Cross-posted on the Code for America blog.
I’m tapping out these words on an airplane that’s about to take off for Boston. That’s where I’ll be meeting Mari and Amir. They are my teammates, and we work together with the city of Somerville. One of our mandates this year is to build technology to better connect children and families with services they need. We’ve heard how children can miss out on critical services when systems (human, computer, both) don’t talk to each other. We’ve started to meet families in Somerville and hear their stories.
We don’t know yet what the three of us can build that could make a difference. But I know that getting it done will take all three of us. And I don’t mean the skills on our resumes. We’ll need those skills, but they won’t solve challenges for Somerville by themselves. We’ll need a relentless focus on the people we serve, empathy for the obstacles they face, metrics to guide us in our work… and, I think, something else.
The day we got back to San Francisco after our February residency, Amir and I were greeted at the office by a tower of thank you cards, each addressed to someone in Somerville who had taken the time to speak with us. Mari had addressed every one, adding a handwritten note of thanks, and then supervised us throughout the day as we did the same. Mari is a data analyst. Before coming to Code for America, she managed a data warehouse that supported groundbreaking education studies at Stanford. She is also an incredibly thoughtful person. Over this year I’ll learn from her instruction, but also learn from her example: the way she treats each email, meeting, and conversation as a chance to show appreciation for our partners and move the work forward.
When I think about working with Amir, I think back to one particular day in February. We were discussing user research with one of our partners, who had doubts about our plan to talk with teachers early on. Would this build up their expectations? Possibly disappoint them? The conversation could have been tense, but Amir handled it with poise. He explained the importance of placing users at the center of the design process. With Amir setting the tone, a conversation that could have easily become frustrating turned into a productive exchange of ideas. Amir worked as a top designer at a major tech firm before coming to work at Code for America. Any team would jump at a chance to have him based off his design skills alone. But that’s not the main reason I’m glad that Amir is on my team. His calm approach, his direct and compassionate way of talking to anyone about anything makes work feel smooth even at moments when the waters are rough.
Engineering, design, research, and data analysis are crucial to what we do at Code for America, but they are only tools. To be of lasting value, we need to build relationships, not just products, handle difficult conversations as well as difficult datasets. The work takes different temperaments, intuitions, and strengths, which is why I’m grateful to be embarking on it as part of a team of three.