Hacking on code and culture: Failure as validated learning

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Open source is about more than the code, it’s about the culture. The open culture that many open source communities embrace is entrenched in organizations like Code for America. It’s obvious as I sit here during the opening day of the Code for America Summit in San Francisco, CA.

Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, started off the conference with a call to action, "Beliefs aren't enough, we have to act."

One of those actions was announced during her keynote. Code for America is launching a new peer network for cities. Why, because "networks do what individuals can't." The program aims to connect change agents in local government around big ideas, to make government more engaging for citizens.

Tim O’Reilly took the stage with Eric Ries, author of The Lean Start-up and newly announced Code for America board member. They talked mostly about the book and how the principles outlined in the book can be applied to government. The model of a start-up and the concept of failure, were the two hot topics.

Ries defines a start-up as human institution. The size of the institution doesn’t matter and the sector doesn’t matter either. But Ries never considered government a sector. Connecting his idea to government has made it all the way to The White House.

Do you live in a culture where failure is not an option? Ries says that if you are, you’re lying to your team or organization. O’Reilly and Ries went back and forth about how much and how often "government" could fail. Ries summarized failure as validated learning. And governments can fail safer with strong executive leadership and sponsorship.

David Eaves, the master of ceremony for the day, really summarized things for me when he said:

"Code for America is not really about hacking code—it’s about hacking culture"

And that highlights the power of open source communities, like Code for America. As Palhka said, "Everyone in this room is one of the founders of this movement." I would add to it. Everyone who chooses to participate is part of the solution and the movement.

Other good quotes

  • "Building the wrong things efficiently is not a good use of time" — Eric Ries
  • "We're all here to collectively figure out the right thing to do" — Jennifer Palhka
  • Code for America is "a hack on the government procurement system" — Tim O'Reilly
Jason Hibbets is a Community Director at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and Opensource.com community publications.


Fear of failure deprives one of the most valuable learning moments. I was pleased to see this posting and the emphasis on the cultural versus technological aspect of what Code for America is all about. In my new role as the Open Data Program Manager for the City of Raleigh I see acculturation issues and business process issues as well as technology issues to manage. This is my first comment I have enjoyed reading opensource.com for quite some time.

Glad you enjoyed. I'm currently reading Ries' book, The Lean Start-Up, with the filter of how it can apply to opensource.com and also how it can apply to the local open government in Raleigh--i.e. CityCamp Raleigh and the Open Raleigh initiatives.


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