The Tech World is Crashing Down. Here are 4 Reasons Why Now is the Best Time to Jump Into a Career in Social Impact
August 19, 2022;
6 min read
For the last few months, logging into LinkedIn has felt like opening a window to a slow motion train crash.
After years of a tech golden age, tech companies of all sizes, from startups to large behemoths, are experiencing widespread layoffs. So far this year more than 30,000 tech workers in the United States alone lost their jobs, despite the sector setting records in the markets for the previous two years. With numbers like those, it’s no wonder that just 9% of tech workers feel secure about their jobs right now.
This moment has reflected the reality that tech companies have been playing things hard and fast for a while, building a brittle foundation based on over-valuations and unsustainable growth culminating in sketchy, and at times illegal, behavior to make up the difference in their wishful thinking. Seeing the impact of these decisions has been heartbreaking.
My hope is that this shift may be eye opening for people who have been disillusioned by the churn of the consumer tech sector and are looking to make a pivot in the next phase of their career. Because outside of the race to deliver 1000x returns at any cost there are great opportunities for engineers with organizations who are structurally focused on doing something positive – whether it’s with a traditional non-profit or a for-profit Benefit Corporation like Mark Cuban’s recently launched Cost Plus pharmaceuticals.
Based on my experience working as the CTO of a tech social enterprise like Dimagi, I wanted to share some reasons to try and convince you why, even when things seem like they are falling apart, this is a great time to transition your career into social impact.
1. Your compensation will be lower, but you’ll sleep better
I want to start with the elephant in the room. Responsible and sustainable social enterprises aren’t going to be salary competitive with the Tech Giants, but a lot of the complex ground-up work we do demands a similar level of talent. I’ll be honest that this gap gets even wider by seniority. Transparently a newer engineer at Dimagi might make 25% less than an engineer at Google, but more senior engineers are likely to be making 50% of what they could be making in big tech.
I know that’s a big trade-off to even start to consider. Over time, though, I’ve appreciated how being forced to provide value in other ways has resulted in a lot of benefits compared to the jobs of my peers at the Googles or Amazons of the world. These look a little bit different for each social enterprise, but here are some of the ways this has been felt for our company:
We have to prioritize work-life balance, and fitting into people’s sometimes complicated lives. In Dimagi’s annual engagement survey this year, not a single one of our 260 employees said that they didn’t feel supported to make use of flexible working arrangements. It may be why a work-life balance expert shut down her work-life consulting startup to join our team.
We are in control of our own destiny, and can use our judgment to do the right thing. We don’t answer to VC firms whose only win condition is unsustainable exponential growth until they can exit and pass the bag to someone else. Most corporations don’t have a choice to do the right thing if it conflicts with satisfying their investors (so long “don’t be evil”…), but we’re structurally required to prioritize it right in our corporate charter.
You’ll know that you’re compensated fairly. At Dimagi, we have a transparent pay scale and don’t negotiate salaries. Our job listings include salaries right in the open. You won’t have to worry if your colleague with the same title is making twice as much as you because they fit a stereotypical mold and negotiated more aggressively.
I want to recognize that this isn’t a choice everyone can make. I remember graduating from MIT with an offer from both Dimagi and Microsoft, and trying to decide whether to take a job I felt great about or more quickly pay off my student loans. I recognize that it’s a privilege to be able to trade off compensation for more agency. We’re committed to keep increasing our salaries to close that gap, and have increased our baseline pay for employees by 20% over the last two years, but there’s a limit to how close we can get. We are very far from a world where the economics of effective social impact organizations have a practical chance of competing with the compensation an experienced senior engineer could make in Silicon Valley.
But before the sticker shock scares you away, you should know that most social impact organizations are much more willing to work with you to find a way to make a position workable at their level of compensation. Don’t be afraid to ask! The tech impact orgs we work with have always been early innovators in working arrangements. Things like permanent remote work were standard in our industry long before the pandemic. Even if now isn’t the right time for you, I hope you’ll keep the option in mind and you’ll keep your mind open to social impact as a possible direction in your future.
2. You’ll get to build things you are proud of
Something I love about the impact space as a developer is that it is a place for builders.
Back in 2009, I was introduced to Yaw Anokwa, and his classmate Carl Hartung who wanted to port our open source J2ME JavaRosa engine as they spent the year building a data collection app for the (at the time) new Android platform. A decade and change later, the ODK software the two of them built has been adapted and used by social organizations in nearly every country, and has provided its own opportunities for new open source builders to contribute something with the power to reach real people.
One of the biggest reasons that engineers join social enterprises is because they want to build something real and useful that makes a difference to someone, rather than optimizing a website to trick users into clicking an ad 2% more frequently, and we get lots of these opportunities. Within a month of joining Dimagi, we’ve had talented recent engineering graduates building and deploying features to support the rapidly emerging needs of the official COVID-19 contact tracing platforms for the state of New York.
Doing your job well at a social enterprise just comes with an out-sized chance to do something useful. As a modestly sized 50-person engineering team we’ve been able to build the 53rd most valuable Open Source repository on GitHub and write code that has reached 400 million people, mostly through community health workers delivering critical health services around the world. It’s hard for me to imagine a more effective way for my individual effort to contribute value to people’s lives.
3. You’ll actually know what’s going on
A good friend of mine texted me this week saying that his company, which by all indications is doing quite well, had just announced they would be letting go of 40% of their engineering employees. Just a week prior we had been talking about how he was planning on expanding his team. He was loving work so much that he had just convinced three close relations to accept a job there. Needless to say, no one saw this coming. Sadly similar stories are not uncommon in the tech industry.
Having a culture of transparency and strong internal communications isn’t just limited to the social impact space – it’s just a best practice for all organizations. But as a formally structured Benefit Corporation, we’re legally required to be more transparent than traditional companies. Benefit Corporations have to make our financial performance regularly available to employees and the world, as well as our social and environmental performance too. This is shared in an annual report card that is made publicly available for anyone to review.
4. The world needs you, now more than ever
It’s no secret that the global wealth gap continues to widen, but increasing inequity in the digital world can be easier to miss. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the underlying reality that the Big Tech engine dominating the growth of technology can’t be relied on to solve our biggest problems, and our underserved communities are falling further and further behind as markets consolidate around wealth.
One unfortunate consequence of the dominance of that engine is that it has thoroughly monopolized the pool of human talent for building technology. There are more than enough high paying jobs helping Google build their next abandoned software project or helping Facebook to manipulate people’s emotions for unclear purposes to leave few people around to build the unique skills the CDC needs to help track the spread of dangerous diseases.
As crises ranging from climate change to global food shortages come to a head, we just don’t have time to work on things that don’t matter. At Dimagi, that’s why we’ve focused on facilitating substantial, evidence backed improvements in wellbeing for the most people – with a focus on the most underserved people in the world.
But there are a wide array of social enterprises with their own unique theory of change that could benefit from your skills and experience. Just ask around if you’d like to know more, the space is incredibly collaborative and we love to point people in the right direction. Github’s social impact team does a great job highlighting different organizations using tech to make an impact and contribute back to open source community while doing so. I think you’ll find that there’s a lot to gain from being a part of one, I know that I have.
You knew this was coming, but if you’ve been laid off or are thinking about making a job transition, check out career opportunities in the social impact space (including Dimagi).
If you have a story about transitioning into the social impact sector, I’d love to hear about it in the comments