by Brian Nordli
April 16, 2018

Paying a parking ticket. Setting up utilities. Filling out forms. These tasks represent necessary drudgery for most — but for someone who doesn’t speak English, lacks transportation or has limited access to the internet, it can be nearly impossible.

Most people don’t think about these challenges when they’re ponying up 50 bucks for a moving violation, but CityBase does.

The tech company works with local governments across the U.S. to not only solve tech issues, but human issues, too. They aim to eliminate patchwork websites and broken links. They’re working to replace those dreaded trips to City Hall — where the lines move slower than dial-up internet — with easy-access kiosks, simple navigation pages and forms that are a click away.

“CityBase envisions a future in which all people can access government services any time and anywhere,” product manager Kari Mah said. “That means someone without a bank account can pay their utility bills in cash at a kiosk within walking distance of their home, and an entrepreneur can file the necessary permit applications online.”

To make this a reality, CityBase engineers need equal amounts of human empathy and tech know-how. We spoke with the team about how they’re solving problems for citizens — and whether that work has changed their relationship to the city in which they live.

 

CityBase office
Photography by chris murphy

Team Shot

CityBase object

 

FOUNDED: 2013 

EMPLOYEES: 53 national; 48 local

WHAT THEY DO: Help cities create a “digital city hall” that serves all citizens with end-to-end payment solutions, a content management system, kiosks, point-of-sale software and case management software.

WHERE THEY DO IT: Chicago

WHO THEY DO IT FOR: Local, county and state governments across the U.S., and the people they serve.

IDEAL CANDIDATE: Constantly seeks opportunities to learn new skills and possesses the ability to work from both the head and the heart. 

CREATIVE MUSCLE: Engineering team consists of a painter and a power lift competitor.

TECH STACK: React, Elixir, Postgres, Phoenix, Unix and Git are all in the mix.

 

Kari at work

Kari profile

 

Kari Mah, Product Manager

Kari Mah works on the Screendoor product team, helping her teammates prioritize and discover what local government problems they should solve next. CityBase acquired Department of Better Technology’s product, Screendoor, in 2017. The tool enables governments to digitally manage forms and allows them to rapidly build and launch digital services.

BEYOND WORK: You’ll find Kari, a power lift competitor, in the gym with 300-pounds on her back training for meets.

 

What is the breakdown of your day?

Kari: On a given day, I may look at our analytics to see how a feature is performing, create wireframes, write updates for our public change log, outline a test to validate a product hypothesis, interview users, manually test a feature that is about to go live, prioritize bugs and work on product strategy.

One moment, I’ll be suggesting interface copy for a feature enhancement, and the next, I’ll be talking with senior leadership about where the product could be in five years. But there are two things that energize me: talking with our customers and noodling on new problems with the engineers on my team.
 

Tell us a little bit about CityBase and its big-picture goal.

Kari: CityBase envisions a future in which all people can access government services any time and anywhere. That means someone without a bank account can pay their utility bills in cash at a kiosk within walking distance of their home, and an entrepreneur can file the necessary permit applications online. In this future, government staff will have modern software that helps them deliver these services expediently, so they can focus on more important tasks.

 

CityBase envisions a future in which all people can access government services any time and anywhere."
 

Your job requires human empathy and tech skills in equal measure. How does that manifest in your daily work?

Kari: When I talk to current and prospective users, I actively listen to uncover their core needs. I try to understand the broader context they’re working within—what their job responsibilities are, what’s the most annoying part of their work day and what are their boss’s priorities.

I also understand how to write code and how the different pieces of our tech stack fit together, which helps me communicate more effectively with developers. Before I put forth a new feature, I have a sense of how large the project will be. I can discuss trade-offs between different implementation approaches in greater detail.

 

Jim Profile

 

Jim Segal, Senior Software Engineer

Jim Segal is on the Government Experience Manager (GEM) product team. That means he’s making and standardizing the user interface for all of CityBase's products. 

BEYOND WORK: Jim experiments with 3D printing, which combines his love of software with tangible creations.

