Nina has been working in the government as a technologist for 12 years, ever since graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences. She is heavily involved in the volunteer civic tech space and in improving the way government does technology. She’s the co-captain of Hack for LA, a member of the National Advisory Council for Code For America's Brigade Network, and a newly elected member of the SoCal ACLU.
This has been edited for clarity.
Michelle: Nina, what is your current job title and how long have you been there?
Nina: My job title is Accounting Systems Analyst II and I work for the county of Los Angeles Auditor Controller. I've been there for 12 years this year.
Michelle: Wow, that's a mouthful, Can you tell us a little more about that, and what an average day looks like for you?
Nina: Sure. It actually varies a lot. My position as a systems analyst mostly involves understanding our users’ needs. For me and my department that ends up being other employees at the county. We're in a supportive role, building out applications for internal operations. That includes meeting with our future users and understanding their needs and requirements. Then doing analysis on software and options that are available, as well as architecting a solution and then implementing it.
Nina: Sometimes that includes programming by developers on our team, which sometimes means me by myself. Or it could mean working with our central IT department, with them as the developers and us being the business analysts and project managers. Sometimes the work I do also involves support because I have our external facing website and we help people get the content up there. So it's a huge variety of things.
Michelle: Do you like having that variety?
Nina: Definitely. I started off my career really insecure because I didn't feel like I was really smart in any one thing. I wasn't this like rockstar specialist type, I was interested in a lot of things. I dug into that more and became comfortable with the idea of being a generalist. Into being able to tackle a variety of things, whatever is thrown my way. That helps keep the job interesting and I develop a variety of skills. Then by the nature of the type of work that we do, the people that we interface with, and the kind of problems we solve, we get to learn so many different aspects of our business within government. It ends up being really interesting,
Michelle: What's been the most surprising thing you've learned working in government?
Nina: There's a lot of layers here going on in my head that I'm trying to unpack. Some things are not a surprise, but then they are a surprise. I had this idea in my head that government sucks and there's a lot of bureaucracy. People don't want to be progressive and learn and do things. The way the government does tech sucks. There is truth to that, for sure. But it's also true of any large old bureaucratic organization, whether that's the public or private sector. So I was surprised to learn that we do have so many people who care about doing a great job, trying to improve things, and do good work within the county.
Michelle: That's awesome to hear, and a very interesting perspective about how people think big tech companies are always on the cutting edge, but they can sometimes be just as hard to move as a big government agency.
Nina: Oh, yeah. I also have an as an addendum to that surprising thing. I think a lot of people see government failures and blame the government. What they don't realize, and I know this because I work on the inside, is that a lot of the time we contract out to private companies for our work. That failure of a website or application? That's a private company that created that.
Michelle: When that happens, what do you think is the issue is? I've heard that the bidding process can be really difficult. That it can be hard to get a variety of companies, that sort of thing.
Nina: Oh, definitely. A huge part of that is built into the way that we do procurement. We haven't been able to evolve our request for proposals in a way that matches modern tech development practices. Changing the process and educating people is difficult to do because of our internal operations. It's hard for us to hire people who know how to do these things because of the way our hiring process works. It's really hard because I know that the bureaucracy was put in place to protect the public's interest. We're spending the public's money, we have to be responsible with it. The checks and balances were put into place to discourage nepotism and favoritism. Those things also make it difficult for us to move more agilely
Michelle: Do you feel like you get to move the needle a little bit, however incrementally, in the right direction?
Nina: Oh, definitely. Discovering that I could have that power even at the level I am was so empowering for me. It triggered my passion for the work that I do. Part of it is developing our websites and applications with best practices in mind while educating and bringing in other government tech employees into the fold. The other part is being an advocate for all of this. Being a government employee, being on the inside, I have that in with other government employees. A lot of people in government do get defensive when they're approached by people outside government, they're like, oh, you don't understand, why should I listen to you? I can approach them from the inside and say, I get it, we're in this together, so let's try to fix this.
Michelle: What initially drew you to work in the government?
