Navigating CS with a Conscience

Priya Chatwani
Jan 12 · 5 min read

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 CS major, I know all too well how difficult it is to stay on the path of public service when surrounded by tech “bros” with different sets of values and motivations. It’s easy to get lost in the sauce, and 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 hold onto your goals and values? What career paths are available to you? My four privileged years at Stanford have allowed me to debate these 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. 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 a few options to consider.

  1. Find a tech non-profit in a field that interests you. Social impact incubators like FastForward, Blue Ridge Labs, Higher Ground Labs (civic tech), and Kapor Capital have amazing directories of tech nonprofits. Once you compile a list of organizations you like, leverage your network and school career services to find a contact. I can’t tell you how many times I randomly LinkedIn messaged someone to express interest in their company. That person, in the hopes of a referral bonus and maybe because they saw something of themselves in me, became an advocate for me.
  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, Coding it Forward, Impact Labs, and Partnerships for Public Service.
  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 the government. At least in California, there are many opportunities at the intersection of tech and civic innovation. To name a few, there’s the San José Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation, California Department of Health and Human Services Innovation, and SF Digital Services. Organizations like Coding it Forward and Partnerships for Public Service are creating more opportunities for young folks to bring technical skills to government agencies. Just be aware of the party politics & bureaucracy that can come with such a job. And don’t work for the DoD.
  5. Be a part of the foundation or corporate social responsibility arm of a large company. The scale of your impact is infinitely larger at Google Education than it is at an EdTech start-up. This is a great option if you are eager to receive the amazing benefits and salary that the tech giants have to offer while also working on something you care about. There are also greater opportunities for learning, growth, and mentorship at huge, well-resourced companies. And if you write down your goals and stick to them, you will stay true to yourself and your values while you’re at it.
  6. Similar to the previous point, you can also work at a tech giant, maybe with the goal of leaving after 3–5 years. High-paying corporate jobs can give you the resources to provide for yourself and others as well as the time and capital to contribute to important social causes. It can also allow you to mentor and make room for underrepresented identities in the corporate world, creating positive change from within. Clementine Jacoby, for example, was a product manager at Google for 4 years before founding 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. So yes, it is possible to work and make money for a couple years before doing what you really want. And the time you spend at a big company can give you the capital, connections, and knowledge to be more successful in your future endeavor. But it’s also easy to get stuck on that hamster wheel, acclimate to a high level of income, and never get off. In my mind, these tech giants need empathetic people from diverse backgrounds; they have so few because it’s difficult to persevere through the discrimination, bro culture, and sometimes skewed values of big tech. But be honest with yourself, and know when you’re fed up and have to get out.
  7. 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.

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. But if you want to, then you should. Regardless of your choice — and yes, you have options — we can 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 us to maximize our 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.

Priya Chatwani

Written by

welcome to my caffeinated quarter-life crisis • she/her • stanford 2020

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