Presidential Innovation Fellow Adam Becker launches the Department of Better Technology

Presidential Innovation Fellow Adam Becker launches the Department of Better Technology
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Recently, I interviewed the Co-founder & Chief Technology Officer, Adam Becker, of The Department of Better Technology (DOBT). DOBT is dedicated to making great software that helps governments and nonprofits better serve their communities. While DOBT sounds like a new government agency, it's actually a startup founded by two alums of the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows Program. Government needs more public (tech) entrepreneurs. In 2009, - when working at the White House - former US CTO Aneesh Chopra inspired me to champion civic technologies when he showed me the 21st Century technologies used to visualize government and agency budgets in real-time. So I thought highlighting, promoting, and championing DOBT's work would bring more attention to civic technologies.

Marquis Cabrera: How did you get involved in the civic tech space? For example, I saw that you co-founded GovHub?

Adam Becker: I got into the civic tech space serendipitously. Growing up in California I was tuned-in to progressive politics from a young age, but I hadn't heard about the civic tech movement until 2011 or so. I was in my first year of community college in Oakland when on a bike ride, I overheard another rider saying how he needed a developer for a project he was working on with another friend at UC Berkeley. I joined GovHub later that month, and from there it's kind of a blur! I was the CTO at GovHub for over a year, and then I got the once-in-a-lifetime chance to do the Presidential Innovation Fellowship (PIF), which led me to DOBT.

Marquis Cabrera: Your most recent venture looks really neat! Where did you get the idea from?

Adam Becker: It's funny ... I don't think there was any "lightbulb over the head" moment where we got the idea. Clay Johnson, my teammate during the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, and I sat down towards the end of our terms and said, "we need to start this business." From the outset, we were immediately on the same page. We had both seen, first-hand, the horrific state of government IT, and we knew that we wanted to keep working on it beyond the end of our fellowship term. We both briefly considered working for government, but 18F and USDS wouldn't come to pass for another couple years, and we wanted to try working from the outside, which would let us more easily leverage our work across multiple levels of government and geographic boundaries.

Marquis Cabrera: What is the DOBT?

Adam Becker: The Department of Better Technology is a company that builds software to help governments and nonprofits better serve their communities. Our flagship product is Screendoor. It solves one of the most frustrating, endemic problems in government: online forms.

The biggest touchpoint [for citizens] is forms. If you go on the street and talk to citizens about their interactions with government, they are bound to tell you about a form; they voted, paid taxes, filled out driver's license. These all require forms. The way government uses forms is broken. Government publishes .pdf forms. A current workflow is printing form, filling it out, scanning it, mailing it. This is in 2015 when everyone is used to filling things out on smart phone or laptop. Government has this frustrating experience. This is what actually affects civic engagement. Folks don't want to be civically engaged when this is the main form of interaction.

Screendoor allows you to create online form, digital services, it let's you configure form and workflow and you can build really powerful application. A. It's really easy for citizen, can use on smartphone. B. Accessible to all users. C. Also, it's a really great experience for folks working with government.

Marquis Cabrera: What is Screendoors differentiation factor? How is different from Google Forms and Wufoo?

Adam Becker: Collaboration and workflows, which allows you to automate. This is the holy grail for government. [Google and Wufoo] have an explicit process that needs to be followed. You can add and view the same data, but they're not built for collaboration. They're not opaque.

When you look at how government is currently collecting information, - on a spreadsheet in Google Drive - Screendoor has a clear advantage. Screendoor has an API and the ability to connect to other platforms -- an ability to be connected to other applications, like open data tools. Open data can be used to be more transparent, spur innovation, fund innovation communities, and innovate. If you can take data and publish to open data portal, then we can integrate with Socrata and CKAN. Instead of having a database manager to export CSV on two week basis, every change we would push out to public would be in in real-time. Obviously, we would need to filter out (and protect!) sensitive information, like publishing building permits that haven't been approved yet.

Marquis Cabrera: Screendoor is awesome, but what pain point is DOBT solving?

Adam Becker: If you look at the software government uses, it is terrible. Also, the user experience is backwards. Government's relationship with technology is a terrible one. For instance:

  • Government employees are used to "fighting with" the software that they are mandated to use on a daily basis. At DOBT, our software is intuitive, fast, and a joy to use.

