On Unbecoming a Hotshot

Me, in my former role as a hotshot.

My four-year anniversary at my current job snuck up on me a few weeks back.

It’s not an anniversary I have a lot of experience with — it’s been a while since I worked somewhere for four years in a row. My professional career has taken me on an interesting journey, and I’ve bounced around a lot. Like a lot of people that find their way to 18F, I’m an impact junkie — leapfrogging to new, higher-profile roles can seem like a pathway to deepening and broadening your impact.

At least it once did to me.

When I realized I’d completely spaced out on the day of my four-year anniversary, I reached out to a former colleague who had helped me onboard. We hadn’t stayed in close contact since he left, so I thought a note of hello and thanks for the on-boarding experience four years go would be welcomed. And it was.

But he said something that really made me appreciate how long a four years it has been:

I remember you were like a semi-celebrity coming in so I didn’t know what to expect…

And I completely understood what he meant.

I had worked very hard over the prior 6–8 years to become outspoken on the thing I had become passionate about. A field that has come to be referred to as civic tech.

I had a lot to say, and I wanted to say it. I’ve always written for my own blog, and I took every opportunity I was offered to write for others. I tweeted my fingers into premature arthritis and used the #civictech hashtag with reckless abandon.

I did a lot of public speaking as I was developing ideas about what civic tech was and what I thought it should be. And I took every opportunity to speak in front of people that I was offered. Every single one. It didn’t matter how big of a group, or how tenuous their connection to my idea of what civic tech was, or why it was important.

Me, speaking to a (probably) bewildered audience at a communication technology conference in in 2010

I once spoke at a communication technology conference in San Francisco about open data, and how it was changing the world. I’m not sure everyone in attendance understood why I was there or what I was talking about, but I saw it as an opportunity to evangelize so I jumped at it.

I once drove from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to give a talk on open data to the team that would go on to create the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center. I drove back to Philly the same day, after meeting with the newly elected Mayor of Pittsburgh — a roundtrip of about 600 miles in the span of about 16 hours or so.

One year during the week of Thanksgiving, I found myself speaking to a group of Australian government employees in Canberra about open data and civic hacking. I remember asking myself why I was there when my family was celebrating a holiday back home. I never even made it to see Melbourne or Sydney, though that was likely the only trip I’d ever make Down Under. Certainly for a long while.

Who even was I, anyway?

I had become a hotshot. I didn’t set out to do that, but that’s where I found myself nonetheless.

I realize now that this is what made the early months of my transition to 18F difficult. I had to learn how to unbecome a hotshot. The problem space that 18F works in isn’t well suited to hotshots. It’s a space where teams thrive, and have impact that can last, and be expanded, and be replicated.

Over the four years that I’ve been there, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been a part of great teams. I’ve tried hard to be a good teammate, and to become the kind of person that can slide seamlessly into any team and make it better. To learn to listen more. To move out of the way, and let others take the lead when their ideas or skills are stronger. To eschew credit, unless it is directed at the team as a whole. To become agile enough to become whatever the team needs me to be on any given engagement.

None of these are easy things for a hotshot.

I’ve still got a lot to learn, and the work to be an effective teammate never ends. But the greatest benefit of joining the federal government and working at 18F is that it’s given me the freedom to let go of the need to be the one standing in front of the crowd. The one who always has to have the deepest insight, or most quotable remark.

The challenges of delivering high quality digital services, and bringing modern technology practices to the government are real, and they are signifiant.

And these challenges will be overcome by teams, not by hotshots.

I am a true believer. #opendata #civichacking