Harvard students partner with U.S. government to address digital skills gaps

Neel Mehta, a senior computer science major at Harvard University, started a fully funded data science and technology internship program in federal agencies.

Government building with greek columns

Recently, I interviewed Neel Mehta, a senior computer science major at Harvard University with a 4.0 GPA. He has interned at Khan Academy, Microsoft, and the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition, he was a technology fellow with Partners in Health. Neel is passionate about civic tech, and there were no good civic tech internship programs around for undergraduates to engage with government, so he started his own Civic Digital Fellowship, a fully funded data science and technology internship program in federal agencies. Here’s our interview:

What is Coding it Forward? Where did you get the idea from?

Mehta: Coding it Forward is a nonprofit that aims to inspire and empower young people to pursue careers using technology for social good. Our community includes about 1,000 young, socially minded technologists from colleges across the country.

The Civic Digital Fellowship, our flagship program, is a fully funded data science and technology internship program in federal agencies. This summer, we’re hosting 14 interns from top schools (including Harvard, MIT, Cornell, and Duke) at the U.S. Census Bureau.

Last fall, I really wanted a civic tech internship, so I turned down internship offers from companies like Facebook and Microsoft to find one. I must have applied to 30 government tech internships — but I realized very quickly that there were no government tech internships that were even close to Silicon Valley in terms of quality. I realized, more generally, that there are no on-ramps for helping young, socially minded technologists get involved with the government.

That was a big problem, so I teamed up with some friends at Harvard, Athena Kan and Chris Kuang, to start Coding it Forward so we could build a community of young people passionate about using technology for social good. And because I still couldn’t find a good government tech internship, I decided to start my own. I connected with Jeff Meisel, the CMO of the Census Bureau, and was pleasantly surprised that he was interested in bringing tech interns to the Census Bureau. In March we decided to launch the Civic Digital Fellowship to bring top-notch tech students to work on impactful, challenging technical projects in the Census Bureau. By May, we had finalized funding and chosen our fellows, and in June they walked in the doors of the Census Bureau.

It’s important to note that we wanted this fellowship to be far more than just installing Microsoft SharePoint on government computers. We wanted to attract the best students away from Silicon Valley, and we wanted the opportunity to be accessible to all. So we ensured that our fellows would get top-notch mentors, some of whom are C-level executives, as well as free housing and a stipend.

How many fellows have you had? What government agencies are you working with? What types of projects do they work on?

Mehta: In our inaugural cohort of Civic Digital Fellows, we have 14 technology interns from top schools, including Harvard, MIT, Cornell, and Duke. We chose those 14 out of a pool of 226 applicants, making the acceptance rate about 6%. They have a wide range of backgrounds, from software engineering and data science to UX design and product management. And we’re very happy with our diversity: Over half our fellows are female, and the fellows go to school on both coasts and many places in between.

This summer, we’re just working with the US Census Bureau as a pilot, but we’re in talks with agencies including the EPA, IRS, VA, and State, to name a few, to host fellows for next summer.

Our interns’ projects this summer include building a “Khan Academy”-esque training platform to teach citizens how to use census data, using machine learning to protect sensitive personal data, increasing the efficiency of our economic surveys, and developing new data tools for small businesses and congressional staffers, to name just a few projects.

What is your selection process? Is it only for undergrads at Harvard, or are you opening it up to other schools?

Mehta: Undergrads and grad students from all schools are welcome to apply for the Civic Digital Fellowship! Our fellows go to school across the country (we had students from over 80 schools apply, as well), and we have a good mix of undergrads and grad students in our inaugural cohort.

We strongly believe that anyone can have a good idea and that we need all hands on deck to help bring the government into the digital age. That’s why we made our selection process meritocratic, where anyone from any school could apply with just the click of a button. In my experience, government internships tend to be excessively reliant on networking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent in applications to governments or NGOs, only to hear absolutely nothing back because I didn’t know anyone on the inside. So we publicized the fellowship broadly to technology student networks across the country and let anyone apply and get their application read, no matter who they did or didn’t know.

What are you plans for sustaining Coding it Forward post Harvard graduation? Essentially, what is the fiscal model? Do you know about LearnUp, which was supported by LinkedIn and acquired by ManPower?

Mehta: I’ll be graduating in May, so I’m glad that we are already executing on a plan to bring new young people into leadership roles as the older ones — like me — retire. We plan to keep Coding it Forward a student-run nonprofit, and I think with such a large and excited community, we’ll have no trouble sustaining the work we’re doing after I graduate.

