one more question.
Any burning questions, Chris?
Let's see, last one.

I guess maybe just concluding with any final words you have
to share with, as a woman in tech, given that this is the
Women Techmakers series.
Maybe some of the best advice that you've ever gotten,
that's helped you in your career.
JEN PAHLKA: Yeah, that's a good question.
I think I was supposed to have a good answer for this.
LACY CARUTHERS: Or just final parting words.
JEN PAHLKA: I think the best advice I would give is that
you get a lot of advice, and it all conflicts.
And in the end--
LACY CARUTHERS: You get asked about it a lot?
JEN PAHLKA: In the end, if you close your ears off, you're
doing yourself a great disservice.
But if you try to take it all, you will become psychotic.

And I actually think that people from outside the tech
industry often look at me as, oh, you're a woman in tech.
Let's talk about that.
And my response to them is tech is actually, yes, I get
that there is a real gender divide here.
But is actually a pretty--
most parts of the tech industry that I see are pretty
open and welcoming to women.
And I do think it's important to talk about the places where
the industry becomes very unfriendly.
And I don't think people get what they're doing, and I
think a little education can help them when they're being
very off-putting.
But I think it's also important to talk about the
places that are incredibly supportive.
Code for America is, I think, a pretty
supportive place for women.
We've talked about issues that have come up
from time to time.
But there are great opportunities.
And I think if we frame this as a place where you're going
to be fighting through a jungle all the time to get any
respect, not only does that not help us,
but you know what?
I worked in the media industry for a long time.
I've worked in a bunch of industries.
Sexism is not unique to the tech industry.
Has anyone been anywhere else lately?
So I don't think it's particularly that
must worse in tech.
And I think there's a lot of opportunity, and I think I
would like women to see it as fun.
Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Jen.
That was really fascinating.
Thanks for sharing.
CHRIS DIBONA: Before you go, you should tell us the URL and
where people can find your code.
Because someone asked about that.
We're at, and we would love
to see you all there.
Signal your interest in being a fellow, or in getting your
city on board with our program, or contributing to
our annual campaign.
And then if you would like to look at some of our code--
CHRIS DIBONA: Which is all open source.
JEN PAHLKA: Which is all open-- we have too many
[? repodes. ?]
That's the feedback we're going to get.
We're going to be cleaning up this December, which is
halfway over.
We are at
And go play.
We have some great projects there.
We'd love to see people get involved.
CHRIS DIBONA: Thank you so much for your time.
LACY CARUTHERS: Thank you so much.
And thanks to all of you for tuning in to the second
episode in our Women Techmakers for Good series.
We'll be here tomorrow as well, at the same time, 2:30
Pacific Standard Time, with Sasha Laundy of Codecademy,
CHRIS DIBONA: Whch is a terrific site if you haven't
tried it out.
LACY CARUTHERS: So stay tuned to learn more about women
innovating in the tech space for good.