Aidan is 30, tall, thin, and has the fierce, unblinking gaze of a crow. We are high up in the sky, talking in the World Trade Center building where he works in civic technology. If you look out the window, you can see for miles. A bit of a metaphor — something I realized as our conversation unfolded.
First, it was all about the dancing.
Aidan’s dance career evolved out of doing musical theater as a grade-school kid in suburban Chicago and his love of being onstage and around girls. A high school friend then challenged him to get serious about dancing. He answered by attending up to nine classes a week, focusing mostly on modern dance. He was popular, both because he worked hard and because the dance classes needed male students.
Second, it was all about science and engineering. He saw no reason to choose between the fields he loved. By the time he was a high school senior, he sought out colleges offering double majors in dance and engineering. After initially declining to study engineering at the University of Michigan, a professor encouraged him to major in computer science instead, characterizing it as a versatile field capable of financially supporting one’s dance habit. He ended up with a B.F.A. in Dance and a B.S.E. in Computer Science Engineering.
Aidan then headed for NYC, where he could focus on — yes — dance and computer science. He danced with friends. He danced in groups, including Dance Tactics, Artichoke Dance and Chavasse Dance and Performance. He landed technology jobs at Artsy, GitHub and FoodandWine.com.
And somehow, between dancing and coding, he started Hacker Hours, an initiative described by The Next Web as “The awesome grassroots meetup that teaches New Yorkers to code.” Which is, full disclosure, how I first met Aidan: as a writer trying to learn how to code, signing up on Meetup.com. His online presence is warm, funny and deeply collaborative. The rules of Hacker Hours were and are simple: You want to learn to code? You are welcome. If you want to teach someone else to code, you are welcome. And free to all, whether you attend a physical meet-up (something I never managed) or just part of a supportive digital community Aidan started.
After a few years, Aidan became a government bureaucrat for the federal digital consultancy office known as 18F, which is a special branch of the General Services Administration that assists federal agencies to “successfully deliver efficient, easy-to-use digital services.” His title? Innovation Specialist. On his website, he describes his job as building “open source tools and apps for the federal government.” (I also once worked in a federal contracting team with GSA, but never with Aidan or his group.)
Aidan and his colleagues partner with federal agencies to make their digital services better. They work using open source software tools, and make finished projects as public and shareable as possible, which means that other people can re-purpose and re-use a tool. Which means that others in government can quickly use the tools, too. For example, NYC’s Planning Labs cloned the 18F website and had a government website up and running in two person-days, at a cost of $20.17 for the domain name.
Aidan still dances. Artichoke, the group he dances with, takes on issues and often works in public spaces. They are currently working on raising awareness about global climate change, performing by the Gowanus Canal, building costumes out of plastic bags, doing beach cleanups, and teaching dance in the community. It’s a big world out there, and Aidan is moving with it.
Which digital effort or project has given you the most joy?
I thoroughly enjoy community organizing and teaching. When someone comes up to you after an event and says how much they’ve learned, it’s an amazing feeling. Hacker Hours does this for me consistently.
Same question, but for an art/dance project?
I’ve done contact improvisation workshops with people in unusual environments, with people who aren’t trained (or even aspiring) dancers, such as at a tech meetup, in an office, at an un-conference and at a summer camp. Seeing people get over that initial trepidation and give in to looking weird and platonically touching a stranger’s body — it’s an amazing transition to watch.
Tell me about your family.
My parents have art and design backgrounds, so getting an engineering degree made me the weird one. When I was looking for colleges where I could do both, I remember my parents saying to me, “Are you sure, sweetie? You don’t have to do engineering if you don’t want to.” They have always been amazingly supportive of whatever I do, even if they can’t relate as closely on the tech side.
What is the one thing you are dying to make?
An impact on the federal software security compliance process. It’s a huge burden for people doing technology in government, and a huge obstacle to progress. That’s my current focus at my day job.
On the art side, I love installation pieces, where the work becomes part of the environment, or becomes the environment itself. Sleep No More is my favorite example of the latter. Would love to do a project like that, even at a smaller scale.
Favorite places where you’ve danced?
An old opera house in southern Italy, with a raked stage. We were staying in an old hospital-turned-orphanage-turned-state-house-turned-abandoned-building-turned-artist-residency, which was as bizarre and cool as it sounds.
Favorite physical places where you’ve coded?
The White House. I was involved in a hackathon on computer science education, and ended up doing a last-minute workshop on how to contribute to open source for White House staff.