Following is an edited excerpt from the talk.
Kelsey Stanton: I’m going to give a quick introduction to each of our panelists. Using interactive data visualizations and detailed analysis, Lauren Chambers explores government data in order to inform citizens and lawmakers about the effects of legislation and political leadership on our civil liberties. After graduating with a double major in astrophysics and African-American studies, she worked as a software developer at NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope mission.
We also have Shaanan Cohney. Dr. Cohney researches the interplay between computer systems and the law, with a particular focus on application of cryptography. His experience includes a position at the Wharton Public Policy Initiatives Geller Fellow, work in the Office of Policy Planning at the Federal Trade Commission, and service as a Cybersecurity Fellow with Senator Ron Wyden.
Next up, we have Richard Ling who’s the founder of SolveOpen, which is an open innovation platform that open sources problems from non-profits, corporations, and governments. He’s also an Energy Development Associate at CEG Solutions, an energy service company that makes buildings more efficient using renewable technologies and energy conservation measures. There, he’s involved in business development efforts to make Hawaii-based building more energy efficient, solar PV design for municipal projects, and early-stage client acquisition for federal facilities.
And last, but not least, we have Sophia Tareen. She works at Ad Hoc, a civic tech organization that helps federal government agencies serve people through technology. After studying Poli Sci and Health and Societies at Penn, Sophia move to San Francisco to work at Collective Health, which is a startup seeking to simplify the American health insurance experience. She became interested in using her tech skills to improve public services and began volunteering with Code For America, TheySeeBlue, and Upwardly Global.
Question: What experiences, activities, or connections in college introduced you to the fields that you work in today?
Lauren Chambers: It’s an interesting question for me, because I didn’t learn about public interest technology until post-college. The way that I learned about it is that– and this sounds random, but I think that there’s actually some nuggets of wisdom in the story. So I studied astrophysics and African-American studies. That led me to have an interest in using quantitative methods to solve social problems.
I had no way of finding public interest tech though from that training, because all of my astronomy professors didn’t know anything about it and then my Af-Am professors knew anything about it either. But I had a friend who studied applied statistics and sociology. And we would kind of commiserate about this issue, how we were both interested in using quantitative methods for social issues. And we didn’t know how to do it. We would have lunches and dinners. And we complained about this as seniors.
And one day, while I was working for NASA, she texted me, because her boyfriend’s brother worked with who is now my current boss. And my current boss tweeted about my current job. And that is how it made its way down to me. And then, obviously, I’m here now at the ACLU.
And being here has really been– I describe it like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps out of the house, and the world is in color. Like, all of a sudden, all of the opportunities, and the panelists, and organizations, and the academic groups are available to me. But that was because of this network that I had with my friend Kira, who texted me, because we would talk about it. So there’s some degree of super random in it and some degree of fostering relationships with people who have similar interests. And that helped me find my role.
Shaanon Cohney: Like Lauren, I didn’t really know, when I was at least an undergraduate, what I was doing with this kind of thing. But my pathway came a lot through the hacker ethic.
So always, as a younger person, or younger than I am now I guess, I had a kind of an anti-establishment side. And that plays pretty well with public interest tech, at least, which is a lot about challenging existing power structures. And so for me, that took the form of looking at different security flaws, ways in which systems that everyone assumed were strong for various reasons, were not protecting various people, whether that be students or whether that be academics.
And how that actually translated into a career, well, after getting into trouble in various institutions a bunch of times for pointing out problems with systems that they would rather pretend didn’t exist, I was picked up by a professor at Penn for graduate studies. And partway through that, he invited me to come here and testify at Congress. This was Professor Matt Blaze.
He invited me to come here and talk about election security. And this is a very random thing, which I think plays into a little of what Lauren was saying, that there needs to be some– like, for a lot of us people who got involved earlier, I guess, in public interest tech, there was a random element. So he invited me to come to Capitol Hill to hear him testify.
And he said, come to dinner after and then ghosted me for dinner. And I was left in DC alone. And he was meant to be taking me back. And as a consolation prize, he said, you know, I feel bad that I left you alone in the dark as a first-year graduate student. Let me introduce you to a friend in the Senate who works in a senator’s office. And you can have a talk about the public interest work he’s doing.
