Hi! I’m Josh Susser, and I just started working at Neighborly last month as a principal software developer.
I’ve done a lot of different kinds of programming in my career: I’ve built virtual machines for the Smalltalk programming language, productivity tools, scientific analysis software, and helped define the tiny Java VM that runs on the SIM card in your GSM phone and the chip in your credit card. I’ve written system software at Apple and made a bunch of contributions to Ruby on Rails (back before it was cool). The odds are pretty good you’ve used something I helped build. These days I do web development, which has to be about the most frustrating and uninteresting kind of software development work I’ve done. On the other hand, it’s a very portable skill, so I’ve gotten to work in a lot of different sectors of the tech world, which keeps it interesting. I’ve done web development for social media, mental health, development tools, education publishing, voting registration, online merchandising, personal finance, and micro-lending. Now I’m here at Neighborly, working on democratizing public finance.
Public finance is the kind of boring, nerdy topic that will drive people away from you at cocktail parties, but it affects us every day. Every time you see a bond measure on the ballot, that’s public finance. And when you cross a bridge or drink water from the tap, that’s the product of public finance, too. A bond might be uninteresting, but the school, affordable housing project, or sewer system it lets a community build can be crucial to its residents.
I grew up in semi-rural Pennsylvania (I could see cows out my window), so I learned what a barn raising is. Back in the day, it was a way for a community to collectively invest in critical infrastructure. If you are a farmer, a barn is definitely critical infrastructure. But construction of a barn was more work than any farming family could handle on their own, so the whole community would come together for a day or two and get it done. Everyone in the community was expected to help out, and every farmer could rely on the community to help with their barn when it was their turn. A new farm was an asset to the whole community, so even non-farmers had an interest in helping out. Our modern development needs are more complex and take a lot more effort, so instead of having school raisings we use municipal bonds. Muni bonds are powerful tools, but who actually gets to invest in them? Usually it’s institutional investors and high net worth individuals, rather than the folks who are most likely to have a direct connection to the project the bond is funding.
Barn raisings might be outdated, but they were great for community involvement. I believe the bond investing platform we are building at Neighborly has the potential to bring that kind of community involvement to public finance. Communities can be empowered to support themselves and residents can get more involved. And like a barn raising, when residents invest in their own communities, the returns stay in the community, which creates a virtuous cycle of growth – regenerative finance.
Worried about the future? Find a way to make it better. Better yet, find a way to help lots of others make it better. That’s what we’re up to here, and why I’m excited to be a part of the team.