This reflection of my experience on GetCalFresh is dedicated to the memory of Andrew Hyder who taught me a lot about living out and protecting team values every day.
Plus: We are the team; Extreme Programming are the values
We are not the website. From the beginning, there was an opinionated directed emphasis on building healthy team norms and values. These principles and doctrines were from “Extreme Programming Explained”; the values were legible and strongly reinforced by team leadership. All of the things we have created (websites, text messaging, document processing, research) were outputs not artifacts and never the goal. There was a strong emphasis on “And the friends we made along the way.”
Plus: An experience of critical inspiration
This was always an exercise in pattern matching what we were trying to achieve in the benefits space to Bay Area tech ecosystem structures and practices. Early debates of products and services, jobs to be done, design principles, disruption (“making the status quo untenable”), leverage, and the thing itself we were building: a funnel-based, outreach machine that disintermediated the benefits process. It was a practical act of constructive criticism of the tech and tech culture around us that recognized mastery of existing forms before we inevitably depart and transcend them (“shuhari”).
Plus: Incremental growth is a hell of a drug
A growth engine, an “engine that eats barriers”. It demonstrated that a line that went “up and to the right” could itself pay the organizational story tax. While we celebrated partnership wins, there was a focus on growing client outreach unbounded (“permissionless”). As software engineers, we were achieving the Agile principle that working software, in the hands of users, was the primary measure of progress.
58 counties was an incremental goal, that was out of reach but attainable, which made planning and decision making tangible, though not easy. It helped align the team and gave direction to planning out the next steps and necessities.
Delta: Maintain Client Success as the centerpole during growth
I think of “scaling” entailing both size and health. Early on, “Client Success” was the unifying intention of everyone (“close the participation gap”). Everyone was exhorted to use their whole selves to help clients receive benefits. I remember being mindblowingly told “you have their phone number, call them” when I observed clients hit technical or process barriers; I did, again and again. Technology was in the truest sense an extension of our embodied capacity to help.
As time went on the client success function became less of a critical inspiration, and instead came to feel closer to the status quo: handling the overwhelming externalities of the service, rather than the service being the multiplier of our puny human abilities. I feel a responsibility to help balance “we don’t need to help ourselves” with “put on your oxygen mask before helping others”; and “leave a seam” with “a stitch in time saves nine”.
And “success” felt narrowed with a refocusing towards “Systems Change” and the subjectless “Build with”. My desires for lighting escalation paths (“click here to talk to a supervisor; a director; your state representative; the FBI”), and consciousness-raising (“20k people in your county also had their benefits denied this month too”) remain unfulfilled.
Plus: Small teams can do big things
From me starting as the first outside hire, to me rolling off the team, we helped more than 8M people receive $5.3B in benefits. And the team continues on without me: I feel missed, unnecessary, and proud of both. Small, directed (North Star: “close the participation gap”; Mission: “use the principles and practices of the digital age to improve how the government serves the American public and how the public improves government”) teams, can do things together that far exceed the capacity of any one individual, and also outperform teams multiples of their size. It has been an amazing journey.