Why earn to give? (transcript)

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Earning to give
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[This is an edited transcript of a talk I gave back in June. It's more heavily edited once you get to the Q&A session, to be more concise and organized than the actual Q&A was. Some of the information may already be somewhat out of date, though I have corrected one or two minor errors.]

Hi. My name is Chris, and in addition to being a member of Giving What We Can, I am a software developer working in San Francisco. But this was not my original career path. I started out getting to college. I thought I'd be pre-med, because it was for altruistic reasons. I wanted to join an organization like Doctors Without Borders and go do third world health stuff in the developing world to help people there. But this actually wasn't the best idea, in retrospect, for a couple of reasons. One of them is that I just hate memorizing anatomy and things like that.

(One of the things that I'm still trying to figure out about things that have happened to me in my life is do other people who actually end up going to med school have some quirk that makes memorizing anatomy easy for them, or did I just hate it more because I wasn't good at math? Sorry. I was really good at math. Math was super easy for me, and then this memorization shit, man.)

From there, I went into philosophy, which was also a mistake... I don't know, I just wrote a blog post about philosophy versus programming which you can read. I won't go on that rant here. But eventually found my way into programming and earning to give.

In addition to not just being good at anatomy, the other problem with the whole be a doctor plan and join an organization like Doctors Without Borders, is that doctors are to a large extent replaceable, which may seem kind of funny to hear because we think doctors are really important.

But they're replaceable in the economic sense that if you didn't do it, probably someone else would, like med school applications. Med school applications are super, super competitive. There's a shortage of doctors right now, but there's also a shortage of residencies, the first jobs you get after med school.

The bottlenecks on having enough doctors in the world totally is not on enough people wanting to be doctors. It might be different for an organization like Doctors Without Borders, but I just wasn't even thinking in those terms when I was in high school applying to colleges, and then my first couple years at college. I had no idea whether the limiting factor on those organizations' ability to operate, was it talented people who wanted to do that or was the limiting factor money or was the limiting factor...? I had no idea.

Whereas, say you're making $100,000 a year as a software developer and you donate 20 percent of that to organizations like AMF. AMF may not be the best example, because as Tim talked about, there's issues with distributing money. But at least back, when they had room for more funding, the estimate was that for every $2,000-odd dollars they spend, the estimate was they were saving one life.

You do the math on donating 20 percent of $100,000 and you're saving eight or nine lives per year, which is really amazing. That's really hard to do and as a doctor you might see a lot of patients, but someone else would be very likely to be doing that. Whereas, with earning to give, that's not something that is replaceable in the economic sense, it's not true that if you weren't doing it, someone else would.

Again, you reach some of those limits like AMF's funding issue, but even if you hit the limit on one organization's ability to receive funds, there are still other organizations out there, like GiveWell is currently recommending the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which manages to give deworming treatments, the less sexy diseases like malaria that maybe get neglected. Neglected tropical disease, they're called.

They provide these treatments for pennies on the dollar. Think, again, treating tens of thousands of people for these diseases that really suck. That wouldn't happen without your donation, which is super awesome.

Whether this makes sense as a strategy for you depends a little bit on who you are. I suspect for a lot of smart, idealistic people, the odds are very, very good that this is something you should consider.

Or even if you aren't super-talented, like having the talent to be a software engineer, you don't get programming. Programming is weird. Some people just get it and some people just don't. The people who do get it are super lucky.

But even if you're making $30,000 a year, by global standards, that's a lot of money. Even donating 10 percent of that is a huge freaking deal from the perspective of charities that are working on Third World health.

(I keep using Third World health as an example just because we know how to measure that, but potentially you could make a huge impact in other areas as well. I just keep using that as an example.)

A lot of idealistically-minded people resist the idea of earning to give. I thought about doing it on my way out of philosophy grad school. I thought about going into law for that purpose. I didn't quite realize that computer programming might be an option for me, but lots of philosophy majors go into law. I thought about doing that. Didn't, partly because just being a law graduate isn't as good of a deal as it used to be. It's like medicine. There are tons and tons of people going into law and not enough entry-level jobs, etc., etc.

