You are viewing content from a past/completed QCon -

Presentation: FreshEBT

Track: Socially Conscious Software

Location: Seacliff ABC

Duration: 5:25pm - 6:15pm

Day of week: Tuesday

Slides: Download Slides

Level: Intermediate

Persona: Developer, General Software, Technical Engineering Manager

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

Last Year's Tracks

  • Monday, 16 November

  • Non-Technical Skills for Technical Folks

    To be an effective engineer, requires more than great coding skills. Learn the subtle arts of the tech lead, including empathy, communication, and organization.

  • Clientside: From WASM to Browser Applications

    Dive into some of the technologies that can be leveraged to ultimately deliver a more impactful interaction between the user and client.

  • Languages of Infra

    More than just Infrastructure as a Service, today we have libraries, languages, and platforms that help us define our infra. Languages of Infra explore languages and libraries being used today to build modern cloud native architectures.

  • Mechanical Sympathy: The Software/Hardware Divide

    Understanding the Hardware Makes You a Better Developer

  • Paths to Production: Deployment Pipelines as a Competitive Advantage

    Deployment pipelines allow us to push to production at ever increasing volume. Paths to production looks at how some of software's most well known shops continuous deliver code.

  • Java, The Platform

    Mobile, Micro, Modular: The platform continues to evolve and change. Discover how the platform continues to drive us forward.

  • Tuesday, 17 November

  • Security for Engineers

    How to build secure, yet usable, systems from the engineer's perspective.

  • Modern Data Engineering

    The innovations necessary to build towards a fully automated decentralized data warehouse.

  • Machine Learning for the Software Engineer

    AI and machine learning are more approachable than ever. Discover how ML, deep learning, and other modern approaches are being used in practice by Software Engineers.

  • Inclusion & Diversity in Tech

    The road map to an inclusive and diverse tech organization. *Diversity & Inclusion defined as the inclusion of all individuals in an within tech, regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity, race, age, sexual orientation, and physical or mental fitness.

  • Architectures You've Always Wondered About

    How do they do it? In QCon's marquee Architectures track, we learn what it takes to operate at large scale from well-known names in our industry. You will take away hard-earned architectural lessons on scalability, reliability, throughput, and performance.

  • Architecting for Confidence: Building Resilient Systems

    Your system will fail. Build systems with the confidence to know when they do and you won’t.

  • Wednesday, 18 November

  • Remotely Productive: Remote Teams & Software

    More and more companies are moving to remote work. How do you build, work on, and lead teams remotely?

  • Operating Microservices

    Building and operating distributed systems is hard, and microservices are no different. Learn strategies for not just building a service but operating them at scale.

  • Distributed Systems for Developers

    Computer science in practice. An applied track that fuses together the human side of computer science with the technical choices that are made along the way

  • The Future of APIs

    Web-based API continue to evolve. The track provides the what, how, and why of future APIs, including GraphQL, Backend for Frontend, gRPC, & ReST

  • Resurgence of Functional Programming

    What was once a paradigm shift in how we thought of programming languages is now main stream in nearly all modern languages. Hear how software shops are infusing concepts like pure functions and immutablity into their architectures and design choices.

  • Social Responsibility: Implications of Building Modern Software

    Software has an ever increasing impact on individuals and society. Understanding these implications helps build software that works for all users