Small Things, Big Things

Last week was the 2014 Code for America Summit, and it was just as incredible as I imagined it would be. I was there last year, but this was my summit. I would be on stage presenting my work. I would be the one talking to next year’s fellows, assuring them that it’s a struggle, but it’s worth it. I would be the one feeling confident.

But I wasn’t feeling confident. Not even a little bit.

Truth be told, I was terrified. This was supposed to be my summit, and what had I accomplished? I stood next to my fellow fellows at the Civic Tech Fair showing off a tiny application that I only had a small hand in building, while everyone else was showing off projects they had worked on, projects that actually touched people and changed their lives. What had I done? What had I accomplished? I left that night dejected and disappointed in myself.

I carried these feelings with me back to the summit on Wednesday afternoon, when Jake Solomon delivered a talk onstage about the applications being developed by the health team at Code for America. His talk was called The Big Thing About Small Things.

Those beautiful slides (made by my lovely roommate Molly McLeod) and Jake’s words were making an excellent point: sometimes it’s the smallest things that make the biggest impact. I thought about this as I walked out of the theater to prepare for my own talk, to be given on the same stage several hours later.

I ran into my fellow fellow David Leonard, and he and I went to grab a cup of coffee. In all of my pre-talk anxiety, I let it slip that I was feeling completely lost. I asked him, “What have I accomplished this year? I feel like I haven’t built anything, like I haven’t done anything.”

He looked at me with wide eyes and replied, “Lyzi, are you kidding me? You have contributed to almost every single fellowship project – and some staff projects too! Without you, half of these projects would not be successful today.”

Why hadn’t I thought about it that way? Because that’s not how we think about things. Most people think the important things they do are the big things, the obvious things. But sometimes it’s the small things that make the biggest difference.

Think back to the last time you fixed a typo in a friend’s email before she sent it, or when you stopped your mom from putting salt into the pan instead of sugar. Think about the typos you’ve fixed on random GitHub repos and the explanations you’ve made to your coworkers about how HTTP works, or what a map projection is, or why you need to use curly braces in JavaScript. Think about all of the tiny contributions you’ve made to big projects.

You made a difference! You may have thought your edits were small and your contributions insignificant, but that errant semicolon may have made or broken that application. And you’re the one who found it.

After I talked to David, my mood totally flipped. (And then I got on stage and did a presentation, which gave me an adrenaline rush. That probably helped too. :-P) I started to notice all of the small contributions that every Code for America fellow makes to everyone else’s project. All of the design meetups, portfolio and code reviews, brainstorming and namestorming sessions (ask Ainsley about that one). All of the feedback and knowledge sharing and the way we’ve held each other up all year.

The number one thing I learned from the Code for America Summit (and the number one thing I learned from this year as a CfA fellow) is the power of combining skills and sharing knowledge. The smallest things can be big things. You might not see it right away, but you are making a difference. Keep it up: your contribution may be the piece that solves the puzzle!

If this post inspired you to start contributing to projects on GitHub (even if it’s just editing typos in READMEs, which is super helpful btw), but you’re not sure how to start, check out learn-geojson, a tutorial for getting started with git and GitHub. Or just email me and I’ll point you in the right direction. :)