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  • Writer's picturebrittany bennett

Career advice for aspiring progressive data professionals

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

Thank you to Soren Spicknall for their editing acumen on this blog post. The cover image above was designed by Megan Krout.

I field a lot of requests from aspiring data professionals curious about a career in politics. These people are often driven by an admirable desire to do good and follow their political values, a reluctance to work in private sector tech and accept its many moral shortcomings, and anxiety about finding a job under the duress of capitalism, all of which I deeply empathize with.

I wish I could meet with every single person that reaches out to me and offer personalized advice, but the reality is that I have neither the time nor the energy to accommodate everyone who wants to discuss their career with me. I could pick and choose which people get to meet with me and which do not, or I could start charging for career mentorship, but both of those options would leave me feeling overwhelmed and guilty.

Instead, I want to share the advice I tend to dole out during these meetings for free, publicly. While everyone's story is unique, the advice I give tends to be the same. I coach people on being okay with non-linear paths, with making mistakes, and with uncertainty while building relevant skills for the field. My hope is that if you are an aspiring progressive data professional, you will walk away a little bit more confident, a little bit wiser, and a little bit more levelheaded in your journey to a political data career.

This blog is a living document. I will return to it as I accumulate more commonly asked questions.

My advice for aspiring progressive data professionals

Here are the most common questions I'm asked:

Where can I find a job in progressive data?

Check my resources page, where I list multiple job boards and listservs that can aid you in your job search.

How can I get a job in progressive data?

I wrote a blog post called How to Land a Job in Progressive Data. It contains my most current general-purpose advice for seeking a job in this field.

What training and other resources do you recommend? What skills should I focus on?

I cover all of that in my resources page and my blog post above, but this is a common enough question that I will reiterate my answers here:

  1. Learn SQL. Learn enough SQL to be able to wrangle messy data in CTEs and be opinionated enough to recommend a style guide (or, better yet, have edits to a style guide).

  2. Learn a scripting language. I'm a Python girlie, and Python is widely used in the field, but you do you. Learn the basic data structures and syntax, ideally by taking on a fun passion project where you can get hands-on experience with the language. Learn how to debug, become skilled at writing effective documentation, and become opinionated on what makes good code.

  3. If you want a formal training track, Analytics Engineers Club teaches every skill I look for when hiring. I can offer you a 50% discount if you work in progressive politics. I do not earn a commission on sign-ups, rather I am passionate about growing the technical talent on the left and want more people to be able to access this course.

  4. Volunteer for a campaign. Go knock doors or call voters. Experiences that expose you to organizing are useful if you want to be successful in political tech -- the best data leaders in this space intimately know what data is important to organizing and how organizers generate that data or interact with it on the ground. My resources page also links to several volunteer opportunities like RagTag and Parsons.

I'm a college student. How can I plan my life so I can work in progressive data? What advice do you have for me?

My best advice to you is to calm down. College is for having fun and making mistakes. You will do yourself more good if you spend your Friday nights going to parties, creating memories, and strengthening your friendships with your peers than you will ever get from trying to pile on the internships, extracurriculars, and classes. I would never recommend that someone do drugs, but my god, go have fun, get silly, and, as my mother used to say, "fail within limits." College is one of the few times where you can really experiment and take risks and, for the most part, be okay. For the vast majority of people, the mistakes you make in college won't ruin your life. There will be plenty of time in your twenties and thirties to worry about jobs and finances and saving accounts.

I also give this advice from two vastly different perspectives: as a recovering overly-ambitious college student and as a hiring manager.

I work with many college students who come from low-income backgrounds and/or who are first-generation and feel immense pressure to meet society's, their family's, or their perceived classmates’ expectations of success. I know what a tremendous amount of stress this levies on a college student. College was the first time in my life I was guaranteed a meal every day. Where I knew I would have a roof over my head the whole year. And where I was finally safe from the abuse of my childhood. I trailed behind my high school peers because my life circumstances dictated that I could not participate in after-school extracurriculars or even hold a job, so when I set foot on my college campus, I ogled at the seemingly endless amounts of opportunity available to me. I wanted to join every club, take on leadership roles, volunteer, and load up on as many credits as my adviser would let me. No one stopped me from pursuing all that ambition, and I wound up working myself into a manic-depressive suicidal episode that forced me to end my senior year early and take medical leave.

