Code For America Made Me A Better IT Leader

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

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

October 22, 2013

3 Min Read

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.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

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