For many people I knew growing up in Minnesota there was some notion of “up north.” For some people it was camp, others a friend’s or family’s cabin, and others yet it was a relative who lived “up north.” For me it was all of those at one point or another. Up north was a place to go when you needed to get out of the hot city and get in touch with wilderness. This year I went north to work remotely after visiting Wisconsin for a friend’s wedding. The location: St. Germain, Wisconsin. A town of about 1200 people, St. Germain is actually closer to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula than most of the rest of Wisconsin, and slightly closer to Duluth, MN and Superior, WI than any other major cities (it’s still 170 miles from Superior). If this isn’t the definition of remote, it’s close.
Given the demographics, I’m going to guess few other federal employees are working out of this part of Wisconsin. Maybe a Forestry Service employee or two to manage the national forests in the area and a handfull staff the Apostle Islands, and of course the postal service, but not much else. It was certainly a change from the density of federal employees back in D.C. So why do it?
This country is beautiful. I’ve not visited all 50 states (yet) but the biodiversity across this country is incredible and Wisconsin is no exception. The trip from Madison north on highway 51 takes you through prairie land, lake country, and even a couple (short) mountains carved out by ancient glacial rivers. The area around St. Germain sometimes feels like it has more lakes people, but every one we met was a constant reminder of the importance of the work we’re doing in the GSA and the federal government. And yet the majesty of the wilderness surrounding me felt very humbling.
Even though Sue, a bartender we met this week, might not interact with the federal government very often our work has value for her if only indirectly. If the tools we build to make federal procurement easier leads to better highway contracts from the Department of Transportation, then we help Sue get to work on time. If the Forestry Service comes up with an innovation to stop the spread of emerald ash borer, the whole community benefits from healthier trees. It’s this connection that makes working for the GSA a pretty incredible experience. One I hope we can start to tell better.
Our work doesn’t have to be big to be great. It doesn’t have to touch every American’s life to shape communities like St. Germain for the better. It only has to be done and done well.
One thing that’s really incredible about working for 18F is our ability to telework from just about anywhere. Everything we do is online and everyone we work with is in one of about six different places so even when we’re not teleworking, we’re teleworking.
Being telework-able also means when we have to leave our home base and visit family instead of taking vacation or going on leave, we can keep working, which is just totally wild. So for the last two and a half days of this week I’ve found myself in Madison, WI, a virant city of about 250,000 that’s home to Badgers, Mallards, and four stunning lakes.
Day one: JPH, 100state, and Rain
I didn’t expect the rain. I probably should have but I didn’t and ended up in the middle of the rainstorm after an excellent breakfast at Johnson Public House on E. Johnson Street. The barista there described the coffee he served me as a punch in the face. He was not wrong but, paired with a breakfast sandwich, it was exactly what I needed to get going in the morning.
After working a couple hours there I decided to drop in on 100state, a non-profit co-working space right off of Capitol Square. If you’ve never been to Madison, Capitol Square is pretty wonderful. Like DC, Madison has a height restriction, only the one here is more explicit about the buildings being shorter than the capitol. It’s also on one of the highest spots in the city so no matter where you are, you can probably catch a glimpse if you orient yourself correctly.
Emanating from the capitol is a system of four annular streets that fill in the isthmus between lakes Monona and Mendota. From the center leading directly west to the University is State Street, a pedestrian and public transit only zone. Right off the square, sharing a building with Wisconsin’s Secretary of State, is a small, non-profit co-working spot called 100state.
Though I’ve only once been to UberOffices in DC, I’d be surprised if other co-working spaces were much different from the sterile, silent, sparse environment that cost anywhere from $40-$75 per month for a eight hours at a table with Internet. 100state’s small staff described themselves as being a “member driven” non-profit that recouped its operating costs through usage fees that make their more expensive, commercial counterparts look like scams.
Lunch at Ian’s Pizza because of course. Chicken burrito pizza, 1 slice; wish I had seen they had Sprechers in the fountain, guess there’s always tomorrow.
The day rounded out with a trip to Willy Street for a haircut and a burger at the inimitable Mickey’s Tavern. Even in the rain Madison is a warm place. Wish I had more time to engage with the civic tech community at Hacking Madison and learn more about what people are shipping in the Badger State.