When Jennifer Pahlka started Code For America in 2009, she knew government websites needed to be a lot simpler for people to navigate. While apps and software across industries have been making it easier for us to do just about everything, it can take local and state governments years and millions, if not billions, of dollars to develop software that often doesn’t work. “Government is like a vast ocean and politics is the six-inch layer on top,” Pahlka said in her 2012 TED Talk on coding for a better government. “What’s under that is what we call bureaucracy.”
It’s this bureaucracy Pahlka is committed to helping simplify. She sees government as a platform for connecting people. Her organization, Code For America, is a non-partisan group that selects and matches two-dozen coders with city governments through a yearlong fellowship Pahlka has dubbed the “Peace Corps for Geeks.” Fellows build apps and software to to help people navigate government services more effectively and connect with each other about civic issues–everything from figuring out health care to clearing the sidewalks after a blizzard to deciding which school is best for your child.
Here are a few key leadership lessons Pahlka has learned since founding the organization.
When she started Code For America, social entrepreneurship was fairly new to Pahlka, whose background was largely in developing tech events like the Web 2.0 Conference. Not only was the field new to Pahlka, what she was trying to do–connecting coders with city governments to work on local projects–was a fairly uncharted space. “When you start something that’s never been done before, you just have to get going; you can’t make the perfect plan,” says Pahlka. “When we fail, it’s because we get too attached to the outcome and forget that’s just a means to a greater end.”
About four years into starting Code For America, Pahlka made the tough decision to take a yearlong leave from the organization. She’d been recruited to serve as deputy United States chief technology officer, working directly within government on developing an innovation fellowship program similar to Code For America.
While she’d been tackling government issues from the outside since founding the organization, this was Pahlka’s first time actually working within government. “Knowing what an experience must be like from having heard about it verses actually being the person in that position are very different,” she says. “It was an experience I needed in order to credibly dedicate the rest of my career to this work.”
Pahlka often looks to the organization’s carefully vetted fellows for inspiration. A lesson she’s learned from them: “This isn’t about me looking smart, this is about me working hard,” she says. “That has informed my leadership style more than anything else.”
Carefully listening to the people she works with and making her own assumptions clear to others has helped ensure everyone in her organization, which has more than 40 staff members and 24 fellows annually, is on the same page. “The worst thing a leader does is when a leader thinks, ‘It’s clear in my mind,’ but doesn’t do the work of making it clear for others,” she says. “I don’t see any silver bullet to it. It’s just the day-to-day of talking and more importantly–really listening.”
Since returning from her yearlong government stint, Pahlka has spent the past six months evaluating what Code For America has done best in its first five years and what it needs to do differently in the five years to come. While fellows have developed dozens of apps to help people on the city level, now the challenge is figuring out how to scale those applications so more cities can adapt them. “It’s easy to be agile when you’re small, but what we are trying to do is help large institutions be agile,” says Pahlka. “We cannot succeed by taking a cumbersome approach. … We have to walk the talk, even as we grow.”
One of the biggest challenges for Pahlka has been celebrating fellows’ successes while always continuing to push forward on greater goals. “How do you celebrate the great successes you’ve had by also raising the bar?” she says. Figuring out ways to scale the programs being developed over the next five years is one of those key ways Pahlka continues to push and challenge everyone she works with.
Sometimes a fellow will build an app in two weeks that might have taken a city government two years to get done. The success there is easy to pinpoint. But not all challenges are as easy to solve. “Success is trying five times because the fifth time you might move the number you’re trying to move,” says Pahlka.
This trial-and-error approach can run counter to the Silicon Valley coder-genius persona, says Pahlka, but the reality is that finding solutions to complex problems often means screwing up a lot along the way. “It’s the hard work of making an educated guess, pivoting, and trying again that really is the measure of success,” she says.