And so as soon as I talked to this guy, I kind of realized that this was the field that I was missing, this idea of blending technical expertise with a way to actually advance the public good. And I asked him if there was a space for me to come during summer. And I went there. And the rest is history.
Richard Ling: I studied system engineering and environmental science at Penn. I just graduated in May. And I got into this field of renewable energy because that was sort of what I’ve always wanted to do since I came to Penn. I studied in the VIPER program, some of you guys might know. It’s like an energy research program.
And I just always loved renewable energy, because my main motivation for my career since I graduated high school was I wanted to do something that would somewhat positively impact people, either directly or indirectly. And renewable energy was just so exciting to me, because it wasn’t as big back then as it is now. But it seemed almost inevitable that it would become a big thing.
So how I got involved with it, in my specific career, is that I joined a bunch of clubs at Penn that related to environmental sustainability, renewable energy, those kind of things, such as EcoReps, or Penn Sustainability Group, Wharton Energy Group, those kind of things. And I think that’s important, because in college, you have academics, but you also have extracurriculars. And the goal is to surround yourself with as much knowledge and experience and like-minded people to ultimately figure out where you want to go after Penn.
And that’s what I’ve tried to do. And I also pursued various research opportunities at Penn in the energy field, that also helped me narrow down what exactly I wanted to do, because renewable energy, much like the fields that were just discussed, is so broad. You can do so many things, from policy to technology, to actually implementing these things, like solar developers.
So I ultimately decided that I simply don’t know what I want to do. So I joined a company that sort of does a little bit of everything. So CG Solutions, the bio kind of capture it a little bit, but we basically make buildings more efficient. And that’s a very broad term, but we do it with whatever means possible, from things like replacing light bulbs to LEDs, to more cutting edge things, like solar combined heat and power microgrids, those kind of things.
So I joined the company to satisfy the unknown inside of me, which is I don’t know where exactly I want to go in renewable energy, so I’m going to go to a company that sort of touches it all. You know, that’s a strategy that you guys can do as well for your careers. Or if you know what you want to do, you can jump right into it.
Sophia Tareen: As mentioned in the bio, I studied political science and health and society, so did not think tech was in my future at all. But I think what really helped me while I was at Penn was thinking about the core values that aligned with who I am.
So throughout all of the internships and research opportunities that I pursued, the main things that I was thinking about was something that would be energizing to me, something that would be really challenging for me intellectually, and then something that would have a social impact. So I kind of identified that early on. And similar to Richard, I did a lot of clubs where I was learning from others, and I challenged myself to pursue leadership opportunities.
I also did research at the Health Economics Institute at Penn. So that was my first really quantitative research experience. And then, in the summer time, I had a consulting internship. So by the time graduation came, I’d had some really interesting experiences.
And when I was thinking about my post grad experience, I wanted something again that would be challenging to me, but also energizing and have that social impact element. So I joined Collective Health, which was what was mentioned. And it’s a health tech startup. And that was a really exciting opportunity to work on a huge problem in the US. It was untangling health insurance using technology.
So I was there for three years. And I started in a generalist role because, again, did not have any tech experience. And that really allowed me to try different projects. And then I eventually was able to develop enough technical skills to move to the product jobs team. And product jobs kind of fits between the business side and the engineering side.
So that’s where I was really working with engineers on the day to day. And then, while I was in that role, I was thinking a lot about those core values again. So the social impact was what I kept coming back to. And I realized that, I guess similar to Shaanan, I was thinking about how can what I’m doing change the power dynamics in the country or in the field I’m working in.
So I was working in health insurance to make it easier to understand. But I wasn’t necessarily making it easier to access, which is what led me to think more about the public sector in tech. And so that’s how I found out about civic technology as a field. And I started volunteering a lot, so kind of similar to the club approach that I was doing in college, where I was joining a bunch of clubs and just trying to have as many experiences as possible.
So I started to volunteer a lot. And that really introduced me to full time opportunities. And now I work full time in civic tech. And I work with the Department of Veterans Affairs every day. And I’m still learning a ton. So I still feel like I’m energized and challenged every day.
Could you walk us through a day in the life of the job that you’re currently doing?
