For about two decades now, I have sought to locate myself somewhere in the intersection between computers and politics. In my early twenties, I worked as a programmer for a series of political technology enterprises. Now that I am running a firm in the same niche, I think about the change in perspective that has taken place as I have gotten older and moved from employee to employer.
Looking back, I judge the proprietors of the enterprises for which I worked less harshly now than I did at the time -- and I evaluate myself as their employee more critically. I hope that I can better understand the frustrations that my current employees have with me and our business by remembering how I felt when I walked in their shoes. I also hope that my employees are more sympathetic to me than I was to my former bosses. I have discovered that the operations – and the success -- of a small business are far from automatic and ought not be taken for granted.
On that subject, I think back in particular to one of my early jobs. In 1990, I wrote computer programs for Election Data Services, a redistricting consulting firm. That position could have been a perfect fit for me; I was very interested in the subject matter and I learned a lot about it at that firm. I did so partly by investigating their library and reading articles and books by academics and practitioners, but more so by taking part in the real-life projects of the business. For all of the opportunities EDS gave me, I am still quite appreciative.
EDS built redistricting databases and consulted with redistricting authorities on line-drawing and on the court cases that followed. The end goal of the databases we built was to provide those who were tasked with redrawing district boundaries information to do their job accurately as well as to predict the political implications of assigning each census block to one side of a line or the other. As a small part of that process, I wrote a program to disaggregate election returns from precincts into the census blocks of which they were composed.
I learned a lot of good stuff on that job. I learned about the Census Bureau’s mapping information system, TIGER. I learned about the nitty-gritty of election returns and how that data was available on computers around the country, or where it had to be hand-entered from paper reports. I learned how the geographic staff produced computerized precinct maps from paper maps by assigning census blocks within the mapping software. I learned how states varied in their redistricting processes, from Iowa’s nonpartisan process to Illinois’s more political one. I heard interesting redistricting anecdotes from insiders to the game. I read about the relevant laws and cases. And I watched the construction of what I saw as the company’s signature product, the biennial election results posters seen all over DC that summarize voting by county and state.
In spite of the subject matter that I found quite interesting, I was fairly grumpy at times in my year of employment at that firm, feeling underused for my abilities, critical of office politics and general company organization and disconnected from a sense of company mission. I also felt that the owner did not take a personal interest in me. For these reasons, and probably because I was dealing with issues in my personal life, I was far from as good an employee for that company as I could have been. I feel bad now that I wrote an ungrateful note when I left complaining about a fairly trivial administrative matter.
I have kept in mind some things that bothered me when I worked at EDS -- and other firms at which I worked -- when considering how to manage my current operation. I have tried hard to do well by my employees. Unfortunately, particularly as my firm has grown, and the demands on my time have increased, I have learned how hard it is to get it all right. As internal operations become more complex, developing good systems to manage work becomes more difficult. I have terrific staff that are sometimes underused with respect to their abilities by the realities of day-to-day work, but I have not always been able to change that. I would love to get to know each member of my team better, but with some busy weeks go by without much personal interaction. Remembering the times when I felt disconnected from the purpose of my work in the past, I try in various ways to convey the company’s mission and what I see as our company exceptionalism, but even I have days when I question who we are and where we are going.
Upon reflection, a good part of the quality of my work as an employee stemmed from my own idiosyncrasies; that is, from what I wanted to do or wanted to avoid doing at the time. Now, as an employer, I find I must be alert to the consequences to those who work with me of business decisions shaped inevitably by my own purposes and inclinations.
Putting all of this reflection aside, I am proud of what we have been able to do so far, and curious to see what the future will bring.