Some early career EAs are able to find good direct work, but there aren’t enough opportunities for all the promising early career people. Another option that I don’t think gets considered enough is to work at a fast-growing startup in an emerging technology (e.g. robotics or NLP), where one can often have much faster skill development within a couple of years. By fast-growing startup, I mean a company that seems decently likely to be one of the top ~20 highest valued startups founded in a given 5 year period.
Claim: it would often be more valuable to work at a fast-growing startup than direct work that doesn’t seem likely to have high positive counterfactual impact or high potential for individual growth.
The three main benefits from fast-growing startups are that the company’s growth leads to greater responsibility earlier, you can work with very high-caliber people and develop a better bar for excellence, and that fast-growing startups often work on the edges of technological development, giving insights into how the world will change over the next decade.
Aurora, a >$10B self-driving car company, had ~30 employees when I joined, and ~300 when I left two years later. About 6 months after joining, I started leading a team of ~5 engineers on a high priority engineering project. That was mostly due to the company needing leaders to keep up with our growth, and my hustle and generalist skills making me well-suited for the role. That experience taught me a lot about leadership, management, and long-term engineering projects, and it seems like this type of experience is much more common in fast-growing startups. In contrast, nonprofits often grow slowly or not at all.
An additional benefit is working with very high caliber people, and getting a sense of what a highly successful company looks like. It’s useful to have a well-calibrated bar for who you should work with in the future and who to hire -- I think it would be pretty valuable if more people in the community had well-defined standards of excellence. To quantify this, I think I probably worked with at least 5 of the best 100 people who have worked on self-driving cars in the past decade, and at least 15 people that could get hired to lead a team at basically any self-driving or robotics company.
It’s also useful to see trends in fast-growing startups to understand how the world is changing. At Aurora, I learned about how people are thinking about ML engineering and deploying ML products, and which parts of the ML industry were real or all-hype. Learnings on the front of developing technologies seem a lot more useful for doing impactful work later than learning about random web apps, because the learnings are more applicable for direct work (e.g. AI research).