A Technologist Goes to Washington

Why I’m Going to Work at the White House

The White House

Soon I will be reporting to the White House, rolling up my sleeves, and getting to work. I’m going because I believe in the value of American democracy and the power of public services to make a real difference in the lives of real people. I’m going because I believe in building meaningful coalitions which include diverging viewpoints and are representative of all Americans.

America is a great country. While its history is not without blemish, our society was built by people. And though people are by nature imperfect, there is no denying we have much to be proud of. America has a functioning civil society, a government that works with a system of checks and balances, and a professional service economy which facilitates the timely exchange of goods and services. We have decent roads, running electricity, Internet access, and a literacy rate in the 90th percentile. We hold democratic elections regularly and peacefully transition power, on schedule, once the ballot box has spoken.

As a public servant, I believe firmly in my duty to provide the highest quality of service because my customers are taxpaying Americans. As a technologist, I have been frustrated, at almost every turn on my service path, by inefficiencies in how our government procures and deploys IT solutions. The same model used for buying helicopters should not be used to build a website or a mobile application. Technology has fundamentally changed every aspect of how Americans interact; economically and socially, professionally and personally. Yet many government interactions remain clunky and analog. This growing disparity is one we can no longer ignore. In 2018 every business requires a strong technology infrastructure and those unable to develop accordingly are destined for failure. Public service is no different.

The Executive Office of the President recognizes this incredible need and the urgency of rapidly modernizing the federal IT landscape. Starting with projects that provide the greatest impact to the greatest number of people in the greatest need, the US Digital Service is a three-year-old, lean startup within the federal government. Their first project was the rescue of healthcare.gov in the wake of its day zero disaster. Since then they have gone on to partner with a number of federal agencies, working to identify IT projects which pose significant risks to national security, increase access to government services, and streamline operations to save taxpayer dollars.

I am proud to be joining this team, proud to be representing the diversity I contribute to America, and eager to work side-by-side with some of the greatest minds in tech on the biggest problems facing federal IT and the American people. On this next chapter of my public service journey, I bear firmly in mind the experiences of where I come from and where I’ve been. I will never use my skills for evil, to discriminate, or to harm. I have taken an oath to uphold the constitution of the United States and am a stalwart steward of the public trust bestowed upon me. Thank you for your support and I look forward to continuing to serve America in the best way I can.

Vieja es la ciudad

Yesterday around midday, I moved all my belongings from the Peace Corps office in Santa Lucía to the small town of Ciudad Vieja.

According to my host family, Ciudad Vieja is the original colonial capital of Guatemala during Spanish occupation. It was founded sometime around 1527 CE. After a particularly nasty landslide the capital moved to Antigua, about 5 km up the road. Today about 25,000 people call Ciudad Vieja home (source).

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In this valley was founded the first defined city in Guatemala: November 22, 1527.

My family is pretty awesome. I am living in what is probably the urban version of a family compound. I have a salón on the second floor with a window that faces into the center core of the dwelling- so basically an outside window without it facing out to the public. The door is a sturdy, steel frame with wood panels and one of those double lock mechanisms that are quite popular across the country and probably the rest of Central America from what I saw in El Salvador. I also have a full bath with a sink, a toilet, and a suicide shower. It’s a bit cramped when brushing teeth or taking a poo, but I’ll take it any day over cold water and bucket baths.

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My bedroom from the main door.

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A modest desk setup.

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My (real) bed and window.

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A shelf unit that I use for storage of things, clothes, and books.

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Important stuff.

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A full bath and where I poo.

My host family vaguely resembles the Sethna household too. There is a dad: Don Rodolfo who is a bit like my dad. He likes structure and order, he’s constantly bothering his kids about studying and practicing music, he works a lot, and doesn’t hurry out the door until he’s had his morning beans, tortillas, and coffee.

Doña Josefina is a very smart and equally hardworking dueño de casa. She is also a professional florist and teaches floral arrangement classes. Both parents place a very high value on education and are themselves quite smart. She is also helping to get a startup business off the ground: a local water purification service that aims to charge 50% less than the leading drinking water company in the country. It’s quite revolutionary and means that poorer people will have access to better potable water and therefore 1) be healthier and 2) have more money for other essential things. The problem right now is building a stable client base. I helped out with some advertising today and I’ve already suggested some things that they might be able to try (particularly with the internet). It looks as though I’ve found my first community development project as she asked me to come in this week to their office and help them to establish an online presence! Just like my parents, it seems as if they are working hard to make sure that their children have the tools to be very successful on their own.

The oldest daughter, Alejandra, is 21 and in her third year of medical school. She’s pretty interesting to talk to- we can have open discussions about obstacles facing women trying to enter professional fields in this culture. She also has interesting things to say about la medicina alternativa, particularly Mayan remedies.

