When I learned to code, I was not very good at math and didn’t like it much. I had just started pre-algebra and struggled to make sense of abstract equations and abitrary rules that seemed to serve no purpose and were disconnected from my real world. I didn’t care to discover answers that were already known to imaginary word problems that some textbook writer made up.
If someone had told me that I needed to be good at math to be good at programming, maybe I would have avoided learning to code. Instead, when I was 12 years old, I sat down with a BASIC manual and an Apple II and taught myself to code for fun.
Earlier this week, President Obama called on every American to learn to code. His message is spot on, mostly. Unfortunately, he said “No one’s born a computer scientist, but with a little hard work and some math and science, just about anyone can become one.”
Perhaps some colleges require advanced math for a Computer Science degree, that wasn’t true in 1990 at Brown University. I did end up learning a lot of math and science. After I learned to code and struggled through algebra at school, it all started to click with geometry. Maybe it was the shapes and a connection to art and the real world, maybe computer programming actually helped me understand mathematics. I went on to study Calculus in high school and Linear Algebra in college. At the university level, I studied computer graphics, which does require math. In my first startup, where we invented the software program After Effects, we used math to let artists create video special effects. In both cases, it was mostly geometry and matrix math, which is technically part of linear algebra, but the equations I needed for graphics were no more complex than what I was doing in high school geometry. For most software development, especially these days as a web developer, you would be fine with elementary school math.
Of course everyone should learn math and science — those are just not directly related to most computer programming. Yesterday I recorded a short video message, a public service announcement, to help clarify this for parents and educators.
Working as a Presidential Innovation Fellow has changed my perspective on the US government. I still believe there’s a bureaucracy that threatens to crush us all under its weight, but I no longer see that as immovable or inevitable. There are people working in our government, relentlessly in pursuit of excellence. They are passionate about the need to solve problems and provide opportunities for the American people. Where I work, at the Smithsonian, and at many agencies, the mission is much bigger than that, we are challenged to solve some of key problems facing our world. If we don’t, who will?
The following positions are not for just anyone. You need to have amazing experience as an entrepreneur and some real experience working through and around huge organizations with byzantine rules. You need to be a leader, and maybe you never considered working in government before this moment.
I’ve taken a stab at providing a feel for what each position will need. Why don’t we have better job descriptions posted on the gov website? Because our Federal hiring process sucks. I say these words as a citizen, not as a government employee. Come help these good people make it better.
- Director, Presidential Innovation Fellows: Work with dozens of people like me, position us where we can make the biggest difference, then stand back and watch shit happen. Some of that you may need to untangle, when we ask forgiveness, not permission. Some things will be magical and powerful that you never believed possible. Articulate the strategy. Compromise on the method, not the outcome.
- Director, GovX: You know how hard it is to create great software that solves real problems and gains widespread adoption. You’ve created web and mobile products, as an engineer, product manager, designer, or that role you can’t pin a name on where you just made it happen. Maybe you have run a consulting company or maybe you have an amazing talent for matching the right people with the right problems and won’t be satisfied till you see the best they can come up with. You believe in starting small, creating pilot or prototypes that are validated with real users. You know how to create software that starts with ten users and then scales to 310 million happy customers.
- Communication Specialist You are not just a story teller — you discover amazing untold stories just by talking to people. You know how just a few words can resonate with people, such that they become a phrase that is reused and gain power with the retelling. You have a sense of how to build a brand. You understand that a solution doesn’t really exist until people know it is there.
We need you. Or someone you know. Tweet this, post it on Facebook. There are three people who we need to find, who don’t yet know what they are doing next year.
Unfortunately, the timing is very tight. I encourage you to apply ASAP if you are interested. The Communication job will stop accepting new candidates at 11:59pm Eastern on Wednesday December 4th, 2013.
The PIF and GovX director roles end not much later, Tuesday, December 10th and Wednesday the 11th (also 11:59pm Eastern)
Jason Shen also writes about “3 federal jobs that just might change everything.” You should read his post, the job descriptions and FAQ.