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. In the month leading up to our 2021 Code for America Summit, we’re lifting up the voices of past and current Summit speakers who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. Recently, we spoke with Chris Kuang, the Co-Founder of Coding it Forward, who will be speaking on the Summit mainstage this year.
When you founded Coding it Forward, how did you identify that there was a need for a space in the civic tech world run by and for young people?
It was my first year in college. I remember getting to campus and being very interested (separately) in technology, public policy, and civic engagement, but it wasn’t until I took Nick Sinai’s field course, Technology and Innovation in Government, that I realized technology and public service did not have to be mutually exclusive—that there was this world of “civic tech” out there to explore. Presentations about the U.S. Digital Service and Presidential Innovation Fellows, led by guest speakers like Dana Chisnell, Erie Meyer, and Kathy Pham, opened my eyes to civic tech. To put it simply, I was hooked.
At the same time that I was discovering this field that was so exciting to me, my Coding it Forward co-founders and I were seeing how much of the tech community on campus was oriented around internships and post-grad opportunities at a small number of tech companies, as if industry was the only route for people interested in technology. Speaking to friends at other colleges made it clear that what we were experiencing was not unique—that the same industry-focused mindset was prevalent at schools across the country.
We were pretty confident that we weren’t the only young people who cared about the impact of our work—and we thought that bringing together a community of like-minded, mission-driven technologists could help us all break free of the stigma around pursuing opportunities outside of the mainstream. Fast forward four years, and that community has grown incredibly to engage thousands of students and young people from hundreds of colleges and universities across the United States and empower them to pursue opportunities at the intersection of technology and public service.
What challenges are inspiring the next generation of technology leaders? Where do you think this upcoming generation will have a big impact?
We’re seeing these challenges all around us. The coronavirus has hit each of our communities and young people like me have seen firsthand how technology has played a role in both addressing and exacerbating certain effects of the pandemic.
This next generation—my generation—is not going to be satisfied with technology for technology’s sake, or with simply driving click rates or selling advertisements. There’s incredible work to be done in this particular moment—from fighting for racial equity and expanding access to the ballot box, to taking action to protect our climate and continuing to respond to and recover from the pandemic and economic crisis.
In our 21st century world, technology touches every aspect of our lives—and the above issues are no different. In my time leading Coding it Forward, we supported those working towards a more just criminal legal system (First Act Fund grantee JusticeText, Impact Fellow host Recidiviz), driving advances in health (Civic Digital Fellows at HHS and NIH working on the opioid crisis and the All of Us Research Program studying social and environmental determinants of health), and partnering with dedicated public servants to make government work better for all people.
The last time I spoke at Summit, I said “there is too much at stake to stay on the sidelines.” I asked young people to raise their hands to serve, and for those already in civic tech to commit to mentoring and uplifting the next generation. In the last three years, many have answered this call, and I hope that many more will continue to do so because there still remains, today, too much at stake. From closing the persistent digital divide to ensuring that the benefits of technology are accessible to everyone equitably, I’m optimistic for the future and energized to be part of this generation dedicated to creating impact.
What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, since starting Coding it Forward, I’ve almost always been the youngest person in any room or meeting I’ve been in. This was definitely daunting at first and it took me some time to fully embrace it as a leader, but eventually, I recognized that my being in the room where it happens is a unique opportunity—and almost a responsibility—to be not only a voice for myself, but also for other young people like me trying to break into civic tech.
In a space where only 3% of the federal technology workforce is under the age of 30, young people are the future and it is important that our voices are recognized and heard. For example, I was proud to advocate around the time that New America established its Public Interest Technology University Network—an initiative inspired in part by Coding it Forward—that an initiative targeting universities should engage students at every stage, instead of primarily consulting faculty, staff, and administrators.
More recently, bringing my full self to work has also meant embracing what it means to be Chinese-American and Asian-American at a time when anti-Asian sentiment and violence is on the rise. Asians (especially Asian men like me) tend to be overrepresented in tech, but we still remain underrepresented in leadership and public service roles. Technology and government at all levels remain woefully homogenous, and it’s up to all of us to commit to broadening our field and ensuring equity and inclusion.
What does “designing equitable government” mean to you?
Jen Pahlka often says that “government is simply who shows up.” To me, an equitable government is one where everyone is empowered and entitled to a seat at a table and a voice in the decision-making process. It is one that values different backgrounds and respects lived experience; one that empowers people to be part of the solution.
Designing an equitable government means that no one is left behind. In government, unlike other sectors, there are no edge cases. In fact, getting the edge cases right is the hallmark of an equitable government. When we do the work of designing equitable government, I hope we do not restrain ourselves to coloring within the lines of how things have always been, but instead create the future of how things should be.
Can you give us a little preview of what you’ll be talking about at Summit this year?
Thank you for having me back at Summit! I recently stepped down from my day-to-day role leading Coding it Forward and transitioned into an advisory role—and I’m looking forward to sharing some reflections on our work these past four years and how they tie to this year’s theme of designing equitable government. If I have a chance, I’m also hoping to share something new that I’ve been working on with the Summit audience!
Want to see Chris Kuang’s presentation and hear from more speakers like him? Tickets for the 2021 Code for America Summit are on sale through May 13, with tickets for pre-Summit workshops available until May 4. The theme of this year’s summit is “designing equitable government.” Register for Summit and workshops today.