Addressing the Downside of Civic Hacking: Creating A Financially Sustainable Model

Members of the ABQ Civic Entrepreneur Bootcamp building apps on the CityLife platform

Members of the ABQ Civic Entrepreneur Bootcamp building apps on the CityLife platform

One of the best known civic mobile app contests is the NYC BigApps Challenge. The competition has attracted hundreds of teams from around the world, all vying for high dollar prizes and the promise of a coveted contract with the City of New York. Since the contest’s inception five years ago, hundreds of apps have been launched – with last year’s winners alone sharing a prize pool of over $150,000.

For the winners, it is well worth the effort. The prize money, especially considering that no stake in equity is taken from the winning team or company, is of high enough dollar amount to recoup costs for time spent developing, testing and deploying the app – and possibly make a small profit depending on the size of the team. Along with prize money, there is also the value of international publicity generated for finalists and winners.

But what of the hundreds of apps that aren’t winners, which earn neither publicity nor money? An in-depth study that followed the apps submitted for the 2011 competition reported that only 35% of the applications could be verified as still working one year later. The apps which integrated multiple sources of data along with user-generated content were the most likely to still be in use, but even among those apps, almost half were no longer being supported. That is a lot of time, programming talent, and effort expended on projects with very little reward beyond the experience.

This is only one contest with one study, so perhaps the results would trend differently with larger samples, but I’m not so sure. As the founder and CEO of APPCityLife, a startup delivering a global platform with sustainable options for developing and maintaining useful mobile apps for cities, I have heard this story told all too often by hackathon organizers, city leaders and civic hackers. In fact, in a private conversation with our team, the founder of one of the world’s largest civic hacking groups went as far as expressing regret for launching the group due to the growing challenges of leveraging short-term volunteer labor to create longterm solutions for communities – not because solutions aren’t needed but because most of the events hosted by his organization delivered very little in the way of viable product – and when a completed project was deployed, finding funding and an entity to deliver continued support was an even more difficult proposition.

Here is what I believe must happen if we, as a global community, want to effectively exploit the power of mobile apps to address the growing civic demand for access to information and communication via mobile.

Free Labor Is Not A Sustainable Solution

While most of us have likely participated in volunteer efforts focused on a personal passion, very few of us can sustain full time or long term involvement without enough financial benefit to cover our day to day expenses. Even as a corporation, our team can only provide charitable support to a limited number of worthy institutions. This whole “build it and they will come” notion that somehow all that is necessary is for cities to send their data out into the ether and then the data will be embraced by developers and integrated into useful tools solving pain points for citizens for free is short-sighted. While open data most definitely accessed and used in very valuable ways beyond building mobile apps, it is important to realize that when it comes to this particular aspect of open data, free is not a sustainable solution.

Students, community groups and individuals are usually more than willing to show up for a day or a weekend to attempt to address local issues, brainstorm solutions and begin the hard work of building out the technology needed to bring that solution to viable product, more often that not, a day or a weekend is just not enough time. And expecting these groups or individuals to continue work over long periods of time without financial remuneration is not only unreasonable, it is not good business. Without proper funding, solutions are not easily maintained, updated, or grown to add new features. It is one of the reasons we spent almost a year building a real time coupon server where geolocated, targeted offers are deployed on the fly on a local level. By offering revenue share models where income generated through mobile coupons, sponsorships and advertising is shared with those creating solutions for their community, there is proper incentive for apps to be sustained longterm. And it works – our first public school app went out the door already generating more revenue for the school district than was spent on development or support fees.

Open Data Must Be Normalized For Affordable Mobile Integration

Since most open data is being delivered from legacy servers with myriad formats, the challenge of integrating multiple data sets that are structured differently is a difficult challenge even for experienced programmers. When our team began work on our own global open data app, we experienced first-hand the challenge of developing an app accessing data feed from a variety of sources, including companies like Socrata or Junar as well as data produced by in-house teams in other cities. Instead of tackling each of the data sets individually, we stopped production on the app and took a month to build an incredible piece of technology – a world-class open data server which analyzes data from almost any source and normalize it on the fly for immediate use in mobile as everything from charted city budgets to real-time mapped locations of food trucks. It almost feels like magic happens when an open data feed is added and then appears as a readable chart within seconds. And the best benefit of automating complex coding is greatly reduced requirements of both skill level and time to produce a finished product, meaning that an app that might cost six figures and take months with custom coding can be produced in a few days or weeks and supported for as little as a few thousand dollars a year – and generated advertising revenue can often cover or exceed those costs.