 

What do you like most about your work?  

Jim: I love the tech stack I work with. We use React as our JavaScript framework, Elixir as our server-side language of choice and Postgres as our database. I find it exceptionally flexible yet very stable. I’m also able to learn new things. I’m using my knowledge and dedication to one day impact everyone in the U.S. 

 

I’m using my knowledge and dedication to one day impact everyone in the U.S."

 

What is the most interesting problem you're solving with tech?   

Jim: We are improving the inefficiencies in governments. It can take up to a week of back-and-forth between a government agency and the constituent to file a form. Time is wasted on things like clarifying handwriting and delivering it to the agency. We make government more accessible and cut that process down to less than an hour in most cases.

 

If you look at what this team has achieved, what makes you the proudest? 

Jim: I'm proud that we are going to change how governments and its citizens work together. Government has always been slow to adopt new technologies, but CityBase helps them to become more efficient and deploy their employees more effectively.

 

Jasmine Profile

 

Jasmine Woods, Solutions Engineer

Jasmine Woods is a member of the kiosk implementation team, whose products make government services more accessible to all citizens. She works with clients in the first stage of the implementation cycle to identify their needs, analyze their API documentation and determine what features CityBase can provide.  

BEYOND WORK: Jasmine enjoys drawing and painting.

 

How does your team make its tech more accessible to the most disadvantaged populations?

Jasmine: We accomplish this goal every day with our work on kiosk projects. Many of our clients’ customers are low-income or elderly, and our product makes paying bills easier for those constituents. Our product team ensures those kiosks are easy to navigate and understand so anyone can use them with ease.

 

Coworkers playing pool

Employees in the lounge

 

This product is different from a lot of technologies in its civic-mindedness. What’s that like?   

Jasmine: While we are building cool products, our aim is to help people. At my past companies, we made really interesting applications, but I never felt like I was offering a service for someone. When I hear the concerns, and sometimes fear, in our client’s voices about past experiences, it makes me feel good that we’re able to offer them a solution.

 

If you look at what this team has achieved, what are you proudest of?

Jasmine: I’m proud of all of the time and effort we’ve put into making our kiosk projects successful. We are a small team, and our resources are often spread thin throughout the company, but we still get our work done.

 

This job helped me realize how many industries could do a better job serving their clients."

 

Has this job changed your outlook on your day-to-day life in the city?

Jasmine: Before working here, government processes seemed daunting. I’ve never had a positive experience paying a ticket or filling out any government form, but I’ve also never found paying utility bills to be difficult. I didn’t realize there were so many people who did. This job helped me realize how many industries could do a better job serving their clients.

 

Pedro at work

Pedro profile

 

Pedro Assumpcao, Lead Software Engineer

Pedro Assumpcao works on the platform team, which builds and maintains CityBase's product platform. He wears many hats — from architect and designer to leader and mentor.

BEYOND WORK: Pedro spends time with his church community and has a heart for helping people.

 

What do you enjoy most about working at CityBase?

Pedro: CityBase has a very flexible environment, not only in terms of hours but in the choice of work environments, too. You can work in an individual room when you need uninterrupted time, in a collaboration room equipped with all the technology you need, or remotely. Those options mean a great deal to me.  

 

Has this job changed your outlook on your day-to-day life in the city?

Pedro: It’s not easy to grasp what goes on behind the scenes to make a government work. Some issues are well known, but the complexity of the systems and the inheritances from the past make it challenging for local governments to work efficiently. It’s exciting to help solve those problems and impact people’s lives.

 

It’s not easy to grasp what goes on behind the scenes to make a government work. It's exciting to help solve those problems."

 

When interviewing, how do you know you’ve found the right person and a good “culture fit?”

Pedro: Technology is dynamic and there are so many new things to learn. We look for a candidate who doesn’t settle and is constantly seeking opportunities to learn new skills. It shows that this person is comfortable with being uncomfortable and is flexible enough to adapt to unexpected situations.

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