Why do a Presidential Innovation Fellowship (PIF)

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PIF is great under the right circumstances,1 and you should apply for the fellowship if you’ve got a strong background and are gov-curious or wondering about innovation at scale outside of Silicon Valley.

Oh, and of course, to give back to our country.

What’s PIF?

A friend emailed and asked:

I’m thinking about applying for the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program. You did it last year. Why? Did you get anything out of it? Aren’t you a startup guy?

I was a Presidential Innovation Fellow in the 2021 class. I worked for the government as part of the General Services Administration (GSA) and was assigned / stationed at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

PIF logo

Here’s how PIF describes what it is:

We hire annual cohorts of mid-to-senior career technologists, designers, entrepreneurs, and strategists.

So you apply, get assigned to a government agency for a period of time2, and try to do good work. Hopefully, it’s strategic, not individual-contributor (IC), stuff.

At the end, you’ll write up a report for your agency and the fellowship, and hopefully, your work will continue after you leave.

Give back to our country?

So why did you do PIF in 2020? This is always the first question.

I’ve been blessed with a great career in software in Silicon Valley, and I wanted to give back to the country that’s given my family a lot. My dad often said:

I came to America in 1972 with $20 in my pocket - look at me now. Look at our family now!3

Things got more urgent after I got married and I thought about what type of dad I wanted to be. I didn’t want money to be the sole driving force in my kids’ lives4, which meant I wanted to show and experience some other paths for them to consider.

Back in 2015, as I finished my time at Google Nest, I wanted to join a political office to work on tech policy. I reached out to three officials around me to learn more. How could I make my way into this world given I wasn’t a college intern and didn’t want to file papers? No staff members responded to my requests for learning more, though.

While researching, a friend said, “Have you talked to Todd Park? He’s doing this thing called the Presidential Innovation Fellows.” So that was sitting in the back of my head as a way to help with the tech experience I had now looking like a plus.

Then my wife got pregnant and we had our first kid and I got the chance to join a VC firm…

(We can talk about the VC life later…)5

And then I left. So it felt like the right time and I decided to apply. The PIF leadership team decided I was good enough to qualify and I accepted the offer.

Don’t give me lip service.

Okay okay okay…

All of the above is true, and I needed some other push since this idea of working on government technology and tech policy had been sitting in my head since graduating from Rice.

Designing Your Life book

I heard about this book Designing Your Life, and I worked through it in 2019 and saw that I had done a good job of hitting my interest areas: software, startups, investing.6

There was this other angle to life I still wanted to consider - something about taking my tech background and affecting society and government.

And so, I did some of the outreach again, and a person again mentioned PIF, so I applied.

This time around, we had two kids, and neither was in Kindergarten. And now I was thinking, “I’ve lived in Texas and California, is there anywhere else on my list?”

Washington DC looking amazing

Washington DC is one of the places7.

And that led my wife and me to discuss the idea of living in DC for one year while I do this fellowship. She helps lead a small business here in the Bay Area, and I was asking for us to switch locations and see if she could work remotely for one year if I happened to get the fellowship.

The application process was before COVID happened, remember?

She said okay, this might be fun and we can make it work, and I applied.

Next time…

We’ll cover:

  1. the caveats if you decide to apply (or are in the application process)
  2. what I did
  3. what did I get out of it

I promise this one is already written, it’s just that this is long. See you soon!

  1. I’ll talk about this caveat in more detail in the other post. 

  2. Yes, a caveat covered next time… 

  3. I would not be surprised if this was an exaggeration, as every immigrant kid seems to have a similar story. But the point is that he was a poor kid from Pakistan. 

  4. Therapy helps you work through a lot! 

  5. As usual, this is a personal marker - people have asked, so I should write about this someday. 

  6. I recommend this book a lot, so if you’ve worked through it and want to share the exercises and discuss them , I’m happy to do so! 

  7. NYC is the other.