Make Mobile Development Accessible to Non-Developers

During a recent meeting with the CIO of a city on the West Coast, it was mentioned that the majority of people who attend the civic hackathons his city hosts arrive with almost all of the right ingredients: passion, ideas, and willingness to work as a team. What is missing from the majority of the attendees is the one skill needed to create mobile apps for civic solutions, mainly the ability to code. And after his team reviewed numerous platforms available on the market today, none provided the depth of flexibility or the sophistication needed to enable non-developers to create powerful civic apps that would actually solve the problem being addressed. It is one of the many motivators behind our decision to make the necessary upgrades to our platform to offer a version which graphic artists, web developers, and passionate activists could comfortably use. It is vital that as a global community, we enable those who are most willing and able to solve problems to access tools that enable them to finish the job in hours or days instead of months. After news of our first successful bootcamp this past weekend – the first time anyone outside of our own team gained access to our platform – requests for a spot on a waiting list to access this platform have already started pouring in from those in attendance to as far away as South America, Europe and Africa.

If we want open data initiatives to truly succeed and become the conduit for useful mobile tools in our communities, we must offer options for funded projects, provide access to powerful tools which serve as stepping stones for STEM. Only then can we create sustainable public-private partnerships. We will all reap the benefits of more available civic mobile solutions when we come to the place that the only limit holding us back is time.

Are Women Entrepreneurs Better Off Than A Year Ago?

APPCityLife cofounder and COO, Lawrence Abeyta: Tech Fiesta ABQ Women In Technology Luncheon 2014 © Gabriella Marks

APPCityLife cofounder and COO, Lawrence Abeyta: Tech Fiesta ABQ Women In Technology Luncheon 2014 © Gabriella Marks

During yesterday’s second annual NMTC-WIT Luncheon, a reporter in the audience asked the panelists if things were getting any better for women.

In an article published this year in ForbesGeri Stengel predicted that 2014 would be the breakout year for women entrepreneurs. “While the number is still small —  nearly 20% of angels in 2012 invested in women-led businesses — the percentage grew more than 40% from the previous year, according to the Center of Venture Research, which studies early-stage equity financing for high-growth ventures. Even venture capitalists have increased their support of women-led companies. It’s still paltry, but the percentage of VC deals going to women-led businesses was 13% in the first half of 2013. That’s nearly a 20% jump over 2012, according to Pitchbook, a venture-capital research firm.” Encouraging statistics that point to better opportunities ahead. But the real question is, as individuals, do we see new possibilities or more of the same status quo?

The answers from the luncheon’s diverse panel of men and women, including our own COO at APPCityLife, varied from some panelists seeing no change at all to a few answers that, yes, things have changed. As a female CEO, I am well aware of New York Time‘s annual report that of the top 200 highest paid chief executive officers, only two are women. I’ve also seen first-hand at least one venture capital door close because of gender. I could easily see the glass as 87% to 95% empty (the percentage of venture capital currently funneled into male-founded companies in the US).

I choose to see it differently. In my experience over the past year, I’ve seen both significant and subtle changes that make me believe there is more respect, opportunities, and equality for women founders than ever before. Despite a few fairly disheartening experiences with investors, I’ve also found passionate support from others. Our company raised almost $500,000 in angel and family fund investments over the past twelve months, and we’ve been selected as one of only ten New Mexico companies invited to pitch for a larger round of investment at the upcoming Deal Stream Summit. Because of our focus on solving problems in the civic space, I’ve had the incredible privilege of being invited to meet with leaders from around the globe and participate in discussions about civic innovation. And I have yet to find an instance where my gender created any barrier of entry into any office when I’ve reached out to civic leaders – even in some of the biggest urban centers in the US.

