When Chase Thomas graduated from Cornell with a concentration in data science, he could have gotten a job at a big tech company. But he started working with nonprofits instead, building technology that could help solve larger problems.
“I had done a few internships at Big Tech in the past, at Microsoft, and that was technically interesting,” he says. “And it was fun. But it’s not really sustainable—you don’t wake up every day thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to increase shareholder value.’”
Thomas is one of 11 recent grads in a unique associate product manager (or APM) program run by Schmidt Futures, the philanthropic organization started by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Google pioneered an APM program in 2002 to train new project leaders; other tech companies followed. Five years ago, Schmidt Futures decided to launch a similar program focused on training new leaders to use tech for public good—and to offer a salary that can compete with what someone might earn if they were starting a career at Google.
The program lasts two years, with each APM rotating through six-month or year-long assignments at nonprofits, government departments, or social-impact businesses aligned with their own interests. Cassie Crockett, who leads the talent programs at Schmidt Futures, says the program has two major goals: to use technology to help scale up the impact of organizations that do socially beneficial work, and to create a cohort of technologists that are excited to use their skills for public benefit. One of Thomas’s projects, at a nonprofit called Uptrust, involved building new technology to help people navigate the criminal justice system. Previously, when someone had to go to court, they’d get a letter in the mail.
“If you couldn’t [make that court date] because you have a job or you have kids, it’s hard to reschedule these things,” Thomas says. “You have to send a literal letter in the mail, snail mail, to your lawyers saying, ‘Can we request a separate date?’” By building a text-messaging system—so someone could easily respond by text—the nonprofit was able to reduce technical violations and warrants for rearrest by more than 50%. The texting tool is now in place in 44 counties in 22 states.
“It’s a goal of most of our projects to find that area where a little bit of technical talent at the right time and the right place can have outsize impact,” he says. In his next rotation, at the nonprofit Broad Institute, he helped build tools to help biologists use machine learning and cloud computing to discover new medicines for cancer and infectious diseases. Another APM, Adedoyin Olateru-Olagbegi, recently finished working on an open-source platform that can be used by child-crisis hotlines around the world, and lets children reach out for help via WhatsApp, SMS, or various other platforms. “Oftentimes, the technology they currently have is very antiquated, and gets in the way of the helpline counselors being able to do their job well,” she says.
One participant is working with a startup to build tech tools for farmers in Kenya to avoid food insecurity. Another built a tool that helped Connecticut enroll thousands of new people in a program to help low-income new mothers and their children. (The work will help unlock $3 million in additional food benefits over a year.) Someone else worked with the startup Recidiviz to build tools to reduce prison population, helping reduce the number of prisoners in North Dakota by 25%. Early in the pandemic, another APM helped build an app in Colorado to generate notifications when someone was exposed to COVID-19. After finishing the program, some APMs have become entrepreneurs or taken jobs at social impact businesses.
Many computer science graduates may be interested in social impact, but few take this path now. “I think that people just don’t know about all these nonprofit opportunities,” Thomas says. “And if they do, maybe they’re scared because it’s their first job. The offers are not as competitive—Big Tech can really pay their way into anyone they want for talent, and nonprofits can’t afford to do that.” A new software engineer at Google in New York City might make around $138,000, plus a $41,000 stock grant and $22,000 bonus; nonprofit salaries vary widely, but are substantially less. His own classmates, he says, mostly ended up either at big tech companies or in consulting.
Nonprofits and governments generally need more funding in order to modernize their systems, as well as to compete with large companies for other types of talent. Nonprofits also need to evolve, says Josh Hendler, managing director of technology at Schmidt Futures. “Another piece is nonprofits being able to be a place where technologists want to work, and having a technology culture,” he says. In the Schmidt Futures program, the 150-plus organizations that participate already have tech leaders in place that can guide and train the APMs as they learn both technical skills and user-centered design, and soft skills in project management and how to build political support for projects within an organization. (Schmidt Futures also provides ongoing support to participants itself.) But many nonprofits may not have staff in place to guide new employees, or may not have a career path that new grads can follow after taking an entry-level role.
If more new grads can be persuaded to forego big tech jobs for social impact, the impact could be large, says Olateru-Olagbegi. “I went to college with so many brilliant people who have so many skills in computer science and other technical fields,” she says. “If I could just take all that brilliance and channel it toward all of these issues that are the main issues of today, I just have to think that the world would look so different.”