Hello! It's been an eventful few
weeks months: the job has been quit, the truck has been sold, the California has been left, and the new venture has been started (full-time!).
Selling the truck is probably the biggest and most blog-relevant event. Even though I'd already announced my plans to sell it, having legitimately sold it still feels different. One of those things that doesn't really register until it's actually happened. Truly the end of an era. In Marie Kondo-fashion, I thank the truck for its service and wish it the best in its new life.
Speaking of which, as best as I can tell, it won't be used as the stealthish RV I've used it as. Rather, it'll be used to help a couple start their fledgling potato chip business, which is delightfully specific and quirky. Not that the truck cares either way, but I'm glad it'll be put to (good?) use.
Since none of my stuff is relevant to hauling potato chips around, I took it all out of the truck and loaded it into my beloved 2004 Honda Civic, now my only motor vehicle.
The new truck owners told me I didn't have to rip out the insulation, which I appreciated. Eagle-eyed blog readers might notice that my bike looks a bit different than usual, which I have every intention of eventually writing about.
But this post isn't about the minutiae of my move, it's about why any of this is happening at all. Why I'm shaking up my life in such dramatic fashion. But before we get to that, it's probably useful to rewind a bit and go on a tangent or two, which is really standard fare at this point.
A Game of Roles
I'm a big believer in actively choosing the life you want to live, mainly because if you don't, more clever and enterprising folk will pick your life for you, usually to their benefit. Part of choosing your life is asking lots of questions about how you spend your time, why you spend your time that way, and if you like spending your time that way.
Of course, this only makes sense once you've got the more visceral basic layers of Maslow's hierarchy covered. It's kinda hard to think about what you want out of life if you don't know where your next meal is coming from. Which is to say that I recognize there's a certain amount of privilege embedded in even being able to think about the things I'm rambling about. That ackowledged, let's talk about time.
Time. We inhabit our respective mortal coils for a short and finite amount of it. It flies by. We never have enough of it. And so on and so forth. Since it's so scarce and precious, it seems reasonable to scrutinize those things that consume the most of it. And for the majority of folks between the ages of 18 and 65 (or thereabouts), the most time-consuming activity is exchanging it for money (aka "a job"). And so it follows that it's useful to ask what role you want that job to play in your life.
Personally, I've always oscillated on what I think the role of work should be in my life, and it looks something like this:
Yes, this is my actual handwriting. Yes, it is bad.
No, the y-axis doesn't make a lot of sense, it should probably be labeled "white savior complex" or "inverse cynicism" or something.
Basically, I bounce back and forth between two modes of operation:
- "Work can be a force for removing misery from the world" - In this mode, I try to convince myself that the work I'm doing is not only keeping me fed, but also improves the lives of other folks in some way. I get to feel warm and fuzzy about what I spend most of my time doing, my employer implicitly gets a discount on my labor.
- "Work is a transaction, plain and simple" - In this mode, I am a machine that consumes coffee and kale, and produces code, efficiently run meetings, and…well, poop. I sell my labor to the highest (non-arms-dealing) bidder. "Doing good" at a company is just a marketing ploy to attract young, fresh talent, who haven't had enough time to become jaded by the actual shape of the world yet.
"Serving the Public Conversation"
That first way of thinking (i.e. Doing Good Things at Work™) is leveraged to nauseating effect by Bay Area employers. You'd legitimately be hard-pressed to find a Silicon Valley tech job listing that doesn't frame itself in terms of the "impact" or societal good that you'll do working there. To give an illustrative example, I picked Twitter, pretty much at random, but you'll have similar success by throwing darts at any ol' tech stock index fund.
There's a lot to unpack here, but I'm going to leave most of it in the box. The thing I want to note is that Twitter, which makes 89% of its revenue from selling ads, and the remaining 11% from selling data,1 talks a big game about "[serving] the public conversation" in their hiring materials.