But more than anything else, the topics of discussion at the luncheon were a strong indicator to me of just how far we’ve come as a community in New Mexico. Last year’s luncheon opened with the very uncomfortable topic of the jerk tech apps pitched from the stage of TechCrunch Disrupt. Almost the entire hour of conversation last year was focused on the unfairness, the bias, and the simmering anger of those who’d been passed over, ignored, and not taken seriously simply because of their gender. This year’s luncheon definitely covered some of the same challenges – the funding disadvantage, the challenge at being taken seriously – but what inspired me most was the questions that had to do with the real meat of running a business. Those questions were new. Topics ranged from the value of having Non Disclosure Agreements and Employment Contracts to implementing sales channels for international businesses. Instead of simply focusing on the problems women face, the panelists were able to share valuable insight and knowledge that were real takeaways for the rest of the crowd.

Perhaps the only reason we were able to focus on questions about business and expertise this year is because we did address the more uncomfortable topics in the past year. But I, for one, am heartened by the notion that as women, perhaps we’ve come to the place were the conversation can begin to change from how do we let women in at all to how do we help more women grow international, high growth companies.

It’s certainly what I and my cofounders have set out to do, and I am inspired by the growing support and opportunities making that more and more possible.

This was originally published on Huffington Post.

Four Signs You May be Part of the Mean Girl Culture

image I recently ran into a former PTA Mom who had shared with me one of the most miserable volunteer positions ever: serving as hall monitors at a middle school. We spent most of the year dealing with a particularly difficult group who thrived on the Mean Girl culture. As we talked about the gossip, bullying and petty meanness that we battled that year, my friend made the observation that as bad as those girls acted, it wasn’t nearly as distasteful as when those same behaviors show up in adults. In fact, search for items relating to “mean girl culture” on the internet, and it will only take .42 of a second to return over 102 million hits. That is a good indicator that this particular form of bad behavior is not only prevalent but a problem. It is a good for us to realize that Mean Girl culture can hit at any age — and with either gender — and can end up hurting our careers if we don’t take steps to avoid it.

Here are four signs you may be sabotaging your own career by adopting Mean Girl culture:

You undermine your peers under the pretense of sharing helpful information.

We’ve probably all done it, and we often tell ourselves we’re just being ‘helpful’, but if you find yourself taking your boss or a coworker aside to make sure they are aware of a failure or fault of your colleague, you may be participating in Mean Girl culture. There are times when it is absolutely necessary to point out problems with someone else in the office, and it isn’t spiteful or petty to look out for the success of a project by reporting issues with someone who is failing to meet deadlines or creating problems for the team – if you’ve already addressed the issue with your colleague to no avail. But if you find yourself regularly getting on the good side of the boss by sharing insider information, you may find that it backfires when your colleagues discover that you didn’t have their back.

You participate or instigate water cooler gossip.

At some point in your career, you’ve probably attended an event where one of the people in your group spoke up with the following question, “Did you hear about so-and-so?” You circled in a bit tighter as the group listened and timagehen discussed this latest bit of gossip. You may have even promised not to tell anyone else, but, most likely, you did.

Gossip makes us feel special; it makes us feel trusted enough be included in the secret. It also makes us feel superior to whomever happens to be the target of the current gossip. And if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we’ll likely admit that we enjoy the bonding that takes place with our peers as we share the secret; we feel like we’re an even tighter group by the secret we now share.

But when you participate — even just by listening — you are putting every other person in your circle on notice that this is what you’re willing to do to them when they’re out of earshot. Gossip builds distrust within a group, which, in turn, can lead to missed opportunities in our career, especially if the gossip we’ve carried later proves to be false or highly embellished. It’s also good to remember that gossip invariably makes its way full circle, and when the person we’ve betrayed discovers that we participated in spreading rumors, we’ve burned a bridge not only that person but with everyone in their circle. Whether we live in a major urban center or in a small town, we can’t afford to hurt relationships that might be with the very person deciding the fate of our career. Next time someone in your group asks you if you’ve heard something about someone else, just remove yourself from the group. Your career will thank you for it.

