With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

We have failed society, and society has noticed.  Code now powers injustice around the world....

The New York Times recently published an interactive article titled "The Decade Tech Lost Its Way".  The headline brought to mind a topic I've reflected on often over the past few years.  We have had a decade of headlines exposing aid of government oppression in China by Google, utter disregard for privacy from Facebook, profit-margins above human well-being at Amazon, and many more.

The list is not limited to big tech either.  Praiseworthy investigative journalists brought us stories ranging from massive location data-sets collected by dozens of small, obscure companies, to human rights abuses using facial recognition & cell phone spyware by world powers - specifically China & India. (China has now moved people targeted by this technology into brainwashing camps.)  And, of course, abuses of power by my own government as well.

These stories both sadden & anger me, but they also make me concerned for our industry.  Technologists, especially software developers, wield enormous power.  A piece of code written by a single person can directly affect millions of people.  We can blame corporations & governments for poor ethics, but in the end, people wrote the code.  We wrote the code.

As developers, we are in high demand.  We can choose how & where to use our talents.  Unfortunately, the pinnacle for many developers today seems to be nothing more than a job at the big five or a flashy startup.  Of course, that goal yields high pay and interesting work, both of which are great things.  But, they are not the only things, or even the most important.  I challenge you, dear reader, to think bigger.  We each have but one career, and our legacy, both collectively and individually, will depend on how we use it.

Where To Start

You may be asking, "how can I have a positive impact as a software developer?"  I too asked that question.  I have been searching for a way to volunteer some coding time, specifically in a way that addresses basic human needs (as opposed to first-world problems).  I also would like to help fight climate change.  But, in some ways, those problems seem very distant from software - at least they did to me.

It turns out that there are both volunteer projects & full-time jobs in areas with positive impact for social, environmental, and many other causes.  The opportunities are not limited to charities or government work either.

The first decision is what to work on.  In my opinion, this should be influenced by two factors.  First, what objectively does the most good?  Second, what speaks to you personally?  Finding the intersection of the two will take some work, but it is a worthwhile effort to be sure.

Here are a few places to start:
Note: These lean heavily toward my personal interests, but there are many more out there...if you are willing to dig.
  • 80,000 Hours - Verbose & not software development specific, but a novel way to think about which ideas merit the most effort.  Worth a read.
  • B Corps - these are companies that have made a legal commitment to do some good for the world.
  • Medium - Climate-change-specific title, but many of the companies listed do good in other areas
  • Bret Victor's Blog - Climate change specific | A bit dated now, but still excellent
  • James Crowley's Blog
  • Tech for Good 
  • ClimateAction.tech - Excellent Slack community

There are also numerous job boards focused on positive impact which post full-time positions & requests for volunteer assistance.  These can be difficult to find, so here are the ones I've come across: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10

Sifting Through The List

So, how do you evaluate a specific opportunity for objective impact?  Well, I'm still working through this myself, but I've come across a few useful ideas. 

For environmental interests, the most effective global climate projects are certified by the UN & Gold Standard.  Gold Standard projects also must meet other goals like eliminating poverty & hunger.  That said, their website lacks good filters, so finding something specific is tedious. Also, while it doesn't list specific projects or companies, Drawdown has a data-backed ranking of climate projects categories which can help you determine which industries are the highest impact.

Obviously, I've been focusing on climate change, but if your interests differ, look for an objective measure of impact.

Let's Turn This Around

In summary, I urge you to consider the power that your skill-set brings and use that power to do the highest good you can.  Some jobs & projects are harmful, some are just neutral, but some can truly make an impact.  How will you use your career?  What will be your legacy?  Let's make the 20's the decade that tech found its way again.


  1. Amen. https://www.linkedin.com/posts/tanyabarham_silicon-valley-is-falling-short-on-climate-activity-6653716387057541120-gdzE


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