Nina: It was really kind of random in a way. A lot of people end up getting into government, at least my local government agency because they knew someone else who worked in government. It's stable, it's secure and you get decent benefits, which are valuable in this day and age. I had a relative who worked in government and put that out there as an opportunity. I worked there as a student professional worker over the summer while I was still in college. They liked me and the work that I did. When I graduated and a position opened up they told me to apply and I made it in.
Nina: It was initially in my mind that I would only stay there temporarily because I didn't see government work as a long term thing. For me, it wasn't glamorous. Coming from going to school in the Bay Area, tech companies, startups, those were the glamorous places. I was like, I'm gonna stay in for five years and then I'm gonna go find a cool startup. I ended up staying for 12 years. I've been loving it more and more as I stay because I am optimistic. I see the potential for the difference that I can make.
Michelle: What is a recent project that you really enjoyed?
Nina: One of my recent projects, I'm not actually on it right now, but I was on it for the last two years or so. It was called the library of contract information, which we chose because the acronym became LOCI. We pronounce as Loki because we knew that it would be such a trickster of a project. I know it sounds ridiculous like, oh, it's an application for contract information. However, when I got into this contracting application project, I had to learn about the business behind how we do contracting and procurement. I had to learn the specifics about what goes into that process to understand what the data is that needed to be collected.
Nina: There's a lot of data that we could be collecting. We don't want to collect every single part of it, because that's unrealistic. How do we condense it down what is useful for all the stakeholders? For the users, the executive management, the elected officials, and the Board of Supervisors, who we all essentially report to at the end of the day. I had to dig deep into that. Yes, there's a lot of dysfunction in there. But it was really interesting to learn about. I loved it for giving me that insight into the side of government force that I never thought that I would have a passion for.
Nina: Did you feel like you had the autonomy to go in, do a bunch of research and figure out the best needs for the stakeholders?
Nina: Sometimes. My direct management is awesome, I love them. That's why I've been with them for 12 years. It can be difficult when they're being given directives by people higher up who are further away and have their own ideas. My boss has tried to buffer me the best they can. They give me a good amount of autonomy. Sometimes we're dealt a poor hand and have to make the best of it. What I try to do is exercise my autonomy outside of work. I like to network within the government and civic technology community and take advantage of all these other resources that I don't get afforded through my actual day job.
Michelle: Do you want to talk about the organizations you're a part of?
Nina: I am one of the co-captains of Hack for LA. We have a volunteer group that works on civic technology projects. We host two weekly hack nights, one in Downtown LA and one in Santa Monica. It doesn't matter what kind of background you have, if you're in tech or not. We have developers, designers, UX/UI people, product managers, but also activists and engaged community members. They come out and pitch ideas for projects to address needs that they see in their communities, things they want to help solve. Then we work on these projects.
Nina: Some of what we've been doing more of is trying to build relationships with nonprofits and government agencies, to let them know that we exist here as a resource. A lot of the time they don't have internal IT technology resources, so we can be that for them. We're trying to come up with impactful projects in partnership with these groups. We do all of this as the local Los Angeles chapter of a nationwide network of what we call brigades. The idea is of fire brigades in service to the community, helping to put out local fires. There's a whole network and it's operated under Code for America, which is a nonprofit in this civic technology and government space. I am also on the National Advisory Council, which is over the brigade network and communicates with Code for America.
Michelle: A common problem that I get asked about is when people who have one or two years of experience coding and really want to get to the next level. They don't always have access to mentorship or other senior engineers get code reviews. Do you think being a part of Hack for LA could be helpful to them?
Nina: Oh, definitely. Our project groups are a great opportunity for people to get real-world experience on projects. A lot of the people that come to us are trying to transition into technology or they came from a boot camp. It's really important to get experience working on a real project. You get to interact with other sides of the business that you don't normally get to do when you're the only person on project. I know, because I've done that myself when I was practicing different languages.