And sure, Twitter does indeed do that. But that isn't why Twitter exists. As with any for-profit corporation, they quite literally exists to generate value for their shareholders. Nothing more, nothing less.2 But when you're vying for a limited pool of data scientists and machine learning experts, you'll probably be more successful in hiring by telling prospective employees that they're "[serving] the public conversation," even if the day-to-day job description is more like "[finding] new ways to hoover more data (and therefore shareholder value) from our users".
And so I oscillate between drinking the Kool-Aid and being disenchanted with the endless streams of disingenuous verbal diarrhea that companies spew in the name of attracting talent.3 But I also can't blame them, because people do want to feel like they're doing something good or making a difference or whatever with their work. Of course, work can just be about work. But, given the choice between two otherwise identical jobs, I reckon most folks would take the one that purports to be about something more.
Maybe it's the warm fuzzy feeling we get when we do something "good". Maybe it's because we want to sound interesting and altruistic at cocktail parties. Maybe it's part of a larger narrative we're trying to weave about the purpose of our respective lives. Maybe it's all the above. Maybe I have no idea what I'm talking about.
Wading out of the depths of hand-wavy generalizations and talk of people in the abstract, what do I want out of work? I've got a roof over my head and food in the fridge, why shouldn't I make work about more than than just work? As a starting point, I looked at my life and some deeply held4 beliefs:
- I believe that life is a cosmic poker game where way too many people get dealt a truly terrible hand through absolutely no fault of their own. See previous ramblings.
- I've been dealt a pretty stellar hand, both in relative and absolute terms. You know, the whole being-born-in-a-rich-country-and-not-into-abject-poverty thing.
- I have a very particular set of skills, which are in demand and applicable to a diverse set of problems.
How do I pick a job based on these things? Historically, I've been pretty awful at it, falling prey to the aforementioned glossy marketing material/Kool-Aid. But it sounds like I want a job where I use my skills to attempt to level the cosmic playing field. And I don't want this "doing good" to be a side-effect of some other business/money-making venture, I want it to be the direct goal/outcome of my work.
And from there, it seems pretty clear I won't be looking at traditional for-profit organizations. I spent a few years working at a healthcare-focused tech company, where I worked on surgical robots, baby diaper sensors, temperature + COVID sensing patches, etc. All of those technologies have the potential to improve people's lives, which is cool. There are two main problems though:
- Those technologies are addressing problems and needs, but not the biggest or most urgent problems and needs.
- The people who will have access to those technologies are not-so-coincidentally people who have significantly more wealth than the median human being on this planet.
That second point is the source of most of my cynicism. If you are a for-profit organization, you have a fiduciary responsibility to make decisions that will generate returns for your shareholders. Those returns need to come from somewhere, meaning that some party in your business model is giving you money. This usually means you aren't building things directly for the global poor because, by definition, they have no money to give you.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. Governments and private foundations will sometimes foot the bill for things that benefit the poor, even if they come from for-profit corporations. Examples include the US government buying medicine for low-income Americans via Medicaid, and the Gates Foundation funding private biotech companies doing medical research that can benefit low- and middle-income countries via Global Health Innovative Technology Fund. Beyond that, climate change-adjacent technologies, like carbon capture or better batteries, are promising in that they can be both wildly profitable and beneficial to the global poor,5 who disproportionately have not produced the emissions warming the planet.
So if I was going to go into industry somewhere, it'd probably be in green/climate technology. But that's not what I've done. Instead, I've started a nonprofit. I'll start with the elevator pitch, then a pre-emptory straw man Q & A.
The Elevator Pitch
First, an opinion: the two most important problems in the world are climate change and global inequality, for different but intertwined reasons. Further, I claim that nonprofit organizations have made great strides in both domains, whether by lobbying for greener public policy, or helping to eliminate smallpox or control malaria. Continuing the claim-train: nonprofits don't invest in technology the same way for-profit organizations do, usually because nonprofits have more limited resources, and using technology effectively requires some level of upfront investment (engineers and/or IT folk) that isn't feasible, especially when the nonprofit also has their actual mission to spend time and money on.6 The result is that nonprofits don't get to reap the benefits of investing in technology to automate all of the manual minutiae they deal with day to day.