You pick sides in a cat fight.  

imageThere is little that feels more awkward in the work place than when you are stuck in the middle between two coworkers who dislike each other and work to recruit others in the office to pick sides. And just like schoolyard politics when there was a falling out between two of your friends, if you pick sides, you’ll be the one that is out in the cold when the two of them end up making up and choosing to be friends again. Unless someone has conducted themselves dishonestly, harmed another individual, or conducted themselves in such a manner that avoiding them is the prudent course of action, do everything possible to remain neutral when your coworkers get in a spat. If they don’t make up, you’ll still be able to work on projects with either of them. And if they do patch up their differences, they won’t be able to share with the other anything nasty you might have said had you chosen to pick sides.

Playing Dirty With Your Competition

You might have caught the story in the news about Uber playing dirty with their competition. And whether their practices prove to be legal or not, the company took a big risk with their current and potential customers becoming disgusted enough by their tactics to take their business elsewhere. While no one is expected to give up opportunities or take a hit to their own career so that someone else can benefit, it is also wise to take care that we don’t sabotage the efforts of others in an attempt to gain the upper hand. Competition can be a good thing, and it can help us hone our skills and bring our A-game, but when we stoop to playing dirty to get ahead, we run the risk of it backfiring and hurting us even more in the long run.

 

Identifying 3 Types of Negativity That Prevent Success

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When I think of negativity, I am always reminded of a man I’ll call Joe. It was the late 80’s, my husband was fresh out of college and working at a tech startup. We were attending his first official holiday party and visiting with several of his colleagues when Joe joined our group.When I think of negativity, I am always reminded of a man I’ll call Joe. It was the late 80’s, my husband was fresh out of college and working at a tech startup. We were attending his first official holiday party and visiting with several of his colleagues when Joe joined our group.

Joe had an empty wine glass in one hand, and by the volume of his voice, I was pretty sure it wasn’t his first drink of the night. He thrust his other hand out at me and said, “Hi. I’m Joe.”

I shook his hand, and, making polite small talk, asked him what he did for the company.

“Not a damn thing,” he replied, loud enough for two of the company’s founders to turn around and take note.

After some nervous laughter on my part, Joe continued, “I haven’t done a damn thing here since 1986.”

The Complainer

We quickly made our escape, but I listened to Joe as he moved from group to group complaining about the projects he was being assigned and just how underused his many talents were in his current position. Joe was obviously not satisfied in his job, but it was also obvious that he enjoyed the attention he gained from complaining and making shocking statements about his plight. He’d found just enough pleasure in complaining that it kept him from taking action to change his situation.

Whether or not we’re like Joe – making just enough bluster to avoid facing difficult change – here are two more types of negativity that will hold us back from realizing our dreams.

The Fault Finder 

One of the easiest ways to avoid facing the scary parts of ourselves is to focus on the faults of others. When we feel inadequate, it can be a lot easier to tear someone else down to our level than to acknowledge our own insecurities and figure out how to move forward. In the best-selling book Wonder Women: How Western Women Will Save the World, we find this advice: “If you feel jealous or envious, examine the reasons why you are experiencing that emotion instead of projecting your negative feelings onto her choices.”

Listen to yourself the next time you’re sitting with a group of your peers. Do you gossip about someone who isn’t there? Do you find reasons why someone else’s success, award, or promotion isn’t due to their hard work? Are you the one with a quick quip, a snarky joke about others? If so, you may be using negativity to cover up feelings of inadequacy or envy, and when we’re focusing on why someone else shouldn’t be getting ahead, we’re preventing ourselves from moving forward. What is it that you’re afraid will happen if you go for an opportunity? What’s the worst that can happen? We can live through humiliation, defeat, or losing – and we usually find that we are the better for it. But it is really hard to live with the disappointment we feel when we hold back from taking risks that could move us ahead.

