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May 12, 2016, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The government’s 18F, with its manageable hours and public service mission, is attracting former journalists

18F works with various federal agencies to improve their digital presences.

As a reporter at The Sunlight Foundation, Lindsay Young covered campaign finance and lobbying data. During her five years working at the foundation, she learned to code and began building apps and tools to make the data more accessible.

But after years of working from the outside to increase transparency in campaign finance, Young decided in 2014 to try to improve the system from the inside. She joined 18F, the startup-minded organization within the U.S. government that works with various federal agencies to improve their digital presences.

“At Sunlight, I would build something, go to the government and say, ‘You can do this better. Please can you build something like this?’ They would come back and be well-intentioned, but be like, ‘I don’t know. Shrug,'” Young recalled. “Now that I’m inside, I’m working with people who can make those kinds of changes, or sometimes I can make the change myself. It’s really rewarding to have that middle step removed and directly work on the things I care about.”

At 18F, Young works with the Federal Election Commission. She led the team that developed the FEC’s first public API, which made it easier for users to search the FEC’s database for candidates and donors.

When 18F launched in March 2014, it had 15 employees. Today, nearly 200 people work for the organization, including former journalists from outlets like The New York Times, Time Inc., and NPR. I counted more than twenty staffers on 18F’s team page who had journalism backgrounds, and a journalism group in 18F’s Slack has 15 participants — though not all of them have worked in news.

18F has “reached a critical mass of journalists,” said Melody Kramer, who joined 18F’s outreach team from NPR last year. (She’s also a former visiting Nieman fellow.)

“Once you hit that critical mass, people think: That’s an option for me as well,” she said. “People go into journalism as a service, and this is a mission-driven organization that works publicly and openly and adheres to the practices of journalism. I think it’s a natural fit. Newsrooms are a grind; you have to embrace the lifestyle of working in news, and not everybody wants to or is able to do that. This is a nice way to work in a mission-driven environment where there is an end time to your work every day.”

Many of the people who use the FEC tools that Young built are journalists. She’s turned to them for feedback and kept them in mind as the products were developed.

“When we’re talking about what kind of things to prioritize, or what views or searches are most useful, I know the kind of search you’d need to do if you wanted to do a story on X or Y,” she said.

While much of the work at 18F has the same public service appeal as journalism, the way the organization approaches that work is different than how newsrooms operate, said 18F developer Jacob Harris, a former New York Times developer who spent nine years at the paper.

18F, for example, uses agile software development, a philosophy that encourages collaboration and iteration. While many newsrooms are adopting agile practices, there often isn’t the time or resources to fully use the methodology. Harris said his time at 18F has allowed him to become fully immersed in an agile development environment.

“We joke that we do something called ‘newsroom agile’ though, in a sense it is agile, but there are certain things we don’t have time for [in newsrooms]: user interviews or certain other things like a brief intro discovery sprint or a post-mortem,” Harris said. “I felt like I wanted more experience with that part of the process, and there’s experts on that here. That’s one of the things I’ve learned a lot from: A more formal agile process and becoming a better developer that way.”

The open nature of 18F’s work is another change from working in a newsroom, Harris said. When news orgs are working on big interactives, they often don’t want to tip their hand before publication, so all the work is private. Meanwhile, all of 18F’s work is open source and public. The organization launches products before they’re perfect and solicits feedback from the public throughout the development process.

“It’s made my code better because I feel as if I can’t take some shortcuts,” Harris said. “I used to say, ‘I’ll clean this up later,’ or, ‘If we ever open source this, I’ll go back and fix this stuff.’ Now, though, if I’m working on something, I know it’s going to be right there on GitHub and somebody might download it.”

Another appeal of 18F is the flexible work environment. Employees can work remotely from anywhere in the United States. That’s a difficult proposition in journalism, when many news organizations, especially digital outlets, are clustered in New York and Washington.

Appointments to 18F are limited to two years, with the option to be renewed for another two years. Because her time at 18F is finite, Kramer says she views it as a way to gain experience outside of news before returning to public media or journalism in some capacity. The short appointments also offers former newsroom coders room for advancement that they might not have had in a traditional newsroom.

Similarly, because 18F works with agencies throughout the government, there are opportunities for 18F employees to continue working for the federal government even when their time at 18F is done.

“When I worked in journalism, I felt there was not much of a career path once I reached a [certain] point,” Harris said. “If I were a conventional reporter, I could have tried for a different desk. But the path up for developers in the newsroom is usually very limited. There was a lot of obfuscation, where you would basically wait for some sort of seismic shakeup on the masthead that might cause some realignment or promotion. That was the only path for advancement if you wanted to stay within the newsroom.”

Harris said it’s too soon to say what exactly he’ll do when his time at 18F is up, but for now he said he’s enjoying the improved work-life balance that has come from working for the government, along with the group’s philosophy of open communication for a workforce spread throughout the country.

“We have an easy way to collaborate with each other remotely, but the firm boundaries on weekends and things like that help to prevent burnout and make sure that everyone has the chance to contribute,” he said. “It’s not just the loudest voices in the room.”

Photo by 18F deputy executive directory Hillary Hartley used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 12, 2016, 10 a.m.
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