How to find meaningful work in tech: 10 companies to consider

“71% of millennials report that meaningful work is among the three most important factors defining career success, while 30% believe it is the most critical factor.” *

If the most important thing is doing meaningful work, how does one go about finding that?

That’s one question I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about these past 12 months in my 2 job searches. The first started when my company Opower was bought by Oracle. After a multi-month job search I joined the Hillary campaign, which ended 4 months later in less than ideal circumstances. A few months later, I started my search again.

To look for organizations doing meaningful work, I first needed to answer two personal questions:

1. What matters most to you, and why?

This is Stanford Business School’s famous deceptively simple, but deeply revealing, essay question. The key is in the second question: Why? Julie Zhuo made a great flow chart to walk designers through how to think about this question.

For me, my family’s background lead me to care deeply about distributing resources equitably across the world. My parents both grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution and immigrated to the US to find a better life. My dad tells us stories about going to the fields, and ploughing rice until his fingernails fell off. Although I cringe at glimpses of his former life, it also motivates me make use of the privilege they have given me.

The second question I considered comes from the world of design. A wise mentor told me, “Design is in the choices we make, for the future world we want to live in.”

2. What type of future world do you want to live in?

Every person has a different answer to this question, which means every person can find different work meaningful. For example, someone who wants to see a future world that’s more open and connected may find great meaning working at Facebook. But someone who wants a future with more in-person relationships and communities may not.

Yet the reality is that most tech jobs don’t positively or negatively impact our future’s biggest problems. Many great writers, such as Anil Dash, have challenged the tech community to reflect on our impact and act with more intention. I recommend listening to his On Being interview on tech’s moral reckoning.

The tech community has the opportunity to change the status quo though. We can advocate for people who can’t advocate for themselves. We have desirable skills to design and build solutions for big, meaty problems. And there isn’t a good reason for us not to.

For myself, I’d like to see a future world where more people have basic rights and resources. I’ve considered addressing many problems, such as access to healthcare, clean water, and education. But when I heard Al Gore’s “The Inconvenient Truth” presentation in high school, I was convinced that one issue trumps them all: climate change. Al Gore persuaded me to join the fight to reduce our carbon emissions, because if we don’t, our basic resources–food, water, and shelter–will become our undoing. Impending droughts, food shortages, and rising sea levels will have a disproportionate impact on the poor. I believe that it is the greatest threat to increasing global inequality. That’s what lead me Opower and the Hillary campaign, where I found extremely meaningful work.

However during this latest job search, I wasn’t able to find many clean tech companies hiring for my role, a product manager/designer. This lead me to broaden my job search to three areas:

1. Clean tech

2. Ed tech

3. Civic tech

Vetting organizations: how to avoid “mission-washed” companies

For the past 12 months, I have had the privilege to think deeply about these questions to look for meaningful work. I want to point out that it is an extreme privilege to be able to (1) choose a job and (2) prioritize finding meaning over the dozens of other factors (providing for a family, location, skill-acquisition, etc). Not everyone has the time and flexibility to go on an intentional job search.

But if you do have the privilege, here are some questions to consider when evaluating organizations:

  • Do you find their mission honest and compelling?
  • Does their primary product address their mission? Or is the company “mission-washing” to try to attract talent?
  • Is this a problem that can and should be solved by technology?
  • What happens if this company is overwhelmingly successful? What will the world look like? Who are the winners? Who are the losers?
  • Who is the end-user? Is the end-user part of a population that you feel passionate about helping?
  • Does the organization have a measurable way to track their impact? How do they report on that metric? How does it relate to their revenue or funding source?
  • Have they considered becoming a public benefit corporation? Why or why not?
  • If they have donors or investors, what are their success metrics? How quickly do they need to see results?
  • What motivates the founders? Do they have high-integrity?

