|January 25th, 2019
The effective altruism (EA) movement has a ton of programmers, many of them earning to give, and many of them interested in moving into some form of direct work.
Roles for programmers in direct work tend to sit open for a long time, and people trying to hire programmers have a really hard time finding people.
As far as I can tell, though, these really are both true! For example I ran a small email survey (n=40, mostly engineers) and found 30% of were interested in switching to something more valuable, and 40% were potentially interested. And there are a bunch of openings:
MIRI has an opening for a Software Engineer.
Deepmind has several openings including the relatively generic Software Engineer, Science.
GiveDirectly has a more general Data / Tech role.
So, why don't these openings get filled quickly? Some guesses:
Location: the jobs aren't where the people are, and neither want to move. For example, I'm in Boston and don't want to leave or work remotely.
Pay: top tech companies can offer very high compensation, and these organizations don't pay as much. Though since postings don't include comp it's possible that they actually do pay similarly? But maybe people don't apply because they think it would be a large pay cut?
Experience: the jobs want someone who's been programming for a long time, and people who could take the jobs haven't been.
Ability: the jobs want extremely talented people, and most programmer EAs don't pass their bar. But this doesn't explain why I know a bunch of engineers at Google, which has a pretty high hiring bar, looking to do more directly valuable things.
Personal risk aversion: as a parent of young children this makes a lot of sense to me! Moving across the country to work at a place that's not as financially secure as, say, Google, would be a real risk. (And one that hit me when I was laid off from Wave.)
Working conditions: maybe these jobs aren't as nice in ways other than pay? More hours, less free food, less ability to work on cool things? But this seems unlikely to me—lots of people want to work on ML.
Cause mismatch: the good jobs are all in AI safety, but the programmers looking to move are interested in global poverty, animal welfare, or something.
Awareness: maybe people are not actively looking for jobs and don't know what's available? Maybe 80k should have some sort of recruiter/headhunter that tries to match EAs to specific roles? Maybe they already do this and I don't know about it?
Imposter syndrome: people often don't have a good model of where they stand, and so might think possible jobs aren't for them. For example, MIRI posts that they're looking for "engineers with extremely strong programming skills", and probably some of the people who would do well there don't realize that their programming skills are good enough. Even if a job posting is framed in a friendly welcoming way, if the organization has a very strong reputation that in itself may make some people think they couldn't be good enough.
Combination: maybe there are jobs that do well on many different metrics, but not enough of them for any one person. For example, maybe there are jobs that pay well (OpenAI?) and jobs in global poverty (GiveDirectly) but if you want both there isn't something. Or there's remote work (Wave, etc) and there's work on AI risk, but no options for both.
What's going on? I'm especially interested in comments from programmers who would like to be doing direct work but are instead earning to give, but any speculation is welcome!
Thanks to Catherine Olsson for discussion that led to this post and reading a draft.