Nina: When you're working with other people, you have to learn how to communicate, you have to learn how to take in the different perspectives. If you're working with a UX/UI designer you have to learn how to properly project or product manage this thing that you're both working on. It's a great experience and we're hoping to offer really useful opportunities for people. When they are applying for jobs they can say that I worked on this project with this LA county department to help feed low-income people.
Michelle: As someone who has a part in hiring, that would be a big plus. It's always great to see what someone did on a project and its' impact.
Nina: Oh, that's great to hear. I've never actually been involved in hiring. It's what I hear from other people around me.
Michelle: Senior and mid-level engineers could benefit as well because one of the skills they have to cultivate is being able to mentor and give useful code reviews.
Nina: Definitely, I totally agree. It's the nature of what we do that makes that a little difficult sometimes because we are in front of the computers so much. Part of my reason for even first attending tech meetup groups was I realized that sometimes I might go days without talking to a person. That's not good! It's really good for more senior people to get that experience leading people. It's different than just leading the direction of your coding project. We also try to promote opportunities for people to speak and present as well, which is great for career development
Nina: As a more senior person, it's very beneficial to know how to present and communicate your ideas. To be able to clearly communicate what you are doing and why with the more senior executive level management. We encourage our volunteers to take advantage of opportunities to present the projects that they work on with us at our local conferences. There's a lot of great opportunities right here in the LA area for that.
Michelle: When I made the jump from mid to senior a big part of it was being able to clearly articulate my plan and to convince everyone that it was the right thing to do. To be able to get all the stakeholders involved from every department and at every level.
Michelle: What questions do you often get when you go to meetups and other events?
Nina: How do I have time for this all? That's the big question that I get asked. It's come down to figuring out what I prioritize in my life. It's kind of weird to say because as a kid my parents wouldn't let me watch TV. Once I moved out, I'm like, okay, I can watch all the TV I want. Now I'm involved in so many things I don't care about watching TV or going to the movies anymore. It's about distilling down. I value the groups that I'm a part of and the impact that I have. I want them to succeed. I want to help promote all these things that I'm passionate about.
Nina: Part of it is finding that passion. Outside of that, learning how to give yourself a break and realizing when you need to take a step back. When you say no to things it's going to be fine. Spend time doing the things that you really love when you're not volunteering or going to events. For me, that's spending time with the people who are close to me and making sure that I make time for them in the middle of all this.
Michelle: Figuring out what to say no to when everything seems like it will be fun is hard.
Nina: Yeah, it's so hard. I've always had a difficult problem with that. What I've tried to do is to be more strategic about what I say yes to and consider, what does my involvement look like? What are the expectations going to be? Being strategic in say, events that get planned. If there's an expectation that I'm part of ideating on and organizing events for one group, but I know that would benefit these other groups that I'm part of I'll turn it into a collaborative event. Then it is co-sponsored by all these groups and a benefit to all of our communities. I'm a big fan of mixing everyone together, because that's where you get amazing, unique combinations.
Michelle: If feels like that's the next level of organizing, where you realize, oh, I'm in these 10 different groups that all have kind of the same needs? How can I contribute to all of them? How can I be efficient about it?
Nina: Yeah. I loved playing civilization building games as a kid. It is natural for me to think about it in this way.
Michelle: How do you decide which events are going to be the best for you, in terms of attending? There are always new events and it's hard to judge whether one would be a good use of my time versus another.
Nina: It can be hard for sure. I don't know that I have a good method necessarily. I've cut back on events for personal skill-building. There was a period of time when I was going to those to build up my technical skills, networking skills, or organizing skills. I focus more now on what kind of value can this event add to these communities that I'm part of? A lot of times that turns into, is this a good opportunity for me to advocate on behalf of these groups? Are these attendees going to be interested in this opportunity that I can present to them?
Nina: In the specific case of Hack for LA, we're trying to develop trust and relationships with people who are on the front lines as service providers, advocates, and people who work in government. Events that allow me to engage with them and them to see that we're for real and here to do work. Those are valuable to me.
Michelle: Speaking of skills, let's talk a little bit more about your job. What skills do you find the most essential on a day to day basis?
