Recently, I hosted a career exploration panel highlighting career opportunities at the intersection of tech and social impact, including alumni applying their technical skills in government, startup and non-profit organizations. Wonderful insights were shared including a memorable note to “go where you are rare!” One of our panelists, Lauren Lombardo, MPP ’21, was unable to join us, but has generously agreed to answer a few questions discussing her career journey, which has led her to the heart of the American government.
I’m a Senior Policy Analyst at the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, supporting majority staff. In this role, I work on government technology and cybersecurity policy and staff the Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Information Technology, and Government Innovation. Before starting with House Oversight, I worked in various roles across the public and private sectors, including as a Legislative Assistant for Senator Ben Sasse and as a Senior Data Scientist at Nielsen. I have an undergraduate degree in economics from California State University, Sacramento, and a Master of Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). While at HKS, I consulted several state, local, and federal governments on government modernization and wrote about digital government for the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.
My interest in public tech began with a desire to understand how data and technology could influence policy decisions. I explored this topic while writing my undergraduate economics thesis. Until then, I had almost exclusively worked on political campaigns and local policy issues. My quantitative work on that thesis piqued my interest enough to inspire a transition to data science work in the private sector. My experience as a data scientist and my longer-term interest in public service made the decision to focus on public technology easy. Our most important policy challenge is to figure out how to increase the government’s technical capacity. Everything from improving the technical tools our government uses to operate and provide services to advancing the knowledge government officials have about emerging technologies is an essential component of building a better government for an increasingly technological world. A modernized, technically-capable, digital government can ensure national security, maintain technological competitiveness, quickly respond to shifts in American life, and better provide government services.
The number of opportunities for technically-minded people in government and civil society has grown significantly over the past several years. There are increasingly more paths (fellowships, hiring authorities, digital government teams) that allow people with technical backgrounds to more easily transition into operational and policy roles in the Federal government and many state and local governments around the country.
No! Just like there are plenty of non-technical jobs at tech companies, there are non-technical jobs in the tech and policy space. Some roles require a technical background (e.g., a data scientist on a digital service team), but other roles (e.g., a technology policy advisor) more heavily rely on stakeholder management, policy analysis, negotiation, and leadership skills. The most important thing is the ability to understand the technology, how it works, and what the challenges are. You can get much of that understanding without having the skills required to build the technology.
There are various ways that students can get started in the tech and policy space. Legislative and policy work at every level of government would benefit from folks with a strong understanding of technology and an interest in shaping how our governing institutions use or regulate tech. There is important implementation work, again at every level of government, that needs to be done to improve how governments use technology to operate and provide services. There is a need for technology policy people interested in more directly influencing how technology is built to take on leading roles at tech companies and elsewhere in the private sector to shape how these tools are built from the inside. And there is a need for more academically-minded folks who can think through big-picture problems as part of civil society. The most important place to start is by deciding how you want your day-to-day to look and what kind of impact would feel most meaningful to you at this stage in your career.
If you’re interested in legislative and policy work, great programs (e.g., TechCongress, which I participated in) bring technologists into Congress. There are also many ways in the Executive Branch and at the state and local level to work on technology policy. If you’re interested in implementation, federal, state, and city digital service groups bring in product managers, data scientists, and engineers to improve government services. At the federal level, fellowships (e.g., the US Digital Corps for recent undergraduates) bring technical talent to achieve similar goals. Chris Kuang, the co-founder of U.S. Digital Corps and Harvard University graduate (AB ’20 Economics and Math), has compiled a list of opportunities for folks (mostly) interested in the implementation side of civic tech.
If you want to learn more about Lauren’s story, she encourages people to connect with her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lauren-lombardo/.
Additional Resources to Explore Public-Interested Tech:
- Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University: https://cyber.harvard.edu/
- Civic Tech Field Guide: https://civictech.guide/
- Coding it Forward: https://www.codingitforward.com/
- HKS Belfer Center: Science, Technology and Public Policy- AI Cyber Lunch Series: https://www.belfercenter.org/program/science-technology-and-public-policy#!ai-cyber-lunch-series
- Harvard Tech for Social Good Student Group: https://socialgood.hcs.harvard.edu/
- Public Interest Tech Lab: https://techlab.org/
- Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN): https://pitcases.org/portfolio/in-pursuit-of-public-interest-careers/
- Tech Jobs For Good: https://techjobsforgood.com/