How I Work: Sunlight Labs Director James Turk - DC


Feb. 19, 2015 7:57 am

How I Work: Sunlight Labs Director James Turk

After more than seven years doing transparency work with the Sunlight Foundation, James Turk has become a manager — but he remains a developer at heart.
Sunlight Lab Director James Turk sits in front of his three-monitor work setup.

Sunlight Lab Director James Turk sits in front of his three-monitor work setup.

(Photo by Ashley Nguyen)

Since graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology, James Turk has spent a majority of his career at one place: the Sunlight Foundation’s Sunlight Labs.

At Sunlight Labs, Turk pioneered the Open States project, which allows anyone willing to contribute legislative data about their states. Though it began as a hackathon exercise at the Chicago PyCon in 2008, Open States turned into a hugely successful collaboration.

More than 50 volunteer developers — including a carpenter who taught himself code to add Arizona to Open States — helped Turk and his coworkers build the evergreen database. People are still contributing, and Turk considers it his proudest accomplishment.

"A huge part of my work environment are these little gimmicky tools I’ve built to make my life easier."
James Turk, Sunlight Labs

“The fact that we were able to get 50-plus developers, most of whom had never written code for a civic project, involved was amazing,” Turk said. “A lot of times developers are disengaged with the political process, and you have to kind of explain to these people, you can affect change in your state by writing code and empowering people.”

After seven years as a developer and project leader at Sunlight Labs, Turk jumped at the chance to take on a larger role. In September, Turk became the director of Sunlight Labs.

“I still see myself as a developer,” he said, “and I don’t know that I ever saw myself full-time in management. I think if I were anywhere else, I’m not sure I’d like this job. But I care about the work that Sunlight does.”

Here, he tells DC about how his workflow has changed since becoming a director, how he keeps his developer-skills sharp and the value of leaving your desk.


What’s the first thing you do every day before doing any tech-related work?

I have a nice walk to work. It let’s me clear my head, and it’s one of the things that really helps me out. I think a little bit about work on my way in, but it’s kind of a nice peaceful commute. I’m not dealing with being crammed into a car or something like that.


I’m usually one of the first people here. That gives me a little time to get started on emails and think about meetings I have that day. I have a lot more meetings these days than I used to have.

How often do you check your email, and do you use any program to get to ‘Inbox Zero’?

Through my time as a developer when I wanted to worry a lot less about email, I had a system that I’ve kept in this role. Now I have a lot more emails to deal with.

When an email comes in and I can deal with it right then, I do. It helps me stay on top of it. I also have a dual-inbox set up that’s available in Gmail Labs.

If I can’t deal with it then, I just star the email, and throughout the day if I have time, I’ll try to deal with the star backlog. So the inbox is always at zero, but the star backlog can get pretty big.

My inbox functions as a to-do list. Anything I’ve starred is something I have to get back to.

How do you keep track of your revenues and expenses?

For me, that’s really just I don’t have a complex system. We don’t have business credit cards or anything like that so we just file regular expense reports. Nothing fancy.

When you need to take a break, what are you turning to?

One of the things I really try to do a couple of times a week is not eat lunch at my desk. I feel like I’m falling into that trap. I try to just schedule a half hour to get out of the office, or eat lunch here alone in our kitchen or with other people.

Usually around three or four I’ll try to get out of the office and take a walk if I don’t have meetings or something scheduled in the afternoon. It’s a good way to clear my head.

Turk points to the Sunlight Lab's unofficial mascot above his desk: a robot. (Photo by Ashley Nguyen)

The Sunlight Lab’s unofficial mascot: a robot. (Photo by Ashley Nguyen)

What’s your gear?

I use a ThinkPad T440s, and that runs Linux. I have a triple-monitor setup, and one of my monitors is vertical, which is good for reading long grant reports. I find that to be tremendously useful. For my phone, I use a Nexus 5. From my developer days, I stay on the open source side of things.

Our office is kind of a 50-50 split between OS X and Linux users.

What’s a unique aspect of your work style?

The way I got into programming is when I was much younger, every time I found repetitive tasks, I would think, isn’t this what computers are for? So I would write a lot of little things to automate annoying things I felt I didn’t need to be doing for school.

I can’t do that so much for managing people and meetings, but a huge part of my work environment are these little gimmicky tools I’ve built to make my life easier. So I’ll build things to adjust the way a mail client works, or if I want an overview of everything I’d done for the week, I have a little script to print out my log.

That’s probably the most unique thing. I have all these helper things.

What’s one way in which you believe your day-to-day work is better now than it has been? Is there something you do now (or don’t do) that you didn’t do before (or did) that has made a big difference?

One of the things I do now that I wasn’t doing before that makes my work life easier is being a little bit more proactive about reaching out to people. When I was a developer, it was easy to be in a hole and keeping to my deadlines to get work done. In part, it’s just what my job requires, but I find that it just helps out a lot more if I have a lot more conversation and spend a little more time talking to people. Not just within Labs but walking over to the other side of the office and talking to other people so I know other things happening in the organization.

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