Mai Sistla is the Deputy Director of the Aspen Tech Policy Hub.
When I first joined the Aspen Tech Policy Hub as Deputy Director, I did not expect that a significant portion of my time would be spent teaching our fellows the basics of writing and editing their work. Our organization is one of several trying to infuse the policymaking process with technical expertise. I expected that our trainees – primarily start-up founders, software engineers, and tech professionals in upper management – would need primers on the basics of policymaking and government. But I didn’t anticipate that they would also need significant support from our staff in drafting white papers, policy memos, and other written outputs that are common across fields, and especially common in the policy arena.
This experience has mirrored what I found when serving as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate ethics course for upperclassmen engineering majors at UC Berkeley. Most of the students I worked with could not write a succinct paper with a clear argument and thesis. When grading a batch of papers, at most 1 in 10 would be clear enough for a layperson to understand on first read.
There seems to be a gap in tech and engineering education around one crucial skill: writing. Despite estimates that 20 to 40 percent of an engineer’s job can be spent writing (with the proportion increasing in higher-level management positions), there are almost no intensive programs to train engineers and tech leaders in writing and communication. This can hugely impede the ability of technologists to contribute to tech policy.
In the policy sphere, the ability to communicate complicated concepts succinctly and argue logically is critical. Writing policy memos is the most common way to make decisions and communicate across principals, and many influential government leaders who speak to our fellows cite writing as the most important skill to be successful in the policy process. Historians and writers have noted that major Presidential decisions, from the passing of tax cuts via the US Revenue Act of 1964 proposed by President John F. Kennedy, to government stimulus decisions made during the Great Recession, have been made because of well-argued memos from advisors. Tom Kalil, former Deputy Director of Policy at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, notes that writing government documents (whether that be amicus briefs, fact sheets, agency directives, or administration policy statements) is one of the best ways to drive policy change within the executive branch. We’ve seen this with our own fellows as well; Aloni Cohen was able to get the definition of “probabilistic identifier” revised in the California Consumer Privacy Act because of clear language he had written in briefs and public comments explaining why the definition was unclear and how it should be changed.
Perhaps the importance of writing is why, in the tech policy space, a majority of leaders come from legal and policy backgrounds – where clear communication is part of the training – despite the need for technical expertise in many of these roles. This gap in writing is impeding our ability to recruit technical experts in these critical government positions.
The obvious touchpoints for training technical experts – undergraduate degree programs and coding bootcamps – do not sufficiently prioritize writing in their curricula. A student graduating with a bachelor’s in data science from UC Berkeley needs to only complete two courses focused on reading and composition. The most popular coding bootcamps (which are how an increasing number of engineers are being trained today) do not have a single writing or communications course in their programs. For example, neither App Academy, Coding Dojo, nor Fullstack Academy (which are rated as the top 3 coding bootcamps of 2021 by ZDNet) include any writing/communications courses in their most time-intensive engineering programs.
The tech policy field is currently grappling with enormous questions: from how algorithms on social media platforms should be designed, to how much ownership companies should have over our personal data. These conversations need to include perspectives from engineers and designers themselves in order to be productive. Policies around mitigating algorithmic bias, for example, requires a knowledge of statistics and probability that engineers can bring to the table. Decisions around cybersecurity require an understanding of computer networks and architecture that technical security professionals are trained in. But in order to allow these technical experts to best participate in these conversations, we need to invest in them to write well and argue clearly.
We’ve built writing into our training programs, but we can’t do this alone. Universities need to increase the number of writing-intensive courses required of computer science and engineering graduates, and need to provide students with tailored support to succeed in these courses. Coding bootcamps need to include writing and communications as a core component of their curriculum, and tech companies themselves need to offer professional development courses for their employees in writing and communications.
Professionals trained in engineering and programming have skills in logical reasoning that should enable them to easily learn writing. Writing code, for example, requires a programmer to ensure that every step follows logically from the previous one. It shouldn’t be a stretch to train these professionals to write other documents clearly and succinctly. It just needs to be made a priority across the profession. Only then can we hope to meaningfully include these experts in crucial policy conversations, and make progress on the tech policy issues that affect us all.
Mai Sistla is the Deputy Director of the Aspen Tech Policy Hub, and recent graduate from the UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. Previously, she was a project manager at the University of Chicago Crime Lab—a policy research center that generates evidence to inform crime, criminal justice, and education policy—and a field staffer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mai holds a BA in economics from Northwestern University. Her favorite hobbies include walking, coffee shops, and walking to coffee shops.