By Steve Kelman

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Coding it Forward fellowship program gets enthusiastic feedback

Coding it Forward co-founders Chris Kuang and Rachel Dodell, shown here at a 2019 Demo Day.

Coding it Forward co-founders Chris Kuang and Rachel Dodell


I recently got a visit in my office from Chris Kuang, the Harvard senior who was one of the founders of Coding it Forward, the student-run organization that has been organizing summer digital tech federal fellowships for the last three summers. Kuang wanted to share with me the results of a survey of student participants in last summer’s program and their federal bosses, conducted with the help of the Partnership for Public Service. He had a broad smile on his face.

When he showed me some of the results, I could see why.

The idea behind Coding it Forward is to provide college students with a paid summer tech fellowship in a federal agency (at a salary of $4,000, paid by the agency). The group will not accept just any fellowship opportunity offered up – the fellowships must provide meaningful work (no jobs installing SharePoint on computers) that allows students to see an impact for the public. From 14 fellows the first year, the number of fellows grew to 36 in 2018 and 55 in 2019. They are aiming for 60-70 in the summer of 2020.

In the survey, both fellows and their supervisors answered a series of questions on a 1-5 scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The fellows answered some of the same questions both before and after their fellowships.

Let me start with what I thought was the most-amazing information the survey revealed. Fellows were asked both before and after their internships how interested they were in working after graduation in various kinds of jobs. Before the summer, only 6% ranked working for the federal government at a 5. By summer's end, the percentage had shot up to 27%. (The percentage indicating strong local government interest rose from 4% to 21%.)

Pre-fellowship, 37% had ranked working for “a for-profit public interest tech social good company” highest, and that had increased to 60% after the internship. By contrast, the percentage of those strongly interested in working for a regular private company remained stable at 19% (vs. 20% before the summer), while interest in tech startups increasing only modestly from 16% to 21%. These fellowships are creating a recruitment path for tech workers into the government.

There was another fascinating question where fellows were asked their perception of “how good a job the federal government (does) running its programs.” Before their fellowships, 47% of the students said government was doing a poor job running programs; after the summer just 15% agreed with that statement. Before the fellowship, a mere 2% said the government was doing a good job, afterwards it had risen to 31%. So the fellowships also revolutionized these students’ views of government.

The summer experience also notably improved participants’ public service motivation. Before the program, 39% agreed that ”meaningful public service is very important to me,” afterward 60% agreed with that statement. Before, 25% agreed that “making a difference in society means more to me than personal achievements,” afterward 46%. Before, 31% agreed that “I am not afraid to go to bat for the rights of others even if it means I will be ridiculed,” while 50% agreed after their experience.

The fellows’ view of how they were managed was quite positive, but more mixed. On the 1-5 scale, they rated the support they received from Coding it Forward at 4.7, how good a match the position was for them at 4.2, the availability of their agency mentor at 4.2, supervision from the agency at 4.0, and the quality of feedback at 3.8.

Supervisors were highly positive about the fellows. On a 1-5 scale, they rated fellows at 4.8 as a “good match for our needs” and 4.6 as “self-motivated and could operate without supervision.”

The rating on “project deliverables met my expectations” was 4.8, on “project deliverables have saved my unit time” it was 4.6, and on “are directly benefiting its customers/beneficiaries” it was also 4.6.

Would they recommend the program to others? The average student response, on a 1-10 scale, was 9.3. The average federal supervisor response 9.8.

If any agencies are interested in having Coding it Forward fellows for the summer for 2020, they should quickly contact team@codingitforward.com.

Kuang also shared the news that when he graduates from Harvard in June he will start a fulltime job for Coding it Forward in Washington. An applied math major, he never intended to go in this direction before starting work establishing this organization. Coding it Forward has now moved from student activity to startup, and Kuang has moved from student activist to social entrepreneur. I hope Washington-based blog readers will warmly welcome him to our community when he arrives.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 25, 2019 at 10:01 AM


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