Anyway, it's the thought of yourself directly doing good, being the guy out front, is really, really enticing for a lot of people. If you resist the idea of earning to give, you should interrogate why you're doing it. It might be right for you.

I'm sure people directly working on things like GiveWell, doing that direct work, can have a huge impact. But I'm sure, for a lot of people in this room, you're maybe not in a position to do that kind of direct work. You should really take a hard look at earning to give as a career choice.

Also, if you like the idea of the psychological feeling that you're doing something, and you want people to know that you're doing something, if you're earning to give, you are encouraged to brag about it, because the research says that if you brag it, if you tell other people you're donating to these charities, that makes them more likely to give themselves. From a pure pragmatic point of view, bragging is encouraged. Jesus was wrong about this. Don't donate anonymously.

There are huge, "How do you go about picking a career?" and "Trading off earning to give versus other things" questions, but the website 80,000 Hours has a ton of information on this stuff. One of the first things I would recommend doing is logging onto there.

They have a lot of comparisons, case studies of people who are trying to decide what to do with their lives, different careers, both in terms of, "Which career can I make more money in?", or people trying to decide, "Would I be better off earning to give versus, say, going into medical research? I think I might be able to make a big impact in medical research."

A lot of these cases, it's tricky to figure out, but you'll be able to see information that other people have gathered trying to figure out this sort of stuff.

Also, just focus on what you're good at. Don't think so much in terms of what you want to do. Think of what can you do, which is a weird thing to figure out because on the one hand, you have to compare yourself a little bit to other people. If you're "good" at something that tons and tons of people are good at, and there's not enough jobs in it, that's not as useful.

Then you don't have to just be good, you have be one of the best. But if you're, say, one of the people who gets programming, there just aren't enough people who get programming. That's a career you can make a lot of money in.

This applies to non-earning-to-give stuff as well. If you have a talent that non-profits really need, and there aren't enough people who can do this thing that non-profits need you to do, that's important too. The economic term is "comparative advantage," so sort of what you are good at compared to other people.

You also can't get too hung up on comparing yourselves to other people. When I was in high school, I was super good at math. I went to national-level math meets. But then I got to these meets and saw people who were even better than I was. Then I'm like, "Oh, man!" It's really discouraging.

It was stupid for me to let myself get discouraged by that because even if I'm not going to be the next Einstein, now I still have a good job as a software developer. There are enough people here that I am sure there is someone who would benefit from me plugging software development because...

[Audience laughs, I have a realization]

We have a lot of people who are already software developers. The thing about software development is it's a lucrative career in a similar way that law and medicine are, but word hasn't gotten out about that yet.

There's still a shortage people. It hasn't been like all the smart kids have flooded into it the way that it's happened with medicine and law. It's also something that's easy to switch into once you're already out of school. That's what I did. I had no idea this was even possible two years ago. Then I heard from people like Eliezer Yudkowsky who did a PSA about this in HPMOR.

Luke, in his capacity as my boss when I was a researcher for MIRI told me, "Hey, you should really look at this." Finally after the third time I heard someone saying, "You should really look at this," I finally did. Oh my gosh, I don't actually need a computer science degree to do this.

If you're on the East Coast trying to get a job on Wall Street, they care a lot about where you got your degree, what your degree is in. Where did you go to school? Did you go to Harvard or Yale? Wait, no, sorry, bye. It's not quite that bad, but it's that kind of attitude.

The tech scene in the Bay Area is a lot more open minded. If you can show you can do this stuff, we will give you a job. There are people who teach themselves to get a program and get a job. There are people like me, and Buck, and Edward who do this amazing thing called App Academy, which is a nine week intensive course where they teach you to program and you don't have to pay the tuition until you actually get a job. They have a really good track record of placing people. People average like $100,000 salaries, no kidding.

I wrote a blog post about App Academy. Buck's interview is really good. Actually, hold on. Again, projector, I actually made a page on my personal website that's ChrisHallquist.com/earning-to-give.html which has all these links. It has a link to Buck's interview. It has a link to Peter Herford's guide on learning to program. It has a link to blog posts I've written. I decided this would be a virtual handout. If I gave you a piece of paper, you wouldn't be able to click on links.