Nina: At this point in my career, communication is huge. As an electrical engineering and computer science major my background is completely in programming. They don't focus enough on communication in school when you are a STEM major. Granted, it is something that you need to build up over time. Most people aren't born with this innate ability to clearly communicate effectively with everyone around them.
Nina: Understanding where people are coming from and understanding how to respond to them in a way that that they will then understand and doesn't put them on the defensive is critical. You should be able to clearly communicate your technical project to non-technical people, so that you're not talking down to them and that they don't feel overwhelmed. Understanding what you need out of them is so important.
Michelle: How would you advise students to learn better communication and empathy?
Nina: A great way is to get involved in volunteer groups and step up for leadership opportunities because that's going to put you in a position of responsibility. That's when communication becomes so important. An example of that is being one of the leaders within Hack for LA. I'm responsible for providing a safe and welcoming environment for our volunteers and our attendees. That means if we have people who are disrupting that environment, who are harassing people, it's up to me to be able to handle that situation. To communicate in a way that resolves the situation and it's the same at work. If I'm in charge of a project, I have to report to managers and I have to communicate with my developers. It's on me to make sure that every slide gets the correct message.
Michelle: My next question might feel like a bit of a cheap shot because you work in government, but I promise you I ask every guest this question. What is the most boring but essential part of your job?
Nina: No worries, I can take all the government jokes. Yeah, there's a lot I could say. But I think this applies to a lot of jobs, not just government, and that is documentation. As a technical person, I encountered this scenario early in my career. You're coding when you run across a bug. You Google it and you find the one answer that fits. Then you're like, yay, I fixed it. Then three months down the line, you're debugging and you're like, wait, I feel like I've encountered this before. Oh, shoot, where was that? Where is that page that had the solution? Then you spend hours trying to find it again.
Nina: I learned early on to document what I do well. Part of that is I'm the only person or only programmer on my project some of the time. If I made something 3, 6 months ago, I have to deal with the result of I wrote. I feel dumb when looking at my code and I don't know what I was thinking. I ask myself, why did I do it this way? What does this mean? In that sense, it taught me the importance of documenting for myself and other people. Documenting the process of how to set something up, or why it was set up this way. There's a lot of little nuances in place that make sense. You understand when you're doing it, but a year later who knows.
Michelle: I experienced that this week, when someone asked me, Hey, I saw this weird test. Do you know what's going on here? And I was like, Oh, me, I wrote that. I can't defend past Michelle. I will just let you know that you should probably fix it.
Michelle: What is the most stressful part of your job and how do you manage it?
Nina: The most stressful part of my job is dealing with management directives that I don't necessarily agree with. It's when I don't have much control over a project but I'm responsible for it. For example, when I wasn't involved in a project from the beginning and instead the executive management worked with vendors to up with a prototype. Suddenly I get handed this prototype and they say, you're in charge of this project now, roll it out live. I'm like, wait, hold up, there are all these bugs and this environment isn't stable and for us to roll it out, we need to implement all these additional features. This doesn't even solve what our users want, why are we doing this? But it's my job to do this thing. That is stressful, knowing that I have to work on this thing that I don't believe in, but I'm going to try to do my best anyway.
Nina: The thing that I found to be able to handle that is finding other outlets. That is part of the reason why I got involved with Hack for LA and other groups because I can have that impact elsewhere. It helps to know that those opportunities that I engage in elsewhere are ultimately going to help me down the line.
Nina: This is maybe unique to government, the sense that we don't necessarily have that idea of jumping around to a new opportunity. I've had relationships with other county employees from back when I first started, like 10-11 years ago, and we've been working on various projects and communicating with each other for a long time. 10 years from now they may be in higher levels in government, and I may be in a higher level of government. We'll know each other and be able to influence each other to help each other succeed in what we're trying to do. Knowing that it's a long game, even if I'm experiencing difficulties and stress about my impact right now, as long as I trust in the work that I do, and that I demonstrate that I do good work to the people who matter, that's really what carries me forward.
