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Presentation: FreshEBT

Track: Socially Conscious Software

Location: Seacliff ABC

Duration: 5:25pm - 6:15pm

Day of week: Tuesday

Level: Intermediate

Persona: Developer, General Software, Technical Engineering Manager

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What You’ll Learn

  1. Find out about the Fresh EBT app- a real-world example of software that serves a population often overlooked by technological innovation.
  2. Learn about how Propel scaled the app to over 1 million monthly active users with a team of 3 engineers.

Abstract

Fresh EBT is a mobile app used by over a million households each month to manage their SNAP benefits. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP is the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net in the United States that offers nutrition assistance to over 40 million eligible, low-income individuals. The Fresh EBT app serves as a pragmatic example of consumer software that seeks to improve government services from outside the government. This talk will focus on the challenges involved with scaling the app nationwide.

Question: 

Tell me a bit about the size, scope and the importance of the app created by your company.

Answer: 

Fresh EBT is a mobile app that is used by 1.5 million SNAP recipients each month to manage their EBT benefits, save money, and earn income. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP--more commonly known as food stamps--is a critical part of the American safety-net and provides food assistance to around 40 million people each month. The program works by loading SNAP benefits onto an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, which works like a debit card but can only be used to purchase foods items at retailers that are authorized to accept EBT as payment.

Question: 

I know you dealt with lots of challenges in launching and scaling Fresh EBT. What are the most interesting ones that you’ll address in your talk?

Answer: 

Sometimes it’s not intellectual brilliance or an elegant solution that will overcome a messy problem, but rather just embracing the messiness and executing well on basic things. This is how we were able to reach so many people with such a small team while navigating a complicated space.

We scaled the app from just 1 state to 50 in a matter of months and to over a million monthly actives in around 2 years. One of the constant themes that emerged is that the world of government services is messy. As our user base grew, our engineering team grew to include 2 more engineers while the organization grew to a total of 10 employees. Part of my talk will focus on how we were able to scale the product with a very lean team despite the inherent messiness of the problem.

Another challenge that emerged was finding the right balance between collaboration and disruption. There are so many stakeholders in a government program like SNAP. The food stamps program has been around since the 1970’s. Though it involves the US Department of Agriculture at the federal level, it is administered by the states individually. Parts of the the state systems are typically contracted out to private contractors. With this many stakeholders and such a small team, we had to walk a very fine line between collaboration and disruption, which I will discuss more during the talk.

Question: 

What about Propel’s experience working through government messiness do you feel is transferable to a broader developer community?

Answer: 

As we scaled the app up, we spent a lot of our time building internal tools. Don’t get me wrong we use lots of SaaS products to help us with aspects of managing an app at this scale. But we also built tools to empower non-technical members of the team to manage the product in quasi-technical ways. For example, pretty much every person in the company knows how to read JSON and can tinker with core app and server configs. This isn’t because we screen for this in non-technical roles, but because we are willing to invest in on-the-job training and give people significant responsibility.

Question: 

What do you want someone who comes to your talk to walk away with?

Answer: 

Software companies often like to build products that they themselves would use. The tech revolution has disproportionately served and benefitted the affluent. I want to encourage people to look in non-traditional places to find problems and identify solutions that might not be immediately apparent or well-known to them. These can represent big business opportunities, unique and complex technical problems, and technological white spaces where a small team or even an individual can have the opportunity to make a big impact.

Speaker: Ram Mehta

CTO at Propel Inc, building @FreshEBT

Ram is the CTO of Propel, a software company based in Brooklyn that builds products for low-income Americans often overlooked by traditional tech innovation. Propel's Fresh EBT app currently reaches over 1 million families on food stamps per month. He has previously worked at Cisco, Fivestars and Google.

Find Ram Mehta at

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