I regret not taking more time to have fun. I wish I had gone to more parties and fewer meetings. I value the relationships I hold from my college years far more than anything else I got out of those years. I used to cry whenever I got a bad test grade. Now, I can't remember those tests, and my GPA has not once come up in conversation.

On the flip side, as a hiring manager, I can confidently say that 9 times out of 10 I would rather hire the passionate, scrappy budding engineer who can speak to their love of data and politics over the 4.0 student with a flawless resume but no demonstrated genuine interest in the work. I hire earnest, enthusiastic people who are eager to grow. That can shine through in many ways--not just through your GPA, major, or resume. What are you passionate about? What are your interests? Did you learn to code so you could build an app that lets you be a more effective bird watcher? Did you learn advanced Excel so you could manage your vast collection of music? Did you learn to how to transcribe video into text so you could capture dharma talks from the Internet? All of these are examples that have stood out to me while hiring (except for one that was my own passion project).

Finally, you may eventually find that a career outside progressive tech interests you more than a career within it! Many of my peers from college now have careers in industries completely disparate from their majors, myself included. The experiences you have in your twenties, from relationships to jobs, will inform new interests and ambitions. Fresh out of college, I wanted to engineer more transit-friendly cities. Eight years later, I'm passionate about progressive politics. I don't lament my younger self for having passions, but I'm also happy I didn't lock myself into one career path too early on and stress myself out about it. Most people’s interests change, and that's a good thing. Let yourself explore a wide array of experiences, reflect on what you did and did not enjoy about them, and be willing to move onto something new if you’re not enjoying the thing you thought you wanted to focus on.

What should I major in?

What should you major in? It mostly doesn't matter. I've hired people across many majors. Computer science is great, but you can also go far with any degree if you know how to market it. STEM-related degrees open a lot of doors, but there is also so much to be gained from the humanities (and you'll often turn out a less annoying person).

What classes should I take in college?

What classes should you take? Literature. Economics. History. Anything that can help you develop critical thinking and shape your political ideology. Widen your knowledge. Explore other fields. Develop real interests outside of programming.

What kind of internship should I look for?

What internships should you take? Ones that pay well and actually expose you to actual experience. The reality is that many college students are shoehorned into jobs in order to pay bills or support family members, and those jobs may or may not be related to your career ambitions. The good news is that job experience--any job experience--is beneficial. Almost any job will teach you a strong work ethic, how to be on time, strategies for working effectively in an office or team environment, and more. These skills will transfer to any political data job. When you apply for an entry-level job, it will be these skills that will make you stand out.

What was your journey into progressive data?

I understand the intent behind this question. The mess of advice that litters the Internet on how to conduct an informational interview will almost always direct you to ask this question. And while this question allows the interviewee to speak openly about their career, offering opportunities for the interviewer to ask more specific and illuminating questions, I find that most people ask this question because they are eager to replicate my career path.

I want to be clear: no one should ever follow in my footsteps. I made many mistakes throughout my career, and I'm where I'm at in life despite my choices, not because of them. My career begins with my choice of major in college: Engineering Science. I pursued a technical degree and a historical women's college with sound intention: I wanted to study engineering within a liberal arts context so I would be exposed to other fields of study besides STEM, which I felt would develop me into a well-rounded person and I knew a general engineering degree would be a 4-year boot camp in technical problem solving and open many doors for me, not just doors to become an engineer. College was a difficult time for me, as my Bipolar disorder reared its ugly head as my relationship with my mom spiraled out of control, but I still graduated with a well-regarded technical degree and an eagerness to "do good."

I didn't know what "doing good" looked like in the realm of engineering, so I took the first job offered to me out of college at a transportation consulting firm in Denver, CO. I was excited to design bike/ped infrastructure, learn about the logistics of high-speed rail, and work to build a more walkable Denver. Instead, I spent my first year out of college widening highways and hating every moment of it. In between my 8-hour days at work and 1-hour commutes by train each way, I volunteered my time on my passion project: leading a small, youth-driven nonprofit called Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW). It was here where I first wrestled with how people could leverage their technical skillset in service of good, in this case, sustainability and climate resiliency.

With leadership, nonprofit, and fundraising experience from my volunteer work at ESW, I then took a low-paying, risky job fundraising for a small, startup-y climate group. They went bankrupt less than a year later, probably in no small part due to me being a novice fundraiser. From there, I floundered from one toxic, underpaying job to the next toxic, underpaying job. I stuck with nonprofit fundraising for a few years. In that time, I accidentally worked for a centrist group (and should absolutely be made fun of for it), and later wound up at a youth voter organization that brought me into the field of progressive politics for the first time.