Q. Regarding App Academy, what if you're not a US citizen?

Yeah, that's a problem. We do have some students who are non-US citizens. Then they do have some issues securing visas and stuff, unfortunately.

Q. You were talking about the replaceability in terms of direct work versus earning to give kind of a how to go about saving lives. In the previous talk there was a bunch of people having different opinions. Should we be working on saving lives now? Should we be looking at the far future? How would you be thinking about the sort of replaceability concerns if you are accepting arguments about the far future?

That's a good point. It's sort of hard to answer, partly because I haven't investigated the funding situation of MIRI and FHI enough. Maybe Louie can tell you more about MIRI's funding situation and their ability to absorb more dollars. I don't know. That's something I intend to investigate in the near future, but I haven't investigated that enough. It's sort of a complicated question.

Personally, from my point of view, if I were to investigate some of these, FHI, and MIRI, or whatever, and I just came to the conclusion that they didn't have a lot of room for more money, then I would just give to third world health organizations. You might believe that MIRI doesn't have room for more money, they might have room for more talent.

There's a combination of what you think MIRI's funding situation is and what you think their room-for-more-talent situation is. It's complicated. You have to think about these things. I don't have the answers, but these are good considerations for you to have, is all I can say.

Do we have anyone who is not just still a student, but is still a student on a traditional student track? You're going back to finish your degree, but you're making a ridiculous amount of money right now. Standard career advice for students doesn't apply. [To one audience member] You're already in computer science. You are on the true path. I don't need to give you advice.

Feel free to ask me specific questions to your situation online. My email address is on the link that I will post to the Facebook group. Or you can message me on Facebook.

Q. As a person who is earning to give, do you plan to do anything other than being a hands-off money supplier? How do you weigh the tradeoff between focusing more on your job versus other things?

I'm doing talks like this. I'm blogging right now, and I'm trying to write more blog posts that are related to effective altruism. I have to figure out what I can do. There are issues that I think are important, and yet I'm not sure what can be done about them.

As for how to weigh the tradeoffs, it's hard to tell. The fact that I'm telling people I'm doing this and making sure that the specific information I have in my head that's not yet out there gets out there, and then I reach a point of diminishing returns on that and then it's worth putting more effort into my job.

Q. One thing I was wondering about when I was doing an earning to give strategy is, has it ever come an issue at work that you're publicly doing an earning to give strategy? Does it affect your negotiating power?

It hasn't come up at all yet. I don't know if they've seen any of my blog posts or not. I've been blogging for years, and not just about effective altruism. When I was job searching, I'm like, "Is this going to affect me"? I asked Simon, the guy who helps people from App Academy get jobs. I asked him about this, especially because I was interviewing at Palantir.

I'm like, "Shit, is there something I said about Edward Snowden or something online..." His response was, "Yeah, they don't happen to give a shit. Nobody in the tech world gives a shit. If anything, they'll be impressed that you're bold and out there with your opinions."

[Audience member comments: Jeff Kauffman has said that he has found that this increases his negotiating power because it's like, "Oh, you want to save lives with it," rather than, "Buy swimming pools"?

You can also often make favorable trades. Presumably, you're less risk averse with your money if you're donating it because there are fewer diminishing returns to your money. You can make favorable trades like sacrificing salary for equity that other people wouldn't be able to make.]

Q. Do you pay any attention to the direct impact of your work, or do you ignore that entirely and just aim for maximizing income?

On most things, the direct impact is going to be small positive or negative. Again, there's a replaceability issue there. There's a great post on 80K, "Show me the harm?" It talked about people who say, "Well, I wouldn't want to go to Goldman Sachs and make a lot of money and then donate it because Goldman Sachs is awful."

They point out that Goldman Sachs has a lot of employees. Even if Goldman Sachs is truly directly responsible for wrecking the world economy, you're only responsible for a tiny percentage... 

[Laughter]

Also, the fact that if you didn't go do it, probably someone else would  which sounds much less nice, in this context versus the becoming-a-doctor context.