Michelle: It's not entirely unique to government. I've worked in private companies where I've had to do projects I wasn't interested in. It's fascinating to hear people that have had similar journeys. Where it's like, oh, work, isn't as satisfying as I'd like it to be right now, what can I do outside of work to find that. Joining tech groups and learning about all the other opportunities was so valuable for me. It's also part of the inspiration for the podcast, to get all this knowledge out there of what else is possible, even if it's not your day to day job.
Nina: Yeah, that's awesome. I'm so happy that you're providing this platform for people to talk about it, because some of these messages don't get out there to people who are newer in the field, and they do feel very insecure about it.
Michelle: One of my goals is to keep people in tech and interested, especially those who have been traditionally left out. To let them know there's a variety of jobs and projects and teams you can be working on. The one you're working on isn't the one you're gonna be working on forever. There's so much more out there.
Nina: Yep. To put that into perspective, the project that I said was my favorite was a complete failure and I'm not on that project now and another group has taken it over. The projects I've been on in the last five years, none of them went to production and are being used. It's a little discouraging, but ultimately there were excellent things that I got out of them. I learned so much and I can use that in the future.
Michelle: For every project that you work on, you get better for your next project, even if it gets completely rewritten the moment you leave.
Nina: Yeah, I mean, I'm constantly rewriting my own projects.
Michelle: Are there any skills that were on your job description or advised to have that you'd never use at all?
Nina: Remember my long title, the first part is accounting. We have this little quirk in my department, which is the auditor controller, where we are the only department in the LA County that hires specifically for this title, Accounting Systems Analyst. Other departments have Systems Analyst or Information Systems Analyst or Application Developers. We specifically hired for Accounting Systems Analyst. Part of the job description you'll see in there is works with accounting systems and financial blah, blah, blah, this and that.
Nina: I personally have not had to do that just because of the nature of the one group that I'm on. Some of the work that our department does is whistleblowing, investigation of improper activity by employees. We help support them so that people can report fraud. The business issues that we tackle go way beyond the scope of just accounting.
Michelle: Do you find with government job descriptions, that they're so regulated that it's hard for you to get specifics when you're looking to hire people?
Nina: For sure. there's a whole process to come up with the descriptions and to come up with the criteria, the basis on which we evaluate people. It's because they want it to be standardized and measurable, to produce a score so that we don't introduce bias. AIn that sense I'm proud that we're a very diverse work environment. At the same time, it makes it hard for us to create new positions to keep up with things. We don't have a way to specifically hire for UX/UI designers or product managers or data scientists.
Nina: Data is so big right now and everyone's talking about big data and all that stuff in government too, but we don't have a title for that. We have to shoehorn it in and there's a lot of work being done internally to create those classifications but it takes time. It's a process. It makes it hard for us to try too hard for people who maybe want to do that kind of work within the government. They don't know what to apply for, who is trying to hire for those positions. It's so hard to have that matchup. It's something that I want to try to help address. A lot of people do recognize that it's an issue.
Michelle: Now that you've gotten people excited about working in the government, how would you suggest they figure this out? Is there any like, keyword changes, or something to figure out if the job description is something they want to work on?
Nina: That is tough. I don't have a good answer for that. The basic ones, like a systems analyst, or developer programmer, sure. It does get tricky. This is on my list of things where I want to come up with a useful resource for people, because I don't have a good answer. The best option I have is to try to go to spaces where there are government people you can talk to who are familiar with the position. A lot of the time we've referred to government as like a singular, large entity. But really, we're siloed into our separate departments and we don't talk with each other. I'm most familiar with how my department runs. I don't know what other departments necessarily hire for. That's something I'm trying to improve.
Nina: In terms of where to find those government employees to interact with Hack for LA for one. There's also a breakfast lecture series that I helped organize called data and doughnuts. We try to bring together people from within the government who work in tech and data to present their projects. We want them to cross their silos and communicate with other people so they can learn and share. That can be a great resource as well. Even that's kind of hard because we're such a large region and it's fragmented. It's hard to go to a single place. There is governmentjobs.com. A lot of the local government agencies list positions there, but it can be difficult to find the right thing if you don't know what you're looking for.
