Last summer, I was part of the inaugural cohort of fellows at the Aspen Tech Policy Hub, an in-residence policy incubator that trains technologists to engage in policy.
The Hub recruits new fellows twice a year, and as soon as applications go out, my inbox gets flooded with questions about the program and my experience in it. To be fair and transparent to all applicants, those within my network and those who are not, I’ve published these questions and their answers here. The Aspen Tech Policy Hub changed my life and I hope you apply!
What drew you to the program? Did you have any prior experience in the policy process?
I studied American History in college, then spent my career in the tech industry. As a technologist, I am always weighing the implications of what I build, and I had often wondered how my industry skills and knowledge could be of use in a public service context. The Aspen Tech Policy Hub is a fellowship program designed to help technologists explore such questions and translate them into action. So when I read the description, I was stoked to apply.
On the side of my day-to-day work as a software engineer at Uber, I had co-founded a social movement to address harassment and discrimination in startup investing through policy. Through that work I had identified the many blind spots I had with respect to policy. I knew that policy training would enable me to better lead my organization. The fact that the Hub rooted its curriculum in practical policy classes and projects increased the fellowship’s appeal.
What were the other fellows like? Did everyone get along professionally and socially?
They were great! A creative and articulate group hailing from academia, government, non-profits, and tech. We became fast friends. You can read everyone’s bio on the Hub’s website.
How did you feel about the cohort structure with respect to the team projects?
The cohort was friendly, flexible, and open-minded, with everyone open to working with new people and considering different points of view. A lot of the work in the fellowship happens in groups, and most of the time, you get to choose who you work with on assignments and projects. For your final projects, you can work with whomever you want.
Were there common patterns of solutioning policy approaches during the fellowship?
People’s projects and approach to problem-solving were all over the map. For example, one of my “policy outputs” was a design thinking workshop; other fellows built dictionaries, web apps, and operational plans as policy outputs. Betsy comes from a traditional policy background, and her curriculum taught us how to produce traditional policy outputs like memos, press releases, and op-eds. As a result, most final projects ended up blending the more creative, tech-y deliverables with traditional materials.
Was there a space and time to substantively voice feedback?
Yes — there is a daily feedback survey to collect fellow perspectives on the experience.
What were some of the more rewarding aspects of the program?
All of our assignments in the fellowship were real. Which is to say: We presented our memos in front of real commissions, delivered our “48 hour project” to a real committee of stakeholders, and built stakeholder maps that elucidated real-world tech policy areas we would later explore in our projects. Some of our recommendations were actually implemented by the groups we presented to! It was rewarding to see that even as policy rookies, our tech expertise was valuable to decision-makers.
Sharing our final projects with stakeholders was also an incredible experience. I got to travel to DC and meet in-person with officials on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies to present my work. Officials seemed really grateful to be briefed on the issue, and it was fascinating to see behind-the-scenes on how they consider these topics and organize to make change. When we left, they thanked us for our work and said they would consider our recommendations. I had never understood how I could participate in democracy using my industry expertise prior to joining the Hub; getting to do so was incredibly rewarding.
What was the ideation process like for coming up with the team projects?
From day one of the fellowship, we were encouraged to explore and brainstorm project ideas. We wrote down our ideas and hung them on post-its around the room, unpacked them with each other over meals and in transit, and got to “think out loud” about projects on our minds at the bi-weekly pitch meetings. About four weeks into the program, all of the fellows shut ourselves in a room and went through the project ideas that we felt had the most traction. We coalesced around a few projects we wanted to commit to. After projects were selected, their focus evolved over time.
While you are allowed to work on the idea you pitch in your application, you’ll be encouraged to explore a lot before selecting a project. In our cohort only one person worked on the idea she had applied to the program with.
The webinar about the fellowship mentioned an 80/20 structure, with fellows commonly driving 80% of one project and offering 20% support on another project. Did you like that format?
The 80/20 structure meant I got to work with more fellows; between my 80% project and my 20% project, I collaborated directly with half of the fellows in my class. Another benefit of the structure is that if one project is blocked, you can flip and work on the other. That said, the 80/20 involved a lot of context switching and made the program really all-consuming. It meant we didn’t have much bandwidth for commitments outside the program — for some that was job searching, for others it was academic work. Betsy tells you at the beginning that this is intended to be a full-time job, and that really was true. In my case, I wasn’t able to devote as much time to leading my non-profit during the fellowship.
What was your project and who did you present it to?
I joined up with three other fellows on a project about protecting older Americans online. Evidence suggests older adults can be as vulnerable as young children in their interactions online, yet tech products and technology policy initiatives rarely make special considerations for this age group. In particular, we were interested in how older adults experience internet crime. We recommended that the federal government redesign scam reporting systems to facilitate participation by older adults, and presented our recommendations to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, to Commissioner Chopra’s office at the FTC, to the U.S. Digital Service, and to Senator Mark Warner’s staff. You can read about it here.
For the application — how “complete” do the action plan and idea need to be?
The program is action-oriented and concerned with tangibly moving policy forward via implementation and not just ideation. Thus, the more concrete you can be, the better. Make sure you have a specific stakeholder in mind as the recipient of your action plan, and double check that this stakeholder actually has the power to do the thing you’re asking of them. Also, make sure you propose a creative solution; they are really looking for innovative people to join the program.
What advice do you have regarding the application or the policy proposal? In the webinar, Betsy Cooper mentioned the importance of strong and clear writing, passion and curiosity for the program, and deep technical experience. Anything to add?
Many more things count as “policy” or “technical expertise” than I initially realized. My application was quite technical: an argument for better software supply chain standards and transparency, and a call for major tech companies to take leadership towards that. Obviously the topic worked as I was admitted to the program, but when I arrived at the Tech Policy Hub I realized most people had submitted less technical topics. You don’t need to use the application to strut how technical you are (which is what I was trying to do). That’s not Betsy’s background nor is it what she’s selecting for, so just choose an issue you know about and care about over one that you think sounds impressive.
Are some topics too “big” for the application? Should I consider addressing a local issue?
There is no too big or too small as long as you’re specific. Again, make sure you have a specific stakeholder in mind as the recipient of your memo, and that they actually have the power to do the thing you’re asking of them.
Do you have any suggestions of things I can do (maybe outside of work) or things/resources to seek out to prepare myself better to apply?
Yes! Separate post about that coming soon :)
Were there any lessons or experiences you took away from the program that felt unique to the Aspen Institute fellowship?
I took away a newfound passion for the policy side of the work I do as a technologist, an understanding of what it looks like to engage in policy projects related to my field, and a network that will help me pull off these ambitions. The network of peers and professionals I was able to build at the Hub is singular; I don’t know how else I’d be able to connect with so many tech policy experts in such a short time.
Where are the fellows now?
Doing amazing things! Directing AI for New York City’s CTO, sitting on the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, running Policy Labs at major universities, doing VC for the government, the list goes on…
Are you still in touch with the other fellows?
Absolutely. I’m in regular touch with the other fellows on Slack, and have seen a number of them in-person since the fellowship ended.
Would you apply again to the Hub?
Hands-down, 100% yes! The Hub opened my eyes to many new angles and topics within tech policy, instilling an amazing sense of possibility for my career. I came away with a community of friends who share a deep commitment to the development of responsible technology in our lifetimes, and with new skills to meaningfully engage in policy initiatives that matter to me. The Hub is one of the experiences I am most grateful for in my career and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Apply!
Have a question about the Hub that didn’t get answered here? Feel free to tweet at me @ginnyfahs.