Catherine Bracy, a brief profile

I think I started following Catherine on twitter due to a “friend of a friend” kind of introduction. I recently interviewed Catherine for an Infoworld article on Code for America. We talked about a number of other issues and about her background, in particular. I felt that while this material didn’t make sense for the article, it might make sense to start doing profiles on people that I interview beyond the topic at hand.

Brief History Catherine grew up in Michigan and eventually made her way to Chicago for a short time before moving to San Francisco. Her impressive educational background includes a BA in communication from Boston College and some coursework in public policy from the University of Texas. She worked for the Knight Foundation before moving to Chicago to help with the 2012 Obama for America campaign’s technology projects. Following the campaign she moved to San Francisco and then took a job at Code for America as the International Program Manager. You can find out more about her work at CfA in the Infoworld Article.

Below you will find a brief interview with Catherine about her life, the Obama Campaign and how Code for America is changing our lives for the better.

- Catherine is not a software developer, so asked her what it is like to work in the technology field as a Program Manager.

“My background is in tech policy and I spent 8 years working in academia. I want to understand the impact technology has on people’s lives rather than how it’s built. I do try and understand how the system is built to the extent it affects how people interact with it. I do care about understanding how things work and I would like to become proficient in a programming language, but to me what is important is what people see on their screen and how they interact with it."

- What it was like working with developers, specifically?

"Sometimes what is frustrating is the lack of common language and this is where I want to understand more. Developers talk about the way technology works. I don't understand all of the jargon and I don't know how the backend works. Sometimes things go past me. However, I've been fortunate to work with developers who really care about public policy so this doesn't necessarily apply to them.“

- What kind of challenges do you see in working with applying technology in the public policy space?

“There are some folks in the technology community that are removed from the needs of people who are not like them. They don't always seem to have a commitment to the public good. I would like to see a larger commitment from the technology community as a whole to public service.”

- Why didn't you go into the private sector and make fabulous amounts of money?

“Maybe this is just me trying to play it safe personally but I don't have any experience working for a company that is driven by the bottom line. I don't know how that would work. I don't know if I'd know how to work within that environment. It is not that I have some aversion to the private sector but for me personally I'm attracted to mission driven organizations.”

- I got the idea for the article while noticing some of Catherine’s tweets about the whole Adria Richards/Pycon affair. There has been a lot of talk about how to attract or not drive away women in the technology fields. In this context, I asked Catherine what it is like being a woman in technology.

“This is a really hard one and I don't know that I've ever articulated it before so I want to be careful what I say. I'm not just a woman in the tech industry, I'm a woman of color in the tech industry which adds even more complexity. But, I don't like to think of myself that way. I think of myself as a civic technologist and I like to think that is the identity that defines me professionally. While I don't want to think of myself as ‘the brown girl’ that works in technology and speaks out on these issues, I do think it is important that we be aware, this isn't a diverse field and in order for there to be real innovation, you have to be hearing from everyone. I would like to see and I have seen a lot of white men making the same arguments. I think a lot of people in this industry understand that innovation comes from having a diversity of ideas at the table and that means having people from all walks of life to talk about what their experiences are and thats where good ideas are going to come from. I worry for the future of Silicon Valley and the tech industry if they are not getting those range of ideas--and I've written about this--the new companies that are starting, I don't see where the new Google is going to come from or how these really groundbreaking companies are going to keep being created without diversifying the industry as a whole. I think that means gender, ethnic diversity and geographic diversity. The fact that the tech industry pulls so hard from Stanford is a problem. It is easy to simplify diversity to mean race and gender. Obviously those are the really sensitive issues because those are where the flashpoints happen like we saw with Adria but I think there are other forms of diversity that are just as important.“

- How do we attract more women to go into technology? How do we attract a larger more diverse group of people to go into technology?