Lauren Chambers: Yeah, so at the ACLU, it really changes day to day, because by nature of us being a direct advocacy organization, we’re trying to directly advocate around issues that are current and relevant. And so perhaps unsurprisingly, in March of 2020, when COVID launched, we completely reorganized our priorities. Yet again, in June of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, again, completely reorganized our priorities. The election completely reorganized our priorities.
So it really changes from day to day and month to month, the specific projects that I’m working on. But generally, I can say that I think one perk of being a technologist at a nonprofit, like the ACLU at least, is that it does allow me to have perhaps more boundaries with my hours than some of my co-workers. So my hours tend to be pretty reasonable, because most of the time, I’m not the person who’s being called up to talk to the New York Times or who needs to draft an amendment to legislation that dropped overnight.
The sorts of work that I do aren’t quite as immediately urgent. So I still work basically 9:00 to 5:00 with a lot of flexibility in there. It’s pretty great. Can’t complain. And then the actual substance of what my job looks like, I basically, and kind of I said in the bio, use data to further our legislative and legal campaigns.
So a lot of times, that looks like data analysis for internal use. so maybe for a specific legal case, we’ll have some data on a specific police department. And we’ll be able to tell our attorneys, like, here’s what we know about how this police department acts around issues of racial bias. And that’s internal.
We also do a lot of external data analysis and visualization. So we have a blog called Data for Justice that we maintain. Or sometimes we’ll do public facing things. So we did one that kind of one little viral over the summer about the Boston Police budget, where it was not a crazy analysis, but was able to kind of demonstrate with some straightforward figures just how outrageously over funded the police in Boston are. And that was widely shared and was able to be like a public education tool.
And then, also for me, there’s a good amount of developing software tools. So I’ve done a lot of dashboards in my time. In particular, we did one looking at COVID-19 in prisons and jails across Massachusetts that we update every day. And so I built the infrastructure for that dashboard and do maintenance on it as the data reporting requirements change. So that’s kind of a general idea. It really is kind of a diverse range of tasks that we have. But it’s never a boring day, that’s for sure.
Shaanan Cohney: I’m going to go off rails a little bit and answer the question I wanted it to be, given that my current job is as an assistant professor, which is a little less exciting. So I’ll tell you about my time in the US Senate as a cybersecurity fellow, which will hopefully be a little more interesting. There, the job was much more directly related to serving the interests of my member, who was Senator Ron Wyden.
But one of the really enjoyable things about it was the freedom to find issues that were being underserved in the rest of the Senate and the rest of the legislative branch and bring attention to them. So what my average day looked like, I’d still roll in at a regular 9:00 AM in suit and tie. And then, the first thing would often be to read the tech news and try and find out if there were any social issues that were being highlighted by the press that would be a good fit for my member.
There was also some time looking through various government publications, every different agency, from the executive branch or the independent agencies, and trying to look at what they were doing to see if there was anything that maybe they shouldn’t be doing or any issues that they were causing that would be served by the legislative branch engaging its oversight function.
So while all of you have seen probably the Schoolhouse Rock thing about, this is the way the bill gets made law, the legislative branch is also responsible for overseeing the executive branch. So one of the key things I would do is look at things that were going wrong there. So an example might be use of surveillance technologies to find people on the border in ways that were inappropriate, storing data about children or missing data.
All of you probably remember when the child separation policy happened. That was while I was in the Senate. And part of the problem was this miscommunication– well, other than the giant moral issue, there was a technical issue as well, which was that the agencies were inappropriately sharing some data and not appropriately sharing some of the data they needed to be doing. And so my member quickly got on that. And my job was to draft both a political response and a policy response.
And that was very much common to a lot of the things that would happen in the job. There would be the messaging component, so putting out a press release saying, Senator Wyden condemns the child separation policy and requests that these agencies stop sharing information inappropriately or stop sharing this information. And then there would be the policy side of trying to work with other senators to either get a bill passed or try to get a collective letter to the other agency to try and get them to do something.
And so most of the day was kind of this high paced thing. As news would come in, we’d quickly change our priorities. Just like Lauren said, you hit the issue of the day, the things that are important to solve now. And that’s one of the things I think is really exciting about public interest technology is that you always are staying on the things that are causing– the problems that are causing the most impact and harm to people in the world, it’s your job to get on top of those and make sure that you’re addressing those needs.
