Meet the coder who's running for Congress

Software developers are a rare breed in the halls of government, but why is that and should there be more of them? One who’s running for Congress shares his thoughts

Picture of Dave ColeImage credit: Cole for Congress
Dave Cole

Software developers, as you've probably heard, are in short supply these days. While startups, existing companies and everybody else who needs some code written are having a hard time finding enough good developers, there's one less obvious place where programmers are particularly scarce: the United States Congress. Between the House and the Senate, only one of the current 113th Congress's 535 members has worked as a software engineer (as far as I could find): Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Looking at the full breakdown of member occupations, we see that Congress, in fact, has more farmers (29), journalists (7), radio talk show hosts (5), pilots (3) and almond orchard owners (2) than software engineers. But, the number of developers in Congress just may increase by one this fall.

Dave Cole is a developer who is running for Congress from New Jersey's 2nd Congressional District. Cole worked in the White House for two years, as Deputy Director on the New Media Team and a Senior Advisor for Technology in the CIO office, during which time he helped take open source. Since 2011 he's worked as a general manager at MapBox.

When I learned about Cole's campaign, I reached out to ask him a few questions about his campaign and the benefits that programmers could bring to Congress. He was kind enough to share some thoughts with me.

Q: Aside from the generational reasons, why aren't there more software developers in politics?

A: "I think the general reason software engineers, teachers, small business owners and employees, and people from many professions outside of lawyers and political professionals are under-represented has to do with the amount of money it takes to mount a viable campaign, and how challenging it can be to raise the necessary funds."

Q: Do you see more programmers (or tech folks) choosing to go into politics in the future?

A: "I sure do. There's a need for analytically oriented professionals to tackle political and public policy problems. We've seen what the height of partisanship looks like. Let's try an influx of pragmatism instead...."

Q: What unique skills do you think programmers would bring to politics that would be beneficial?

A: "Like Rep. Rush Holt, the physicist Congressman from NJ talks about bringing the scientific method into public policy, I think web developers have a particularly useful problem-solving approach as well. 

When I approach a problem, my process is roughly this: identify the core issue to be addressed, understand what's been done in the past and why it hasn't worked, and lay out a plan to try iterative improvements to solve the problem. Then implement, constantly evaluate, and adjust the solution. I think an approach like this will go a long way.

Also, if you've watched a hearing in Congress on a technical issue, from looking into the problems with, patent reform, or the discussion on NSA domestic surveillance programs, you'll notice we really need people who better understand technology having a vote on the laws that govern it."

Q: Any special code, apps or software you or your team are using to manage your campaign?

A: "We're running the campaign out of Github. We use issue trackers for managing tasks, wiki pages for sharing documents, and repositories for keeping speeches, policy positions, and more under version control. Our website is a static website hosted on Github pages, built with Jekyll, and I have some open source plans in the works too. We manage our voter contact and the dynamic forms on our website through a progressive technology platform called NGPVAN."

Q: Many people these days think that everyone should learn how to code. Do you agree that everyone should learn to code?

A: "I believe everyone should have the opportunity to learn to code. It should be as accessible and encouraged learning as a foreign language. Learning code opens up many economic opportunities that should be available to everyone. One of the biggest challenges the tech sector faces is a pipeline of trained employees, so we should do everything we can to get more young people from diverse backgrounds the support they need to learn programming...."

I like a lot of what Cole has to say and think that Congress could benefit from having more members with a software development background. They're problem solvers by nature and many, as we've seen with the growth of open source, are open to working together on solutions. As Cole told me, "We've got real issues to solve in our society and we need more technologists and designers taking them on."

Why not give them a chance?

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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