Financially speaking, we’ve had to be very scrappy, since we had exactly zero dollars to spend while we were starting up the fellowship. The Census Bureau found money in their budget to host the interns, and we imagine that other agencies that join in the future will provide their own funding. So we’re still able to operate on a tight budget, although we’ve been fortunate to get some funding from the Shuttleworth Foundation and Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

I was really impressed to read about LearnUp and ManPower. Like LearnUp and ManPower, Coding it Forward looks to help young people find entry-level positions (and beyond!) in highly impactful places. Given how globalized and digitized our economy has become, job training (and re-training) programs for new employees is absolutely essential. I think the work you’re doing is a critical part of creating a skilled, well-trained American workforce for the new economy, so thank you for your great work.

What advice would you give to current and future college students seeking to leverage their technical skills to improve public services?

Mehta: Government tech is certainly a difficult field to break into; that’s why we started Coding it Forward, after all. I’d advise young people to start local. Cities and local governments are among the most innovative and fastest-moving of all governments, and they really need your help. Find local city councilors or state representatives and help them use software to connect better with their constituents or run their operations more effectively.

Another great place to start is your college or university. They’re often bogged down by legacy technology, just as governments are, and there are plenty of opportunities for students to make software that helps out their college and their fellow students. For instance, I founded the Harvard Open Data Project at Harvard to create the university’s first open data catalog, and some students a few years ago created a new version of the online course catalog that students use far more than the school’s old standard one.

Per your research, what are some major workforce, human capital challenges are governments facing? For example, U.S. government agencies are about to face significant turnover as the baby boomers are seeking to retire. How are you accounting for and strategizing around this?

Mehta: I talked with Seamus Kraft, the founder of the OpenGov Foundation, about this, and he told me about the problem of the “graying of government.” The federal government has a severe shortage of workers under age 30. I can imagine this problem is pronounced among technical roles, since technologists have such lucrative career opportunities in Silicon Valley that government jobs often aren’t even on their radar. And without young people, the federal workforce doesn’t have a future, and without technologists, they’re going to keep falling further and further behind. When healthcare.gov rolled out in 2013, for instance, the site was way over budget, behind schedule, and prone to crashes. That could have put people’s lives in jeopardy. So it’s absolutely essential that young and technically minded people come to the government. That’s what we’re trying to target with the Civic Digital Fellowship.

Another big problem I see is that people have just lost faith in the government’s ability to make positive societal change. It’s hard to look at the gridlock in Congress and not get frustrated. And when people don’t believe in government anymore, they disengage, and when they disengage, government just falls further behind, perpetuating that vicious cycle. Joe Biden gave a speech at Harvard that really resonated with me, which said something along the lines of “disengaging with the system won’t protect you from the ill effects of it.” That’s why we have an illustrious set of mentors, such as the former deputy CTO of the U.S., who have been using technology to make real improvements to American society. We also highlight civic tech leaders across the country on the Coding it Forward blog. My hope is that we can show young people the kind of impact you can make by working to improve the system, and thus get people to engage.

What are some of the workforce policies that are enabling government workforce augmentation, like the Civic Digital Fellowship, Presidential Innovation Fellows, and CyberCorps?

Mehta: I think policies like President Obama’s TALENT Act, which codified the Presidential Innovation Fellows, are amazing, and we need more of that.

Even more than policies, the federal government’s attitude is critical to bringing young and technical talent to the workforce. I’ve been happy to see that the Census Bureau has been so supportive of the Presidential Innovation Fellows and the Civic Digital Fellows, giving us lots of authority and human and financial capital to make the change we want to see. I’m excited that federal agencies are so motivated to bring in technical talent, because all the policy in the world won’t be that effective unless the agencies are bought in.

Recently, I co-authored a paper on the global government skills crisis with my IBM colleagues. We stressed the importance of ecosystem building. How is Coding it Forward building and strengthening the ecosystem of stakeholders vested in the global workforce crisis?

Mehta: One very important stakeholder group — students — has historically been left out of the fight against the global workforce crisis. Students are particularly important because they are the future of our global workforce, so it’s important to hear their needs and get them excited. For instance, students these days want impactful projects; you can’t just tell them to fetch coffee and hope they’ll be excited to join your workforce. The federal government needs to be talking to students to understand their needs, because only then can we really build a robust and excited workforce of the future.

That’s why the Civic Digital Fellowship is student-led and gets so much input from students. Our fellows feel real ownership of their experience, and that will motivate them, I hope, to join the federal workforce in the future. The fellowship wouldn’t have been possible without the help of mentors and partners in federal agencies, universities, and nonprofits. I’d like to think that this is the future of the ecosystem you were talking about – not siloes hoping people will talk to each other, but a highly collaborative effort bringing together multiple stakeholders.

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