Meet Juan, Data Programs Manager
Juan Sebastian Vasquez immigrated from Colombia to South Florida when he was about 10 years old. He attended the University of Florida where he received a Bachelor of Science in Advertising, Specialization in Business. For about a year after graduation, Vasquez worked as an account executive at an advertising agency called On Ideas before moving out to California. He arrived in Los Angeles in November, 2012 and began working as a digital outreach director and field organizer for Emanuel Pleitez’s 2013 Los Angeles Mayoral campaign. Then, for two years he worked for the tech company NationBuilder, eventually becoming head of their social media. While with NationBuilder, Vasquez said he connected with an employee at City Hall over Twitter, which led him to his next job: director of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Operations Innovation Team. Once his two-year contract with the Mayor’s office ended, Vasquez decided to pivot into a new position. Although the mayor wanted to renew his contract, he realized he wasn’t as interested in the new projects and decided to look elsewhere. Vasquez then arrived at his current position: Data Programs Manager for the Office of Finance for the City of Los Angeles. When he was recruited for the job, he said it had just been created, making him the first person to test it out. Vasquez said his job makes him excited to wake up every morning.
What does your current position with the Los Angeles Office of Finance entail?
It entails thinking very creatively about solutions to significant, existing problems. We have to anchor our efforts around data tools, technology and leveraging the resources we have. We start by thinking about what tools we have in place and how can we make the most of them. We ask ourselves, what are some of the organizational goals we're trying to accomplish, and what is the data telling us about the direction we should take? We're also building partnerships. It's really about figuring out where data fits in the larger scheme of things. The goal isn’t just to find a quick solution; we’re always thinking about the bigger picture and how we can make the most of an opportunity.
What kinds of problems have you tackled for Los Angeles?
I've been with the city now for three years, and I was at the mayor's office for the first two years. During my time at the mayor’s office, one of the big issues we tackled was figuring out what land was owned by the city real estate-wise. We didn't know what land the City of Los Angeles - the second largest city in the country - owned. Another issue we tackled was overspending on workers compensation, because either our employees are getting hurt too often or they’re taking too long to get back to work.
In the office of finance, along with the one just mentioned, one of the other problems we're having is people not paying their taxes on time. That's largely because people don't know that their city taxes are due on Feb. 28, as opposed to all the other taxes which are due on April 15. So, the problem there is a lack of awareness and inconsistency in people’s perception.
Here at the Office of Finance, we have a particular unit that is focused on collecting city business tax from large commercial buildings. There were a lot of redundancies in the way they were collecting and reporting information. It was really difficult to know exactly what was happening and there were a lot of inconsistencies. It made it difficult for management to make thoughtful decisions about where to allocate resources. You should always be thinking of and implementing new ways to make things better.
We also encountered inefficiencies within one of the units tasked with collecting revenue that ultimately feeds the city's larger pot of money, that pays for all sorts of things like our streets. In the problem scope, it's limited to this one team, but the consequences could impact the city. If we help this team be more efficient and that results in more money collected, then that money can potentially be used for everything the city pays for.
What kind of data are you collecting and working with?
Most of my time is focused on a handful of data sets. The one that I probably use the most is called the Listing of Active Businesses. It's basically a long list of all the businesses that are registered in the City of Los Angeles to operate lawfully. I have to keep track of this is because we have City Council members who want to know about what types of business are in their particular part of the city, or in case the mayor has some high level questions. I'm also working a lot with cannabis-related data because recreational cannabis just became legal. I don't really do anything with data collection. I'm looking at it more from a system's angle to see the big picture of how data flows across systems.
The projects I’m a part of eventually impact what data is collected and how, but I'm not personally talking to businesses asking them about their classifications. My work is more focused on systematic change that we can implement. We work with a number of tools and advanced technologies that help us do that. A lot of these tools are publicly accessible, like the Listing of Active Businesses. I believe it’s important for the public to know we have a wealth of data tools from the government that are totally free and accessible.
What do you enjoy about the work that you’re doing right now?
