In 2017 I rejoined Google to earn money to donate. At the time I thought earning to give was probably not where I could have the most impact, but I wasn't able to find other options that were a good fit for me personally. Over the last five years a few things have changed:
- There is substantially more funding available within effective altruism, and so the importance of earning to give has continued to decrease relative to doing things that aren't mediated by donations.
- The place where I've long been most skeptical of the value of work to reduce existential risk is the lack of good feedback loops. There are now several major areas, however, where it seems pretty practical to tell whether you're making good progress and executing well. I'm especially enthusiastic about concrete projects in avoiding or mitigating catastrophic pandemics and other biological risks.
- I've found an in-person role in Boston where I can apply my skills to one of these relatively tractable areas of existential risk reduction.
So: today will be my last day at Google, and Monday will be my first day at the Nucleic Acid Observatory (NAO). We'll be building a system to collect wastewater samples and sequence their nucleic acids, with the goal of catching potential future pandemics earlier. More details in the EA Forum post and much more in the paper.
In looking for things that I might do instead of earning to give, I identified several other strong candidates for ways to apply software engineering skills to making the world better. If you're thinking of making a similar move, let me know and I'd be happy to give you an overview of what I found and potentially give introductions. While normally I prefer people comment publicly instead of sending private messages, this is the kind of thing where I'm happy to receive messages.
While I'm overall quite mixed on how the increased focus on applying your career has made EA more demanding, in my particular case I think it's pushed me in a good direction.
Timeline of this decision:
- Weekend of 2022-03-26: Informal in-person discussion with EA friends I haven't seen in a while gets me thinking again about moving into something more directly useful.
- 2022-03-28: One of these friends, who also happens to work at 80,000 Hours, follows up by email and gets me thinking specifically about how bio could offer a good combination of impactful, in-person, and in-Boston.
- 2022-03-31: I write "since now that there is so much more money available in the EA movement I'm back to thinking about doing something other than earning to give".
- 2022-04-04: I write to Will Bradshaw to see if he has ideas about where I might be helpful, though for travel and personal reasons we don't end up meeting to talk until 2022-04-29.
- 2022-04-08: I write to Chris Bakerlee at the Open Philanthropy project, who gives good advice and suggestions of people to talk to.
- 2022-04-13 through 2022-04-27: In the UK, watching the kids while Julia attends EA Global and then visiting EA friends there after. Talked to quite a few different people about options here.
- 2022-05: A lot of reading from the two lists (Greg's and Chris') that 80,000 Hours links.
- 2022-05: Talking to three different groups I was strongly considering joining. In addition to the NAO this was Alvea and SecureDNA, both of which I think highly of.
- 2022-05-23: At dinner with housemates I realize that with three strong options and several other ideas for things that I might do if those fell through that I'm very unlikely to stay at Google.
- 2022-05-24: Gave notice to my manager. I'm out on leave this week, though, so I don't start handoffs yet.
- 2022-05-31: Announce to my team that I'm leaving and start handing things off.
- 2022-06-04: Decided to join the NAO.
- 2022-06-10: Last day at Google.
- 2022-06-13: First day at the NAO.
As last time, I'm pretty sad to be leaving Google. It's been a great place to work, and I especially like my team and the work we do. I've built up a deep understanding of the web platform and advertising ecosystem, and while this domain knowledge isn't especially altruistically useful it's been fascinating and challenging work. I'll still be following the progress of subresource bundles and the privacy sandbox APIs, and I'm going to miss so many people!
In writing my goodbye emails I saw that this time I've been at Google for 1,739 days, thirteen shy of my previous record, 1,752. While I don't think I would have stayed another two weeks just to make it even, I'm glad this didn't occur to me until after I'd given notice.
Congratulations on the switch!
I enjoyed your ads blog post, by the way. Might be fun to discuss that sometime, both because (1) I’m funded by ads and (2) I’m curious how the picture will shift as ad tech gets stronger.
Could you elaborate on what you mean by as ad tech gets stronger? Is that just because all tech gets stronger with time, or is it in response to the current shifts, like privacy sandbox?
Yes, I'm also confused. Ad tech is on a path to getting weaker, with browsers making it harder and harder to connect people's behavior across sites. Privacy Sandbox, and the privacy-preserving ads APIs that other browsers are creating, are much weaker than what they're replacing.
Those aspects are getting weaker, but the ability for ML to models humans is getting stronger, and there are other “computer acting as salesperson” channels which don’t go through Privacy Sandbox. But probably I’m just misusing the term “ad tech” here, and “convince someone to buy something” tech might be a better term.
+1 This is super interesting!
Do you still intend on donating a portion of your salary?
Yes: we've pledged to donate 30%, but will do 50% if we can still manage it
We did end up deciding to do 50%: https://www.jefftk.com/p/our-2022-giving
Thanks for sharing, and congrats! I especially enjoyed reading through the timeline. (I generally like & find it helpful to read concrete, relevant info, especially in posts more abstract than this one.)
This is great - congratulations!
I was very happy to read this, great to hear that your switch to direct work was successful!
Congrats for taking the step and thanks for writing it up!
Side note: "I've built up a deep understanding of the web platform and advertising ecosystem, and while this domain knowledge isn't especially altruistically useful"
This sounds potentially very useful for EA initiatives that would benefit from reaching a lot more people, like GWWC, GiveWell or the German platform effektiv-spenden.org. If you have any thoughts on this, please share (no worries if you don't have time, though!).
I suspect my knowledge isn't that useful here? It's about how the infrastructure works at a technical level and how to make changes to the platform, which is a pretty different set of skills from how to run good ad campaigns.
Congratulations Jeff! Very exciting
Thanks for sharing, congrats!