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Code For America Made Me A Better IT Leader

"Peace Corps for Geeks" offers crucial lessons in customer service, continuous improvement and workplace engagement.

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Code for America, sometimes known as the "Peace Corps for Geeks," has been helping cities reinvent themselves since 2009. The organization has grown from sending "fellows" to help governments and citizens hack municipal processes, to creating volunteer "brigades" of people who want to change government for good.

At the most recent Code for America conference in San Francisco, I learned so much that it made my head spin, but the most useful lessons I took away focus on three key areas: better service design, continuous improvement and workplace engagement. Whether you're in government or corporate IT, who doesn't need a refresher on all three?

Better Service Design

Nick Bowden, CEO of social technology company Mindmixer, made a point about using data and design to create better user experiences. He projected two photos, one of a DMV and one of an Apple store. "Which do you prefer to go into, and how do you feel when you go?" he asked rhetorically.

The point is that the user experience matters, and that user experience isn't just a website. It's inclusive of the physical institution. You can't expect to delight your customers by bringing them into a dirty place with bad furniture. User experience is also inclusive of the words you use. According to Bowden's research, using positive words such as "best," "proud," "advance," "win" and "overcome" in communications with customers is much more effective in getting them to buy in than using inhibitive words such as "stop," "not," "block" and "unless."

How many designers work in enterprise IT? How many times do we consult a designer when we're putting together a business technology initiative? Very few, and we need to fix that.

In 20 years managing ERP systems, I've rarely seen good design. The mapping portals done in-house at my city are just functional, but the economic development portal coded by an outside agency is outright beautiful. It's the one that delights customers because it's the most intuitive and usable of the lot. (Site-selection consultants for a large company cited this particular portal as a valuable tool in their client's selection of our city for a major relocation.)

Dan O'Neil, who runs the Smart Chicago Collaborative, which seeks to improve citizens' lives through technology, thinks "developers scratch their own itches" instead of end users'. O'Neil recruits Chicago residents to test civic apps that the collaborative develops. It gives residents a $5 gift card just for signing up for its testing program, and then it awards those who actually participate a $20 gift card and bus fare to wherever the test is being held.

O'Neill also talked about meeting people "in situ" -- where they live -- to test apps. "We come as supplicant, looking for ways that we can change, rather than experts looking to convince them of our plan," he said. "This is no small difference." The collaborative's motto: "If it doesn't work for you, it doesn't work."

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Continuous Improvement

One of my pet peeves is when folks expect the IT organization to simply add technology and somehow improve business life without actually looking to improve business processes. It's one thing for a crusty tech guy such as myself to say that automating a stupid process merely allows the business to fail faster, but it was a breath of fresh air to hear it from Greg Fischer, an entrepreneur and mayor of Louisville, Ky. Fisher pointed out that business process mapping, improvement and training are a huge part of deploying technology to fix a broken process.

Fischer champions using open government data for performance management. The LouieStat program has tracked and improved many things in government, including reducing the time it takes to hire a new employee (from a max of 304 days to 72) and cutting overtime costs by $1.4 million. This was done all under the mantra of data-driven improvement, detailed in the new Code for America book Beyond Transparency.

Fischer related a story whereby the city jail was making 380 fingerprint errors per month on 40,000 transactions, which might not sound like a lot, but the stakes are high when you're incarcerating someone. In working with the jail and the Office of Performance Improvement, it mapped the process, made changes and retrained folks, cutting the error rate to five per month -- a 98% reduction.

I can't emphasize this enough: Improve your process, or your tech will make you fail fancier.

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User Rank: Author
10/23/2013 | 11:42:01 PM
re: Code For America Made Me A Better IT Leader
Great lessons for any organization. I especially like "Improve your process, or your tech will make you fail fancier." Well put.
User Rank: Author
10/23/2013 | 5:54:06 PM
re: Code For America Made Me A Better IT Leader
Jonathan, thanks for sharing these valuable lessons. I particularly appreciate your recap about capturing the user experience, and the story from Dan O'Neil recruiting Chicago residents to test civic apps, giving residents a $20 gift card and bus fare to wherever the test is being held. -- and "The collaborative's motto: 'If it
doesn't work for you, it doesn't work." There needs to be a lot more of that mentality behind government's commitment to citizen facing apps. The fiasco is the poster child for how not to roll out a service.
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
10/23/2013 | 5:20:47 PM
re: Code For America Made Me A Better IT Leader
I love this column. Maybe Code for America can take on the ACA site!?
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