  • Government traditionally purchases software by listing out their requirements, asking software vendors to submit bids, then awarding a contract, and waiting for years while a solution is custom-built to their specifications. In the world of technology, waiting years until implementation isn't acceptable -- by the time a solution is deployed, it is often wildly out-of-date! DOBT's focus is to build applications that can be rapidly-deployed, in order to have a working prototype in weeks, not years. This allows for "agile" development, where applications are constantly being revised and improved, instead of a "big bang" style launch, that often leads to debacles like
  • Government consistently overpays for IT, often to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Government spends $100M on IT projects that fail. "Big" IT procurements fail 90% of the time. DOBT keeps costs low by utilizing modern development practices, focusing on software that can be reused across multiple governments, and maintaining a focus on building great software, not building a humongous sales team. Our goal is to shift the way government looks at technology.
  • Marquis Cabrera: You guys re-branded from into Screendoor, why?

    Adam Becker: When we started DOBT, our first product was called "". The idea was to take RFP-EZ, the procurement-focused project that we had worked on during our [Presidential Innovation] Fellowship, and build a new version of it that would be usable by local governments across the country. We had a really great pitch deck, even a slide of POTUS with a graph of our results behind him, but we ran into a wall when trying to sell to local government. The folks we were demoing to looked at us, a company that was less than a year old at the time, and didn't trust us to implement a system that was so mission-critical. But when we demoed the part of where the user can drag-and-drop to build a form, we got an overwhelmingly positive reaction. People were literally calling in their coworkers from the other room to join our web conference. So like all good startups, we "pivoted" to Screendoor, which was a way to say "this product works for procurement, sure, but it also works for this whole other set of use cases, too."

    Marquis Cabrera: Can you give me a use case?

    Adam Becker: ProPublica is a really interesting nonprofit use case. They are doing crowdsourced journalism. In partnership with the Virginian-Pilot, ProPublica reporters are exploring the effects of Agent Orange exposure on Vietnam veterans and their children. They are using Screendoor to crowdsource and collect stories from both those who served in Vietnam and their family members. ProPublica collected thousands of form submissions from folks who would be willing to share their story. Screendoor let's them create a process for categorization and workflows. It also allows them to connect with people and send bulk messages and sort people by locations. ProPublica set this up without custom code being written; they didn't need to hire a developer either!

    Marquis Cabrera: Have you gained traction? Have you sold to government?

    Adam Becker: We've been incredibly pleased with our traction so far. I'm most proud of the fact that we've sold to all four levels of government: city, county, state, and federal. We've also sold at the international level, and have some great non-profits as customers as well.

    Marquis Cabrera: What advice would you give to someone looking to navigate the procurement process?

    Adam Becker: The procurement process can be extremely frustrating. I would just look at it as a necessary part of life -- there's no point of fighting it or getting mad about it, which will only make it suck even more. Let's take for example: it's about 80 pages of forms that are extremely tiresome to navigate through. I would say to just pretend it's a game, and if you're able to successfully navigate the bureaucracy, you win!

    Marquis Cabrera: What advice would you give to someone looking to become public entrepreneurs (entrepreneurs whose sole purpose is to help government innovate)?

    Adam Becker: Some of my advice would be similar to the advice you'd hear about doing any kind of startup or venture: 1. Talk to your users early and often; 2. Build fast, test your assumptions, and iterate. Don't spend months working on an assumption that hasn't been proved with data; 3. You'll hear the word "no" a lot. Don't let it deter you. In government especially, "no" tends to be a gut reaction to the prospect of doing anything new. If you take "no" as a final answer, you'll never go anywhere.

    However, there are parts of being a public entrepreneur that are *different* from traditional entrepreneurship. Your timeline for anything involving government is going to have to be doubled, tripled, or quadrupled, compared to working with the private sector. If you were going to do a B2B software company and after 6 months of trying to sell your product you still hadn't made any sales, it would probably indicate that there's something wrong with your product. In 2013, we were in the same situation with Screendoor and we started to doubt ourselves -- was the product as good as we thought it was? It turns out that we just weren't used to the extended sales cycle of government. 3 months later, our deals from the previous year started to finally close, and now we have dozens of government clients that all love the product.

    Marquis Cabrera: As someone who used to work at the White House, I have had so many great memories; from spending an hour with Vice President Biden to singing happy birthday to President Obama on the South Lawn. Everyone always ask me about the experience. So tell me: What is/was your most memorable experience as a PIF/ what did you enjoy the most ?

    Adam Becker: Our class of Presidential Innovation Fellows had the honor of meeting President Obama, which is of course an extremely special memory. However, if I had to choose a day that I enjoyed the most, it would be towards the end of our 6-month fellowship when we launched the RFP-EZ website. If you ask any developer, they'll tell you that the experience of launching a product is the most gratifying part of their job -- and launching a product inside of the federal government is still one of the coolest things that I've ever done.

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