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A Very Special Gift from Google

Way back in March, I got an email that began:

My name is Abhi Nemani, and I write to apply for a summer internship with Code for America because CFA brings together my two passions — politics and technology — into an important service, helping modernize local governments.

My first thought was “internship? I don’t recall offering internships.” But we needed help, badly. I read on.

At the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College, I have overseen the Institute’s efforts to increase transparency and efficiency in governance and witnessed first-hand the staggering need for technological development. Working with Professor Kenneth Miller PhD, we took on the challenge of researching the complex interplay between direct democracy and the judiciary. This required obtaining ballot initiative summaries fromsecretariesof state, as well as legal challenges from both state and federal court, and much of that was not even digitized. We collected that information, organized it, and created the mostcomprehensive online database of successful initiatives currently available. Our success illustrates how organizations can work with governments to make important information more readily accessible, which is why I am so excited about the work CFA is going to do.

Okay, slightly impressed. My college years were mostly about trying to get the term papers in less than one week late. Kids these days! I read on. (And yes, I’m excerpting here)

I believe I can help at this formative stage of CFA’s development. Building out the organization will require — among other things — the development of marketing materials, the online presence, and a robust communications strategy. In each of my responsibilities, I have drawn upon my technical familiarity and production ability. I am proficient in the Adobe Creative suite — chiefly Photoshop and InDesign –capablein pHp, and well experienced in HTML and CSS coding. At Google and at the Young Democrats of America, I had to work with multiple teams often in different locations to develop their social media strategy, and this experience would transition well to help meet CFA’s communications needs.

At this point I think I stopped reading and just emailed the guy back to say, yes, of course you can have an internship. When can you start? We need you NOW.

nullFast forward to May and the intern has finished his pesky business of graduating. While he’s still in the process of moving to the Bay Area, he manages a much-needed overhaul of our Fellows pages, an edit on our video script, and the creation, entirely out of the blue without any direction or encouragement, of a campaign for the 4th of July which has since become somewhat famous. I haven’t even met him yet.

Fast forward to last week. By now Abhi (who is no longer referred to as “the intern”) has saved our butts more times than we can count, and proven that he’s more than a whiz kid. He’s diplomatic and wise. You can talk things over with him. He’s not afraid to lead, especially when he sees it’s needed. But now the part of his introduction letter where I stopped reading becomes highly relevant:

This September I will start full-time as an associate product marketing manager with Google.

Problem. We rely on him. We need him. But he’s betrothed to Google.

I wrestle with the ethical complexity of tempting him to stay, and finally realize I can’t let him go without letting him know there’s a place for him here if he wants it. I was happily surprised when he says he’d love to. Less surprised, and less happy, when he says that he doesn’t feel right about going back on his commitment. Angst and drama ensue, in which everyone wishes there were a right answer, an outcome that would make everyone happy.

And then suddenly, there is one, at midnight on the Thursday before Labor Day. That day — busy as ever — Abhi had been talking to various Googlers, appealing their commitment of “do no evil” to be able to stick with us for a while. Sure enough, thanks to their good will and our common values, they let him defer his offer by a year. We are saved!

The rest of the story is yet to be told, except for a little more of Abhi in his own words. He wrote this in email to the team this weekend.

I hope you all know that I was from the very beginning willing to give Code for America my 20 percent, be it my 81st or my 119th. And then some. I was interested in the program from just the first mention, and once I met Jen, I was committed. And this summer — working with each of you, building this organization, and seeing the impact of our work — has bordered on surreal; it’s been more than I could have imagined.

See in my life, I’ve usually felt as if I came to the party a few minutes too late, as if the good ol’ days were really the best days: college used be to easier, work simpler, and money freer. “The Masters of the Universe have left…” says Tom Wolfe, and I tended to agree that the era of assumed success was over. Now we’d have to earn it. So I’ve tried to work — jealously maybe — at various institutions to reclaim that legacy of optimism and accomplishment, feeling all the while like I had missed out. My timing was just off.

For the first time in my life, however, things feel different.

Why? Code for America is the perfect storm. It’s the right idea with the right people at the right time. The web is changing the way we live, work, and interact with each other, and organizations are able to do more with less — with a little help from forward thinking geeks. Code for America’s beautiful little idea is that government can do the same, all we need to do is get some of those geeks into City Hall. When I learned that little idea was coming to life in a big way, I had to get involved.

So please welcome Code for America’s new director of strategy and communications, Abhi Nemani.

(Update: Because Abhi now has control of the blog he replaced his picture with that dopey, give-me-a-pat-on-head look. So this gift may prove to be short-lived :))