Richard Ling: So I’ll talk about SolveOpen first, because that’s kind of very unconventional. So it’s an open innovation platform. And what that means is– it’s very simple. We work with organizations, like governments, nonprofits, and simply open source or crowd sourced, whatever you want to call it, problems that they’re trying to solve to the public so that anyone can technically get involved.
So with that, what I usually do is I’ve been reaching out to various governments like the Philadelphia governments, who was our first partner. And we basically try to shape together an innovation challenge, if you can imagine that. And this is all on the website, solveopen.com, if you want to look.
But basically, my day in the life is trying to work with these organizations– for example, we’ve working with the Smart City department in Philadelphia. And I work with the director there to try to figure out what’s a public facing challenge that we can post on the site and disperse out there to the world for anyone to solve. And it’s really difficult, because you have to think of a challenge that is actually solvable. So you can’t just think of some, like, moonshot that sounds fantastic, but no one can solve it. So that is the challenging and very interesting part of my job at SolveOpen.
And for CEG, I mainly have three responsibilities as an energy development associate. One is engineering. So this can involve anything from designing the energy savings for a microgrid/solar PV system or calculating the savings of a combined heat and power plant for one of our projects. And it all comes down to what has the most energy savings. So as an engineer, we just have to calculate what’s the right technology to put in this random building that we’re dealing with. And how much savings can it generate for our clients? And that’s what I do as an engineer.
The second thing is proposal writing. So for any federal job– I don’t know. Yeah, it sounds like some of the other panelists have been in this as well. But you have to submit proposals for things. And I am involved in writing those as well. So I love writing, personally. I’m not going to say I love government writing, but it’s still writing. And it’s trying to boil down technical things into the language that, say, a federal contractor can understand or a contracting officer.
And that’s something that you don’t really learn in school. Like, in school, what you’re taught to write in perfect grammar and flowery language and with all your sources and stuff. But for this kind of writing, it’s more, so how can you boil down the important facts and present those in a understandable manner. And that’s my job as a proposal writer.
And the last thing I’ll say in what I do in my days is business development. So we’re trying to expand to markets like the Hawaii market. So there are a lot of buildings in Hawaii, obviously. And as buildings get older, they just naturally get less efficient.
Sophia Tareen: As a product manager, the role is exciting because it is both strategic and creative. So my day-to-day looks very different every day. But specifically, at AdHoc, we work with federal agencies. And so those are essentially our clients. So my day might start off first with meeting with my internal team.
So I work with engineers, product designers, and user experience researchers. And that meeting– we have a standard meeting every day– it’s mostly just to check in about what we’re working on and the status of things and if we can communicate anything out. From there, I might have a meeting with our stakeholders at the VA. And those meetings are really interesting because as AdHoc, our mission is essentially to be very outcome driven.
So traditional government contractors, we use the analogy of waiters versus doctors. So oftentimes, a government agency will pass a policy. And they’ll have a list of requirements. And they’ll pass that down to the contractor. But our job, as product managers, is to bring a product perspective to their problem. And rather than just taking the requirements and reacting to them, our job is actually to diagnose the problem with the stakeholders.
So that’s a really exciting aspect of my job where I’m critically thinking about the problem and then how will we best serve the veterans down the line. So I might have a meeting there. And that’s a really dynamic conversation with product managers as well as people from the VA who are in those policy discussions.
From there, might have a meeting, again, with some of my teammates. So working with designers and engineers, we’re building actual products. So we we’re building apps that veterans are using to access their benefits. And we do a lot of prototypes and testing with actual veterans. So a product designer will design an app, we’ll have testing sessions and usability sessions with veterans, we’ll get their feedback, and we’ll start iterating on that. So it’s a very agile environment in terms of the product development process.
And the day-to-day is very dynamic talking to tons of people, actually hands-on in building things. And as a product manager, my role is to make sure that what we’re building makes sense for the veteran. And then we take feedback and we’re able to iterate on that in case we’re not achieving our outcomes. So that’s kind of what my day-to-day looks like.
And yeah, I would say private sector versus public sector, the public sector is much more focused on the end-user. And because we work for the public, it’s all Americans. Whereas, at the private sector, I was working on a product that was targeting a specific user group, which were people like in their 20s using apps. But now we’re building a product that focuses on 18 million veterans, so the scope of the work is massive and requires so much more research and iteration that the day-to-day is very exciting. So that is what it looks like right now.
