When Chase Thomas graduated from Cornell University with a major in data science, he could have landed a job at a large tech company. But he started working with nonprofits instead, to build technology that could help solve bigger problems.
“I’ve done some training exercises at Big Tech in the past, at Microsoft, and it was technically interesting,” he says. “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 graduates in the Unique Assistant Product Manager (or APM) program run by Schmidt Futures, a charitable organization started by former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt. Google pioneered the 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 technology for the greater good — and offering a salary that could compete with what someone would earn if they started a career at Google.
The program lasts for two years, with each APM rotating through six-month or one-year assignments in nonprofit organizations, government departments, or social impact businesses aligned with their particular interests. Cassie Crockett, who leads talent programs at Schmidt Futures, says the program has two main goals: using technology to help expand the impact of organizations doing socially useful work, and creating a pool of technologists passionate about using skills for the public good. One of Thomas’ projects, at a nonprofit called Uptrust, involved building new technology to help people navigate the criminal justice system. Previously, when one of them had to go to court, he would receive a letter by mail.
“If you can’t [make that court date] “Because you have a job or you have kids, it’s hard to reschedule these things,” Thomas says. “You should send a letter in the mail, or regular mail, to your attorney, saying, ‘Can we ask for a separate date? “By creating a text messaging system — so that anyone can easily reply by text message — the nonprofit was able to reduce technical violations and re-arrest warrants by more than 50%. The texting tool is now in place in 44 counties in 22 states.
“The goal of most of our projects is to find that area where a little bit of artistic talent at the right time and place can have a huge impact,” he says. On his next course, at the nonprofit Broad Institute, he helped build tools to help biologists use machine learning and cloud computing to discover new drugs for cancer and infectious diseases. Another APM agency, Adedoyin Olateru-Olagbegi, recently completed work on an open source platform that can be used by children’s crisis hotlines around the world, and allows children to access help via WhatsApp, SMS, or many other platforms. “Often, the technology they currently have is very outdated, and it hampers the ability of helpline counselors to do their job well,” she says.
A participant works with a startup to build technology tools for farmers in Kenya to avoid food insecurity. Another company built a tool that helped Connecticut enroll thousands of new people in a program to help low-income new mothers and their babies. (This work will help unlock $3 million in additional nutritional benefits over the course of a year.) Another person worked with startup Recidiviz to build tools to reduce the prison population, helping reduce North Dakota’s prison population by 25%. Early in the pandemic, another APM helped create an app in Colorado to generate notifications when someone was exposed to COVID-19. After completing the program, some associate managers have become entrepreneurs or have held positions in companies with a social impact.
Many computer science graduates may be interested in social impact, but few are taking that path now. “I think people don’t know about all these nonprofit opportunities,” Thomas says. “And if they did, they might be scared because that’s their number one job. Offers aren’t competitive — big tech companies can pay their way to anyone they want to get talent, and nonprofits can’t afford to do that.” A new software engineer at Google in New York City could win about $138,000, plus a $41,000 stock grant and $22,000 bonus; Salaries for nonprofits vary widely, but are much lower. He says his classmates often end up either at big tech companies or in consulting.
Nonprofits and governments in general need more funding to modernize their systems, as well as to compete with larger companies for other types of talent. Nonprofits also need to evolve, says Josh Hendler, managing director of technology at Schmidt Futures. “Another piece is for nonprofits to be able to be a place where techies want to work, and to have a technology culture,” he says. In the Schmidt Futures Program, 150+ organizations already have technical leaders in place who can mentor and train associate managers as they learn both technical skills and user-centered design, soft skills in project management and how to build political support for projects within the organization. (Schmidt Futures also provides ongoing support to the participants themselves.) But many nonprofits may not have staff in place to mentor new hires, or they may not have a career path that recent graduates can follow after taking on an entry-level role.
If more recent graduates can be persuaded to give up big tech jobs for social impact, the impact could be significant, says Olateru-Olagbegi. “I went to college with a lot of brilliant people who had a lot of skills in computer science and other technical fields,” she says. “If I could just take all this intelligence and direct it toward all of these issues that are the major issues today, I have to think that the world would look very different.”