Navigating CS with a Conscience

Are you interested in tech and public service? Are you a CS major with a passion for doing something “good” in the world?

I applaud your intentions. But if you don’t feel discouraged yet, you will soon. As a senior in CS, I know all too well how difficult it is to stay on the path of public service when surrounded by tech “bros” with different values and motivations. It’s easy to get lost in the sauce. Before you know it, you’re jealous of the folks with a Google internship because that’s the supposed pinnacle of success.

So how do you maintain your goals and values? What career paths are available to you? My four privileged years at Stanford have allowed me to debate those questions with myself and others, and I hope to assure anyone with the same concerns that there is hope. With the rise of “public interest technology”, there are a growing number of people and organizations who are committed to using tech and innovation to support and advance drivers of social change.

First and foremost, surround yourself with people, coursework, and activities that take you outside of the CS bubble. Take an experiential learning class that allows you to engage with surrounding communities. Make friends who have different majors and interests. Pick up a Humanities minor. Question the value and positionality of technical innovations. It’s much easier to stay level-headed when your perspectives are expanded and challenged by those around you. These experiences will help you define what matters to you and what kind of change you want to see in the world.

Despite doing all of those things, finding technical internships and jobs that align with your values can still seem like a daunting task. Here is a brief list of options to consider.

  1. Find a tech non-profit in a field that interests you. Social impact incubators like FastForward and Blue Ridge Labs have great directories of tech nonprofits. Once you compile a list of organizations you like, leverage your network and school career services to find a contact. Don’t be afraid to cold email or LinkedIn message someone to express interest in their company. That person, in the hopes of a referral bonus and maybe because they see something of themselves in you, can become an advocate for you.
  2. Look through public interest tech job boards and sign up for their email lists. In addition to tech nonprofits, there are many for-profit companies using technology to contribute to positive social change. I found my upcoming employer, Remix, on Code for America’s job board, but you can also check out Tech Jobs for Good, Progressive Data Jobs, Indeed, and Higher Ground Labs.
  3. Get funded to do academic research at a University or think tank. TechShift compiled a list of summer opportunities in computer science, data science, and mathematics that share a clear intention of promoting positive social change. Many University fellowships allow you to work on innovative technical projects with a social good mission. But remember to bring those skills and findings outside of the institution and to the communities that can use and benefit from them.
  4. Work for or alongside the government. Look to Code for America and Department of Health and Human Services Innovation for ways to use tech and innovation to make public services more accessible. Orgs like Coding it Forward, Impact Labs, and Partnerships for Public Service are also creating opportunities for young folks to bring their technical skills to government agencies. Just be aware of the party politics & bureaucracy that can come with such a job.
  5. Consider working at or volunteering for advocacy groups and political campaigns. Groups like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU are often in need of tech-savvy data analysts and researchers, as do the tech companies that support them (ie NGP VAN). Volunteering for Ragtag is a great way to get experience using tech to support progressive organizing.
  6. Mitigate the harmful effects of tech. As someone with a technical background, you are well-positioned to help users protect their data and to help companies protect their platform from online abuse and harassment. With the rise of cyber attacks and terrorism, there is a growing need for tech-savvy lawyers and policy makers.
  7. Work at a tech giant with the goal of leaving after 3–5 years. High-paying corporate jobs give you the resources to provide for yourself and others and the capital to contribute to important causes. Within those spaces, you can mentor and make room for under-represented identities in the corporate world. Clementine Jacoby, for example, was a product manager at Google for 4 years before starting Recidiviz, a non-profit using data analytics to reduce incarceration. Her time at Google informed her idea to bring a data-driven approach to criminal justice reform. The time you spend at a big company can give you the capital, connections, and knowledge to be more successful in your future endeavors. Keep in mind that these tech giants lack empathetic people from diverse backgrounds because it’s difficult to navigate the discrimination, bro culture, and sometimes skewed values of big tech. So be honest with yourself; know when you’re fed up and have to get out.
  8. Be a part of the foundation or corporate social responsibility arm of a large company. The scale of your impact is definitely larger at Microsoft Education than it is at a small EdTech start-up. As stated previously, there are clearer opportunities for learning, growth, and mentorship at huge, well-resourced companies. Be sure to write down your goals and values to hold yourself accountable.
  9. Start your own thing! If you have the passion and time to start your own tech non-profit or organization, there are dozens of companies looking to fund young folks using technology for social good. When you’re ready to take your idea to the next level, consider incubators like FastForward and funders like Robin Hood and Schmidt Futures.

At the end of the day, college students need to be less judgmental and have respect for the different pathways that one can take. And for those with technical skills, you don’t have to feel pigeonholed into working for a big tech company. The tech industry is so well-funded that many tech nonprofits and social good companies offer high-paying jobs as well. But if you want that big company experience, you should get it. Regardless of your choice — and yes, you have options — we can all work together to align the efforts and goals of activists putting external pressure on the tech industry with employees making things better from within, allowing everyone to maximize their desired impact. As the Public Interest Technology University Network brings more visibility to the growing field of “tech for good”, CS majors will be held to a higher moral standard. Your array of post-grad choices will continue to expand, and you will find amazing mentors wherever you go.

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