“It is obviously a long-term problem that requires a long-term commitment from people in the industry. That’s funding programs like code2040 and blackgirlscode and girlswhocode that are really creating a pipeline for women and minorities. It also means thinking about other places in the country as technology centers and that is starting to happen a lot more. Making it so that you don't have to move to San Francisco if you want to start a company or go to Stanford. Making it so that it is as easy to come out of a community college or a state university in the middle of the country and start a company there. Those are long term problems and it is hard to think of those solutions when the problem is so present. I think we're going to be in a much better place in the next 5-10 years. I'm 100% hopeful about the direction that we are moving.“ So, then how shouldn't we go about attracting women into technology? “I have very ambivalent feelings about quotas and headcount. Just thinking about headcount and saying ‘if I have enough women in the company then I don't have to worry about this issue anymore’ is not the right way to think about it. I don't think it does any favors to the industry or to women. You don't want to think that you got hired to fill someone's diversity quota.“

- You were involved in the Obama Campaign's technology project. How did you get involved in that?

“I worked for the Knight Foundation for a year before the campaign and I was working on the Knight News Challenge, for which Harper Reed was a judge. As the grant competition was wrapping up, Harper was being hired onto the campaign as CTO and he asked me if I wanted to come join the campaign. I thought about it for about 30 seconds, dropped everything in my life and moved to Chicago. “

- So why did you get involved? What were the considerations in that 30 seconds?

“This is the President of the United States and I believe in him more than any politician that I’ll ever believe in in my entire life. There was no question about whether I should take this opportunity. So that meant dropping out of grad school, blowing all my savings, moving again after I’d just moved 10 months prior and basically upending my life for 18 months.“

- You recently joined Code for America, why?

“I was thinking about what I wanted to do after the campaign and the things I really cared about and where I can make the most difference. I kept coming back to Code for America and the mission that drives Code for America. I really think there is an opportunity for technology to change the way that democracy functions“...

- You expressed frustration with silicoln valley’s lack of motivation to participate. What kind of response did you get?

“Surprisingly it was really positive which made me question that maybe I had gotten it wrong because there seem to be so many people out here that feel the same way. I honestly didn’t think I’d get the amount of feedback that I got and I didn’t think it would be that positive. I thought it would be more like ‘how dare you’ and it was all like ‘yes I’m glad, this is exactly what I was thinking’. I really do think there’s a lot of good taking root here and it is one of the reasons that I want to make my home here--I believe in changing stuff from the inside. I could have lived anywhere but I chose to be here. I chose to be in San Francisco before I decided I was going to work for Code for America. I do think there is a good energy here and it is a really exciting time to be here and working on these kinds of issues. “

- California is big, somewhat insular and things are a lot different than other parts of the country let alone the world. What are the challenges, if any in running Code for America from California?

“For me personally doing the international stuff it adds a significant amount of travel time. it is not as easy as traveling from the east coast for sure. I can’t speak for Jen [Pahlka] or what she was thinking at the time, but we straddle two worlds (public service and technology) so it makes sense to be in a place where the newest ideas in tech are always present. Our mission is so public service focused but we want to be in and of the technology industry. So being here as opposed to DC, for example, gives us a really interesting perspective on the work that we’re doing. What we want to do is bring the best practices of the private sector to government and so we can’t do that if we aren’t in the middle of what is going on in the private sector.“

- Any regrets? What would you have done differently in Obama for America and Code for America?

“I’m not far enough along in CfA to have any regrets yet. For OfA, I was running the technology office in San Francisco where my role was to recruit volunteer technologists to build tools for the campaign. We spent basically 8 months from when we opened the office until a few weeks before election day writing code and sending it back to Chicago for deployment. near the end some of our volunteers went out to the field and worked directly with the states. they had an amazing experience in the states that was really valuable for both them and the state staff. I wish we had done that earlier--having volunteers work in the states on a more decentralized basis rather than having them all work from San Francisco. This reflects the frustration that I expressed earlier when I said I wished more technologists were getting involved in public service. We had a really good response from people who really wanted to help out on the campaign. We cloistered them off from the grassroots organizing work that was happening. that’s a criticism of myself. I should have been thinking about how to get technologists connected to the field program so they were bridging the gap between offline organizing and civic engagement technology. That is one regret I have from the campaign.“

 

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