From non-profits to producing tech conferences, Jennifer Pahlka talks about creating Code For America.

By Jennifer Pahlka (Founder & Executive Director, Code For America)

Before I started Code for America, I spent my career around startups. First it was game developers, small teams trying to make hits in a tough business. Then, when I started working on the Web 2.0 events, it was web startups during times of enormous opportunity and investment.

All those fifteen years (yargh, was it really that long?) I never seriously considered doing a startup myself. Not because I didn’t think I was capable (not sure I ever gave it that much thought) but because I never had that spark of inspiration and the conviction that an idea I had needed be to brought into the world.

Then in 2008, I got to see how government works. And the contrast with the startup world was pretty stark. I became passionate about the notion that government could work so much better if it could leverage the principles and values of the web. Later, Tim O’Reilly expressed this idea more accurately and meaningfully: that government should function as a platform.

At first, I figured the way to make that happen was to do what I’d always done: produce conferences. But then that idea, the one that needed to be brought into the world, hit me. There are so many people in world who, given the chance, would love to use their skills to fix government. Let them do it as a service year program, and structure it in such a way that it has impact on the institution long after they are gone.

That insight, and the insight that these ideas could take root in city governments quickly and visibly, was the genesis of Code for America. In 2009, I wrapped up my final Web 2.0 Expo in New York City and put up a simple web page that asking city governments around the world apply for this program. I think the ask should have read “Who is crazy enough to do this?” Many were, and many more developers and designers were crazy enough to apply to the fellowship.

Today, we accept less than 5% of the people who apply to Code for America, making it one of the most competitive programs out there.

What I quickly realized about the opportunity I was looking at was that it wasn’t just about government as a platform, though this concept is a very powerful mechanism for change. And it’s not just an opportunity to bring technology into government.

It’s also about the way startups think about problems, particularly the approaches outlined in Eric Ries’s book The Lean Startup. Government technology processes are mind-boggling long and complicated. A procurement process alone is typically two years, and that doesn’t account for the time required to actually build the product. By that math, you can pretty much guarantee that all the technology government acquires is out of date by the time it sees the light of day. If there’s one thing government needs desperately, it’s the ability to quickly try something, pivot when necessary, and build complex systems by starting with simple systems that work and evolving from there, not the other way around.

Code for America is a startup (a non-profit startup, but a startup for sure). But within our umbrella, we are also made of startups. Each team that partners with a city government is a startup that’s both typical and unique. It’s typical in that its people represent the skill sets most startups have, a product or service they’re trying to build, and a work ethic that involve intense brainstorms, long hours, and even the classic foozball and ping pong in our basement.

It’s completely unique in that it works in the context of the bureaucracy of a City Hall, and that its users aren’t potential customers, they are the citizens of the city, and of every city. (Our apps are open source, and spread from city to city as they are built.) To the extent that working in that context makes all of challenges of doing a startup that much harder, it also makes them more fun, and as each of the fellows will tell you, more meaningful.

Now we’re also in the business of helping for-profit startups build sustainable businesses through the Code for America accelerator. 235 amazing startups applied to the program, and we’ll be announcing the few we’ve chosen to go through the program in a few weeks. But whether it’s the accelerator, the fellowship, or just getting involved in civic hacking, the one thing we know is that the government is suddenly a great place for entrepreneurs, and making our government work is an incredibly satisfying way that women (and men) with skills and drive can do well while doing good.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Jennifer Pahlka is the founder and executive director of Code for America, which works with talented web professionals and cities around the country to promote public service and reboot government. She spent eight years at CMP Media. She ran the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 events for TechWeb, in conjunction with O’Reilly Media, and co-chaired the Web 2.0 Expo. She is a graduate of Yale University and lives in Oakland, California with her daughter and eight chickens. Follow her on Twitter at @pahlkadot.