Then there are two boys- Rodolfo Jr. and José. I don’t really know what they do. They keep to themselves and are frequently out of the house or in their rooms. Rodolfo is pretty good at playing soccer. He has trained in the past with semi-professional teams based out of Antigua. But it sounds like his father pumped the brakes on that to encourage him to study harder. José wants to be an architect! He taught be about Efraín Recinos, an architect who designed the National Theater of Guatemala.

And finally, the youngest daughter is named Adriana. She is 13 and possesses a myriad of talents. She can play the guitar, marimba, dance ballet, sing, write poetry, do gymnastics, play video games, practice mixed martial arts, and shoot guns/ archery.

Best of all, I’m only about 15-20 minutes down the road from Antigua Guatemala, one of the most famous tourist sites in Central America. I can’t wait to check it out properly. Until then, enjoy my photos of Ciudad Vieja!

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Coffee plantations- the view from my bedroom

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Another vista from my room

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The alcaldía (city hall)

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Inside the alcaldía

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Alejandra is 21. Alejandra has lived in Ciudad Vieja all her life. Alejandra does not remember a time when this clock was functional. No wonder la hora chapín is at least 60 minutes behind…

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El volcán de agua

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Town central park, the first cathedral in Guatemala, and some more mountains.

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More mountains as seen from the alcaldía

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The primary facade of Guate’s first Catholic cathedral.

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“Primera” cathedral, founded in 1534

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El volcán de agua as seen from in front of the cathedral.

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El volcán two blocks up the street from the previous picture.

En route: Lessons from Staging

For me the most important part of the Peace Corps mission is the understanding that true change occurs from the bottom-up and is built through hard work, civic, pride, and commitment. True change is legitimate and genuine- calling upon the effected people to take initiative- rather than imposing a top-down mandate.

I have chosen to commit to the Peace Corps at this time in my life because simply, it is the right time. I have knowledge but lack wisdom. I have skills but lack expertise. I have energy but lack purpose. Peace Corps service stands as an opportunity to broaden my horizons, deepen my perspective, and expand the possibilities of my life for a cause greater than myself.

I know I will feel successful as a Volunteer when I have gained the trust and respect of my host family, community, and culture. When, together with my partner organization, we build and implement successful programs that have a lasting impact in Guatemala years after my service has ended.

In the last 14 hours I have learned that there are 27 other people who are thinking the same thoughts, riding the same emotional roller coaster, and dreaming of doing meaningful work at post in Guatemala. For the first time in six months I’ve been with people who understand, truly and deeply what it is going to mean to be in the trenches as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I haven’t had to explain why? or how? to anyone.

The journey continues- a few hours from time of writing I will touch down in Guatemala City with twenty-seven excited, enthusiastic, now official Peace Corps trainees.

Countdown to Quetzales: For Granted

Today marks the final 23 days that I will be living as an American in my home country and native surroundings. It also signals the beginning of a new series for this blog:Countdown to Quetzales will be a daily chronicle of my thoughts, goings-on, and preparations as the hour of my departure for Guatemala draws ever nearer.

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Today I went to Akron General- the hospital located at 400 Wabash Avenue. It amazes me the level of care that we have available to us in this country- something so essential- that we take for granted every day. It’s no wonder that the Peace Corps had me undergo such stringent medical examinations before clearing us to serve.

Making the pilgrimage home to Macedonia also has made me realize many other things which I take for granted: my family, my friends, and my childhood (or things from it). As humans, I feel that it is very easy to become complacent in comfortable circumstances. We know that our families will never desert us and our friends will always like us. Therefore, it’s easy to not call regularly or not make the effort to visit- simply because we are comfortable and confident that our circumstances will never change.

But will they?

Getting ready for the biggest life transition I’ve ever made has forced me to gather close to me the things, places, and people I care most about. While there’s room for everyone in my heart, there’s only room for so much in my hands. In these final days, I promise not to take anything for granted, to live to the fullest, and have a deep appreciation for everything around me.

Because in 23 days, it’s all going to change.

Countdown to Quetzales: 25 days

Today marks the final 25 days that I will be living as an American in my home country and native surroundings. It also signals the beginning of a new series for this blog: Countdown to Quetzales will be a daily chronicle of my thoughts, goings-on, and preparations as the hour of my departure for Guatemala draws ever nearer.