Question: Did you encounter difficulties or challenges upon entering the field and maybe even advancing in the field?
Lauren Chambers: I know that I kind of already mentioned that and how, at least for me, it was very difficult to find the door marked “this is the job that you want.” But clearly, we figured that out.
And also, if y’all are all on this call and you know that PIT is a thing and you have this community of people at Penn who are interested in these sorts of things, then I feel like that’s a huge leg up. And hopefully you won’t have that issue. So I’m going to not address that. And instead, I will talk about a couple other things that I have found to be more challenging.
One is perhaps more specific to what being a public interest technologist is like, at least certainly for me, which is that in my organization, I am the only technical person. We have an IT person, Rudy. He’s great. I don’t mean to erase his existence. But it’s not like there’s another technologist. There’s no one else who’s doing data stuff, which is exciting, because it means that my thumbs are in all the pies.
I have projects with our racial justice team. I have projects with our immigrants’ rights team, and our COVID team, and our prisoners team. And haven’t worked with the reproductive justice team yet, but hopefully one day. Because I’m the only person that we have to do anything related to data and quantitative analysis.
But of course, that also has some downsides. Sometimes it can be kind of isolating. And in particular, when it comes to doing the technical parts of the work– when I was working for the NASA contractor, my office mate was also coding in Python 40 hours a week. And we worked on the same team, on the same project, and we were trying to figure out the same thing.
So it was really great to go over to her and talk through a coding issue we were having. And also, that was a larger organization and so we had the Slack channel that was just for coding issues. So if you were really stuck, you could not just have to go on f Overflow, but ask a very specific question to people who were doing the same sort of work as you. And that’s just not something that’s available to me in this sort of role.
And so it’s been interesting to kind of relearn how to do the job when it’s just like me, myself, and I a lot of the time. And that means, in some ways, finding external sources of support. So I have been able to connect with people at other ACLU offices and send them my problems when I’m coding R sometimes. And some of that is just learning to be more independent and self-actualizing, and not being afraid, and realizing that I don’t need to ask my office mate, I can figure it out myself, which is kind of nice.
The other thing, I think, is perhaps more general to any job, which is having some growing pains while trying to find my place in the organization. I do think that that is exacerbated by what I was just saying, which is that I was the only technologist in the organization. Everyone else I work with is a lawyer or policy specialist or a grassroots organizer, and they’re really cool people, but we don’t necessarily speak the same language. And so it took a few months for them to figure out, like, how is this person going to be helpful for us, and for me to figure out how can I be helpful to them.
So there are a couple projects that I did in the first few months that just like weren’t hitting our stride. The questions weren’t really questions that I could address well. And the products I was returning to them weren’t really useful to them. But after a few months, I feel like we were kind of able to be like, OK, this is how we can interact with each other. And that’s been really fulfilling to see.
And I think, in the future, I will just have to be patient and understand that. We’re people. We’re getting to know each other in the workplace and trying to merge skill sets that are very often siloed and don’t tend to overlap a lot. Like, you don’t get a lot of lawyers who also know how to code in R, sadly. And so you just kind of have to work through the bumpiness at the beginning. But obviously, I think it’s worth it.
Shaanon Cohney: I’m worried I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but all the things that Lauren says every time are exactly right. A couple of things that I would maybe expand on slightly, this idea of role definition is gets really tricky when people see you as like the one technologist who’s around or the one person who knows tech. So very often, you’ll be expected to handle tech support if something breaks.
Someone’s like, oh, you’re the person who knows about technology. You can fix my computer. And trying to explain to people the difference between a programmer who can just build something for you, a technician who can fix your computer, and someone whose job is to understand issues and tackle them using a technical angle is, I think, the perennial problem of people with any technical ability who are like the sole technical person in an organization dedicated to this kind of public interest role.
The other thing that I would stress as really, really important is learning to communicate with both groups of people, both the technical people who are maybe not public interest technologists and the people who have zero technical background, but need to understand the technology at least in some portion. And being able to code shift between those two different ways of talking is something that, I think, takes time and experience and perhaps mentorship as well. Someone who knows the different styles of communication that different types of people take is really important.