Q. You were just talking about how supply-constrained the computer science industry is. It's quite plausible that if you personally did not decide to go into computer science, it would be close to one less computer scientist in the world.

What might happen is that the startup I'm working for would hire someone even less qualified than I was.

My impression of how the software job market currently works in the Bay Area is that there are lots of companies that are really desperate, really, really desperate for people. Me not becoming a software engineer would just mean an incremental decrease in their standards of these companies.

Q. A lot of people follow the algorithm, hire everyone we possibly can, who's above a certain level. The place that I'm interning at, I literally think it's possible that they would have one fewer intern if I wasn't an intern there. If you're thinking on the scale of industries, that actually does average out to normal supply demand dynamics, but if you think that you're working at one firm that does something particularly valuable, or particularly harmful, you may not actually be replaceable.

That actually may be correct. If they're following the, "Here is out cutoff and we hire everyone above the cutoff," that's a good point. I didn't think of that. Thank you.

Q. Unrelated to the replaceability thing, in considering earning to give, do you think there is an amount of money that's the right amount or do you always want to be earning more money? Do you think you should be exploring ways to be earning millions of dollars?

This is an interesting and slightly complicated issue. Earning more money is always better. You can save more lives. I'm happy with my current salary in so far as it's more than I ever expected to be making two years ago. There was a point in my job process where I thought I might have to accept a lower salary than what I'm making right now.

In that sense, I'm happy with it. In terms of my long-term strategy, I'm thinking, "Will I eventually want to move to Google where they pay better"? Back to the job market again, South Bay companies tend to pay better than San Francisco companies. With San Francisco companies, often they're small startups that are more likely to give you equity.

How the heck do you value this equity? I talked to Alexei when I was preparing for this talk. He said that he felt that for any given software engineer, your expected value for working at a startup is higher because of equity. The thing is, by taking equity, you're taking on risk. In a well-functioning market, that means you're, yeah.

That's what I said to him, "Yes, in a well-functioning market, but are you sure"? He's like, "I'm about 80 percent confident." He may be wrong.

[Audience member: There's an equity risk premium, but there's also a startup trendiness premium.]

Work for an untrendy startup is the answer.

[Audience member: An evil, unpopular, ad startup. Or enterprise startup.]

I'm actually working for a B2B startup that does ad stuff.

Q. Does valuing equity depend very strongly on your ability to predict whether the startup will succeed?

That's a question. In theory, the risk premium means you don't know. The point is, you don't know if it will succeed. In exchange for the risk, there's a potential of a very high reward. If you start looking into a startup, you do want to be aware of warning signs like, "Am I getting suckered on this equity offer or what"?

[Audience member: The market, the abstract concept, will have a certain amount of information that it's factoring in. If you have more information, then maybe you'll be able to make a better decision out of it. If you have less information, then maybe you stay aware of this and make decisions.]

There's also the question of, would you be better off maybe just doing the obvious thing, working for Google and donating lots of money? How does startup equity compare to just going to Vanguard and saying you want their high risk, high return mutual funds or something versus startup equity?

Q. I would say why should startup equity be weighed it any differently than, say, investing in a VC fund? What I don't mean is why should you invest in a VC fund? I mean should you consider it as being more valuable than the amount that a VC is willing to pay for it?

Yes if you're less risk averse than the VC. The VC's are by definition taking risk, but they're probably still doing it for their own purposes. They probably have some recognition of having twice as expensive of a house is not. Yes, the VC's have to be risk tolerant by definition, but if you're looking at it from a perspective of donating to causes that have tons of room for more funding, you might want to be even less risk averse.

Q. Software development is certainly a very attractive job for growth purposes, but are there any others? Is there top five, top ten?

The thing about software development is it's one of the few things I know that it's easy to switch into once you're already out of college. I wish I had known this stuff when I was high school. If I had known this stuff when I was in high school, I would have applied to Harvard and Yale and the big Ivies and then, from there, looked at...

Yeah, apply to Harvard and Yale and the big Ivies, major in statistics. Consider programming jobs, but also consider a job at Goldman Sachs. But if you've already gotten your degree, it's much harder, I don't know if there's a way you could transition into finance.

