At first sight, government and the tech industry may seem like two worlds that do not go together in the slightest — the former is notoriously slow, inefficient, and full of bureaucracies, while the latter is quick, hyper-efficient, and ever-evolving. Bringing these two sectors together would seem like an impossible feat — but that’s exactly what Jennifer Pahlka has done. As founder and executive director of Code for America, her mission is simple: she captains a brigade of 16,000 volunteer programmers who use technology to make government websites, services, and software better, one city at a time. Founded in 2009, she described the group in a 2012 TED Talk by saying it’s “like the Peace Corps for geeks.” In 2013, Pahlka, 45, took a page from her own playbook and did a fellowship herself: she spent a year as the deputy CTO for government innovation at the White House, where she helped build the U.S. Digital Service, an elite new technologist team for the federal government. Nearly seven years after she founded nonprofit Code for America to improve clunky federal websites, 46 year old Pahlka has left a trail of civic innovation that stretches from local city halls all the way to the White House. Her organization also helped spark the “civic hacking” movement, in which residents gather to use public data and code to solve community problems.
Her journey to Code for America comes as no surprise once you hear her background. Raised in both New Haven and New York City, she graduated from Bronx High School of Science, and Yale University after that. Her first job out of college was at the non-profit Children’s Home Society of California, a social services provider. However, she eventually transitioned into the tech world. Pahlka spent eight years at a company called CMP Media, where she led the Game Group, responsible for the Game Developers Conference (GDC), Game Developer Magazine, and Gamasutra.com. She oversaw the dramatic growth of GDC from 1995 to 2003, and launched the Independent Games Festival and the Game Developers Choice Awards. She was also the executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), an independent non-profit association serving game developers around the world. During this time she also served on the advisory boards of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) and the GDC, and on the board of directors of the IGDA.
More recently, from 2005 to 2009, she was the co-chair and general manager of the Web 2.0 events for TechWeb, a division of United Business Media, in partnership with O’Reilly Media. In that role, she proposed the creation of the Web 2.0 Expo, and became the co-chair for the event. She also played a key role in managing the Gov 2.0 Summit and Gov 2.0 Expo.
In 2009, Pahlka founded Code for America, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that aims to make government more transparent and connected. According to the Washington Post, she was “[offering] an alternative to the old, broken path of government IT.” In her 2012 TED Talk on the topic of the intersection between government and IT, Pahlka stated that we as citizens will not be able to reinvent government unless we also reinvent citizenship—which is exactly what Code for America does. She famously asked the crowd who attended, “Are we just going to be a crowd of voices, or are we going to be a crowd of hands?”
In an interview with Mercury News, she was asked a bit more about the initial days of the nonprofit . She admitted that when she first started, “…venture capitalists were not very interested in government for the reasons one would expect: a lot of paperwork and long sales cycles.” But, she added, “we’ve shown that it’s an enormous market: about $180 billion in federal, state and local …there are so many people in government looking for new tools… venture capitalists are much more open.” The group’s initial projects were not all knockout successes, either. “Our first year,” she recalled, “ we worked in three cities. Boston was thrilled, and … Philadelphia did great as well. A lot of its outcomes were about culture change (such as using text messages instead of town halls to field input in lower-income neighborhoods). But in Seattle, we tried to build a platform for neighborhood civic engagement that didn’t work. The team was fantastic, but we learned that the best civic engagement is about specific things, not about general engagement.” Still, she made the failure of Seattle a lesson to be learned rather than a disappointment to be swallowed. “Now,” she says, “every project we do very clearly meets a real user need.”
When asked in a Mother Jones interview about how to get more women in tech, she was candid enough to admit that she didn’t know. However, she acknowledged that “in the next 50 to 100 years, you’ll be considered illiterate if you can’t program” and that, inevitably, when it comes to the tech field “there’s a history there that’s really hard to overcome.” Well, there may be a history to overcome, but with women like Pahlka rewriting it every single day, it won’t be too strange to see more girls at the forefront of tech than ever before.