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From Engineering to Policy: An Unconventional Career Path on Capitol Hill

anita rao featured image copy of congressional spotlight interviewThis week, we spoke to Anita Rao, Legislative Fellow for the Office of Senator John Hickenlooper.

Can you tell me about your career path that you’ve taken that’s led you to where you are now?

My career path to get to Congress has been somewhat unconventional. I studied engineering in college, but I was always interested in public service as well. For the last few years, I worked on 5G/AI research as a software engineer, which was incredibly interesting and allowed me to go deep into technical topics. At the same time, I was constantly thinking about the importance of responsible technology development and governance in my job. When I learned about the TechCongress Fellowship, a program that brings technologists to the Hill to work on tech policy issues, I knew I had to apply. I’ve been working as a Legislative Fellow for the last 6 months and absolutely love it!

Which specific policy areas or legislative issues are you most passionate about, and how do you stay informed and engaged in those areas?

I’m interested in artificial intelligence, 5G/6G, and our energy infrastructure, which interestingly have quite a bit of overlap. AI is touching every sector with new breakthroughs each day, making it an exciting and difficult issue to grapple with legislatively. I think everyone is also becoming aware of how vital our broadband and energy infrastructure is. I like to stay engaged on these topics by subscribing to specific newsletters, listening to podcasts, and talking with friends in the field, both policy folks and technical practitioners alike.

Describe a challenging or rewarding project that significantly influenced your growth as a professional. How did you handle the challenge, and what did you learn from the experience?

In my past role as an engineer, I volunteered to work on a side project with lawyers, policy professionals, and other technologists. The goal was to create a central website, the 5G Academy, that would help lawmakers and the general public better understand 5G technology as it was beginning to roll out commercially. This process challenged me to distill technical concepts into simpler, relatable ideas. It also helped me learn to work with both technical and non-technical folks, each bringing their own expertise to the table. After this experience, I was a lot surer about pursuing a career in tech policy where I could use similar skills, so it certainly impacted my growth as a professional!

What advice would you give to individuals who aspire to work on Capitol Hill? 

For people aspiring to work on the Hill, especially those interested in policy, I like to say that it may not be a straight line, but you will get there. It took time for me to connect with the right people and find the right opportunities while working as an engineer, but I finally ended up here and I’m certain there were many other paths as well. I’m a little biased, but I think fellowship programs are a fantastic way to come to the Hill if you have an issue area, you’re particularly knowledgeable and passionate about. You can check out a list of programs here.

What do you believe sets Capitol Hill apart as a unique work environment, and how do you navigate its challenges in your everyday work?

Capitol Hill isn’t really a single work environment. It’s 535 different work environments (plus committees), which creates a unique energy and is also super exciting. Just as no two offices are the same, no two days are the same because you’re constantly meeting new people and juggling multiple issues at the same time. And yet, there are certain aspects such as brainstorming, writing, and taking meetings that are similar to other workplaces. I prepare as much as possible, especially when covering new policy topics, but ultimately, I try to stay adaptable and responsive to what’s happening around me when I hit a challenge at work.

Word association, what is the first word that comes to mind for each of these?

Policy – Passion

Networking – Useful

Writing Skills – Fundamental

Working on the Hill – Purpose

Leadership Connect – Helpful

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Gabi Thomas

Gabi joined Leadership Connect as a Research Analyst and is now the Legislature Outreach Liaison.