Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling members across the 18F team. We’re starting with Elaine Kamlley, who joined 18F in November of 2014. Elaine is both a front-end developer and a member of our Outreach Team. Elaine also leads an internal diversity initiative that is currently conducting interviews inside and outside of 18F. In this interview, we talk to Elaine about pathways to 18F, how technology can help communities, and what it was like to work with the Department of the Treasury on a DATA Act prototype.
Melody Kramer: Last summer, 20 teenagers from the State Department’s TechGirls exchange program spent the day at 18F. You were one of the coordinators and leaders of their visit. What did you learn from that experience?
Elaine Kamlley: We’ve hosted many guests at 18F, but one of my favorites was the TechGirls. They came at the end of their three weeks in the U.S., so they had already visited tech companies in Washington D.C. and learned a lot about how technical product teams build out software.
We hosted a panel for them — and they came armed with really, really good questions about failure and working on agile teams and how to ensure that products were delivered in a timely fashion.
I wanted to make sure that the panel contained the full breadth of roles at 18F. For me, what is important for young people to see is that technology can encompass multiple ranges of talent.
MK: Say more about that.
EK: Technology roles include engineers and developers, but also folks who think about design and UX as well as the people who write the words on those websites.
MK: How do you decide who should participate in a panel or demonstration?
EK: I first try to understand who is coming to visit us, and what they’re looking to learn during their visit, so I can determine what kinds of roles should be present.
It’s really important for our guests to learn that 18F is made up by various people from all walks and backgrounds. Why is that important to me? I want folks to be able to see themselves playing a role in building digital services for the public. Representation is so crucial.
There have been various research studies saying diversity is good for businesses and good for products and increases profit. While that is a great thing to highlight, what is also incredible about creating and showing diverse teams is that you get to see each person’s individual perspectives reflected in the work that they do.
MK: You’re a developer, diversity lead, and on the Outreach Team at 18F. That’s a lot of hats to wear. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you were initially introduced to technology and civic engagement.
EK: I was working as a campaign director for Filipino Advocates for Justice in Union City, CA. I worked on statewide propositions, and we were trying to reach Filipinos to get the word out about various laws that could be passed. I organized phone banks and door-to-door campaigns and messaging, and what really helped me out was using technology — which was so crucial in finding our community we needed to reach for the campaign. It made our outreach much more efficient.
At the same time, the groups I worked in didn’t know much about the technologies themselves. We couldn’t build our own tools because we weren’t fluent in code. I realized there was a gap between the communities that needed to be served and the technology that would help us.
I should say this: I don’t come from a background in technology or coding. I was a history major in college. But through that experience, I saw an opportunity to fill a gap in technology needs, and I threw myself into trying to understand what was available to groups that didn’t have time, money, or an understanding of technology.
MK: What was your next step after that?
EK: When I moved to New York City, I started working at StoryCorps, the audio storytelling initiative. StoryCorps had this philosophy that everyone’s story mattered and everyone had a story that needed to be told.
My role was making sure the technical needs of recording stories were met in the booths that we set up around the U.S.. Creating a safe space for folks to share their stories required a lot of technical skills, and helped ensure that those stories could be told.
MK: I imagine StoryCorps also helped you learn how to talk to just about anyone.
EK: I think StoryCorps helped me be more open to understand someone else’s story.
MK: And at some point, you left StoryCorps to go to a coding bootcamp called Code for Progress, which brings people of color and women into the coding workforce. Why did you decide on a coding bootcamp?
EK: I wanted to take my technical skills further. When I was an organizer, I learned about the importance of technology, and at StoryCorps, I worked with technology, but from the logistics side.
I wanted to know how to build something that is so much bigger than me. I think it’s imperative and important that people who come from various walks of life, should be a part of building the new digital government. While 18F has a very thorough user research model, I do recognize the value of lived experiences and that having multiple communities and backgrounds represented at 18F provides a deeper intuition and empathy of multiple users. This includes folks of different ethnicities, gender, sexuality, as well as professional background like having folks from Silicon Valley, non profit, government, and so on. We all should be here.
MK: What has been the most impactful project you’ve worked on at 18F?
EK: I think the most impactful project was being a part of the DATA Act pilot team. I helped set up the backend for a prototype and validate the data schema. I also supported the Department of the Treasury in making sure their records retention compliance was met.
The prototype really helped influence how the Department of the Treasury will build out their larger tool.
MK: In addition to your coding work at 18F, you do quite a bit to ensure that 18F teams reflect the people of the United States.
EK: We’re building products that serve the American public. In order to do that work well, we need to have a team that reflects a lot of communities that live in the United States.
Tech has a reputation as not being so diverse, and I’m lucky to work at an organization that really is trying to make diversity a priority.
EK: I work on a team of 18F staff across various roles — engineers, designers, recruiters, outreach members. We recently conducted interviews with 30 individuals who are traditionally marginalized in technology — people of color, women of color, LGBT people, and women.
In order for us to do quality work around diversity and inclusion, we wanted to understand what the barriers to entry were, and we wanted to listen first. The listening tour covered recruiting, hiring, what makes people feel welcome, job descriptions, and what they’re looking for so they can thrive.
We’re excited about the findings, and we’re excited about organizing the research in the coming months.
MK: What are you doing in the coming months?
EK: We’re releasing our findings and talking about what 18F can learn to build a more inclusive environment.
MK: I imagine other organizations can also learn from this.
Yes, and we really believe in making our findings public. It’s important for us to be transparent.
MK: You’re a developer and a fierce advocate for diversity. What are the next steps for you?
EK: I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I know that being seen as a developer is really important, but I also want to be seen in this hybrid role — where I can write and produce code, and at the same time, really focus on diversity and inclusion, which are incredibly important.
I want to leave this job as someone who is seen as a developer and someone who is trying to create space for different types of people. Having more diverse staff literally means you’re looking for more types of people, if people tend to look for people like themselves.
I’m a developer who actively works towards diversity and inclusion. It isn’t separate.