Suelyn’s List

After hundreds of hours of researching companies, reaching out to friends, and interviewing, I was happy to find there were lots of places I‘d be excited to work at. Here are my personally vetted top ten. I’d be happy to live in future world where these organizations are wildly successful :)

1. InformedK12 (formerly Chalk Schools)

Disclaimer: I’ll be joining InformedK12 as their first Product Manager in March 2017, so I’m quite biased :)

  • InformedK12 was founded by two graduate students who met at Stanford’s Learning, Design and Technology program. One of their founders, Sarah, worked in the Rhode Island public school district on teacher training, but wasn’t able to improve teacher training because she was drowning in paperwork. InformedK12 is creating software for mainly public school districts to operate more efficiently with their schools. By improving how schools function, school districts will be able to empower teachers and drive better student outcomes.
  • If InformedK12 succeeds… K-12 schools and their managing districts will be able operate more effectively and efficiently.
  • Fun fact: One of their holiday party traditions is reading out of their founder Qian’s middle school diary.
  • End-user: K-12 school administrators (secretaries, principals, assistant-superintendents)
  • Size: 20–30 people
  • Location: San Francisco

2. Nava

  • Nava emerged from the team brought in to help fix in the winter of 2013. Since then they have won a few more government contracts for the Department of Veterans Affairs and Medicare. They are not only building scalable, performant, and reliable digital infrastructure, but also helping the government solve systemic problems, such as how to vet government contractors.
  • If Nava succeeds… government will be able to provide more clear and reliable services.
  • Fun fact: They are the first public benefit corporation to be a prime government contractor.
  • End-user: Currently anyone signing up for health insurance, medicare recipients, veterans
  • Size: ~30 people
  • Location: Washington DC, San Francisco, and New York

3. Remix Transit

  • Remix was founded by four Code for America fellows. One of their projects became Remix Transit, a collection of tools to help city-planners create better transit. Remix allows planners to design routes with data such as expected costs and demographics so they can see the effect of their proposed changes.
  • If Remix succeeds… cities will be able to design and iterate to create better public transit.
  • Fun fact: Two of the founders, Sam and Tiffany, are designers!
  • End-user: City-transit planners
  • Size: 80–100 people
  • Location: San Francisco

4. Cardiogram (job site)

  • Cardiogram organizes your mobile health data by making it meaningful, useful, and actionable. Starting with heart rate data from Apple watches, the small but mighty team has been doing ambitious studies with UCSF to detect common chronic diseases such as atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is treatable, but many people don’t feel symptoms, so it often goes undiagnosed.
  • If Cardiogram succeeds… people will be able to detect preventable diseases much earlier which will allow people to have healthier and happier lives.
  • Fun fact: If you have an Apple watch, you can join their mRhythm Study by contributing your data to potentially save lives.
  • End user: Currently, anyone with an Apple watch. It is especially useful for people with chronic heart conditions or other preventable chronic diseases (the median Cardiogram user is 41 years old, the oldest is 94).
  • Size: 4 people
  • Location: San Francisco

5. Propel

  • Propel is a startup that came out of the the Blue Ridge Labs fellowship that focuses on building software for low-income Americans. Their first product is FRESHEBT, a mobile app that allows Americans on food-stamps to track and effectively stretch their EBT dollars. Fresh EBT is available in all 50 states with nearly 400,000 downloads as of the end of 2016. New features include showing Summer Meals sites (places where kids under 18 can get free meals during the summer months when school isn’t in session).
  • If Propel succeeds… low-income Americans will have a more user-friendly safety net.
  • Fun fact: Propel was named Brooklyn’s Civic Tech Startup of the Year by Technically Brooklyn.
  • End user: Currently, Americans on food stamps with a smartphone
  • Size: 5–10 people
  • Location: Brooklyn

6. Planned Parenthood Digital Product Lab

  • Planned Parenthood’s Digital Product Lab is a small team focused to helping Planned Parenthood serve its mission, “A Reason for Being,” more effectively in the digital age. The Lab launched its first product, Spot On, a free period and birth control tracking app in March 2016. They also launched responsive websites in Ecuador and Nigeria as part of Global Mobile, an initiative to bring culturally, geographically, and linguistically relevant sexual and reproductive health information and service referrals to young people around the world.
  • If Planned Parenthood’s Digital Product Lab succeeds… women will be more educated about their bodies and empowered about their reproductive choices.
  • Fun Fact: You’ll get see the legendary Cecile Richards around the office. I hear she always wins the thanksgiving pie competition.
  • End user: Women
  • Location: New York

