The Impact of a Tech Fellowship, Three Years Later
By Ximena Hartsock
Today is the day. Three years ago, Siddarth Kamath awoke early and traveled from his home in College Park to Arlington to start his first day in Phone2Action’s Civic Tech Fellowship Program.
“I didn’t have the best start to anyone’s first day at work,” he said. “I arrived right on time at 9 a.m. but since I did not know where the entrance to the building was, I got lost. Even if you are five minutes late on the first day of a new job in a new country, you start panicking a bit.”
Sid found the front door and it opened to reveal a new home, where he would grow as a student and return after graduating to begin his career as a software engineer. That career is still growing as he passes his third anniversary, and Sid credits the fellowship program for his start.
“All throughout the experience, I never for one second felt like an intern,” he said. “The term ‘fellow’ means a whole different thing here at Phone2action. We were treated with the same respect as a full-time employee — and that’s what caught my eye.”
Doorway to Opportunity
Civic Tech Fellows help drive innovation at Phone2Action, working on important projects and filling our organization with energy and enthusiasm. They work directly on our products and services and interact directly with clients, just like staff. They earn a paycheck, keep a schedule and many like Sid find a permanent home.
Started in 2014, the Civic Tech Fellowship Program is now entering its seventh year. From my time as public school principal, I knew the importance of giving back to the community by offering students an opportunity to gain work experience. Later on, when I joined the Fenty administration, the chancellor put together a robust internship program. Young people came from all over the country to work with us. It was impressive and eye opening, showing the opportunities that rigorous internships can bring. That was my inspiration for Phone2Action’s fellowship program.
The first cohort had five fellows. By the time Sid joined, the program increased to 30 people. Today, the fellowship has added a component: four of our former summer fellows are now apprentices, a more intense and longer program that prepares them to take on specific roles in technology. We are conducting this program in partnership with the Department of Labor and with guidance from the Apprenticeship Coalition under the Consumer Technology Association.
Fellows are selected from a large pool of applicants each year from different backgrounds and geographies, We make efforts to attract and welcome minorities, career changers, disabled, low-income and special-needs applicants who are passionate about technology that enables open government and civic participation. Fellows work in almost every department, from development to sales.
The program has graduated dozens of fellows, including 30 this past summer, and several have been hired as full-time staff, Some fellows also return for a second experience. We have two fellows now working remotely while in school or on break, as well as an international fellow here in the U.S. from South Korea.
Journey from Fellow to Full Time
As a fellow, Siddarth worked as a data engineer. Yet when he joined full time, his role was in software development. “Both of those areas of work were very different from each other, but the one thing that remained constant was the application of my work,” he said. “During my time as a fellow, I got a really good understanding of Phone2action’s technology platform, the business model and the technology aspect of what we were doing here. I could really connect with why we are doing digital advocacy and how our work here directly impacts so many people.”
No matter what technology you are working on, if you understand and connect with the organization’s goal, you want to contribute in whatever way you can. Today I am working in the same data engineering stream that I started working 3 years ago when I was a fellow and I can say that the journey across these 3 years has been challenging and fulfilling at the same time. Sid has helped develop some of Phone2Action’s key features, including the platform’s advocacy emailer and Stakeholder Management Tool, as well as parts of the Civic Action Center and the Live Map that shows advocacy activity in real time. Now, Sid is moving into data engineering.
Sid’s manager Jeffrey said that Sidd came full circle by becoming a data engineer. Our team works on analyzing massive amounts of data to drive business decision and my vision is that unlocking insights from data is what is going to take Phone2Action to the next level. Having someone like Sid with experience in other parts of the application is invaluable. His prior experience as a Software Engineer really shows by bringing a different mindset/point of view when analyzing data sets. Our team is small but mighty and get a lot done together.
Naturally, Sid is now a mentor to new fellows and apprentices, meeting with them regularly to assess performance, provide feedback, offer some expertise and introduce them to the office FIFA tournaments on the Xbox.
“Phone2action was my first job in the U.S. and remains the only company I have been employed with, something that I am really proud of,” he said. “The work I did during my fellowship was appreciated by my peers at Phone2action. This fellowship was a direct path to securing a full-time position, where I have spent the last two years growing as an individual as well as a professional.”
“I get to create really meaningful applications that affect people’s lives on a daily basis,” he said. “That’s the best part of working here to date. You get to work on software that is impactful, especially now when our technology is being used at records high by fronliners and people affected by COVID.
Sid has made good friends, too. Some attended his wedding at home in Pune, India. “The most important part of my Phone2action journey has definitely been the relationships I have developed with all of my colleagues,” he said. “Every person who works here is completely committed to the cause and that helps you give your best every single day. I have never felt helpless when I am solving a problem.”
It’s an important time for companies, associations and nonprofits involved in public policy. The pandemic has caused a boom in digital advocacy as these organizations work to shape America’s response and recovery. At Phone2Action, we are working hard to support them with a solid platform and around-the-clock access to advocacy experts. Our fellows and apprentices play a vital role in helping us fulfill that commitment.
Business leaders have a responsibility to take thoughtful steps in the future of work. The Pandemic is leaving us with a mandate to rethink the way we conduct businesses. It is not only about whether people will work in a physical office and when, its also about teaching employees skills on how to be efficient in this new environment and retraining and reskilling coworkers whose jobs are obsolete or may have to change. Lots of people are unemployed now and to get out of this crisis together companies can contribute by retraining people in their local communities. I believe strongly that business leadership has a strong moral compass, that will show in this Pandemic. Investing in our workforce is paramount.