So one of the things– I did a master’s in law at Penn Law. And one of the things I really gained from that and from that exposure was learning how to talk like a lawyer. It wasn’t even the actual content. It was learning the style of communication. So when I talk to lawyers now, it’s easier to present the technical concepts in a way that makes sense to them. And I think that’s an ongoing challenge.
Richard Ling: So for me, yeah, the first big challenge I encountered is simply finding a job that is in line with what I wanted to do. Because Sophia was right, at Penn, we have a culture that tends to encourage very specific kinds of jobs. And she already said what they are, but it’s very evident. Like, the clubs you get involved in, the career fairs, they feed you specific types of jobs that are oftentimes in the realm of consulting or finance or specific technology companies. They don’t feed you these kind of organizations that we are a part of.
So it took a lot of effort on my part to just find something that aligned with my beliefs. And Sophia was also right in saying that there’s no exact explicit reason why Penn has this culture. Or maybe it’s ingrained throughout decades of culture. But you can have a career in these public interest technologies, be just as happy if not way more happier than some of the careers that Penn encourages, and have a much more fulfilling life in general.
So the takeaway that I’d say for you all searching for careers is that you do have to put in effort to find these things, but do not give up in finding them. Because it takes effort. Penn is not going to feed it to you. And what I did was in the renewable energy industry– and just picture this for whatever industry that you’re involved in, because I imagine everyone here is not interested in renewable energy. Some of you might be.
But what I did was I looked at, so what are the things I know about the industry so far. I know the basics, like solar, hydro, wind, all those good things OK, now, how do companies actually do these things? So I looked at the different segments of the industry. There are solar developers. There are people who make technologies, like new, cutting-edge things, which is more in the research realm.
There are consultants for these kind of things that consult utilities or companies to become more sustainable. And the list goes on. So take an industry that you like, that you can see yourself working in, and dissect it into the parts that you know about. And ask yourself, what are the ways I can work in this industry? And that was the first step I took.
And then you got to search online. And this is never easy. But you just got to search jobs that fit this criteria. And one piece of advice I’d say is don’t be compromising to yourself. If it doesn’t seem like something you would actually wake up in the morning and love to do, then don’t waste your time applying for it. Because another narrative that often gets feeds to us college students is that you should apply for 1,000 jobs. And you’ll get one or two of them or something.
But what I think is a better way to go, perhaps, is look for jobs that you’re truly passionate about. And put your all into that, because you can apply for maybe 10 jobs, just some arbitrary fraction of 1,000 that’s not 1,000. You don’t have to apply for a bunch of jobs, but just make sure you’re passionate and very into the jobs that you do apply for. And that will boost your chances a lot. And you’ll be happier, you know.
So that’s what I did. And once I got this job, the main hurdle was actually learning new things. Because my job at CEG solutions, I learned none of this stuff at Penn. So I had to learn what a building’s core energy systems are, like HVAC or lighting or building envelope stuff. And I had to learn about how renewable energies get implemented here and all those nuances. And you guys might encounter this as well, when you get into your first job, you won’t know everything.
So my advice is keep asking questions, like, be relentless with just curiosity. And that will always pay off. Yeah, just keep asking questions. And treat it as if you’re trying to learn things, right, and you’re getting paid to learn things. And that’s fantastic.
So that’s what I would advise. But my biggest point that I can’t stress enough is don’t give up in finding these jobs. There is a job out there that can align with your values, can supply a good income, can be in the place you want to work, all these things. It’s out there somewhere. So you just got to keep looking.
Sophia Tareen: Yeah, I plus a hundred to everything Richard said. I’m actually also thinking about the first question about things that I did at Penn that I think helped me. I think two things really help me kind of take a step out of the Penn bubble, which felt very intense sometimes.
So I studied abroad, which I know it’s not always possible to folks. But I was the only Penn person in my program. And that was my junior year, so I was in the thick of the Penn experience. And I think to this day, it’s helped me redefine my understanding of success. So that includes challenging myself.
And then the other thing I did at Penn was, I actually took two classes with non-Penn professors– actually outside of Penn. So I took one Temple class, which I think was very valuable. So those kinds of experiences exist with Penn. And if you are able to find them, I would encourage them.