And that's the crux of the idea: use my existing skills to help nonprofits use technology better. I am not an climate change expert, nor do I have a strong background in dealing with global inequality. Even calling myself "moderately knowledgeable" is probably a stretch. But there are well-run, effective organizations chock full o' experts for each of those areas, and I can help them achieve their goals better through strategic application of tech (IT stuff, computers, cloud systems, custom software, etc).
I talked with a few nonprofits to see if any of this makes any sense whatsoever, and it seems like it does. Further, there are indeed organizations, both nonprofit and otherwise, that help nonprofits use technology, like Software for Good and Tech Soup. This is all to say that this isn't a novel idea, but it's clearly one with some merit, and I think it's an under-served area.
A Straw Man Q & A
But Brandon, didn't you just leave your job?
In my defense, it's been a whole year, which is an eon in the world of tech. That one year was enough time for me to build and deploy a whole platform for the startup I've mostly left (but still moonlight for). Not so coincidentally, it was the experience of building this platform that made me go, "You know, I'm at a point in my career where I can kinda just build arbitrary stuff on my own."
You're starting a tech nonprofit? Could you be any more of a Silicon Valley cliché?
I'm sure if I really tried, I could figure something out.
If there are organizations already doing this, why not join one of them?
Well, a few reasons. The first is that I want to focus on a narrow subset of nonprofits, ones that I think are working on The Most Important Problems™. Aside from that, I have some ideas on how to make the technology side of things 'scale' well,7 ranging from how we build and deploy stuff, to how we structure legal contracts, etc, etc, and it'd be harder to try those things out if I wasn't calling the shots. Plus, I convinced a talented engineer and good friend from Google to join me in starting this endeavor, which certainly helps.
Beyond that, nonprofits don't really compete with each other in the same way that for-profit businesses do. They certainly compete for donor dollars, but more nonprofits working on big problems is generally a good thing and they can happily co-exist/specialize/whatever. As for the donor dollars, I expect that most of the funding for the organization will come from the (heavily discounted) software consulting services we provide and the occasional grant, not directly from donors.
What's the name of your new organization?
I'm going to strategically omit that one, as I have no desire to link my truck-related degeneracy with the organization I plan to spend years (at least!) working on and growing. That said, if you represent a private foundation or a nonprofit working on climate change or global inequality and would like more information, feel free to reach out to me through my blog email.
1This is according to Twitter's 10-K SEC filing. Also I'm using numbered footnotes instead of my usual asterisks because I have seven of them, and ******* looks less like a footnote and more like I'm censoring myself.
2Now, before people start calling me a "communist", I'll note that I'm not making any political or economic arguments here, I'm just regurgitating the definition of what it means to be a for-profit corporation. Then again, I wouldn't expect people who use "communist" as a derogatory term to have read all the way to the footnotes.
3This is perhaps the only area where I can appreciate Oracle. Well, seems like their recruiting department didn't get the memo, because their hiring page is full of the same kind of non-specific "impact" garbage I've been complaining about.
4And backed up by data, when relevant.
5I mean, technically everyone benefits from the world not bursting into literal flames. It's just that 'everyone' happens to include 'the global poor'.
6Another reason is that donors frequently want their money to go to directly the cause, and things like "hiring someone to set up a sync between Salesforce and <some other system>" are far less glamorous than "give orphans homes", even if doing the former allows the organization to do more of the latter.
7'Scale' in this context just means the amount of work required per additional unit of impact. For example, something that requires twice as much work to support twice as many nonprofits doesn't scale as well as something that only requires marginally more work for each additional nonprofit.