Michelle: It sounds like you have to be very proactive, and reach out to get behind the scenes of what it says on the job description. You need to talk to people who work there to give you more of a day to day, here's what this entails. Even a word like analyst sounds like it could be anything.
Nina: Oh, yeah. It could be anything. When I first started I had no idea how to describe my job. Then we get management analysts and business analysts who don't necessarily have a technical background and are now being told to come up with dashboards and data analysis. It's this entryway into doing more advanced data science, it's what their management wants to see out of them. But their job title has nothing to do with data analysis or data science.
Michelle: It sounds like it might be a good opportunity for people who are starting out and are not sure what they want to do. Like, let me try all these different things, and then later, I can take a deeper dive.
Nina: What we like to say in government is once you get that initial job, you get your foot in the door in one government position, it's a lot easier to move around within government to other positions that might fit better. I'm out there as well with another group that I got involved in this past year, which I think is a great opportunity. I am on the board of the Asian American Employee Association for LA county employees. These kinds of social networks within the government are a great way to network with other government employees who have been around longer, who know the system, how it works in different agencies, and how to navigate that. I'm still learning that myself and it's been very educational for me to be involved with this group.
Michelle: I feel like I should have asked, are there any groups you're not involved in? That might have been a shorter list.
Michelle: Is there anything you wish you could have told yourself 12 years ago when you started your career?
Nina: So many things, so many things. The biggest thing is to put yourself out there and go for it. I had a lot of insecurity and imposter syndrome going on when I started. I always felt like everyone else was a way better programmer than me. That I was just pretending. When you put yourself out there, you learn well, no, no one has their shit together. We're all learning. We're all in this together. Once you start putting yourself out there, realizing that it's okay to make mistakes and try again, you improve and you get better. You grow so much faster. I wish that I had started doing that earlier.
Michelle: Yeah, getting a tech job can seem very overwhelming. There are all these huge, complex, fancy products out there. Really they're all put together by teams doing one small part at a time and maybe failing and starting over three different times to get it done.
Nina: Yeah, totally.
Michelle: So what's your next step?
Nina: My next step, my plans for global domination? Well, I do have this larger goal, I guess. I want to improve the way government does technology. I know that's super broad. My focus is specifically on the County of Los Angeles. Being in the civic tech space, I see that there has been a lot of focus on cities. You hear about cities doing innovative things or mayors pushing for things. There's been some work at the federal level as well.
Nina: A lot of our counties fly under the radar. I had no idea about what the county structure was before I started working there. Even right now, when I talk to my friends, they think I work for the city. When I say no, no, I worked for the county, they ask what's the difference? There's a lot of need there. I can add a lot of value in getting government tech employees within the county to engage with the tech community at large.
Nina: There's not enough crossover there. We can do a better job getting them involved with, say, the open-source community because the government would benefit a lot from having more open-source software and utilizing that more. Encouraging more of a growth mindset within government employees. It's hard for us, we're stewards of public resources, their tax dollars. It's really hard for us to come across career development opportunities that our departments are willing to pay for.
Nina: A lot of people don't have this idea of constantly learning. In tech, it moves so quickly, you need to be able to constantly learn. Promoting that by giving people access to free or low-cost resources so that they can pursue that is important to me. I don't do any of that as part of my day job. I don't know if that exists anywhere at this point, but long term, I would love to turn that into my official job.
Michelle: Having this conversation with you today and hearing how passionate you are and how your big dreams for the government are it helps restore my faith a little bit. Knowing there are people like you working in the government
Nina: I'm glad.
Michelle: I hope that's not too cheesy.
Nina: No, no, totally. I just came out of a two-day conference, where we got a bunch of government people together to learn about data and technology and open source and I just felt that. All of the past two days I felt that, so I'm glad that you feel it too.
Michelle: What's the best way for listeners to reach out?
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