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We’re Two!

The number one question I am asked these days is, “How did Code for America get started?”  Though the Fast Company article from 2010  covered the story pretty well, I’ll share a longer version of it here, partly anticipating that visitors to our website might have the same question, and partly as a way of thanking all the people who’ve helped bring the organization into existence.

- Jennifer Pahlka, Founder, Code for America

I’m so happy, and proud, to celebrate our second birthday. The first two years have been amazing. Needless to say a lot has happened. So as our inaugural class of 19 fellows head toward graduation, and we embark on our third year, I thought I would share the story of how Code for America got started.

In 2008, I was working as the co-chair of the Web 2.0 Expo and a general manager of the Web 2.0 events brand for TechWeb. I worked closely with the conferences team at O’Reilly Media, with whom we co-produced these events. The Web 2.0 meme had really exploded, and the incredible growth in attendance spoke to how eager so many people were to harness participation and the other hallmarks of Web 2.0 to keep their businesses competitive. But there were little glimmers around the edges of our peripheral vision to suggest that it wasn’t just markets that could be disrupted by these principles. In anticipation of winning the election, Obama’s folks were tapping folks from Google and other technology platform companies to serve on the transition team. A few governments were starting to adopt social media. A small number of innovative developers were starting to scrape websites and make something out of government data.

At a Mashup Camp in Mountain View, Calif. in November 2008, Tim O’Reilly suggested to my then boss Eric Faurot that we add a track on government to the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo. Eric loved the idea but suggested that content should have its own event, located in Washington D.C. where government folks could reasonably be expected to attend. Thus, Gov 2.0 events brand, was born. However, the intellectual work that would go into defining this term, Gov 2.0, and the new avenues that it would reveal, had not yet begun in earnest.

I was privileged to be along for the ride as Tim undertook that mission. So many people immediately took Gov 2.0 to mean the use of social media in government, but Tim knew there was something more substantive that needed to be explored, extracted, and properly framed. He spoke with dozens and dozens of federal government officials and staff . He focused on this idea of government as a platform as a way of explaining the opportunity that seemed to be present to governments at this moment in time. This was really the first time in my life I’d really given much thought to government (as distinct from politics), and it struck me as something suddenly important and somehow urgent. I wanted to contribute to these new ideas in some way.

The Gov 2.0 brand and team were very much focused on the federal government, but it was Andrew Greenhill who redirected my attention to the local level. Andrew had the good fortune and good judgment (many years ago) to marry my best friend from childhood, Valerie, and our families have long been close. He heard about our work on Gov 2.0 and immediately understood it in the context of the challenges his city faced. It wasn’t theory or rhetoric — but real, urgent, and influenced people’s lives. Andrew set out to convince me that the real traction in this concept would be found not in D.C., but in the cities across the U.S. that were facing dramatic budget cutbacks and needed to learn how to scale-up civic participation in order to change the game.

Andrew wanted me to help him recruit developers to build apps for Tucson, Ariz., — apps that demonstrated that the City of Tucson, where he and Valerie lived, could be a platform for citizens to transform the city into what they wanted and needed it to be. For months, I repeatedly said that I thought it was a great idea, but had no idea how to make it happen.  Competent app developers tended to be quite busy with much more lucrative work than coding for a budget-crunched city.

In July 2009, I was at a family reunion in Flagstaff, Ariz., and Valerie and Andrew came up from Tucson to visit. Over beers on the deck of the condo my grandmother had rented for us (thank you, Grandma!), we talked about Andrew’s ideas, and compared notes on what I was learning as part of the team working on the Gov 2.0 events, the first of which was slated for that fall. The conversation shifted to Andrew’s years as a corps member in one of the first classes of Teach for America. A light bulb went off in my head. No Web 2.0 developer was going to write apps for government for the money, but they might do it for a little bit of glory, for the chance to serve their country, and to feel good about giving back. There could be a Teach for America for the current generation of creative geeks who would otherwise take jobs at Facebook or Google.

Maybe I’m remembering it with more drama than it really had, but I recall a bit of an “aha moment.” To my delight, Valerie and Andrew both seemed to think this was actually a good idea, and I really took notice when my friend (and ex-husband) Chris Hecker, who was also there and who is famously critical (in the best sense of the word), chimed in with an unqualified “that could work.” Chris holds most things in the world to a very high standard, so it meant something that he was so supportive, and he remains so today.

That night at dinner I told my dad and stepmother that I was going to quit my job and start a non-profit. It seemed rather abrupt to say the least. But I was resolved from that afternoon on. I also sent an email to Tim and Gina Blaber, the VP of conferences at O’Reilly, about my idea, and Tim responded immediately with a lot of interest. We agreed to talk when I was back from vacation.

That was the end of July, 2009. A few weeks later in mid August was Transparency Camp West, hosted by the Sunlight Foundation, whom we’d been tracking (and admiring) through our Gov 2.0 work. Having been totally wowed by the first Transparency Camp in D.C. several months earlier, and knowing the attendees would be an amazing group of people, I resolved to go down and test my idea with a few folks.