At this time, I was nearing 25 and not doing anything technical for my job, a far departure from my starry-eyed dreams from engineering school. I had gotten the data science bug from pop culture interpretations of tech, and I had gone $7,000 into debt taking a predatory data science boot camp because my ex-girlfriend offhandedly recommended it to me (I'll do anything a pretty girl tells me to). I had fainting spells because I didn't have enough money to feed myself. Yet,I was still driven by a desire to leverage my love of science and math for the benefit of humanity and to know what possible job I could have that would let me do that.

Then, I found it. Through my job at the youth voter group, I met a man who had the title "Data Director" who worked at a partner political group. This blew my mind. All of the data scientists I had reached out to on LinkedIn in my informational interviewing in hopes of understanding what a "data for good" career looked like never mentioned data in politics. I immediately got this Data Director's email address and invited him out to coffee. There, I lobbed hima litany of questions about his job, eager to understand this new field that was only just coming into focus for me. Garrett, if you're reading this, you have no idea the impact you had on me. Thank you for taking me up on coffee, and for sharing your expertise.

In a single afternoon I had two epiphanies: 1) there existed a field called progressive politics where people leveraged analytics and engineering to do good by winning elections and issue campaigns and 2) I wanted to work in that field.

At the time, I had no idea if and how I could get my foot in the door. I started asking for informational interviews with all sorts of people in politics. I began to leverage what I'd learned about data analytics at my fundraising job.

The real catalyst for my career came when I reached out to Colin McAuliffe, a co-founder of Data for Progress, in 2018 or 2019 (before Data for Progress became as well known as it did). I asked: "Hey, I want to do what you do. You have a PhD. Do I need a PhD to do what you do?" Thank God Colin wrote back quickly with a decisive, "No, you do not need a PhD," steering me clear of several poor decisions I could have made with my career. But then Colin did something unexpected: he invited me onto the community Data for Progress Slack. There, I got to be in community with other political data professionals for the first time, and the peer learning and mentoring I received from them was instrumental to my growth. I owe a lot to Data for Progress for scouting me, and for being the first people to see that I had some potential to offer this space.

At some point, Sunrise Movement posted a job for a Data Director. This was my dream job, before I realized that there was no such thing as a dream job (more on that later). I wanted that job more than anything I had ever wanted before. It felt like the culmination of all of my passions: data, nonprofit leadership, and climate organizing. I remember writing my cover letter on the floor of an airport right as my plane was boarding because I was desperate to get my application in early.

Not everyone had the same starry-eyed reaction to the job as I did. If you were around in those times, you'll recall a certain progressive data listserv slamming Sunrise Movement for offering an abysmal $36,000-$55,000 salary range for the job. To be clear, this **is** an abysmal salary for any data position, let alone a director position. But to me, at that moment, it was enough money. It was more money than my mom had when she was raising my twin and I. The job offered health insurance and other enticing benefits. And I was so desperate to get my foot in the door and work any data job, let alone my dream job, that I applied with enthusiasm.

From there, history. You might be curious about how I got the job at Sunrise Movement. I can speculate on a few factors: my boot camp, while terrible, was impressive on paper. I have management and leadership experience from my ESW Executive Director days. I had political data experience from leveraging analytics in my nonprofit fundraising program and my projects at Data for Progress. And, while I'll never know how much of a factor this was, I was one of only a handful of candidates due to the low advertised salary range.

What communities can I join within progressive data?

This is a great question, with a not-so-great answer. Many political communities have some amount of gatekeeping, and for good reasons. Where progressive and democratic professionals gather, right-wing moles will always seek to infiltrate. The largest and most popular progressive data listserv, {{progressphiles}}, asks that its members hold jobs in the field and name two references to join. That being said, there are still some more open communities out there.

I highly recommend joining the open-source Python project Parsons and their community. You can join a community of contributors who help make Parsons a better library, or you can join a community of aspiring and working data engineers, both of which exist on Parsons’ community Slack. You can message me on my website to receive an invitation to Parsons Slack.

While not political in nature, Locally Optimistic is a wonderful online community for "current and aspiring data analytics leaders" Their Slack is how I stay up to date with new advancements in data and tech, and it has also let me build relationships with my counterparts in tech proper, which has been invaluable to my career.