The Problem Solver

One of the most effective ways to mask negativity is to wrap it in the guise of solving problems. We all need to have the voice of reason as part of what we listen to, but if you find yourself continually offering advice on why something won’t work, you might need to take a step back. If your voice of reason usually results in not taking a step forward, not trying something before all of the wrinkles are ironed out, then you might want to ask yourself if fear of failure is behind the litany of negativity. While we must be willing to see the pitfalls that we might not have considered, we should also embrace Thomas Edison’s attitude when he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Despite the trend among some in startup culture who celebrate failure as some kind of badge honor, it shouldn’t be celebrated. It can make us cavalier about the costs associated with failing. But neither should failure be so feared that it paralyzes us. Failure is part of the process, and we have to be prepared to get back up and find a different way around a problem if we want to find success. When we focus on the ways something hasn’t worked, it is so much more difficult to see the possibility of success. If we find a better balance between hopefulness and negativity when solving problems, we’ll be better equipped to move forward with the appropriate preparation to find success.

I well remember a moment in my own journey when negativity just about derailed not only my own happiness but also my family’s. Despite flourishing as a wife, stay-at-home mom, and writer, the regret of quitting college – especially the regret of wasting what my father had worked so hard to pay for – it ate at me. When my youngest enrolled in school, I decided it was time to go back to school and finish my degree. But it soon became clear that our little family needed me to be more present. Although I knew it was the best choice, it didn’t keep me from spending a great deal of energy feeling sorry for myself.

And then I remembered the words of my great-grandmother, “Your pity party will never make you happy, and it won’t make anyone else feel sorry for you. It’s your job to find your own gumption, so figure out to be happy with what you have.” I made the conscious choice to see this change in my plans as a new opportunity to spend more time with my children. Not only was my family happier, but I was, too. And I found that when I finally started pursuing my own career a few years later, I had absolutely no regrets. A couple of years before my father passed away, he told me how proud he was of me. I learned that his approval didn’t depend on a piece of paper but in finding a way to let go of the negativity of regret and fear and in finding courage to pursue a different path to success.

Three Traits of Highly Successful Women Entrepreneurs

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Hautepreneurs Cofounders Jessica Eaves Mathews and Lisa Abeyta

I recently had breakfast with a group of women, all owners of their own businesses, board members on multiple charities, active volunteers in their community, and mothers who volunteered at their children’s schools – by all standards highly successful women. These women had already found success while living in one of the poorest states in the US and were gathered for the sole purpose of launching a nonprofit to lift up other women not yet equipped to create their own success. The ladies sharing breakfast that morning were smart, creative, and driven. But there was also a commonality of three other significant traits that helped them find success.

If you are wondering what it takes to lift your own career to the next level or to find the courage to launch out on your own, you might cultivate these three traits many successful women possess.

Be Generous

While it might make for a more interesting stereotype, truly successful women are not usually greedy. Sure, they put in incredible hours with the purpose of building a highly profitable business, but, by and large, these women are also generous. Earlier this year at an event honoring women who had been named the most influential in our state, a reporter asked me what it meant to be influential. My response was that influence is nothing more than a tapestry of relationships where individuals have supported or helped each other in some way. Influence is a result of being generous and accessible, not something that grows from serving self.

I well remember the first time I reached out to Joanne Wilson, the author of the popular blog Gotham Gal, and a renowned angel investor who focuses much of her efforts on investing in and supporting other women. I wasn’t finding the help I needed in my own back yard and decided to be brave and ask for advice. She wrote back almost immediately, not only to share advice but with an offer to introduce me to a friend that she thought might help. She offered expecting nothing in return, likely cognizant that there wasn’t anything I could give back in exchange. Not long after, I applied to an incubator for women in mobile, and while our company was not chosen to participate, the founder, Kelly Hoey, reached out to encourage me to continue my efforts. I not only gained a deep respect and sense of gratitude because of the generosity of these successful women, I understood the value of being accessible. When I am now asked to mentor, to speak at an event, to go to coffee, I do what I can to make it happen. I take time to mastermind with other women business owners, realizing that our collective experience and knowledge is of so much greater value in growing our businesses than working in silos in the same city.

