Around four years ago, Chris Kuang was an undergraduate student at Harvard, looking for a summer technology internship in the federal government. But all he could find were unpaid opportunities installing software. Kuang wanted to serve, feeling his tech skills could help solve pressing social problems.
Now, the Biden administration has tapped him to help do just that. As cofounder of the new US Digital Corps, his task is to create a pipeline for young tech talent to work on the government’s most vexing technical issues and inspire them to pursue a long-term career in the public sector.
Starting next year, Kuang will help hire 30 early-career technologists, placed in at least five US federal agencies, allowing them to work on projects as part of a two-year fellowship. The projects have yet to be defined but will revolve around key Biden administration priorities, including the coronavirus, economic recovery, cybersecurity, and racial equality, Kuang said. (Salaries will be “competitive,” the corps’ website says, but no range is identified.)
If the pilot is successful, Kuang hopes to scale up the fellowship and hire “hundreds” of people per year, many right out of college. He hopes to create a pathway for young technologists who are less interested in six-figure private-sector jobs, at least initially, and more interested in serving their country.
“I really see something like the Digital Corps as a 21st-century call to public service,” he said. “The mission and the scope of the work that’s found in the public sector is really second to none.”
Kuang grew up in Winchester, attending public schools in the area. He majored in math and economics at Harvard College.
In 2017, as a sophomore, he took a technology and government class at the Harvard Kennedy School taught by Nick Sinai, who had served as the Obama administration’s deputy chief technology officer. As part of the course, Kuang advised the Boston Public School system on how technology could make it easier for families to engage in their children’s school life and communicate their needs.
“I think that was the lightbulb moment for me,” he said.
Kuang then worked with Sinai and classmates to start a nonprofit called Coding it Forward. The organization placed hundreds of young technologists in paid, 10-week internships in government agencies across the country, with mentorship from preeminent civic technologists.
But what happened after the interns finished their service is what drew Kuang to think bigger.
“A lot of fellows wanted to stay,” he said.”[But] agencies who would have loved for them to continue beyond 10 weeks found it really challenging, if not impossible, to actually make that happen.”
Shortly after the presidential election in 2020, Kuang and Sinai penned a memo outlining the need for a program like the US Digital Corps.
Kuang’s pitch: Key administration initiatives, such as the early childhood tax credit and mortgage forbearance programs, hinge on sophisticated IT systems functioning well. At the same time, providing young technologists an easy way to serve the government early on in their careers —with mentorship — could spark long-term careers, he said.
The memo circulated around the Biden administration, and in June, Kuang was brought on by the General Services Administration to make the program a reality. (He graduated from Harvard in 2020 and currently lives in Winchester.)
In August, the program launched with a handful of US agencies signed up to host the inaugural cohort in 2022, Biden administration officials said. They include the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the General Services Administration, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Kuang’s program is not the government’s first stab at hiring technology talent. The Obama administration started the US Digital Service in 2014, a program that paired top techies from places like Google and Microsoft with federal employees managing technical projects. Kuang said his program is focused on recruiting early-career technologists, rather than the more advanced professionals targeted by the existing program, which is run by another alum of the Boston tech scene, Mina Hsiang.
Clare Martorana, the federal chief information officer of the United States, said in a statement that the new program “is a forward-looking solution” that “will build a deep bench for technology modernization and digital transformation across the federal government.”
Still, the program will likely face challenges inherent to early-career workforce development programs. Getting the government to dedicate salaries to keep fellows on after their program ends is hard. And it will have to compete for top talent with graduate schools and high-paying jobs.
But in the end, Kuang believes that getting young technologists exposed to high-impact work early in their careers can overcome the lure of a big paycheck.
“To bring more folks into public service is exciting,” he said. “That sense of being a part of something more meaningful, and bigger than [yourself], is really a huge appeal.”