For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Black History Month, we’re lifting up the voices of Black leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Britney Epps, a Senior Software Engineer on MNBenefits.
At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.
Tell us what originally got you interested in the civic tech space. Is it the same thing that keeps you interested today?
I have always been interested in technology. In the summer of 2020, I was working for an eCommerce company that I utilize in my everyday life when we all witnessed a series of tragic interactions between Black people and police. As I saw this more and more on the internet and TV, I felt it was time for me to start using my technical skills to better the community around me. Once I came to work at Code for America, I quickly saw how vast the problems are with the government systems that were supposed to help people—but I also saw the potential in how state governments could be better for all. What keeps me interested in civic tech is the understanding that there are still so many problems with government service delivery that will inherently and disproportionately impact people of color because that’s how the systems were built. I want to be a part of the solution to rebuild a better system—one that is unbiased, where all can live a respectable life and have what they need.
How did you know that coding was the best way for you to make an impact?
Being a Black person in tech already makes a big impact. Realizing my coworkers haven’t necessarily looked like me over the last 10 years lets me know that taking up space in the coding world is necessary. From a technical standpoint, I’ve been able to be a part of solutions that reduce or eliminate racial bias in government systems, and I know my perspective has brought value to those solutions that would have otherwise been missing. Diversity in thought is as important in technology and coding as it is in other fields. Being able to sit at the tables where decisions are made ensures that I can advocate for technical features and systems change that makes sure people from all walks of life are centered in our solutions and can access what we build.
Building a career in software development has also allowed me to give back and hold open doors for others to also walk this path. I’ve worked to recruit people who look like me into the field, served as a mentor to others looking to grow in this space, and taught young ladies of color that there is plenty of space and need for them in this field.
Being able to sit at the tables where decisions are made ensures that I can advocate for technical features and systems change that makes sure people from all walks of life are centered in our solutions and can access what we build.
Has there been a project that’s really excited you lately?
What keeps me passionate about coding is the chance to share with children my love for all things STEM, the understanding that it’s okay to love more than one thing, and the example that computer scientists come in all shapes and forms. Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve worked on a series of virtual workshops that keep children engaged in learning about STEM. One of the workshops I teach is about paper circuits, where kids try a hands-on activity making electric circuits from paper, foil tape, LED lights, and a coin cell battery. Recently, I did this workshop in partnership with an organization in Detroit in celebration of Black History Month, and I got to tell the kids about the invention of the traffic light by Garrett Morgan, a Black inventor from the twentieth century. Since it was virtual, kids from all over the country joined to learn and explore their curiosity building their own circuits.
In general, a lot of people need exposure to technology to begin feeling comfortable with it, and being able to be that exposure for kids who are at the start of their learning journey is so gratifying. I love to share my passion for tech with them, because kids really have no limitations to what they believe is possible, and sometimes as adults we forget that. Lucky me I get a reminder every time I work with them.
What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field?
Bringing all of myself to work means understanding I love sneakers as much as I love coding. Being transparent with my team when I am not feeling like my 100% self. Asking for grace when I need it and making sure I give it as much as possible to my teammates and coworkers in return. Also, calling out that there is a lack of Black people in technology and making sure we all are doing things to change that.
I know that my presence is necessary to build the pipeline we want for diversity in technology.
What are the stories you tell about yourself and your community? How do those stories influence your work?
My journey in coding started when I was in seventh grade, but the class that changed my life was ninth grade computer science with my teacher Mrs. GB. There were four of us in the class, and we got to spend the semester making a role playing game that was similar to Pokemon. My experience in that class and exposure to coding during that time made the decision to study computer science in undergrad and graduate school so easy for me. That story constantly reminds me how important exposure to all kinds of intellectual subjects is for children at all ages. How do you know what is available for you if you don’t get exposure to it, or have never heard of it? These questions fuel me to continue doing work in the technology space. I know that my presence is necessary to build the pipeline we want for diversity in technology. Exposure to technology in communities with low incomes can change a child’s whole trajectory, and the story of my journey to coding is proof of that.