Leveraging Best Practices to Build New Initiatives for the Public Interest Technology Field

June 4, 2021–By Sofia Chen Ma and Jenn Noinaj

In recent years, the public interest technology (PIT) field has emerged as a pathway for professionals who want to apply their technology, design, data, and product skills for the public good. As interest in this work increases, early successes have shown there are many more opportunities to conscientiously adapt modern tools to address unique challenges of government. However, similar to other industries, the development of the PIT field has not been frictionless. There are opportunities to improve how incoming professionals, especially students and recent graduates, enter the field and build a career. 

Within PIT, there have been several efforts to better support professionals coming into the field. At the Beeck Center, we believe that improving the work experience of individuals in the field leads to more productive workers and that diversity is necessary to create solutions that work for the public. As the field matures, our objective is to take measurable steps to lower barriers, improve career development, and make career paths more sustainable across the following phases: 

1. Hiring: Establish career paths for a diverse pool of candidates.

2. Onboarding: Provide training, orientation, and access to resources. 

3. Supporting: Help employees develop their careers and build community.

To illuminate the needs and opportunities to achieve these goals, we conducted a comparative review of a variety of industries to identify career development best practices in expanding diversity and inclusion, retention, and employee satisfaction. Our research included reviewing more than 100 resources in various fields to understand the career paths available and career-development strategies leveraged by different organizations. Recognizing that growing pains present in PIT are common to adjacent fields, we seek to elevate tried and tested solutions which can be adapted as a launch point rather than starting from scratch. Based on our findings, we explore three potential future narratives for a more productive, diverse, and inclusive PIT workforce, and provide examples of companies, organizations, and governments making important strides.

1. The PIT workforce is representative of the people it serves.

Inclusive hiring practices and cultures are key to attracting and retaining a workforce that demographically reflects the people that this field serves. Being more inclusive isn’t just about training, but actively mediating unconscious biases. More than 15 years ago, IBM—a multinational technology and consulting company—created eight diversity task forces, which were tasked with advancing the multicultural recruitment, hiring, and advancement of several communities that were underrepresented in their workforce. These groups were responsible for spearheading initiatives to improve their pipeline. Since these groups were made up of individuals who had gone through the process themselves, they were able to identify from their own experience how best to serve the needs of others in their communities.

It’s not enough to attract diverse talent: we need to look inward at our own systemic and institutional biases and create change within our organizations. Currently there are little to no measures or standards that track progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion in the PIT field. The handful that do exist, Code for America, the Partnership for Public Service, and the U.S. Digital Service to name a few, show their metrics and commit publicly to this cause. Like these organizations, leaders in our field have to pivot from empty promises of change and commit to tangible resources for diverse employees. 

Cisco Systems—a conglomerate focused on technology, telecommunications, and cybersecurity solutions—spearheads the Multiplier Effect, an initiative which asks leaders from companies, universities, and various industries to “pledge to accelerate the progress of extraordinary, diverse talent.” The pledge has resulted in nearly 200 CEOs committing to step outside of their comfort zone and sponsor someone different from them in race, culture, gender, ability, or orientation. It is intended to build inertia and create a movement of collaborative leadership that not only mentors but sponsors action to clear obstacles from the career path of diverse employees and ensure workplace success.

2. There are roles and opportunities for people with all levels of experience in this field.

Currently, PIT opportunities are largely geared toward individuals with mid-to-senior-level work experience. As the field matures, we envision a future where teams are able to actively recruit on-campus at universities and colleges, and that our pipeline is as strong as other industries, attracting the most diverse, best, and brightest talent into our organizations. 

Fortinet—a global leader in broad and automated cybersecurity—created the Fortinet Network Security Academy (FNSA), partnering with more than 80 colleges and universities around the country to provide students with hands-on experience and knowledge needed for the cybersecurity field. Some students who participate in their program are also offered internships and often continue to work with Fortinet after they graduate. Many programs within the PIT field are also working to make this future a reality, including the Public Interest Tech University Network, the Tech Talent Project, and the US of Technologists initiative, among others. Employers now need to analyze how and if it makes sense for them to expand their available roles and consider what mechanisms will need to be in place to support workers who are newer to the field and the workforce. 

3. Other industries look to PIT for best practices in workforce development and employee satisfaction. 

Employee satisfaction doesn’t come from simply engaging in day-to-day work, but from being a part of support networks, building community, and finding meaning in the work itself. Leaders in this field must be intentional and encourage career development among employees, which means providing the structure for them to acquire new skills and knowledge as part of the culture of the team or organization. 

In the medical field, professionals are encouraged and supported in pursuing post-graduate degrees, on-going professional training, and research opportunities. Accelerating Change in Medical Education, a program led by the American Medical Association, was created with the purpose of continuing the development of medical practitioners by expanding their educational and research opportunities, so they can disseminate new innovations and improve how they meet the needs of their patients. In the medical field, practitioners are driven to continuously expand their knowledge since doing so is directly tied to improvements in their care and treatment for patients. Since the field is so patient-centric and mission-oriented, there is the culture around life-long learning and service.

Final Thoughts

Our hope is that by identifying outcomes we can envision a transformative future for PIT, one where the solutions we pursue as a field are human-centric and anticipate the needs of the people we serve. A fully engaged, diverse workforce will result in transformational changes in PIT organizations. However, our efforts to support the workforce shouldn’t stop there—we also need to ensure that these organizations have inclusive communities and environments that allow their employees to flourish. Investing in the growth of this field is the key to reimagining the future of how we serve our communities. 

Jenn Noinaj is a social impact strategist, researcher and designer passionate about using design to solve society’s most pressing challenges. She is currently a Beeck Center Fellow leading projects to support the public interest technology workforce. Follow her on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn.

Sofia Chen Ma is passionate about driving technology and innovation to be more equitable and inclusive. She is a sophomore in the McDonough School of Business and a student analyst at the Beeck Center working on projects to support the public interest technology workforce. Connect with her on LinkedIn.