In 2017 I rejoined Google to earn money to donate. At the time I thought earning to give was probably not where I could have the most impact, but I wasn't able to find other options that were a good fit for me personally. Over the last five years a few things have changed:
The place where I've long been most skeptical of the value of work to reduce existential risk is the lack of good feedback loops. There are now several major areas, however, where it seems pretty practical to tell whether you're making good progress and executing well. I'm especially enthusiastic about concrete projects in avoiding or mitigating catastrophic pandemics and other biological risks.
I've found an in-person role in Boston where I can apply my skills to one of these relatively tractable areas of existential risk reduction.
So: today will be my last day at Google, and Monday will be my first day at the Nucleic Acid Observatory (NAO). We'll be building a system to collect wastewater samples and sequence their nucleic acids, with the goal of catching potential future pandemics earlier. More details in the EA Forum post and much more in the paper.
In looking for things that I might do instead of earning to give, I identified several other strong candidates for ways to apply software engineering skills to making the world better. If you're thinking of making a similar move, let me know and I'd be happy to give you an overview of what I found and potentially give introductions. While normally I prefer people comment publicly instead of sending private messages, this is the kind of thing where I'm happy to receive messages.
While I'm overall quite mixed on how the increased focus on applying your career has made EA more demanding, in my particular case I think it's pushed me in a good direction.
Timeline of this decision:
Weekend of 2022-03-26: Informal in-person discussion with EA friends I haven't seen in a while gets me thinking again about moving into something more directly useful.
2022-03-28: One of these friends, who also happens to work at 80,000 Hours, follows up by email and gets me thinking specifically about how bio could offer a good combination of impactful, in-person, and in-Boston.
2022-03-31: I write "since now that there is so much more money available in the EA movement I'm back to thinking about doing something other than earning to give".
2022-04-04: I write to Will Bradshaw to see if he has ideas about where I might be helpful, though for travel and personal reasons we don't end up meeting to talk until 2022-04-29.
2022-04-08: I write to Chris Bakerlee at the Open Philanthropy project, who gives good advice and suggestions of people to talk to.
2022-04-13 through 2022-04-27: In the UK, watching the kids while Julia attends EA Global and then visiting EA friends there after. Talked to quite a few different people about options here.
2022-05-23: At dinner with housemates I realize that with three strong options and several other ideas for things that I might do if those fell through that I'm very unlikely to stay at Google.
2022-05-24: Gave notice to my manager. I'm out on leave this week, though, so I don't start handoffs yet.
2022-05-31: Announce to my team that I'm leaving and start handing things off.
2022-06-04: Decided to join the NAO.
2022-06-10: Last day at Google.
2022-06-13: First day at the NAO.
In writing my goodbye emails I saw that this time I've been at Google for 1,739 days, thirteen shy of my previous record, 1,752. While I don't think I would have stayed another two weeks just to make it even, I'm glad this didn't occur to me until after I'd given notice.
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