Why civic tech engineer Gabriel Farrell left City Hall - Technical.ly Philly

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Apr. 11, 2016 12:57 pm

Why civic tech engineer Gabriel Farrell left City Hall

If Philadelphia wants to attract and retain tech talent, Farrell's departure should be instructive.

Gabriel Farrell in West Philly's Cedar Park, September 2015.

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

Gabriel Farrell never intended to work for the city forever.

In the summer of 2014, when he decided to join city government, he knew a mayoral transition was coming. He knew that could mean changes at the top, a switch in priorities and how things were run at the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology.

In fact, as Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski was recruiting him for the job of civic tech engineer, Wisniewski was open about that, Farrell says: This doesn’t have to be longterm. You don’t have to sign up as a lifer. Give it a shot.

So when Farrell decided to leave the city to join New York City adtech firm Vistar Media’s Philly-based engineering team late last month, it was always the way he saw it playing out. It just came a bit faster than he expected. His last day was March 24, 2016, a week after he turned 38, and coincidentally, the same day that Civic Tech Director Aaron Ogle left his post at the city.

As part of Ogle’s team, Farrell worked on redesigning Phila.gov. He helped build apps that made the city’s open data accessible to the public, like the city’s highly-trafficked property search tool, working largely on the cloud infrastructure behind these apps.

He was part of a highly visible push to recruit talent from the city’s technology community. In the last two years of the Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid’s tenure, Ebeid and his team attracted a handful of private-sector technologists to work for the city: OpenPlans developers (and former Philly Code for America fellows) Ogle and Mjumbe Poe, parking wonk and civic hacker Lauren AnconaEsri engineer Tom Swanson and Allen & Gerritsen experience architect Erin Abler. “Dream Team” may be a little strong, but it felt like a movement. It was exciting.

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During his nearly five years at the city, Ebeid said his proudest accomplishment was the team he had built — not just the civic-tech team, though they have been the most visible hires, but also the less public-facing roles, like department IT heads.

We’re still waiting to see how the civic-tech team, formerly led by Wisniewski and Ogle, will fit into new CIO Charlie Brennan’s plans for the department. But Farrell’s story speaks to a question that all cities face: In an extraordinarily competitive hiring environment, what must city government do to attract and retain tech talent?

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What drove Farrell to leave the city earlier than expected was what he describes as the “rigidity of working for the city.”

“Little things, like time tracking and a byzantine work-from-home policy, eat away at creative workers used to a more enlightened approach,” Farrell wrote to us in an email last December.

These policies “start from a place of distrust” and don’t encourage autonomy, he said, the polar opposite of working in the private sector, where his work was judged not by time, but by outcomes. Before joining the city, Farrell worked at socially-minded web dev firm P’unk Ave.

“People like me, who have been doing this for a while, aren’t going to stand for that,” he said in an interview, the morning after his last day at the city. (Farrell did note that his team made use of modern, agile software development practices, like daily stand-up meetings and bi-weekly retrospectives, but he felt like those practices didn’t reach outside of his team.)

If city officials are wondering how to hire tech talent, an issue Mayor Kenney brought up shortly before he was inaugurated, they should take a hard look at these policies, Farrell said.

They should also look at working conditions.

“We daily squeeze ourselves into an office referred to as ‘The Fishbowl,'” he wrote in an email. “It’s a cold, dark box with internal windows in the middle of the 15th floor of 1234 Market.”

(This is an issue that Chief Administrative Officer Rebecca Rhynhart brought up when we interviewed her last month about her office’s initiatives. Rhynhart said she was thinking about things like office space and that the average public-sector employee physically has more space than the average private-sector employee in an office.)

They should also look at professional development opportunities.

Farrell wrote:

Aside from the herculean effort Aaron Ogle made to get a number of us to the Code for America Summit, my efforts in the direction of professional development have been stopped by red tape (no funding to attend [Technical.ly’s] Rise being a good example). And while we’ve assembled a great team, there’s no path for further specialization given I’m already the resident “expert” in most areas of development and operations I touch. So I’m tempted to look elsewhere for “mastery”.

When Farrell talks about “mastery,” he’s quoting from Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, in which Pink argues that motivation is driven by purpose, autonomy and mastery. (It’s a book that P’unk Ave encourages its employees to read, as it’s a defining part of their company culture, he said.) Working for the city is heavy on purpose, he said, but it often lacks the other two.

The other big reason that Farrell left the city has to do with the shift in priorities that often comes with a mayoral transition. He felt that the work his team was doing was becoming more reactive — delivering on asks from different departments, like building new one-off sites — which was frustrating to him, especially since the team was in the midst of a big project to redesign Phila.gov.

The team was becoming a client services shop for the city. Farrell acknowledges that those things are important, but, he said, “that’s not what we were brought in for.” In the same vein, he wants to make it clear that he’s not making a value judgment on these changes at OIT. They simply don’t work for him.

During our interview, Farrell wondered if there was a better way for the city to create a tech shop that wasn’t “beholden to time sheets and all this red tape that the city wraps its workers in.” Something closer to an 18F model, referring to the federal government’s digital services shop formed after the failure of HealthCare.gov.

For the time being, he’s excited about working at Vistar, which, sure, might not have the higher purpose that working for the city does (Vistar’s technology powers targeted advertising), but actually, that’s kind of a relief. He wants to go work for a place that treats their employees well, a place where you can really focus on product.

“There’s something to be said for not having to spend brain waves on the larger moral weight of whatever one is doing,” he said.

It’s an interesting counterpoint to the entrepreneur who told us last summer that he longed to do something more purpose-driven — Vistar Media CTO and cofounder Mark Chadwick. To each their own, et al.

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Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes became Technical.ly's associate editor after reporting on the Philadelphia tech scene for four years. She's co-president of the Asian American Journalists Association Philadelphia chapter and a two-time Philadelphia News Award winner for "Community Reporting of the Year." The Bryn Mawr College grad lives in West Philly, likes her food spicy and wears jumpsuits often.

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