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 Women’s History Month, we’re lifting up the voices of women who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Symonne Singleton, a software engineer on our GetCalFresh team.
You hadn’t always planned on a career in software engineering. What sparked your interest in the field?
For most of my life, the thought of being a software engineer had never even crossed my mind. My shift to software engineering came out of a really pivotal decision. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history and visual media studies, with a focus on mass incarceration, I received an offer for a non-technical role at a startup in New York City. Shortly after, I found out my compensation offer was thousands of dollars less than the offers given to two men for the same job, both of whom were less qualified than me. It was the only job offer I had, but I knew I didn’t want to work at a place that devalued me. So, I turned it down.
What followed was several months of posting my resume on dozens of websites, applying for hundreds of jobs. Then, I was contacted by a coding bootcamp that specialized in teaching people without coding backgrounds. The possibility of building something, learning a new skill, and having access to jobs was exciting. I interviewed, and two weeks later started a software engineering fellowship in San Francisco.
I had never seen a line of code in my life, but as I learned more I began to understand the possibilities that a few lines could create. Six months later, it became time to look for a job. There was a company called Code for America that I walked by every day on my commute home from my fellowship. I googled them and saw they had a team, Clear My Record, that worked at the intersection of technology and mass incarceration, two of my domains of knowledge! At the same time, quite serendipitously, Code for America had just launched its very first apprenticeship program. I earned a spot as an apprentice and have been a software engineer here for three years.
What’s the project you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of?
I currently work on GetCalFresh, and contributing to a code base that helps people get food, especially during the pandemic, is gratifying. Still, I’m most proud of my work on Clear My Record’s automated record clearance project in California, when marijuana legalization made room for us to clear over 100,000 weed-related convictions, something that had not been done before! It was the perfect example of the intersection between historically informed and technologically savvy, and the first major project that I contributed to.
I believe that, like humans, the government has an often-evaded accountability for the ways in which it has caused harm. The criminal legal system is a glaring example of failing to take accountability, particularly when it comes to intentionally anti-Black War on Drugs policies that incarcerate one out of every three Black men, devastating non-white and poor communities with surgical precision. This work was a small step, yet direct and significant, in the direction of unraveling that devastation.
I enjoyed using my domain knowledge, both as a historian and as a person whose life has been harmed by racist policing, and it was pretty cool from a technical perspective, too. We built a tool that could process thousands of lines of criminal data and determine eligibility for legislative relief. We wrote the project in Ruby first, then rewrote it in GoLang to make our processing time 2,000% faster. The code itself is relatively straightforward, and what would have cost local governments millions of dollars and several years of work, we delivered at no cost with a processing time of less than two minutes.
I’m also proud of the relative transparency of that eligibility determination. The code base is not an algorithm in the popularized sense, meaning there was no use of AI (Artificial Intelligence) or machine learning. Instead, determinations were made through a predetermined logic tree. This combats the “black box” effect of AI, providing clear and repeatable outcomes, and in turn, a sense of accountability. This also acts as an example for other criminal legal technologists in the field, particularly those who build damningly biased policing and sentencing software.
More important than the example it sets for others, I am so deeply proud and energized by the tangible impact this work has on the lives of people with previous marijuana convictions. Clearing a conviction means access to jobs, healthcare, housing, dignity, and agency, things that every person deserves. Work like this reminds me small steps can make big change, technology is a tool to shape that change, and I have a responsibility to believe that it is possible to radically transform the world, then act on that belief.
How would you like the field to evolve? What would you like to see changed?
Technology shapes much of what we do, in ways we often do not recognize. Every time we get groceries, go to the doctor, drive a car, go for a walk, or call a friend, we are interacting with technology. So I would love to see the field be a reflection of the people who use and interact with it: everyone. There are a number of examples of how a narrow technical perspective and a monolithic team (read: mostly white, mostly rich, mostly men) often leads to bad, sometimes irrevocably harmful, technology—the kind that prioritizes profit over human impact, does not investigate long term ethics, or only considers the voices of the most privileged.
This is not some inherent flaw in technology. Many of the changes that need to happen here are needed in every sector. When stripped of the opacity of its mechanics, technology is simply mirroring and responding to the environment and conditions humans created. So, technology is what we make it. This is a human issue. This is a power issue. It is our responsibility to use that power, that humanity, to fortify the power and humanity of those around us.
I believe that people know, in their truest selves, what is right and good and ethical, but are often afraid to act on that because it requires challenging what is familiar. We’ve seen glimpses of this goodness throughout the pandemic: mutual aid funds directly redistributing money, the largest protests in U.S. history in the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020, a reshifting of our entire lives in order to prioritize the wellness and safety of the people around us—all empowered through the use of technology.
I’ve seen that goodness at Code for America, too, where many people are working to see communities directly contribute to and co-design the technologies that influence their human rights and daily lives. Researchers and client success specialists invest intellectual and emotional labor into their work, seeking out and uplifting the voices of clients. Data scientists created an ethics statement. We have an apprenticeship program, which opened the door for me. There are also thousands of volunteer technologists organized across the country in our Brigade Network. In a direct display of community collaboration, we have a fellowship program where fellows build tools and partnerships with governments across the county, informing this work with their own lived experience.
The power of this goodness is exponential, resounding, and feeds into an imagining of a better, more equitable world. It also requires a willingness and responsibility to leverage, and possibly lose access to, the resources, privilege, and capital that has been accumulated by the few in order to illuminate truth and dignity for the many.
I wholeheartedly believe that, at any point, we can choose to apply these lessons we’ve learned, and do things differently, better. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that change is inevitable, technology or otherwise. The question becomes, how will we shape that change?
All that you touch
All that you Change
hidden within Change
Is surprise, delight,
Opportunity, and growth.
And to be shaped. Parable of the Sower: The Book of Earthseed by Octavia Butler
What does “designing equitable government” mean to you?
In my opinion, an equitable government is the only one worth having. Like technology, government is a complex and seemingly rigid structure, yet it does not have power of its own accord. Government gains its power from us, the people, and I believe doing right by each and every one of us is the only fair exchange for that power. Like technology, government services are only effective if they actually deliver the value promised. These services should be designed in a way that any person could receive that service and see a tangible, measurable, and repeatable positive impact. I know that’s an ambitious claim, and yet it’s absolutely possible. Not too long ago, being able to apply for food stamps through the tiny computer in your pocket sounded like some laughable sci-fi nonsense. Now, GetCalFresh has helped millions of people do that very thing.
For all my optimism, I am no fool. I’m painfully familiar with the seemingly insurmountable and deeply ingrained white supremacy, bureaucracy, bigotry, and lack of humanity that has seeped into government services, typically by design. So, the government has great power, and a great responsibility to repair the abuses and misuses of that power; to make amends for the harms that have been done in the past and are continuing to be done today. This requires rebuilding the foundation of our future with newly imagined tools, taking care to completely eradicate the parts that have rotted. We are not in this alone—in fact, we are joining a legacy of organizations and individuals that have been doing this work long before Code for America came to fruition. We are all equal shareholders in this future, and I’m eager to march forward towards the day it becomes our reality.