Hacking for Change: 3 Questions with Code for America Fellow Erik Michaels-Ober

Jul 18, 2012
Erik Michaels-Ober
Erik Michaels-Ober, 2011 Code for America Fellow, Boston

Last week we had the opportunity to Skype with inaugural Code for America fellow Erik Michaels-Ober. Erik taught himself how to program while in high school, was student body president at Carnegie Mellon, and worked for and founded several high-tech startups.

As a Code for America fellow Erik worked on a range of meaningful projects for the city of Boston. When Erik learned that Boston fire hydrants remain buried after snow storms, costing fire fighters precious time when they responded to fires, within one week he developed a prototype for the app Adopt-a-Hydrant. Adopt-a-Hydrant allows residents to claim responsibility for shoveling out a fire hydrant after it snows. The project was so successful it’s since been used as a model for other public safety projects, such as Adopt-a-Siren and Adopt-a-Sidewalk. We asked Erik about what it takes to become a Code for America fellow.

1. Why did you decide to apply for the Code for America Fellowship?

The Code for America Fellowship seemed perfect for me because it combined my longtime interest in government with my career working in technology startups. As soon as I watched a short video about the program and read more about it, I remember thinking to myself: “It’s like someone designed this program just for me.” I immediately knew I had to apply. It turned out to be a great decision.

2. What do you think made your application stand out?

I think my background working in startups and open source was well-suited to Code for America, especially in the first year of the program. I’ve always been very enthusiastic about the organization’s mission and I think that enthusiasm showed through on my application. In general, I believe that technology has the power to make things better and that government, in particular, can be made better and more efficient through software. I was recently reminded of this while waiting on a long line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I’m always thinking, “How can this be made better?” My application reflected my desire to actually do something about that question.

3. What tips would you give others applying for the Code for America Fellowship?

If you’re a software developer or designer, find an a project that interests you on the Code for America GitHub page and start hacking. If you’re not a coder or a designer, don’t let that discourage you from applying. During my Fellowship year, there were a couple Fellows who had no prior software development experience (one way a lawyer, one was a journalist). These fellows were able to contribute in ways that the rest of us couldn’t and extended the our capabilities. The most important thing is that you’re committed to the mission of the organization and have a passion to work on it.

Erik Michaels-Ober is a software developer and entrepreneur living in San Francisco. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon in 2005, he has been a founder and CTO of startups that have raised more than $4.5 million in venture capital. Erik was named to the first class of Code for America Fellows and served as a Google Summer of Code mentor. His favorite programming language is Ruby and he regularly speaks at Ruby conferences around the world. He is an avid contributor to open-source projects on GitHub. To read more about Erik’s experience as a Code for America fellow, check out this thread on Quora.

© Victoria Johnson 2012, all rights reserved.