At the Brigade Pre-Summit on September 28, I interviewed several Brigade leaders from around the world about their experiences. I asked them questions about what advice they'd give to newbies and what advice they wish someone told them before they started their Brigade work.
What advice do you have for someone who's just starting to do civic tech work where they live?
"Not all problems can be solved with technology," said Blaine Price, captain of Code for Hampton Roads. Blaine continued: "All the interesting problems are really people problems. Communication with your partners is critical, if not the most important thing." Understanding the human component of civic tech work was a common theme. Ali Khan of Code for Pakistan said he'd tell new participants: "You're here for other people. You're in this world for other people. Look for opportunities that benefit others. Help us build a better world. A better society."
Blaine Price also mentioned the need for keeping the end user in mind: "It’s critical to confirm that a problem exists before spending a lot of time building the solution. We spent months on a project that didn't have an audience."
Other Brigade leaders spoke to managing the stress one can put on their own shoulders doing civic tech work. Code for Birmingham captain Tait Wayland gently reminds us that "Rome wasn't built in a day." Code for Northern Virginia captain Nina Baliga said, "The important thing is to have fun. People get so bogged down in the tech aspect of all of it. Focus on the fact that you're giving back to your community and that you're having impact on the local community." Nina's advice seems quite applicable to all of us doing civic tech work.
What do you wish someone had told you before you started doing work with the Brigade?
Hal Seki of Code for Japan said, "Start small, and take the low-hanging fruit." That sentiment certainly reflects the earlier advice to be patient and thoughtful.
Several captains spoke of the investment of time and energy required to successfully lead a Brigade. Blaine Price from Hampton Roads said, "The more time you spend organizing, the less time you have for messing around in the weeds. Even if you like to spend your time coding or designing, you'll be doing less and less of that as time goes on." Tait Wayland of Code for Birmingham echoed that sentiment emphatically. He wished someone had told him: "How much work would be involved! Also, how many doors open because of this. You find yourself skilled in leadership; Things you didn't expect yourself to be good at."
The leadership aspect is a valuable one. Code for Pakistan's Ali Khan said, "This sort of domain is pretty dynamic. Don't expect steady work. Lots of leadership roles are available to you."
For Nina Baliga of Code for Northern Virginia, the potential for working with government was eye-opening. "I wish I knew more about how governments work with civic hacking groups and the tech world, " she said. "Once I started working more closely with them, I started seeing all the opportunities that were available."