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Jacob Harris: From big data journalism to micro-purchase platforms

Profile photo for Jabob Harris.
Jacob Harris, 18F team member

All throughout the summer, we’ll be profiling members across the 18F team. Jacob Harris joined 18F in May of 2015 after nine years working as a developer at The New York Times. He currently works on the Micro-purchase Platform, which enables vendors to place bids on opportunities to deliver open source code that costs $3,500 or less.

Melody Kramer: What were you doing before you joined 18F?

Jacob Harris: I came to 18F from the New York Times. I’m not really a traditional journalist but more of a developer who worked on news-related projects in the newsroom. You can say I’m a developer who has done acts of journalism. I was at the Times for nine years, and worked on the code behind big data journalism stories like elections and the Olympics, and also whimsical projects like a bot that found haiku in news stories and the software that ran the @nytimes Twitter account.

MK: How did you find out about 18F?

JH: I was looking for new challenges, because I felt like I had plateaued at the Times. I live in Washington D.C. and while I was able to telework, I would need to commute to New York more frequently than I was able to. I didn’t want to do that. I needed flexibility in my schedule, and I was looking for a good place that took remote work to a higher level. I also was feeling a bit burned out on journalism and looking to try something else.

I found out about 18F through a colleague, who thought I might be interested in the organization.

MK: Why did you decide to join 18F?

JH: I will be honest that I wasn’t sure at first if I wanted to go work for the government. It’s not a common path to go next from journalism or software development. But I wanted to work for a place that was dedicated to the greater good and had high morale driven by its mission. I also appreciated the strong support for a distributed workforce and flexible schedules and the mandate to work in the open from day one.

MK: What have you worked on so far?

JH: I started on the MyUSA team, then worked for a brief time helping the U.S. Digital Service team at the VA, but lately I’ve been working on the Micro-purchase Marketplace platform, which enables vendors to bid on software development tasks that are limited to $3,500 or less. It’s a new way to shake up acquisitions and procurement, which are two topics I never would have imagined I would find interesting before joining the government. But they’re really, really interesting — and this project continues to surprise us.

MK: What have you been doing for the project?

JH: I’ve been helping grow the platform from its earlier versions, adding new features and cleaning up code. In a newsroom, expediency often trumps maintainability, and we often are focused on the short-term deadlines instead of long-term care. It’s been really interesting to work on this project with more traditional developers who are rigorous about getting it right the first time and building it for the future. And because it’s open source and all of our code is visible, I try to make the best code I can. (Related coverage.)

MK: Have there been any challenges on the project?

JH: There haven’t been challenges as much as surprising things. The users of the platform tend to surprise us and do things that we don’t expect. For example, the first micro-purchase experimental ended with a winning bid of $1, and we’ve seen that happen a few other times. We’ve also seen bidding wars between bots, and we’ve had cases where a user submitted a pull request while the auction was still running and didn’t actually bid.

The thing I like most about the micro-purchase experiment is that it’s giving us an avenue to find developers who wouldn’t normally be government contractors. Usually the same pool of vendors competes for contracts because they know the system well, all of which doesn’t create as much competition as there could be — particularly for smaller projects like these.

We’re trying to make it as frictionless as possible for new developers who have never worked for the government before to build things for their government and get paid for their work in open source, which is really cool.

It’s not a perfect system yet, and vendors still have to jump through some hoops, but we’ve tried to reduce as many obstacles as we can to let people in government purchase software in the same way they can currently buy pens or other things with their purchase cards.

It’s also forced us to think rigorously about each task we want to micropurchase — how do we make it small and how do we describe it so it’s easy for a developer to complete in a few days and it’s clear what counts as acceptable work? We’re now thinking about how would we handle possibilities beyond software. It’s easier to think of requirements that must be fulfilled with software; it’s trickier when you’re asking someone to do something that’s more design-oriented.

MK: What was most surprising to you about joining 18F and the federal government?

JH: I think what’s been really fascinating is the cross-section of people here. As much as I love journalism, I tend to always talk to the same people at conferences and on Twitter.

It’s been great to meet people at 18F from small startups and big companies like Google or from other civic-minded organizations like the Sunlight Foundation or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I love learning about software development and other things from people who are from totally different worlds from my own.

MK: What do you hope to take with you?

JH: I think I’ve learned how to be a better programmer and also how to be a better collaborator. I’ve always been used to having a small team and an informal process.

But in the government, there are legal constraints that we must operate under and we have to document everything much better — and that’s made me a stronger programmer. I’m definitely hoping to leave 18F with not just a better idea of how to program, but also how to better manage work and collaborate and work in the public with the public and hopefully for the public.

I’ll also leave with a much better understanding of how government works and how it doesn’t. I always had thought of government as a bit of a black box — I’ve worked with government data, but I was removed from the human processes that shaped it. Now I have a more direct understanding.

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