Everything You Wanted to Know About the Presidential Innovation Fellowship But Were Too Afraid to Ask

I had the good fortune of serving as a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the Smithsonian, building and launching a crowdsourced transcription website at the Smithsonian that’s leveraged thousands of digital volunteers to transcribe over 5,000 completed historic documents. As we near the end of the application process for Round 3 of the fellowship, I thought I’d share my *totally unauthorized* answers to real and imaginary questions potential applicants might have.

What the heck is Presidential Innovation Fellowship?

The Presidential Innovation Fellowship was first launched in 2012 to pair the nation’s top technologists with leading government innovators to solve the nation’s most difficult challenges and make a lasting and meaningful impact.  If it were a startup, then the graph would be going up and to the right. Round 1 had five projects and 18 fellows. Round 2 had nine projects across 16 federal agencies and 43 fellows. Round 3 applications are now live.

Who runs the PIF program?

The PIF program is run as a partnership between the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA ). Learn more in this blog post written by US CTO Todd Park and Administrator of GSA Dan Tangherlini.

Who are they looking for?

Developers, designers, entrepreneurs, data geeks, product managers. People who are keeping pace with the rapid evolution of technology and how it impacts organizations and individuals. People who are ready and willing to work hard, move quickly, work collaboratively, with no ego, under uncertain circumstances, in the service of the American people.

What kinds of projects will I be working on?

The 14 projects for Round 3 fall under 3 major categories:

  • Making Digital the Default: Building a 21st Century Veterans Experience
  • By the People, for the People: Crowdsourcing to Improve Government
  • Data Innovation: Unleashing the Power of Data Resources to Improve Americans’ Lives

The nature of innovation is that it often goes in directions that no one expects. To listen to several current and former PIF’s speculate on the nature of these projects, check out this podcast.

How can I apply?

The application window varies. Apply here.

Will I get paid?

The fellowship is a real job that pays a real full-time salary. You’ll probably make less than you would in industry but it is still a healthy income that enough to support the vast majority of the population. You’ll also receive standard full-time benefits like health insurance.

Who are the other fellows who have served?

Previous fellows cover a wide range, from a 23 year old NASA whiz kid to a 72 year old female CS Professor, Silicon Valley startup founders, civic UX designers, big company product managers and everyone in between. See a full list of former fellows here.

What was a typical day/week like for a Round 2 PIF?

Every fellow had a different experience. When I was asked this in a Profellow interview, here’s what I said:

On Monday, I would plan out my week along with one of the other fellows in the program and send emails, write code, design apps, and work on presentations. Tuesday was our weekly “PIF” session, where instead of working at the Smithsonian, I went to the General Services Administration (GSA). I also sat in weekly Open Data meetings held at the White House Communications Center. During the rest of the week, in addition to focusing on my project, I might listen to a guest speaker at GSA, have a brainstorming workshop with other fellows, or hear a presentation on how some of the other fellows’ projects are coming along. There were also Happy Hours with the fellows and networking events at the Smithsonian and externally.

To read the account of another, more technically oriented fellow, see Sarah Allen’s blog post.

Isn’t it impossible to really get things done inside the federal government?

The US federal government is a colossally large and complex entity. It’s also responsible supporting hundreds of millions of human lives across the world. This makes it difficult to change quickly. And yet we need it to transform if it is to adapt to the 21st century. That’s why the fellowship needs to bring in the best. Click here for a deeper discussion of innovation within the federal government.

Do fellows actually get to ship real code?

Fellows have written and deployed lots of code to production; their technical development is public by default and hosted on Github.

What has been the impact of previous projects?

“Enormous” according to the official White House blog. Please refer to this blog post by Dr. Robert Read and Michelle Hertzfeld for more details.

Do fellows to meet the President?

POTUS is very, very, very busy person and if this is all you care about, you should not apply. Having said that, the President is very enthusiastic of work that has come out of the PIF program and has met with numerous fellows in person, as you can see in this photo.

What is it like to live in DC?

It’s definitely not like NYC or Silicon Valley. I wrote a blog post detailing the differences between Washington DC and the SF startup scene which you can read here.

How can I submit a strong application?

Since there are only three main projects to apply for, my recommendation would be to apply to all of them, unless you have absolutely ZERO interest in the work involved in one of them. The project leaders at the agency along with the PIF leadership will then decide whether or not they’d like to do a phone interview. Focus on emphasizing your unique skills and experiences – because we need specialists, but also demonstrate your ability to work with teams and within bureaucracy – because only those who are socially competent will make their contributions last.

What will I get out of doing this program?

I’ll close with more from Read and Hertzfeld:

Not only are the people you’ll work with extremely technically and creatively intelligent, but they’re also a group of people who have chosen to dedicate their precious time and energy in exchange to move their country forward. This is an opportunity to disrupt government and truly transform how it works for the people it serves. You want a more participatory democracy? Here’s your chance.

Becoming a Fellow is a commitment to work as hard as you can on behalf of the American people. It is a commitment to patiently run through walls that exist in the government bureaucracy. It is a commitment to spend a lot of time in DC.

But it is not a never-ending commitment. You are not signing up to become a permanent Federal employee. You will contribute your industry and entrepreneurial expertise to improve government and take what you have learned from other Fellows with you when you leave.

Katie Easton