(Photo courtesy of Christopher Nies)
Philadelphia’s civic hacking scene gave Christopher Nies the best tech education he’s ever gotten.
“For me, working on real-world projects surrounded by brilliant developers vastly outperformed any other mode of education,” he wrote in an email.
After more than a decade in Philadelphia and two years in the city’s civic hacking scene, Nies, 29, of Center City, is leaving to take a job with Amazon in Seattle. (Former Azavea developer Bennet Huber also left for a job with Amazon.)
The cheery Code for Philly mainstay said he can only hope Seattle is “half so inspiring” as Philadelphia.
Below, he talks about the civic project he’ll be working on from Seattle, his favorite place to get away from push notifications and why civic hackers need to look past the tech community to build meaningful apps.
How did you come to live and work in Philly?
I first came to Philadelphia back in 2003 as a Drexel undergrad. After finishing school, I settled in Center City and started working as a technical advisor for a law firm. Eventually, I ended up at a software company in the city focused on online education.
What’s next for you? What prompted the move?
I’ve accepted a position with Amazon in Seattle. I’m going to be doing test automation for a new project that isn’t on the market yet. An internal Amazon recruiter reached out to me on LinkedIn, and I decided to let it play out, because Amazon is a pretty big deal.
After hearing more about the role and going through a few interviews, I decided that it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
"Civic hackers need to reach far beyond their immediate circles."
Anything that could have been done to keep you here?
I actually feel very conflicted about this question. On the one hand, sure — if I would have found my dream job and been given a million dollars a year and all that, yes. On the other hand, I think Philadelphia is doing all it can at the moment to keep people, and is doing a pretty good job of it. The tech scene is very dynamic. The people are awesome and smart and passionate. Philly has a cultural heritage of innovation and troublemaking, and I think that’s a heritage it has and will continue to tap into.
In my case, it just so happened that an opportunity came out of nowhere, and I felt that I owed it to myself to take advantage of it.
So, I guess the answer is no.
What was your proudest accomplishment during your time in Philly?
My proudest accomplishment during my time in Philadelphia is probably how far we’ve taken the GreenSTEM Network project. We have done some amazing stuff, and learned SO much about hardware and product development in the process. I get so excited when I think about GreenSTEM, which is why I’ll be continuing to work on it from Washington.
Favorite tech scene memory from your time in Philly?
My favorite memory is my first hackathon, Hacks4Democracy, which was sponsored and organized by [Callowhill GIS firm] Azavea [in the fall of 2012]. I met a bunch of strangers and over the course of a weekend, we came up with and wrote the backend for the first version of StateRep.me. It was incredible to surround myself by brilliant people, to dive right into a brand new learning experience (web app development), and to collaborate in such an intense environment. It’s what got me hooked on hackathons, it was my gateway to the Philadelphia tech scene, and I am very grateful that I was a part of it.
"My time with Philadelphia's civic hacking scene has done more for my development skills than any other experience I've had in my life."
What’s your favorite place in Philly?
My favorite place in Philadelphia is Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, preferably on a Saturday morning in early fall. Riding that path car-free is so relaxing. I love getting away from screens, notifications and just enjoying the trees and the river.
Can you offer some advice for other civic hackers?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Civic hackers have an outreach problem. If we have any hope of making lasting change for the citizens of our cities, we need to reach far beyond our immediate circles. Subject matter experts on issues of justice, equality, food access, government, homelessness, education — these people should be celebrities in civic hacking circles. Subject matter experts need to not only be welcome, but actively courted by the civic hacking community. Don’t just open the doors to events. Look for them. Pitch them, if they’re open to it. Sometimes inclusiveness means more than just putting yourself out there.
Experts are the difference between creating a “solution” that doesn’t make it past the hackathon stage, and creating a real, tangible tool that can help shape the future of Philadelphia. They can tell you after ten minutes why your “solution to homelessness” won’t work. They can tell you what they actually need — talk about shortening the development cycle!
Will you be back?
My time with Philadelphia’s civic hacking scene has done more for my development skills than any other experience I’ve had in my life. For me, working on real-world projects surrounded by brilliant developers vastly outperformed any other mode of education. Permission to fail and experiment is a very powerful catalyst for learning, and in a context like a hackathon where you are expected to quickly produce a rough version of your work (as opposed to a final project), I saw incredible benefits.
Philadelphia has a rich tech scene, filled with passionate and brilliant people. I am going to miss it dearly, and I can only hope that Seattle is half so inspiring.