Changing the world

Nearly anyone who has ever asked me about my thoughts on Silicon Valley culture has probably gathered that I have a pretty negative view of startups. It’s sad to me that anyone would go into computer science, a wonderfully exciting field, just to “get rich quick.” If you spend enough time at Stanford, you’ll become all too comfortable with hearing nauseating phrases such as “I’m looking for a technical cofounder for my VC-funded stealth mode startup.” (Of course, that was an exaggeration.) There are so many people who don’t see the excitement of computer science, and I’m okay with that–not everyone has to like CS. What bothers me is the idea that people force themselves to do something they’re not interested in when they have the means to do something else.

I’ll admit that my discomfort isn’t exactly logical. It’s not practical for everyone to pursue exactly what they love in life. People have to pay the bills somehow, and I shouldn’t expect my own experiences (as someone who has always leaned towards science and engineering) to mirror those of people who are passionate about less lucrative fields. And if one’s passions don’t map to any sort of career, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to take on a job in order to pay for those interests. Even if I don’t think I could ever fully accept the “I’ll do something I don’t like just to get rich” mentality, I know that the world isn’t divided into “people who are LEGIT like ME” and “people who are horrible just because I don’t approve of their actions.” It’s not that simple.

Still, the desire to make money isn’t the true reason why I feel so repelled by startup culture. It’s not even about people who ignore their true interests for the sake of making money. It’s about my fear of not being proud of what I do.

I’ve always expected to go into a field where I could proudly say that I was changing lives with my work, which is why medicine was so appealing. Despite my newfound excitement about computer science (that I mentioned in a previous post), I clung to my plans to major in biology-related field because, honestly, I just thought it was more “noble” to do medical research than write cool programs, no matter how interesting those programs were. As soon as I decided it was fine to do a combination of biology and computer science, I dropped bioengineering without a second thought and declared my major in computer science (while taking CS106B, actually). When I reflect on my mentality then–and now, really–it becomes obvious that I have a pretty intense infatuation with the idea of changing the world. So, when I hear about a revolutionary, game-changing way of doing, say, “texts from last night, but for ponzi schemes”, it’s not difficult to jump to the conclusion that I just won’t be very interested. I’m still clinging to this romanticized notion that I have to solve Real Problems in order to be proud of myself.

Earlier this year, I had an eye-opening moment. You know, one of those moments to which you assign so much meaning and depth, only to realize that it really wasn’t significant to anyone but you.

I was walking around at the fall career fair, overwhelmed by noise and people thrusting fliers at me, when a Square recruiter suddenly handed one of their mobile credit card readers to me as I walked past him. I looked at it, not comprehending what I had just received, until I finally recognized it. And I freaked out. I could barely speak because I was so excited by that little piece of plastic. There, on the floor of the career fair, I couldn’t gather my thoughts because I realized it was the same credit card reader that my family had started using at our store in order to accept credit card purchases. I spluttered, “Oh my gosh, you’re those guys I love this product, my family uses this card reader all the time and you help our store and I can’t believe you’re THOSE GUYS I can’t wait to tell my siblings that I met a recruiter from that company I LOVE THIS CARD READER.”

Of course, the recruiter was slightly taken aback by the girl who had a minor spaz attack in the middle of the very crowded career fair. Square meant more to me than being just another startup. They were the reason we could stop turning away customers who didn’t have cash. Realistically, I have no idea how much of a difference in my family’s financial situation they really made. The impression was made, though, and Square has always been painted in my mind as that company that solved a Real Problem for us.

Back in April, at she++, I met an engineer from Square and told her about my embarrassing display of enthusiasm at the career fair. She said she actually really loved hearing those types of stories because they made her feel great about the work she was doing.

I want that. In so many different ways, I’ve always wanted that. Whether it’s in medicine or with a mobile payments app, I want to know that my work makes someone so happy that they burst at the seams with wanting to tell me how much they love what I’m doing.

I can’t tell if I’m changing my mind about what I want to do in life because I want to justify choosing the comforts of software engineering over the prospect of studying a less exciting field for the next ten years. There’s a voice inside of me that objects to the idea of taking the easy route, of spending my life doing cool stuff and getting rich in the process. It’s almost as if I needed to be a martyr for my cause–working and sacrificing for the sake of some greater good. And maybe I didn’t want to let myself take the path of the pampered software engineer because it would feel so unfair–as though I’d be enjoying my life in excess rather than spending it helping other people.

For a lot of people, this post might seem comical. Of course, Amy, it’s obvious that tech companies can solve Real Problems, too. Everyone knows that and there are so many examples of startups that are making a real difference. In all honesty, I’ve grown accustomed to the idea that I would spend my life dedicated to some greater cause, without taking my own inclinations into account. (To be clear, I like biology. I just like computer science a lot more.) Now, it’s almost frightening to realize that I might still be changing the world and doing what I would happily do for free and that I could have a balanced life while I’m at it.

Rather than shutting my eyes, ears, and heart at the mention of software engineering and startups, I’m starting to let myself see that software engineering wouldn’t necessarily make me feel like I wasted my time doing frivolous things. I might get to solve those interesting algorithmic puzzles that consume my thoughts while still making a difference that I can be proud of. I don’t have to feel guilty for secretly being interested in startups and wanting to become a software engineer instead of a medical researcher. These ideas might have been the most obvious thing in the world for everyone else, but it took me this long to really accept it.

So, yeah, maybe startups aren’t the worst thing in existence. I guess I have to find something else to vehemently oppose.

2 thoughts on “Changing the world

  1. Tommy

    I just stumbled across this (half a year after it was posted…) but I connected with this so insanely much (2nd year CS undergrad here). Out here you either follow the norm and try to get a job at some big name software company or (if you are more business-y and will start the next Facebook everyone-else-just-doesn’t-recognize-your-talent-yet) you go startup. And here I am spending the past semester trying to distance myself from software engineering because if I’m making too much money and following the norm then obviously (obviously) that path can’t be as noble or emotionally rewarding (can’t I just research and teach and become a traveling teaching research bum…? Oh and if I can spend the rest of my time coming up with algorithms that do magical things like solve world hunger, that’d be pretty cool too).

    Anyways, point being it’s good to know I’m potentially not the only one in this kind of situation. And I like the conclusions you reach. Sometimes this major feels a little too good to be true, no? But maybe what looks like a field of pitfalls and deadends isn’t so bad, and things will work out. Here’s hoping, and best of luck to you!

    1. amyn Post author

      Thanks a lot, Tommy! I really appreciate the comment and I’m glad you’re thinking about the same issues. :)


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