Over the preceeding few weeks, I’d been meaning to contact Leonard Lin, someone I’d worked with on the previous Web 2.0 Expo and whom I knew was looking for ways to do good through technology; he’d helped scrape websites for names of Katrina victims in order to help reconnect them with family, ran Yahoo’s Hack Day program, and generally been at work making good in the world. I took it as a sign that as I walked up to the seating area for Transparency Camp, Leonard was the first person I saw.

I sat down at a crowded table with Leonard and told him my idea, and what followed still amazes me. Clay Johnson, then the director of Sunlight Labs, a fantastic developer and change agent, overheard my pitch and came over. He pointed at me across the table as if to accuse me of a crime (Clay is pretty dramatic) and said in his booming, authoritative voice, “We’ll fund you for that.” Just like that. It didn’t happen as quickly as Clay’s declaration made it sound it would, but not only did Sunlight provide seed funding for the organization, but also served as our fiscal sponsor while we applied for 501(c)3 status, which allowed us to get off the ground about a year before we would have otherwise. I’m forever grateful to Clay and to Ellen Miller, Sunlight’s inspiring executive director, for what they did for Code for America. And it wasn’t just the funding and sponsorship, it was the legitimacy we got from people seeing that Clay and Ellen believed in us. I’m not sure anyone would have taken the idea seriously if they had not stepped up.

But back to the lunch table at Transparency Camp, Clay’s support was not the only win for Code for America that day. Leonard agreed to help get the organization off the ground, and within a few weeks had done our wonderful logo, put up a website, and started researching technology platforms within cities. Also sitting at the table that day were Jay Nath and Kelly Pretzer from the City and County of San Francisco and Kelly Moriaru, who was then with the City of Palo Alto. Leonard or Clay (or someone) else called the three city people over to hear my pitch, and all of them were enthusiastic about the ideas. Kelly Moriaru went on to serve on our city steering committee, and Jay has stayed very active with Code for America while making his own waves within the City of San Francisco.

Along the way I had recruited Andrew, Leonard, and Tim all to serve on Code for America’s board of directors, but we needed someone else, someone to help guide our messaging and communications. I took the opportunity to reach out to Monica Harrington, whom I’ve admired as a strategic marketer and executive since I met her when we were both in the video game industry.  Monica held a number of senior positions at Microsoft before leaving to help run Valve Software with her husband, Mike, and I’d always wanted to find an excuse to enroll her as a mentor. Luckily for Code for America, Monica agreed to join the board and had a huge impact on how we positioned and presented our nascent program. I’m so grateful for all that she’s done for us.

With a board in place and some seed funding from Sunlight, I took the plunge and gave notice at my job. It was quite a lot of notice, because we were still a few months out from Web 2.0 Expo New York, and I didn’t feel right about leaving before the event. Frankly, I should have been more scared than I was. I certainly knew this new organization might not work, but I had no real reservations about giving it a shot, largely because of all the people who encouraged me.

One person whose encouragement made a big difference was Jean Case of the Case Foundation.  I was lucky to get a meeting with her while in D.C. after the first Gov 2.0 Summit, and pitched her the idea. She was so excited she jumped up out of her chair and exclaimed something like “Oh, I love it!” She kicked in another $10,000 in seed funding for the organization, but I’m as grateful for her unabashed enthusiasm as for the funding. Jean’s thinking on topics like government reform and sustainability for non-profits continues to inspire me. I’m hugely grateful for her support, and for Michael Smith’s support as well. Michael is a caring, warm program officer at Case and has continued to connect and promote the organization since the grant.

Sunlight and Case provided seed funding to get the organization started, but these amounts were not the kind you can pay salaries on (even one salary). In order to hire real staff, I had to find more foundations with programs that fit with Code for America’s mission. I was lucky to find those foundations, or more accurately, to find three wonderful people at those foundations: Benjamin de la Pena at Rockefeller, Stacy Donohue at Omidyar Network, and Damian Thorman at the Knight Foundation. The stories of each of these relationships, and the warmth, kindness, and generosity of each of these individuals, is central to Code for America’s story —  but now I’m straying from my original focus on how the organization first got started. I can’t tell that story without thanking Ben, Stacy and Damian, however. We would not have had a first year without them.

There are so many other people who helped get the organization off the ground. I can’t possibly mention them all here, but have to give a shout out to Jack Dangermond, Adam Abrons (who hid a $10,000 donation from his family foundation in a birthday gift to me…pretty awesome), Paul Maritz, Shel Kaphan, Vonceil and Scott Yara, Chris DiBona, Ron Bouganim, and Wendy Owen. Most importantly, though, there are four people who all took major risks, leaving stable jobs and amazing opportunities, to work for a nascent, chaotic, demanding startup. I know that each of them made this possibly crazy leap because they believe in what Code for America can do, and that is truly priceless. Those four people are Meghan Reilly, Abhi Nemani, Dan Melton, and Alissa Black.  When they joined – all around the same time in the summer of 2010 — is when Code for America really began.