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Software: Private sector to non-profits

by dummy_11 min read21st May 20195 comments



TLDR: How to tell when it's time to leave the private sector for non-profits?

Background: I'm starting a software job at a big firm, and I'm pretty motivated to reduce x-risk. This job should give me the opportunity to learn/improve generally useful skills such as coding, management, and recruiting.

Based on 80K's articles, I think it's generally reasonable to start in the private sector and later move to non-profits. But, I'm worried that I'm just doing the convenient thing and sticking on my path.

Under what timelines does it make sense for me to leave my job now, in 2 years, in 5 years? I do worry about becoming joining the "cadre of depressed rationalists" in Berkeley; it's not obvious that I can just outwork / outcompete these other people, so what should I do?

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Buck Shlegeris writes (on FB):

I think that every EA who is a software engineer should apply to work at MIRI, if you can imagine wanting to work at MIRI.
It's probably better for you to not worry about whether you're wasting our time. The first step in our interview is the Triplebyte quiz, which I think is pretty good at figuring out who I should spend more time talking to. And I think EAs are good programmers at high enough rates that it seems worth it to me to encourage you to apply.
There is great honor in trying and failing to get a direct work job. I feel fondness in my heart towards all the random people who email me asking for my advice on becoming an AI safety researcher, even though I'm not fast at replying to their emails and most are unlikely to be able to contribute much to AI safety research.
You should tell this to all your software engineer friends too.
EDIT: Sorry, I should have clarified that I meant that you should do this if you're not already doing something else that's in your opinion comparably valuable. I wrote this in response to a lot of people not applying to MIRI out of respect for our time or something; I think there are good places to work that aren't MIRI, obviously.

How to tell when it's time to leave the private sector for non-profits?

Look at their job postings. Do you even plausibly fit the job postings? Do you want the job? If so, apply.


Have you considered reaching out to someone like Andrew Critch, or other experts in the X-risk space, to ask?

There are quite a few people in your position (early-career people thinking of diving into X-risk/AI safety), but I don't think there are so many that X-risk professionals are deluged with more questions than they can answer. If you have even a slight track record of demonstrated interest/understanding of these issues, I imagine you could get a phone call set up with one of the people you might eventually want to work for.

Rather than thinking about the choice in the sense of "outworking/outcompeting", it seems better to consider comparative advantage; if you add a skillset that's in short supply, competition won't be so important. I don't know whether management/recruiting is in shorter supply than coding/academic work, or which of those you're more naturally inclined toward, but answering those questions should be a good start.

2Raemon2yFYI Critch in particular is pretty time constrained. I'm not sure who the best person to reach out to currently who has the knowledge and also time to do a good job helping. (I'll ask around, meanwhile the "apply to MIRI" suggestion is what I got)
3Aaron Gertler2yThanks for the word of warning -- I'm not sure what anyone's schedule is like, and it's good to know who wouldn't be a good target for an email. But I still think that sending an email to a few different people, and noting that you don't expect a response if they're too busy, is valuable in this scenario.