Coding it Forward runs the Civic Digital Fellowship, a program that places college and graduate students from across the country in federal government agencies to work as software engineers, data scientists, designers, and product managers for the summer. We spoke with Chris Kuang, a junior at Harvard and the co-founder and Director of Operations of Coding it Forward, and Rachel Dodell, a recent Wellesley graduate and the team’s Executive Director, about their work running a “for students, by students” movement.
What was the original motivation for starting Coding it Forward?
Chris Kuang (CK): We formed Coding it Forward in January 2017 with the goal of building a community around young people who were passionate about social impact and technology. We knew a lot of peers who wanted to make an impact with their skills, but didn’t know where to turn to do so.
Rachel Dodell (RD): When I was first looking for a job in the civic tech field, I was disappointed that places like USDS and 18F didn’t offer internships. I was in the first class of Coding it Forward fellows, worked on the team for two years, and just became our first full time employee. Our peer-to-peer model means that we understand what people our age are looking for in a professional experience. We can be the student voice, and advocate for young people at the table in the world of public interest tech.
What does the recruiting and placement process look like for the Civic Digital Fellowship?
RD: Our inaugural cohort in 2017 had 14 Fellows, the next summer we had 36 Fellows, and this coming summer, we’re anticipating 60 and 70 Fellows. Our process has definitely changed as the scale grew. This year we received over 1,000 applications from students at more than 240 colleges and universities across the United States. We read every application, do initial video interviews, and then we play matchmaker between candidates and federal agency projects to optimize talent to where it would be most impactful. Our federal partners look at the candidates we propose, do their own interviews, and finally choose the Fellows. We take a lot of the guesswork out of the application process for agencies, because we do vetting, we sift through the technical jargon of people’s skill sets, and we present who we think would best fill each role. If we set 1,000 resumes down on the desk of every interested federal agency, those roles might never get filled.
What has the response been like from students who have gone through the Fellowship?
RD: Our Fellows have been really excited about working on high-impact, large-scale projects. Often, students who have incredible technical skills go to work at a company and are tasked with fixing a button. But in the federal government, they get to deal with broad and varied user groups that represent millions of people. Last year, one of our Fellows, who is now full-time at the Census Bureau, worked on a project that optimized the Commodity Flow Survey and saved the Census Bureau $2 million in taxpayer money. That scale of impact that is hard to find elsewhere—and we’ve found that 90% of our Fellows are more inclined to stay in civic tech after the program, which we view as a huge win for the field.
So once you have them in, they’re hooked. But what are the challenges associated with recruiting and getting them in the door?
RD: Students don’t know these opportunities exist in the first place. Connecting with Coding it Forward is the first time many students have heard the words “civic tech.” So giving these students the language to name their interests is the first step. Once they find out about the opportunities, a primary concern is pay. When we’re dealing with a generation that is riddled with student debt and other financial obligations, that’s a big deal. We provide stipends that might not compete with large tech companies, but they will provide for their needs over the summer.
You’ve been very conscious about socioeconomic diversity amongst the Fellows. What other forms of diversity are you looking for?
CK: Our Fellows class in 2018 was over 50% women, and we view that as a great marker of inclusion, but we also look for differing economic backgrounds, folks of color, and students from all types of schools. We strongly believe that the people building services at the federal level should look like the people they’re building for, which is why we’re intentional in our recruitment and in how we develop programming. Even down to the granular stuff–we have a transit stipend program because we don’t want the cost of a Metro ride to be the deciding factor as to whether or not a Fellow is able to to take advantage of a mentorship chat or a site visit. We’re extremely fortunate to have started Coding it Forward at Harvard, because we’ve had so much support in helping us build out this program. But now we want to take the doors that were opened for us, and hold them open for other students.
The program has obviously grown significantly since you first started two years ago. What’s next?
CK: We hope to give rise to a generation of mission-driven technologists who are ready and willing to raise their hands to serve. But we get so many applications from great candidates who we can’t offer fellowships to, so we’re looking at providing other resources. We’ve started sponsoring social impact tracks at hackathons, and we’re launching a mini-grant program for students pursuing small-scale social impact tech projects. We also started a “Pivot to Civic” newsletter which features conversations with technologists, how-to guides for entering the field, and a jobs and internships board.
RD: We’re also working with organizations like Code for America now to identify places across the country where we have large numbers of students interested in this work to get them involved in localized civic tech projects, potentially as part of a CFA brigade. And critically, we have found a gap between the very entry level positions that the Civic Digital Fellowship offers and the more advanced positions that are often available in the space, so we’re starting a broader conversation about engaging young people in this work. There isn’t an established talent pipeline for young civic techies right now. They might have to wait 10 years to get involved because they don’t have the career experience to be competitive at places like USDS or 18F. We’re thinking about how to connect young people to the resources they need to come back to civic tech after their entry-level jobs.