I love my job. I wake up on Mondays excited to go to work. Sunday nights I go to bed excited to go to work. There have been Fridays that I'm bummed out that I don't go to work tomorrow. That's a ridiculously unique position to be in, because I know what it's like to be unhappy with my job. It's the impact that makes it so purposeful. As an immigrant, I take the lack of leadership and cowardice that comes out of Washington as a personal commentary on me as a human. I see it as a threat to my family members and my loved ones. So, through my work at the office of finance, I get to help Los Angeles be stronger. Los Angeles is a key city in pushing back against what I see coming out of Washington. In my own way, I feel like I am putting my two cents into the larger fight and helping the second-largest city in the country. There's impact, and I love data! I love maps and playing with technology all day. I don't have to deal with politics all day, which is great because I don't like politics.
You mentioned that you are an immigrant. Is your work more socially-minded as a result of that?
I was born in Colombia. Most of my family is either in Colombia, Florida or scattered about. We're a very decentralized family. I know what it's like to leave everything you know and love and start fresh, and do it because you're pursuing greater opportunities for yourself and those that are coming after. My top 'must haves' in a job or a career are socially-minded work, growth opportunities and salary. I think a feeling of impact and meaning is right there with those three. I'm about to be 30 and now have about a decade of work experience under my belt. My work has consistently grown more important to me with each job change.
Well then, do you feel like there should be more of a community-driven effort in making things better?
I do think more people have to carry their weight if they want to see change in this country. I chose to make a career in government and make it my job for the time being. It's a great place for me to grow and learn. Other people choose to be super active in their free time and start organizations or donate or volunteer; all of that it super important. But there are other folks who just tweet away. Creating awareness is important, but we need action too. I do think that collectively we need to do our part. I don't think for me this is going to be a lifelong quest, I just think for where I am now it makes the most sense for me.
What sort of feedback have you gotten for the work you’ve accomplished?
I'm very proud of what I’ve accomplished. I know for sure some of the work I've done has served as a foundation for the continuation in our homelessness policies. The current team working on homelessness solutions is using tools and other resources I built before leaving the mayor's office. Additionally, the city of Los Angeles just hired its first ever Chief Procurement Officer. This is an executive, high level role that is required for large cities who spend their money strategically. I was a key member of the team that made that happen. The events and outreach efforts we’ve supported have experienced sharp increases in the number of people reached.
Are there different sets of skills you’ve found are useful for working in the private sector versus the public sector?
In the private sector, I believe people are much more versatile - for lack of a better word. There are more skill sets packed into one person. In government, people seem to be very specialized. It's very much about what the job description entails and the specific part of the process you play a role in. The public sector is also a much more risk-averse industry. Folks are less inquisitive and a little less curious about trying things that might not work out. Rightfully so in some cases. The private sector businesses are oftentimes the ones that are setting the boundaries. There are going to be more people with technical and design skills there. That's not to say those people don't exist in government; there's definitely a lot of really great employees in government. But government is always a little bit behind.
If you decide to change jobs again, what kind of work would you want to get into next?
For me, like a lot of freedom and flexibility in my work. I would love to have a full-time job where I get to work with technology on projects that I love and have the freedom to explore ideas. Then in my free time, I want to be an adjunct professor or instructor and have my own set of projects. I would love to teach at the University of Florida because that's my alma mater. But, I’m not picky; I would be happy to share what I’ve learned at any university or college that would open its doors to me. I just want my things to keep going the way they are and just grow bigger and better. It's not about any one job, it's about how it all works together.
What subject matter would you want to teach at a university?
I would like to teach innovation in the public sector, though I think that topic changes as my career evolves. At some point I have to go back to the private sector for a time to keep that other set of skills sharp. It ebbs and flows, but always aligns with what I'm doing at a particular time. Right now it would definitely be about innovation in the public sector, but three years ago it would be more about social media marketing and digital organizing. That topic is constantly changing.
What would you say to young people who are interested in going into the kind of work you do?
Learn how to network, learn how to talk to people older than you. Learn to be patient and take ownership over your education. I go to classes at least once every two or three weeks after work or on the weekends. I am always trying to learn from people who are smarter than me. Get a degree, get a diploma, whatever you want to do, but that's not education. Take ownership over what education means and apply it to your vision and your dreams. Keep your LinkedIn updated and be hyper critical of your resume. Always improve, always learn.