Software Development

How I Got Here: Tara Matthews’ journey from economic development grad student to civic technologist

The Allegheny County DHS application specialist didn't expect to end up in the tech, but opportunities in civic data led her to work for both the city and county since graduating. Her advice to those who aren't sure they belong in the field: "Jump in. You are worthy."

Tara Matthews, application specialist for the Allegheny County DHS.

(Photo via LinkedIn)

Tara Matthews never had a strict career plan. And though she knew she was interested in economic development, she didn’t see herself working in data — “at all.”

Now an application specialist at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Matthews first moved to Pittsburgh from Columbia, Maryland to attend the University of Pittsburgh for an undergraduate degree in economics and political science, followed by a master’s of public administration in policy research and analysis. To fulfill an internship requirement for her graduate program, she and some friends went to a job fair run by Local Government Academy, where she met Laura Cunniff from the City of Pittsburgh’s Department Innovation and Performance. Hearing about the local opportunities for civic data using the skills her degrees gave her in statistics and analytics flipped a switch for Matthews. As she listened to Cunniff describe the office’s work, she thought: “This is actually exactly what I’m looking for.”

After that, Matthews went on to work for the city herself, focusing on digital service analysis for Innovation and Performance. She worked to make data more accessible and understandable to all members of the public, helping to lead the city’s then-nascent open data program, which now operates through the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center.

Technical.ly caught up with Matthews on all this and more, including open data initiatives, what’s kept her in Pittsburgh all these years, and advice she has for those looking to follow a similar career path. Plus, check out her recent Twitter takeover for Black Tech Nation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Technical.ly: You went to the University of Pittsburgh for undergraduate and graduate school for degrees that didn’t necessarily specialize in tech. How did you make the move to civic data after that?

Tara Matthews: My career path wasn’t very linear. When I went to the admitted students day [for Pitt], that was the first time I ever been to Pittsburgh. But I went and studied global studies, economics and political science, and I was hoping to focus on economic development. I went back to Pitt for a graduate degree in economic development. And then I realized that I was a little bit more interested in doing work with statistics with analytics, and so I switched my focus from economic development to policy research and analytics.

Through that I got an internship with the city. I met my colleague Laura Cunniff, and she told me that she was trying to bring open data to the city of Pittsburgh. I was like, “That’s amazing. That’s the kind of job I’d really love to do.”

But I’m not really sure how I got to the point of deciding I want to work in technology. I think my mindset was, I love working with people. But I also love analytics. I also love data. But I wanted to be a conduit, between people who weren’t especially fluent with that information and people who lived and breathed that stuff. When I worked at the city, what I would always say is that I wanted to democratize data. And so my hope was to do work where people can understand not just the numbers behind the data, but the context and the meaning of it.

When I was working [at the city], a lot of times people weren’t really expecting that residents would be interested in the numbers behind what they do. But my favorite example from while I was at the city was when we put up a data set about the city trees — all of the trees that are maintained by the city, their age, their condition, etc. People loved that!

How did your role change when you moved from the city to the county?

I was with the Department of Innovation and Performance the entire time I was at the city. But it was unique within the city in that instead of being a resident-facing department, we worked to serve the internal departments of the city. So it was the IT department, but it was also like process improvement and data consulting. My work really varied.

But at DHS, I guess I decided that I wanted a role that was more people facing. With the city, I had a few opportunities to lead projects, and work with outside organizations like with the Inclusive Innovation Summit. I got to be more out in the community, and less internal, and I wanted something like that.

So at DHS, I ended up becoming an application specialist, which is a fancy way of saying I help manage some of the applications within DHS, which is cool, because I work with our development team, but I also work a lot with provider agencies that use our software. I work a lot with the DHS program office to talk about their needs. And it’s great to hear people and try to help them have software that does the kind of work they need to do to serve the public.

It kind of still speaks to my overall interest in that I really enjoy being a linchpin between different groups of people. And so sometimes, one of the most rewarding parts of my job is talking to our users and understanding their needs and translating it into a way that is most useful and actionable for the development team and vice versa. And I find that very rewarding. It’s like I’m a translator.

Tara Matthews. (Photo via Twitter)

What’s made you want to stay in Pittsburgh all these years?

Pittsburgh has a way of sucking you in. They’re very welcoming here. And I’ve noticed that Pittsburgh has a way of claiming things as its own. If something happens in Pittsburgh, they’re like, “This is our thing.” I noticed as a student, a lot of the others — especially Black students — at Pitt that I met were not from Pittsburgh, and a lot of them have stayed here. Part of me does kind of miss home just because that’s where my entire family lives. But I’ve also built a community here in Pittsburgh. I have a circle in Pittsburgh. And it does feel like home.

What communities, both in and out of tech, have you found helpful in Pittsburgh?

In terms of my professional development, I would say, honestly, what’s helped me a lot is just the people I meet through my job and having personal mentors. Mentorship is super important — having people sitting down and talking to me and listening to what I’m concerned about, or what I’m trying to do, and say, “That’s a good thing,” and “Maybe should be thinking about this.” That has been super, super valuable.

Code for Pittsburgh has also been really great. It’s a volunteer organization that works with open data. And it’s been really interesting to hear about what other people do with data. As a city employee, I loved hearing how people use data, especially the data we published.

Black Tech Nation, of course, has been great.

What advice would you give to people looking to follow a similar career path to yours?

I think that people, especially people like me, whether you’re a woman or you’re a woman of color, or even specifically a Black woman — they deal with plaguing imposter syndrome.

I try to talk to and make myself available to people that I meet [who are interested in this path]. A few people have taken me up on it. And oftentimes they talk about how they don’t feel like they’re ready. They don’t feel like they’re good at certain things. And what I say to them is that there are a lot of people who are extremely smart and super good at what they do. But there are also a lot of people who just decided that they were going to just wing it and figure it out as they go. And they do just fine. Not to say that they should do that — but there’s a quote that says, “If not you, then who? If not now, then when?”

You are more prepared than you thought. You are more gifted and more intelligent than you thought. You will be surprised at how many people were unsure about what they’re doing, who didn’t have everything in place, and decided, “I’m ready.” There are certain segments of people who are taught that they are inherently competent, inherently deserving of these spaces, that they inherently belong. And other people don’t have that privilege. But it belongs to you.

Take it. You can jump in. You are worthy. There is a place for you. And I know sometimes it can be intimidating and scary, and I recognize that. But my biggest advice is just if you think that this is something you want to do, then do it. Because you can. And there are a lot of people who feel that way. But they’ve been trained not to let that stop them. Don’t let that stop you either.


Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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