But back to the original question about challenges that I faced– so again, I did not have any technical experience at all. So that’s the biggest challenge that I work with engineers every day and did not know anything when I first started working. So that has just required a ton of discipline, which I think if we’re Penn students then we are able to muster up that discipline when needed.
So it really required me to, after work, sit down and kind of study the basics and just understand what people were talking about in a lot of these meetings. And it was much easier for me to kind of gloss over when they were bringing up the technicals of like, oh, yeah, in this repo, we’ll do this, and all of these technical terms that I was like, no idea what this is about. So tons of YouTube videos I watch to this day. Like, I watched one today about something.
I work with APIs, which is a very technical piece of technology. And I’m building APIs for the VA. So that’s extremely technical. And yeah, so tons of personal research that I do. If you work for a company, sometimes they offer a learning stipend. So my current company offers a certain amount of money that you can take to learn more that can help your job.
So I’m actually taking a coding class right now. So those kinds of opportunities do exist. And like Richard said, sometimes it’s hard to find those jobs. But they’re out there. And don’t compromise when it comes to the way you’ll be spending your time, especially right out of college. It’s a very precious time.
How do you hope to see your work or the work of the field evolve over the course of your career? That could be your involvement or of the career itself.
Lauren Chambers: So for my involvement, I can share that I am planning to go back to school. I talk about this more than maybe I would have otherwise, because I’m going into a field that I didn’t know existed a year ago. I am going to be getting a PhD in information science, which is a really cool field that I think is super relevant to a lot of people interested in public interest technology.
It is an explicitly interdisciplinary field that kind of approaches the questions that are posed by information, data, technology from a number of different angles. So a typical information science department will have computer scientists, data scientists, policy scholars, legal scholars, critical scholars all kind of looking at questions about how humans interact with technology and how technology interacts with the law and how all of these things are embroiled in power structures and all of that sort of stuff.
So just put a pin in that, if that sounds interesting to you. That’s what I’m really excited to see evolving in my career is getting kind of situated in an academic discipline that combines the values that public interest technology is all about, right? Still being aware of how important technology is and how powerful it is while ultimately centering social questions.
When it comes to the field as a whole– perhaps this won’t be surprising– I am really excited for there to be more infrastructure and more support for people who want to do it. Obviously, there has been a kind of a thread through a lot of the panelist’s responses about how it’s hard to find jobs, hard to find the existence of the discipline completely. And that’s just a shame and a waste, because it means that there are people who maybe would be interested in this sort of work but don’t know that it exists. And so they go to work for Google or they go work for McKinsey or Deloitte. And obviously, those jobs are fine but maybe would not have been the best fit for some of these people.
And so I’m optimistic that we’ll see more and more initiatives, both at the small scale in in-college campuses, like this. It’s great. And also on the national scale with organizations like the Public Interest Technology University Network that New America is hosting. I’m hoping that will lead to more mentorship networks, so that people don’t feel lost and confused, and just generally more public awareness that this is a career choice that is available to you as a graduating college student. And that will lead to more people being able to join and do the really fun work that we get to do.
Shaanon Cohney: Yeah, continuing on that kind of thread, one thing I think I’d really like to see is the pipeline become a little better for people. In particular, I think things like the Public Interest Technology University Network is a good start. But I’d like to see a lot more academics get involved in showing their students that this is a pathway that they could follow and potentially more professors who are also involved in doing this kind of research.
And there are already a few including a couple of Penn and a couple at other institutions where I’ve been. But one thing I’d really want for the field is for there to be more of that. And places that kind of respect academics who spend some of their time not necessarily producing more academic works, although that’s a really good thing to be doing, but who also spend a fair bit of time both communicating it and turning it into something that’s usable for the general public. So whether that be policy briefings or blog posts that are accessible to policymakers and the public, or whether that’s even changing research direction a little. And that’s something that I’ve seen particularly in my field of security and cryptography is there’s been quite a recent shift towards considering actually developing research and technologies for marginalized groups.
So things like– a really nice example is Callisto, which is a technological platform that attempts to help survivors of sexual assaults and harassment engage in a reporting process that empowers them. So using cryptography to make sure that they control the flow of information around any reporting they do is something that’s been really supported by academic research that created the cryptography for this platform.
