Moving from tech to government policy
November 22, 2016 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend: she was involved in the Hillary Clinton campaign as a software engineer and now wants to get more involved in politics, particularly in the area of policy making.

She's talked to various people in the campaign and gotten variable advice about what to do next. Some people say law school is important, while others say she should leverage her tech experience and get a software engineering job in a tech company and then move over to policy. Other suggestions have involved moving over to product management in advocacy based organizations like Planned Parenthood or the ACLU. She's also considering trying to apply for a congressional staffer role to someone in the Senate but doesn't know what qualifications she might need for such a thing. Does anyone have any advice for what steps to take?
She's willing to move, if that's relevant.
posted by cheesegrater to Law & Government (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Law school is a dumb answer. I mean, it will probably work, but if she's got $200,000 just laying around, just donate that to the DNC, and she'll get their attention. Otherwise, she's going deep into debt for a professional degree she doesn't need or want. There's this perception that law school is a finishing school for liberal arts majors and people who like politics. It's not. It's very intensive, very expensive training for a specific job. You wouldn't go to med school unless you wanted to be a doctor. Don't go to law school unless you want to be a lawyer.

Beyond that, it really depends on what kind of policy she's talking about. Working as a software engineer might be helpful if she's interested in tech policy, but probably won't be all that useful if she's interested in foreign affairs or women's rights.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:51 PM on November 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yeah, definitely not law school if she's not actually interested in lawyering. I would suggest looking into Master's of Public Policy programs. A place like Harris is quant-heavy.
posted by praemunire at 4:07 PM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is she sure she doesn't want to do software engineering anymore? There is a high demand for people with technical skills on campaigns and at advocacy organizations. Lawyers and people with policy degrees are a dime a dozen, but really smart software people are much harder to find in the politics and advocacy space.
posted by fancypants at 4:44 PM on November 22, 2016 [10 favorites]

In a normal world she would have been well on a path to having a shot within the Clinton administration as a tech policy adviser by virtue of her work with the campaign, but that door is closed now. I disagree with any advice telling her to go to law school for the sake of getting into policy work.

Agree with kevin in that it's not clear in your ask what sort of policy-making she's getting into, but in my circles, people who I've met that have gotten into the policy-making side of government work had largely made their bones first in the field they're interested in doing policy on - (i.e. tech people tended to come from big tech firms and did "big things" there, were tech entrepreneurs and publicly oriented, or had worked in tech advocacy).

Many of the larger influential companies and organizations have a government/policy side - Google has a DC office and work there can be anywhere from google's role in education to IP work and so on. The software engineer background is what gets you in the door for something like that. Although there are firms that are sympathetic to ex-Clinton staffers, my read is that a company like Google now is probably more likely to look for ways to appease and keep their foot in the door with the new administration. I recently saw a posting on their DC office, for example, of an outreach representative with conservative/libertarian groups.

Working for Congress is another way to get into policy making, and being a staffer is quite possible, but she should expect to work on a variety of different issues as a junior staffer. Requirements there - while there are specific experential qualifications for the more senior level positions, if she's coming in as a junior staffer her best bet is to look for job postings on Congress members hiring, and use her connections now to network the hell out of everything to get a meeting and a interview. She should also be prepared, assuming she applies for the minority side of things, that things are rough as minorities members of Congress, and a lot of her work may feel fruitless.

Coming out of a losing campaign is hard in DC, and it's especially hard to bill yourself as a policy expert if you don't otherwise have that background from before the campaign work. My suggestion would be to go to work at influential organizations (advocacy or private) that have a significant interest in national politics and presence in the national political scene, then work to get into the policy/thought-leading/advocacy side of those organizations.

After a few years there, if she wants to get to the lawmaking side of government, she might be in a better position for Congressional work or even a political appointment in 4 years if she throws her support behind a winning campaign.
posted by Karaage at 4:45 PM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Tell her to check out the Stanford Liberation Technology mailing list, which focuses on the nexus of technology and governance. May provide a broader perspective of some of the players in the space.
posted by waninggibbon at 5:56 PM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

One more thing to add: DC is cool, but she should consider state and local government as well. For one thing, there are 50x as many jobs. For another, they're sometimes less competitive (stereotyping a bit here, but few jobs in Wyoming are as competitive as jobs in NYC, because NYC is 20x as populous).

Lower-level jobs are also helpful because they're kind of like a lottery ticket. Nobody thought being an advisor to some random state senator in Illinois was a big deal in 2003, but look how that turned out.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:27 PM on November 22, 2016

I have a government policy job and pretty much everyone in our shop came to it via a different route. We're experts in the subject matter more than experts in policy making. I'd advise finding an issue she cares about and working directly on that issue; the policy opportunities will come from there. Good luck!
posted by kinsey at 6:35 PM on November 22, 2016

policy school! they take all sorts. mine had separate masters tracks for domestic/foreign, with strong guidance in your specialization. there's plenty of active work going around in the innovation policy space. my program took special measures to bring in many people from the workforce, military, and civil service. very few people came in straight out of undergrad.

you'd be surprised how well some professional experience suits you for the task of an advanced degree, and how useful the specific skills of large-scale software development work can be for understanding bizarre things like procurement policy. some specializations are more quant-heavy than others, but i found that getting some numerical rigor was worth the effort.

the career pipeline out of our program went to civil service, legislative staffing, think tanks, finserv, intelligence community, and other weird places. the recruiting fairs were a fun opportunity to make some great contacts.

edit: and policy school was way cheap compared to law/mba degrees.
posted by rye bread at 6:42 PM on November 22, 2016

She says: I'm not as interested in tech policy; I'd rather do something more human-focused like civil rights, reproductive rights or voting rights.
Thanks for input so far, she's reading it now.
posted by cheesegrater at 7:56 PM on November 22, 2016

(disclaimer: I am at a USDS agency team now)

The US Digital Service and 18F are government organizations that directly improve products and services used by Americans every day. The work ends up connecting closely with policy in some ways, if you're looking at possible bridges. This is a weird time due to the transition, but there are huge potential opportunities to make a difference. If you want to talk more, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by lorimt at 9:06 PM on November 22, 2016

the school had a wide degree of specializations and even dual-degree programs. i'm just saying that from personal experience, having a tech background (especially one such as software engineering) is oddly useful for a good amount of the mechanics of doing the work in policy school. here's a sampling of how things broke down for the domestic track and foreign track.
posted by rye bread at 10:29 PM on November 22, 2016

Is she more interested in policy-making or policy advocacy? Policy making is mostly about turning some politician's bright idea into workable laws and programs on the ground. The tech skills that transfer into this are things like systems thinking and being able to break a problem down into parts and create solutions for them.

If she wants to push particular ideas, like reproductive rights, then I would suggest joining an NGO rather than the government. Or, by all means join government, but be prepared to a lot of compromise and disappointment - the inevitable result of trying to turn nice ideas into something workable.
posted by girlgenius at 11:56 PM on November 22, 2016

Campaigns and political orgs need infosec people. Cyber attacks against them will only intensify after the success of the attackers in this election.
posted by Joe Chip at 9:44 PM on November 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

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