In one week I will leave Senator Sawyer’s office, the Statehouse, and the Ohio Senate for good. After three-and-a-half years, I’ve learned a lot from this environment and the people who have enabled wonderful opportunities and experiences for me in state government. I consider my colleagues and friends Cindy, Penny, Claire, Marta, Andrew, Ken, Jordan, and Abby to have been particularly impactful on my stint at the institution. Because of their tutelage, guidance, example, and interest in our friendship, I can confidently say that they are exemplar and definitive of my experience at the Statehouse.

Reflecting upon my experience in the Senate, I know that I have learned a lot about public interface and relations. I’ve also developed an understanding of my own work habits and developed the ability to dispatch administrative tasks effectively and efficiently. According to Gallup’s “Strengths Finder,” one of my top traits is planning ahead into the future. As I have been preparing for my departure, I feel that I do not yet have a fully-developed professional skill set that I can market to potential employers. Just for fun, I checked my credentials and skills against the internet’s offerings for employment. I found that I was having a hard time summarizing in one or two words exactly what it is that “I do.” One of the things that I hope to gain from my service is a clearer picture of who I am and where my strengths truly lie.

I’ve also been procrastinating on packing up my apartment. I need to start that tonight.

U-Write It launch

uwriteI am happy to announce that I have launched a new and my first for-profit enterprise: U-Write It (uwrite.it) with my good friend and colleague Ryan Koch.

U-Write It is a professional writing and publishing service intended for use my people who are simply too busy with other personal projects or endeavors to write their own papers, compile presentations, and edit and prepare their documents for publishing.

We have a straightforward fee structure designed to help steer our clients in the direction of the services they are most-likely to need, avoiding overpayment and maximizing efficiency. Check out our list of services and keep us in the mind for your future professional writing, editing, and publishing needs!

Kayford Mountain

On Saturday, July 18, 2009 I traveled to Kayford Mountain in West Virginia.


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I have been working on stopping mountaintop removal since I started working with Ohio Citizen Action in June. However, I have been aware of the issue and its urgency since the summer of 2008. Before the trip I was certain I knew what this was all about.

No amount of reading or hearing about the issue could have prepared me for the scene that I witnessed on Kayford Mountain last Saturday.

Larry Gibson, the voice of Appalachia, and the head of the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation lives on Kayford Mountain.

His property has been in his family since immediately after the Civil War. Larry Gibson’s family used to own and use the entire mountain to sustain a town of about 60 people. This pristine and undamaged wilderness allows the people of Appalachia to self-sustain and live, not off the land, but “on the land,” as Gibson says.

Larry Gibson then told us how the coal mining industry, upon the death of his great-great-grandfather, went to the office in which deeds for property were filed and “reevaluated” the land that was originally and rightfully theirs. They were able to do this because Gibson’s ancestor didn’t sign his name, it was only a series of “X”s, and nobody was able to dispute the claim of the mining company.

Gibson stated time and time again that the law in West Virginia backs he who has the largest wallet.

Larry Gibson then took us to the edge of his newly redefined property, to what he calls the “gates of hell.” On Gibson’s side of the gate, life is sustainable. Things live. The smell of some home-cooked food constantly lingering in the air. And dense, green foliage is commonplace.

When we reached these posts Gibson told us not to come any farther if we didn’t like beans for beans are what they feed people in jail in West Virginia. The posts mark the beginning on mining company property as indicated by this prominently placed sign:

Larry Gibson then showed us the large holes that are drilled into the rock and packed with explosives.

He told us that the miners use whatever is cheaply provided to them to blast. They’ve even been known to have been supplied with illegal chemicals that have injured them severely when blasting and the company has been forced to disclose their usage of such chemicals to the hospital for treatment purposes.

The devastation that I witnessed was completely mind blowing. As good a grasp I thought I had on the issue, I was completely and utterly flabbergasted by the scene which had been laid out before me.

The mere three inches of topsoil on the mountains take 1,000 years per inch to form. These three inches purvey sustainability to all who live there.

In addition to making the mountain inhospitable to life, about half of the coal that could be extracted from the mountain is blown into the valley below.

I went on to learn that the perception that West Virginia depends on coal jobs was completely skewed. Only 2% of the employed in West Virginia are coal miners. Wal-Mart, in all its glory, is the largest employer in the state.

West Virginia generates enough hydroelectric power to fulfill its energy needs. It does not need coal. Gibson simply says that the “machine wants us to deppend on sole energy sources.” Those that aren’t renewable create an endless stream of demand and inflated profits so the industry fat cats may pad their deep pockets. Coal is NOT about jobs.

Gibson describes his people and those of Appalachia as the “forgotten people of Appalachia.” They are caught in a perpetual cycle of poverty, fighting to live. When Gibson talks of ending mountaintop removal and by extension coal mining itself, he has been met with hostility and violent opposition. The people of Appalachia need jobs. When someone talks of eliminating the job they have, they become angry. They need to see that coal imprisons them within the cycle of poverty. Gibson says that their talents could be put to work on a reclamation effort. And he says that no reclamation will take place until the mining industry learns how to pass the cost on to the taxpayers. So, regardless of where we live, we shall be paying to fix the devastation left in the wake of the coal industry.

