There are few nonprofit startups that can boast Google, Apple and other big tech alumni among their staff. For that matter, there are few startup-style tech nonprofits at all.
But Recidiviz, a tiny startup trying to provide new ways to manage and interpret data for state prison systems, is a nonprofit loaded with staffers who are among the top technical talent in the country. These workers — including CEO Clementine Jacoby, a Google alumna — left their highly-respected tech jobs and took pay cuts to go work for an unknown name because they saw an irresistible prospect: the chance to do work that is both socially important and technically challenging alongside equally expert colleagues.
"All of these people who are like, 'How do I get into nonprofit tech?' I don't often have a great answer. I don't know. I think there are much fewer opportunities than there is demand for something that is a really meaningful project," Anna Geiduschek, a Recidiviz software engineer and Dropbox alumna, explained to Protocol. "I would have a hard time working at a nonprofit where the tech caliber wasn't also quite good. You need both things."
There's a misconception that tech workers aren't interested in this kind of work, Jacoby explained, but that's not quite right. Instead, it can be very difficult for talented engineers who want to do technically challenging work with a high-caliber team to find a company that actually offers both sides of the equation. (Jacoby was a product manager at Google, and is a Y Combinator alumna.)
"I think the argument that's often made is you won't be able to attract the right kind of talent as a nonprofit. And in my experience, that has just not been true," she told Protocol on the Source Code podcast. "My experience has been that there's almost an overwhelming number of people in tech who want to use their technical skills for good, and that that is the much bigger gap. There are lots of top flight engineers who want to make the world a better place, but they also want to report to top flight engineers, and they want to execute on complex technical problems in places with strong engineering cultures."
The big problem with that? The incentives for tech startups don't usually encourage both strong engineering cultures and "tech for good."
"I certainly don't know where the incentives are to pull that many people into the nonprofit world," Geiduschek said. "It's hard to get money, the system is set up to make a profit and so many of these problems become instantly problematic if you are solving them for profit."
"Is there any way to do criminal justice work for tech in a for-profit way? No. You'll be automatically driven to keep the system in place, otherwise you will be out of a job," she added.
Geiduschek and her colleagues studied computer science in college not because they knew they'd be able to find some of the highest-paying entry-level jobs in the world, she said, but because the work is technically difficult and challenging, and because computer science sells itself as actually changing the world.
Graduating into a big tech company after that kind of idealistic education can be a rude disappointment for some. The big tech companies are so large that new grads often find themselves working on tiny elements of larger projects, unable to shape or even picture the larger work, let alone influence its direction.
"What I was actually working on and the products I was helping to make, I didn't care about at all," explained Julia Dressel, an engineer who spent her first year after college at Apple.
Serena Chang, a former Google program manager who worked on a small gaming API during her time there, felt the same. Google was an amazing place to build skills and learn the basics, she said, but the work itself felt stifling.
"I like to move very fast, and I'm generally an impatient person, and naturally at a large company, there's quite a bit of overhead and approvals required to get things done," Chang said. "It was very exhilarating to come somewhere smaller. You have to work really quickly and pivot, and things can move a lot faster."
It's not that big tech companies don't carry enormous value for these engineers and managers; every Recidiviz employee I spoke to credited their former employers for teaching them many of the skills that helped them succeed in the smaller, higher-pressure setting at Recidiviz. It's more that eventually, at those companies, you can plateau. "I realized game APIs were not my life calling," Chang said.
Of course, there are plenty of technically-skilled workers who never experience that kind of doubt. When Geiduschek was at Dropbox, she had a hard time finding people who wanted to talk about social problems and be critical about technical work. "You couldn't throw a rock and hit a person who was wanting to talk about these things," she said.
As a young computer science student at Stanford, criticizing Big Tech just was not the normative behavior for Geiduschek. "When I was a freshman at Stanford, Mark Zuckerberg came to our class to teach one class. And it was like the pope was there. It was like, 'Mark Zuckerberg is coming to class,' and you couldn't get a seat. And I remember being just awestruck as well."
But there are enough people who don't see Zuckerberg as a celebrity idol that Jacoby and her employees wonder just how many people would be in the technical nonprofit space if they could actually find the work. "There's definitely so much interest," Chang said. "I see a lot of people who are either at large tech companies who are hoping to transition, or a lot of people who are just graduating from college." And according to a new survey about worker sentiment released this week, Chang is right — about 68% of workers think they should be able to discuss racial justice issues at work, and nearly a third of young workers would consider leaving their jobs if their employers aren't vocal about these issues.