Finally, while at the time of writing this, I feel as though Twitter is in its dying days, there is a thriving data community on the bird app. For example, this list of Data Twitter Humans contains a plethora of data professionals who openly share their knowledge and expertise on Twitter.

How can I better network? What advice do you have for growing your network?

It is true that networking is one the most effective strategies for advancing your career, but I see so many people go about this in the completely wrong way. In my opinion, networking is a form of community building, and community building is, at its core, about building relationships. It is a give and a get. Meaning you are getting something out of your relationships, and you're putting something back into them.

If you are young or early on your path into this field, you may feel like you have nothing to offer the people you're approaching to meet. After all, they have fancy jobs in politics, and you're just trying to get your foot in the door. But you do have something to offer these people, and that is an opportunity to be a part of your journey. I cannot tell you how many times I'll meet with somebody, spend an hour talking with them and giving them advice, and then never hear from them again! It's a one-way relationship that leaves me feeling drained.

Instead, if you are reaching out to established professionals for informational interviews, I urge you to abide by the following guidelines:

  • Ask to meet for a specific purpose. Is it to hear their story? Do you have specific questions? Are you asking for a job (generally, don't do this)? Be clear about your intentions.

  • Show that you understand that you’re asking for somebody’s time and appreciate that time. They are likely very busy and very tired but want to help you.

  • Come prepared with questions. You asked for the meeting, so it's on you to drive the meeting. A list of ten or so questions should fill an hour-long meeting.

  • Follow up with the person after the meeting, and reiterate anything of value that you learned.

  • Follow up again with that person. It could be 3 months later. It could be when you finally land a job. It could be when you have a follow-up question. The idea is that you're growing your community, which means you're deepening your relationships and building a connection over time and repeated touch points.

Do I need to go to grad school to work in progressive politics?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: For most jobs, absolutely not. Getting paid to learn on the job and acquire real-world skills is usually more strategic and economical. You should consider grad school if you want to do formal research or conduct fancy experiments.

Wrapping up

Here’s what I hope you’ll take away from my anecdotes and advice :

1. You cannot engineer the perfect path to your dream job. Let's start with the fact that all jobs are terrible in some way, and there is no such thing as a dream job. But let's say you did have one in mind, as I did with the Data Director position at Sunrise. I didn't meticulously craft my career path to that moment. I took jobs because I needed to pay bills, and sometimes that meant working jobs that had nothing to do with my career goals. I started out as a civil engineer, then a fundraiser, and finally as a data person. While that's a very roundabout way to get into this field, those experiences are also useful and shape me as a data professional. My winding, non-linear path to this field was fine, and you’ll find that many other practitioners in this field (and hell, any field) have weird paths of their own. While it maybe took a bit longer than it did for others, I still got here.

2. It's okay to make mistakes. I mostly look back on my early twenties with shame and embarrassment. I made some cringe mistakes. For a large part of my life, there were more downs than ups. But I still got here, and I'm thriving today. Sometimes people come to me for advice, and I can hear in their voice that they are terrified of stepping in the wrong direction, that one bad misstep would spell doom for their career. It doesn't work like that. Our lives are more resilient than that. We can make mistakes, learn from them, and bounce back.

3. Your first job in data does not need to be perfect. in many ways, my first data job was my dream job. And it also, really, really wasn't. I was severely underpaid for what I did, but it's what got me my foot in the door. At Sunrise, I was able to pick up essential data skills on the job, build a name for myself in an organization that was highly publicly relevant at the time, and become a talented data professional. Being underpaid in that role was the right choice for me, but it may not be you. Regardless, your first job does not have to be perfect. Getting a job, any job, and getting that experience is more valuable than waiting to land the perfect job.

Finally, while I stand by all the advice in this blog post, I also understand that it is not a substitute for what I feel is the heart of why so many people reach out to me: a desire to be heard, to be seen, and to be understood. What this blog does not do is help you, the reader, in feeling heard in your story, in being seen in your struggles and hardship, and to be understood as someone who would make an excellent addition to the field of political data. Know that even though I do not know you, I am rooting for you. I believe in you. And I can't wait to call you a colleague.

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Aurora Zhang
Aurora Zhang
07 Jul 2023

Really helpful and neat. Thank you Brittany!

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