After college, I took an internship in the urban planning department of a mid-sized, U.S. city. I was excited to learn about the practice of urban planning and to see from the inside how cities continue to evolve. Urban planning, to me, seemed an important profession and a likely direction for my own career. But after six months of painstaking progress on a waterfront renewal project (punctuated by constant speculation about the ongoing FBI investigation in City Hall), I decided that public service was too slow and too bureaucratic for me. Instead, I landed in the fast-paced world of web application development, where I’ve worked for the past 10 years.
During my time developing web apps, I’ve witnessed tremendous innovation in the industry: web servers have been “virtualized” and can now be paid for by the hour; low-level integration tasks have been automated by sophisticated frameworks like Ruby on Rails; the open source community provides an ever-expanding universe of freely-available source code and tools. In addition, management protocols carried over from engineering and manufacturing have been replaced by Agile methodologies like XP and Scrum, which are better-suited to the iterative nature of rapid prototyping and development. These advancements allow modern web developers to build entire sites (and also companies) virtually overnight, and to do so without the need for massive rounds of funding. As Y Combinator founder, Paul Graham, puts it: “When starting a start-up was expensive, you had to get the permission of investors to do it. Now the only threshold is courage.”
It’s an exciting time to be working in software development, and yet — as one of the first Code for America Fellows — I find myself contemplating a return to the public sector. What would prompt me to make such a move? My reasons are summed up in Code for America’s own mission statement: to help city governments become more open, efficient and interactive by leveraging the tools and technologies of web 2.0.
It seems to me that the economic crisis gives elected officials a mandate to go beyond the status quo. Citizens feel a similar responsibility and are engaging in the civic process in new and meaningful ways. I believe that the Internet provides a perfect platform for this kind of dialog and that the potential for innovative gov 2.0 apps is limitless. It may be an exciting time in the private sector, but it’s an exciting time to be working in the public sector, too!
Tocqueville said that America’s greatness lies “not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” To me, that sounds like the description of any good start-up company: wasn’t America a “disruptive technology” when it launched? Doesn’t it have a solid value proposition and a loyal customer base? Hasn’t it refined its mission statement along the way?
Maybe a new dose of start-up culture is exactly what U.S. cities need. Maybe as Code for America advances its work, more lights will be on in City Hall at night and more ramen noodle bowls will be on desks in the morning. Maybe the Next Big Thing will come from City Hall instead of Silicon Valley. And perhaps, as a result, citizens will find new ways to engage in this critical phase of American history.