7. Code for America

  • Code for America is a 501(c)3 non-profit that brings together technologists and local cities to solve local government priorities. They started primarily a fellowship program that paired up fellows with cities across the country. To make their work more scalable and sustainable, they are focusing more on long term digital projects in three focus areas: providing food security, reducing incarceration jobs, and helping people get good jobs.
  • If Code for America succeeds… government will deliver better digital services, and more people will be dedicated to spreading best practices in technology in the government.
  • Fun fact: The Code for America community has spread far and wide–from the USDS to 18F, to city innovation groups, to startups. Jennifer Pahlka is one of the founders of the civic tech movement.
  • End user: Underserved Americans
  • Size: 80–100 people
  • Location: San Francisco

8. San Francisco Digital Services

  • There are two digital innovation groups within the city of San Francisco, the San Francisco Digital Services and SF Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation. Both groups work, often together, to improve SF city services. Past projects include creating an affordable housing portal and opening up city data.
  • If the San Francisco Digital Services succeeds… San Francisco residents, visitors, and the businesses will have better digital services.
  • Fun fact: Several employees came from Code for America.
  • End user: San Francisco residents
  • Location: San Francisco

9. Solar Mosaic

  • Solar Mosaic is a solar finance company that provides financing for residential solar systems. It is the nation’s leading residential solar lending platform. Their Mosaic PowerSwitch loan allows homeowners and solar installers to quickly and easily estimate how much it would cost to go solar.
  • If Solar Mosaic succeeds… we’ll be moving toward a 100% clean energy future.
  • Fun fact: Solar Mosaic is a B-corp, which holds them accountable to a rigorous standard of environmental and social accountability, performance, and transparency.
  • End user: Homeowners considering solar and solar installers.
  • Size: 80–100 people
  • Location: Oakland

10. Sighten

  • Sighten creates an integrated toolset for small to medium sized solar developers and financiers. Their platform spans the entire lifecycle of a solar asset, from tools that streamline origination and system design, to features that automate ongoing reporting and analytics. They give powerful software tools that the large solar installers, like SolarCity has, to the smaller solar developers. The founders and many of its employees came from Clean Power Finance, a residential PV financing platform.
  • If Sighten succeeds… we’ll have more players in the solar market and lower installation costs to drive more solar adoption.
  • Fun fact: Ev Williams’ VC Obvious Ventures lead their Series A round.
  • End user: Small-medium sized solar installers and financiers
  • Size: 20–30 people
  • Location: San Francisco

Another list

My old manager and good friend Deena Rosen made her own list in 2015. I didn’t include companies in her list to avoid overlap, but most of them are still around and actively hiring.

Additional resources

The list of organizations doing meaningful work is ever growing. Here are some of the resources I found when making my list:

Design gigs for good

A new job board created by Molly Ruskin and Sarah Fathallah with job postings at the intersection of design and social impact.

Social Enterprise Jobs google group

This is a very active google group that posts job announcements related to social enterprise and social innovation. Only about 10–20% are tech jobs. I recommend subscribing to their daily or weekly email digest.

EdSurge job board

EdSurge helps schools find, select and use the right technology and has a great edtech job board.

Code for America Government job board

Code for America just launched a wonderful job board with vetted government jobs for developers, designers, data analysts, and product managers. I discovered many innovation groups sprouting up in city and state governments, like the New York City’s Mayor’s office of operations.

Blue Ridge Labs portfolio companies and fellowship

Blue Ridge Labs is part of Robin Hood — New York’s largest poverty-fighting organization. They have a yearly fellowship and grants to fund technology projects aimed at aimed at the challenges faced by low-income Americans. Check out their list of portfolio companies.

Tumml’s portfolio companies

Tumml is a startup hub for urban technology with a portfolio of urban innovation startups.

Cleantekker job website

Cleantekker is a well-run and comprehensive job site solely focused on clean tech jobs.

Young professionals in energy email list

YPE is a great professional organization for people working in sustainability and clean tech. They have a great email list with upcoming events and job listings.

Tech Jobs for Good Twitter account

A relatively new twitter account that posts jobs in engineering, product, marketing, and more at progressive orgs. They also maintain this google spreadsheet.

Double Bottom Line Partner’s portfolio companies

DBL is one of the top impact investing firms. They invest in companies that can deliver venture capital returns (First Bottom Line), while working with our companies to enable social, environmental and economic improvement (Second Bottom Line). Check out their growing list of portfolio companies.

Many thanks to Deena Rosen, jonathan chan, and John Davidson for your help editing, and the countless friends who have helped me in my job search.

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