And so that’s something I would like to see more young people doing is thinking up ways, whether it’s within academic research or outside academic research, to use an understanding both of social issues and of technical capabilities to develop these technologies and to promote their use. And in particular, in my career, one thing that I care a lot about is finding students who are interested in this and developing infrastructure for students who are interested to actually engage in this more readily, whether that’s classes targeted towards public interest technology, research opportunities, or career guidance.
Richard Ling: Awesome. So I am really excited about the direction of the renewable energy industry. And if I can convince even one person in this call who wasn’t formerly interested to want to join the renewable energy industry, that would be fantastic. Because when I was a student at Penn, I was involved with a lot of the research side of it and stuff that is maybe really cutting edge but not really practically implementable.
But in my current career, it’s more like the proven edge, which, yeah, like proven technologies, but also somewhat cutting edge. And I’m excited because the renewable energy industry, the goal is we want to get carbon neutral as quickly as possible and prove that renewable energy and electrification is the superior technology.
So there are a bunch of trends that anyone interested can hop into as a career, if you’re interested, everything from mass electrification of vehicles, EV charging to electric vehicles, companies like ChargePoint, Tesla, Volta, those kind of companies. Yeah, and on the other side there are companies that are deploying massive amounts of renewable energy across the world, like Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners or Hannon Armstrong Infrastructure. Those companies are developing multi-megawatt scales of solar, wind, and hydro. And that’s really the backbone of our renewable energy industry.
And something that is a growing trend that most people aren’t too aware of is that decarbonization is actually permeating through every step of the supply chain. So things like the materials we use are becoming more green, if you want to say it that way. For example, Nike uses is increasingly using recyclable materials in their shoes. And Adidas is following as well. And companies like DeepGreen Materials is developing new ways to produce electric vehicle batteries with more sustainable methods. Companies like Li-Cycle are recycling lithium-ion batteries.
So every part of the supply chain is undergoing this massive transformation. And if you’re looking for a career in this, there is so many places to get involved. And I’m just really excited about the direction it goes in. And if my career can help in any way– actually, the part of the question about where I see my career, I don’t actually have a good answer to that. Because I don’t really think about my career too much in terms of like, oh, I want to be this role or something.
It’s always been the same for me. If I can do something good and renewable energy, that’s a win-win for me. So that’s what I want to do. And if anyone wants to learn more about this, please, please email me after. I can tell you more. But the renewable energy is fantastic. I love it. And yeah, very excited about its future.
Sophia Tareen: Yeah, so similar to Richard, or Richard’s industry, digital transformation and the government is happening. And it’s happening now. So there’s tons of opportunity. I think the two things that I’m really excited about and I hope to see in the future– the first is I want to see technologists in the policy making room. And I think it’s trending towards that.
It’s not the case right now. And what I mean by that is the delivery of a lot of policies is sometimes thought later down the line. And the delivery team is often the group of technologists. So I work for AdHoc. And the reason it’s called AdHoc is because in 2013, when healthcare.gov was launched, the website crashed. And the Obama administration assembled an ad hoc team of engineers from across the country. So two of those engineers went on to found AdHoc which is where I work.
And from that experience, we saw where this massive policy change happened, the Affordable Care Act. But the actual delivery of the services was thought way down the line. And it was thought in the traditional contracting sense. So bringing technologies into the room, into the policy making conversation early and at the beginning, can help identify trade-offs and help identify alternative paths of implementation.
And I think that’s a really exciting way that we should be thinking about policy making in the future. And I know I said that a challenge for me has been not having a technical background. But I think my experience in political science and public health has been really important in the conversations I have with the VA.
And then the second thing that I’m excited about and I hope to see is a massive shift and increase in diversity in the civic tech space. So I primarily work with white men on my team. And I talk a lot with my organization about increasing the diversity in the rooms that I’m in. So there is the racial and, I think, gender imbalance right now.
And then also, in terms of age, I think last time I checked it was like 7% of the federal workforce is under the age of 35. So super low numbers of young people in the space so, Gen Z and Millennials should be in this space, because digital transformation is really something that we’re aware of and comfortable with. So I think those are the main two things I’m excited about. But I would encourage folks to look into opportunities. Like I said, there’s tons of volunteer opportunities right now.