Civic technologists work on government services that impact millions of people every day. For private sector technology workers who want to make a bigger public impact, starting a career in civic tech is a great option. Building public services that are simple, effective, and accessible requires designers, engineers, product managers, and many other tech professionals with experience building human-centered products.
At Nava, our employees have done everything from supporting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as they build crucial public health technology to working with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to help beneficiaries get preventive care. Though our work presents unique challenges, it can also be extremely rewarding and fulfilling.
At Nava, everybody in the nation is or will be your customer, and everyone is your “shareholder.” Every day, even on the hardest ones, you feel you're making a difference for millions of people. This is huge, humbling, scary, and fulfilling all at the same time.
- Monica Catunda, Principal Product Manager
But what exactly does that switch from the private sector to civic tech entail? To answer that question, we spoke with five Nava employees who came to us from the private sector. Below, they give their thoughts on the challenges and rewards of switching to civic tech and offer advice to people who are considering this career pivot.
Featured in this article:
Role: Senior Product Manager
Current project: The New Jersey Department of Labor (NJDOL)
Previously worked in: Renewable energy
Role: Software Engineer and Engineering Manager
Current project: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Previously worked at: IBM
Role: Principal Product Manager
Current project: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)
Previously worked at: Microsoft, GoDaddy
Role: Product Manager
Current project: U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)
Previously worked at: Microsoft
Director of Design at Nava
Previously worked at: American Express, MedStar Health
On the challenges of switching to civic tech
Sibonay: Learning to work within a different set of constraints was a challenge. In the private sector, we were usually constrained by resources. In civic tech, we are often working with legacy technology systems that are decades-old, and we must also consider policy and organizational constraints.
It was important for me to ask questions about the constraints and the reasons behind them. Humility is so important for product managers in civic tech—you never want to assume you know better than the government staffers who have been working on these problems for decades. By asking questions and getting to the root of the constraints, you can understand which levers are moveable and which aren't. Then you can focus your energy on the right problems.
Ryan: Before joining Nava, I held product roles across industries in the private sector and became accustomed to considering the needs of corporate shareholders. But in the public sector, stakeholders are accountable to democratically elected leaders rather than corporate shareholders. I learned that it can often take longer for stakeholders to agree on what needs to be built, how to build it, and how quickly it can be rolled out. Overcoming this involved adjusting my expectations around the decision-making process.
Monica: I worked in private sector tech for over 20 years before Nava hired me. For me, the main challenge in civic tech was understanding the complex organizational structures of large government agencies. I found this to be particularly important when projects require cross-organizational collaboration for understanding and negotiating dependencies, constraints, risks, and change management.
I still struggle with this today, but I was able to find some brilliant mentors within Nava and our partner agencies that helped make it easier. They taught me to always apply a system-thinking approach when navigating these complexities. Now, I think it’s really fascinating!
Sneha: Before Nava, I worked in multiple sectors including healthcare, serious (educational) games, and financial services. In these roles, I found a lot of similarities to government work such as large teams, plenty of complexity, and legacy considerations to navigate. However, in civic tech, we're working with stakeholders and agencies who are answerable to Congress and the public. We have to respect their time and taxpayer dollars by working in thoughtful, lean cycles to deliver as much value as possible.
On the best parts of working in civic tech
Monica: My favorite part is knowing that my work impacts people’s lives in a meaningful way. At Nava, everybody in the nation is or will be your customer, and everyone is your “shareholder.” Every day, even on the hardest ones, you feel you're making a difference for millions of people. This is huge, humbling, scary, and fulfilling all at the same time.
Sibonay: At Nava, I get to focus on big, thorny problems that have real societal impact. My current role revolves around modernizing unemployment insurance technology, which the pandemic exposed as an urgent need. I also enjoy the company of everyone I work with, and am constantly blown away by their talent and dedication to public service.
Something else I love about civic tech is that it’s far more diverse, on average, than other sectors of the tech industry. As a woman of color technologist in the private sector, I was a minority in almost every meeting I attended. In comparison, most of my current colleagues are women of color.
Sneha: As designers, we get to research and shape how policy, regulations, and technology affect civil servants’ and the public's experience with government. The scale of our work often impacts millions of people around the country.
On advice for someone thinking about leaving the private sector for civic tech
Ryan: In my experience, product managers solve similar problems in the public and private sectors. In both, you have to align stakeholders on a vision and coordinate requirements across different subject matter expert groups.
With that said, it’s important to understand that decision-making and time to delivery might take longer than you’re used to, especially at a product-driven company. Developing strong client management skills and coming into the space with a mindset of support goes a long way in the public sector.
Jimmy: If you’re thinking about moving to civic tech, think about the impact your current work has and whether that impact fulfills you. If it doesn’t, then moving to civic tech is a great way to engage more with mission.
Monica: There are fewer differences between the two industries than you may think. Government employees have the same commitment, engagement, and caliber of talent as employees at private sector companies. Your private sector skills and perspectives can contribute to real positive change in civic tech, especially when coupled with the domain expertise and context knowledge from government tech leads.
Sibonay: Talk to people working within civic tech, and if it seems appealing, take a leap of faith and make the transition. The skills you will build in civic tech will serve you well should you choose to return to private tech. I have zero regrets.