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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.

Clay Johnson, CEO of a company called the Department of Better Tech, took on the disaster that is government procurement. His most salient point, which applies to other processes besides procurement: Don't try to reduce risk by trying to take into account every single thing that could go wrong, creating bloat and complexity. Johnson's observation from his RFP-EZ work as a White House fellow is that as risk tolerance goes down, budget size goes up; yet as budget size goes up, the probability of failure also increases.

Allow me to also observe that because fear creates the Most Complicated Specification That Has Ever Existed, vendors (and I've been one) raise the price to mitigate their own risk. It's insane. Johnson's solution: Get out of Big Bang mode and into smaller, more incremental procurements that let you simply move on if things aren't working out.

Workplace Engagement And Improvement

Enterprises must wake up and start to understand that genuine community -- groups of people allowed to do things they're genuinely interested in, even if they aren't 100% controllable all the time -- can be powerful and effective.

For example, a Code for America "brigade" -- a group of civic volunteers -- might code a useful app without taxpayers footing the bill. Perhaps a not-for-profit has sponsored it or volunteers developed it or both. The point is that passion and interest can reveal alternative ways of getting from point A to point B.

Code for America is a microcosm of what businesses could be if we operated with the same type of core values that organization founder Jen Pahlka emphasized at the conference: empathy, family, inclusivity, efficiency -- and the belief that the world is hackable.

Code for America meetings end with hugs as often as handshakes. You can dismiss this practice, oh consultant-trained cynic, but the hugs represent passion for the people and the work. These attendees weren't playing golf, watching Netflix or otherwise goofing off during the day-long conference. They were working to solve pressing municipal problems. Caring deeply is rare and precious, and if your enterprise taps into it, it will be successful beyond its wildest dreams. But the cynics won't tap in. And that's too bad.

Let's go back to O'Neil's user-experience moment, because passion and engagement have everything to do with the user experience. And let's go back to the relationship between the designer and user, which may be the gateway for the cynic to start to understand. "Asking, watching, listening intently: What is more engaging than this?" O'Neill said. "To be the subject of the extended gaze of people who want to make things for you ... things that you love. And that's what we're after. We're in the love business -- just like everyone else."

My cynical friends, Code for America teaches me that if you create things for and serve others, you are also in the love business. You just may not know it or accept it yet.

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