If you're still in high school, still in college, your options are way more open. In spite of the law and medicine, job markets aren't what they used to be, they're still lucrative careers. If you don't have the math background, but you're good at memorizing anatomy. Or if you've got the kind of social skills that you need as a lawyer, maybe those actually are good paths for you.

I actually intended to investigate if it might be in my interest to switch tracks from software engineering into something else, but I think that would be very difficult. Software engineering is unusual in how easy it is to switch into later in life.

5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:44 AM
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A great talk! I've added it to my annotated bibliography on earning to give.

As someone with a background in philosophy who is considering programming as an earning to give career, I would be interested in reading more about how you transitioned into software development after quitting your philosophical studies.

It would also be useful to know if there are objective measures one can rely upon to determine if one is the kind of person that "gets" programming.

On the question "A lot of people follow the algorithm, hire everyone we possibly can", Ben Kuhn's remarks on "threshold hiring" in his post on replaceability are relevant:

Many firms, including e.g. earning-to-give darling Jane Street, do not hire to fill quotas. They hire as many qualified people as come their way. If you take a job at Jane Street, it won’t cause them to deny someone else a job—they’re expanding as fast as they find people who can do the work.

(Minor: the 'Luke' link is broken; and Peter's last name is "Hurford".)

That's wonderful that you are doing talks/blog posts promoting earning to give. I wouldn't have the balls to do that. But no one wants to "be the first" to do something, so without seeing others do it, they wouldn't even consider it.

Thanks a bunch for this article. It has inspired some useful thoughts for me. I relate to some of your considerations regarding philosophy (although I personally don't consider my philosophical education to be a mistake), programming, medical school, and law.

You wrote about doctors being "to a large extent replaceable," and taking this consideration at face-value in the past has made me give less consideration to the possibility of becoming a doctor. However, if you were a doctor, presumably you could be an earning-to-give doctor?

Also, just focus on what you're good at. Don't think so much in terms of what you want to do.

I like this suggestion if it's construed abstractly (e.g., I've come to a point where I see thoughts of the form "I am good at , so I could do " as potentially better than "I happen to be good at , so I should try to do "). I think reading about effective altruism might also sometimes lend a sense of urgency to EAs that may hamper their long-term development. An example of this sense: "So, a lot of bad things seem to be happening, and I need to employ my current skillset ASAP to help ameliorate them." This sort of thinking might constrain the possibilities that someone might think of.

You also can't get too hung up on comparing yourselves to other people. When I was in high school, I was super good at math. I went to national-level math meets. But then I got to these meets and saw people who were even better than I was. Then I'm like, "Oh, man!" It's really discouraging.

I have been discouraged at times as well and probably underestimated my abilities because I was often reading things from high-ability types. So, regarding writings, there was sort of a selection effect in that I was comparing myself to people who, by virtue of the process of seeking out their thoughts, were more developed than me in various ways. I raise this consideration so that others might recognize this component in their own self-assessments and persist in their development.

You wrote about doctors being "to a large extent replaceable," and taking this consideration at face-value in the past has made me give less consideration to this possibility. However, if you were a doctor, presumably you could be an earning-to-give doctor?

Yes. Greg Lewis, a British doctor, estimates that earning to give in medicine beats direct medical work by a considerable margin. As he put it in an interview I had with him recently, "the chequebook can likely beat the stethoscope." He also believes medicine is a reasonably good earning to give career, though probably not as good as other lucrative careers prospective doctors can pursue instead.

Yes, based on Greg's analyses, this seems pretty clearly true for most developed world medicine.

However, it's worth noting that Greg's work is mostly about average marginal cases, and it's mostly about the developed world. Circumstances could conspire to make the direct impact win in a few cases. If your top priority cause is developing world health, and you are prepared to practice medicine in a developing nation, then I might lean toward direct action. If you're particularly talented in a highly leveraged area like public health medicine or cost-effectiveness research, then you could make a case either way. We might be able to have a better discussion about this after Greg publishes more on the topic.