Action needs to be taken. Mountaintop removal needs to be stopped. For the sake of the people of Appalachia, long exploited, for the sake of the landscape, pristine and historical; the second-most biodiverse region in the world, the lands of Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett. And for the health of those whose water is being polluted by this practice.

Ohio Citizen Action: Day 6, 7, 8

Wow. That’s a lot of days. So here’s what’s been going on. Last week, I was kind of lazy and figured that I’d blog about days four and five together at the end of the week. But then my personal life went to hell in a hand basket. And now I don’t remember things from specific days. So now I’m just mentioning what I learned last week, and then I’ll talk about this week.

Last Week

Last week I learned about the phone canvass and it’s importance to the organization. It’s important.

Day 6

Our briefing today was about the Mutt Wash Fundraiser

CLEVELAND – Ohio Citizen Action is holding a mutt-wash fundraiser at The Mutt Hutt in Tremont (2603 Scranton Rd.) to benefit their campaign to get mountaintop removal coal mining banned. The dog wash will be held on Saturday, June 20, from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. The donation is $10 for a mutt wash and $5 for a nail trim.

I’ll be there. So all you people with doggies need to come or we can no longer be friends. Seriously.

Sarah W gave a very motivating talk about letters and they’re importance today.

I broke $100 today with my contributions raised. It’s not the best I’ve ever done, but it was exciting, I do my best, and I guess sometimes I do better than others.

Day 7

I came in early to listen in on a conference call between the higher-ups and listen to them discuss strategies. They asked for my thoughts on letter writing to House Representatives who have all ready agreed to co-sponsor H.R. 1310.

I went to the Cleveland Public Library and got a felafel for lunch.

There was a really cool briefing today. Like really cool. Did I mention that it was cool? It was about protest art. I took notes. We learned about

    +The fist as a recurring symbol of anger
    +Humor – being good for attracting the attention of the apolitical, but running tie risk of driving away the undecided
    +Propaganda versus Protest Art. The former is produced to change minds and provoke emotions. It tends to bend logic. The latter usually says “no” to an idea or course of action, no solution is offered.
    +Simple is usually better

Very interesting stuff.

I broke $150 today, yay! And I collected 8 letters.

Day 8

There was supposed to be a briefing today in the form of a video. But we didn’t get to watch it because the computer in the Canvass bay was broken. It looked like it was being reformatted. Oops.

So we just drove out to turf early. I was in a small crew today. We drove in Sarah B’s car to North Royalton and stopped for some foodsies on the way there for about 20 minutes before 4.

There was a torrential downpour which made me very, very wet. And I didn’t get any sympathy contributions. Tough crowd. My scotty got ruined, and I had to salvage all the letter callbacks really fast (and I got some of the numbers wrong due to illegibility from wetness which cost me a lot of time). I think I lost a row of tallies too which threw off my door and contacts count.

But guess what? Guess.
I collected 18 letters which qualifies me for the leader board! I also collected around $125. I didn’t meet my weekly goal, but I tried very hard. And I think I was closer than last week.

This is the card that I made last night to put up on the leader board!

This is the card that I made last night to put up on the leader board!

Ohio Citizen Action: Day 3

Everyday I go in and read a bit more of the training manual. Yesterday I got up to Day 6. There’s so much helpful information on each new day, I feel like I’m doing myself a disservice not to read ahead as much as possible. I learned about good responses to common answers yesterday. Such as “I’ll sign, but I’m not going to donate anything”

I hopped on board the re-train for the first time yesterday. I spent half the night in Olmstead Falls watching Kelly be awesome at organizing yesterday, and then the other half trying to do the same on my own. I raised $45 in about an hour and a half. I got three letters and 5 members. I guess that’s not that bad, I really tried and I met all my goals except the contribution goal; instead of being discouraged because I tried so hard and didn’t make it (*cough* Physics) I think I’ll give it a go today and knock it out. I did really well in Wooster last Tuesday, so I’m hoping that by going somewhere far away, I’ll have better karma or something like that.

Working for OCA makes me feel like I’m really doing something to better the world. I’m in a position where I can really effect how people view an issue and it really produced results! It’s political science from the bottom up, unlike lobbying which is like trickle-down politics. And like it’s economic counter-part, it never seems to work 😉

Now I’m going back to chomping on my Reeces Puffs, a hearty nutritious breakfast cereal. Loved my moms everywhere.