If you want be successful, learn to be generous with your time, your efforts, your knowledge. This does not mean you let others take advantage of you or that you agree to so much that you’re overwhelmed and left with no time to meet your own goals; it means you give when and where you can provide value without expecting anything in return. The interactions will likely bring more value than you realize at the time.

Be Fearless

There was a pivotal moment I had as a woman entrepreneur that taught me the lesson of being fearless. I was sitting alone in our board room with a potential business partner. We had already met numerous times, completed due diligence, and all that was left was to negotiate terms. He knew I had my back against the wall with several looming deadlines that were dependent on outside help, and he was counting on this being my weakness. What he didn’t count on was my understanding that if I agreed to his predatory terms, I would be setting our company up for eventual failure anyway. In the end, I walked away. It was the scariest decision I’d ever made, because it wasn’t just my future but the future of every person who’d believed in my vision enough to work alongside me. Within days, we developed a solution that not only avoided a bad partnership but assured our independence moving forward.

If you want to climb higher in your career, don’t let your fear rule your decisions. Be brave, take calculated risks, learn to say no when you know you should, even if it is the scariest thing you’ve ever done.

Be Intuitive

It just doesn’t feel right. Sometimes, even when it isn’t apparent what specifically is right or wrong with an opportunity, we need to trust our intuition. When we do, we often make choices that prevent future difficulties. A fellow entrepreneur was recently weighing a partnership opportunity, worried what she would miss if she passed it up. Despite the upside, she expressed that something about it just didn’t feel right. Eventually, she followed her instinct and turned down the offer. Not long afterward, news broke that several legal problems were uncovered in the business she’d been considering for a partnership. Instead of a missed opportunity, she’d avoided serious consequences.

Intuition can also move us to leap quickly when we know it’s right. I founded my second company with my current cofounder by the end of our first lunch together. Her vision and values aligned with mine, and I knew in my gut that this was the right move. We formed the company within a day, and over a year later, I can still say it’s been one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve ever made. One of the best measures that I’ve learned to trust is this: when it’s wrong, it won’t feel right event when it looks good on the surface; when it’s right, there is joy even when the going gets hard.

Success isn’t just about moving up in your career or making money. It’s learning what you can accomplish by facing your fear, making hard choices, being generous with others, and learning to trust yourself.

 

Not Quite Ready to Finish the Long Goodbye

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I have a stack of unopened sympathy cards sitting on my kitchen counter. They’ve been there for almost a month now. Some have arrived in my mailbox and found their way onto the pile, and my mother has delivered a few more.

I can’t bring myself to open a single one of them.

Grieving isn’t new for me, and it’s been a long, long road – this journey of saying goodbye to my father. Ronald Reagan called his Alzheimers the “long goodbye”, and he was right. Since the day my mom called to tell me the news six years ago, it’s been an incredibly difficult, painful but often beautiful experience.

20130517-192504.jpgI remember the first time I met my parents for breakfast – something that had become a weekly tradition – and my dad couldn’t say my name. He knew me and enjoyed our conversation, but he just couldn’t form words the way he used to. He was restless, so we left the table and found a seat on the bench in the front of the restaurant while waiting for my mom to finish up. We sat there holding hands, much like we had when I was a little girl. No words needed, just love flowing between us. It was a sad but lovely day, because I understood that even if my father couldn’t say my name, he could still love me.

I recall the family dinner where the noise and chaos got the best of my father. He sat on the couch, rocking back and forth, a few stray tears wending their way down his cheeks. My mom squatted in front of him, put her forehead against him, and spoke softly while she stroked his head until his distress was gone. It made me cry, but it was also the manifestation of true love. I gained a deep respect for my mother that day, because I witnessed her vows of “for better or worse” lived out with tenderness and kindness. I understood that while Alzheimers might changed the dynamics of relationships, it couldn’t change the foundation of relationships.

IMG_3479And then there were the field trips that Dad and I took while my mom ran errands or went to appointments. When something we did sparked a memory, he got excited and – using sweeping gestures, pointing, and single telegraphed words – struggled to share that memory with me. I loved those times together, because they gave me back a tiny piece of my father who was leaving just a little bit more every day.

And I remember my last real visit with my dad. I’d flown in late the night before from a business trip to New York City, and I hurried to my parents’ home before a busy day of meetings began. I sat and just held his hand as he lay in the hospital bed that had been moved into the guest room. I told him how much I loved having him as a father, and that as a child I completely took him for granted. I told him that I thought it was the best compliment anyone could pay their father, because it meant that he was my rock, that I never worried if he’d come home. It never occurred to me that it was possible for fathers not to be consistent and reliable. I never doubted that there would be food on the table or clothes or vacations. And when I messed up, he forgave me and helped me solve my problems. Tears flowed freely for both of us as I talked, and he mouthed a simple thank you to me. It broke my heart that I was losing my father, but I felt so very blessed to have the privilege of telling him what he meant to me.

And so a month after his funeral, the sympathy cards sit unopened. Maybe some day I’ll have the fortitude to read them, but not today.

Today I’m just not quite ready for the long goodbye to be completely over.

You can find this essay on Huffington Post, where Lisa blogs about life, being a mother, wife, friend and woman in tech, and the world of open data and civic tech.

Why We Need to Show Up for the Hard Stuff

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The text came when I’d already crawled in bed after an exhausting day of meetings.

I almost didn’t read it.

I almost left it until morning.

Lisa, I’m here at Mom and Dad’s.
I think you should come.
He likely won’t make it through the night.

I laid there in the dark for a moment, almost upset that I’d read it. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to be there for this – the end. I didn’t want to see my dad like that. I didn’t want to do any of this.

On the long drive down to my folks’ place, a wash of fear swept over me. What if this – how my dad was now – what if this was how I remembered him? I didn’t want that memory to be the one that came to mind when someone mentioned my dad years from now. I wanted to remember him as the self-reliant, confident, kind man that he was before Alzheimer’s. I didn’t want to recall their guest room with the hospital bed, the wheelchair, him in his hospital gown. I didn’t want to watch my father slip away from me, leaving me without a dad to lean on for the rest of my life.

I think we’re often like that with things in life that fill a need for us. We don’t want them to change, and if they do, we don’t want to witness it. I think it’s why we work so hard to “fix” the people in our lives who’ve changed into something other than our ideal of who they could or should be. I think it’s why we avoid the mirror as we get older; it’s easier to believe we are still as we once were. As long as we don’t really look, really acknowledge it, we can continue as we see ourselves in our own mind’s eye in whatever ideal form we want to believe is still true.

We spent the night sitting vigil at my father’s bedside, telling stories of some of our favorite memories of him. We laughed, we talked, we cried. But we did it together as a family. And when Dad’s breathing would stop for what seemed like forever, we’d grow silent and listen, wondering if this was the moment we’d have to say goodbye. We held his hand, kissed his cheek and told him we loved him. It was one of the hardest nights I’ve been through, but it was also one I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

There is a purity that comes into our experience when we are willing to see it for all that it is, to face the hard parts as well as the good. And when we avoid the difficult part of our relationships, the harder, uglier side of life, we may get to keep a prettier picture in our head, but we lose out on experiencing the full beauty of the journey. I learned that night that there is beauty and poignancy that will never be exposed through the easy moments in life; we only discover those when we show up and face the hard parts with courage – even when we don’t want to.

As I drove back home the next morning, I felt peace. Not because I was losing my father but because I’d been there for him, I’d shown up for the hard stuff, and I would carry with me the complete memory of him – all of it. I’d remember him as a young man heading out to work while I stayed home with mom. I’d recall him teaching me to drive and giving me advice about boys when I was a teen. I’d have my memories of him talking to my daughter as she followed him around his yard. And I’d hold close the memory of our family gathered around him, making sure he wasn’t alone in this last step of life. The whole of that memory is far better, far more precious, than any single memory would ever be.

You can find this essay on HuffingtonPost as well.

My father holding me, 1966.

My father holding me, 1966.