Morally-significant IT work?
May 13, 2012 4:41 PM   Subscribe

For those of you who work in a computer field (IT, software development, etc.) and you feel your work has some greater moral purpose (beyond paying the bills): what do you do? And how did you find your job?

(Background, which you can skip if you want): I’ve worked at a large software company for ten years. I like the work itself, but over time, I’ve found it unsatisfying that my job doesn’t really help anyone, doesn't make the world a better place, doesn't have any sort of a moral purpose. Ok, theoretically, software makes people more productive, which generates economic activity, etc., but that's pretty indirect and not especially satisfying.

So I'm looking for an application of my work background to something that's more morally meaningful. I've found a few small things: I manage the database for a food bank, for instance, and the web site for a free clinic. But I'd like to find a career, or at least a major hobby, that combines these two things.

I realize, of course, that the best way of helping people might have nothing to do with computers! Unfortunately, computer work suits my temperament pretty well: I’m a typical introverted, retiring computer geek who not only tolerates long hours writing code, but positively enjoys it! And, of the charities I’ve observed, most of them have plenty of volunteers excited to work with people, and too few willing / able to manage the infrastructure. So I figure IT is the rarer skill: I just need to find an outlet for it.

So I’ve thought of the obvious stuff: doing IT work for local charities, teaching, etc. What examples do you guys have from your own lives?

(I’m in Seattle now, moving to NYC in a month, if that's relevant)
posted by molybdenum to Work & Money (28 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I do tech support for a large US retailer. When one of our stores has an issue they call us so we can troubleshoot the issue. Typically we can fix it over the phone, but if we can't we send out a tech to fix it.

I really like the job because I get direct contact with those poor cashier/managers in the store who typically have some angry customer mad that their register isn't working. 99% of the time they are extremely grateful that we could get their equipment back up. I truly feel that I help make their day better because without us it they would be down any number of things (registers, printers, Inventory hardware, etc), and it helps keep their (and my) customers happy.

I got my job via an old manager of mine at a different company we both worked for. She ended up at my current place and helped get me the job. I am eternally grateful to her for basically hiring me twice.
posted by Twain Device at 4:47 PM on May 13, 2012

This may not be as radical a shift as you're looking for, but I do web design and development for a university. I'm 100% on board with the product I'm helping to promote. In contrast, when I worked in "the enterprise," I always felt I was helping to create a spurious need for consumables, even though, even then, I was producing a "knowledge product."

The downside, of course, is that the payscale is a diminutive of the enterprise payscale, but the peace of mind is worth it.
posted by bricoleur at 4:50 PM on May 13, 2012

I do web programming on a full-time, freelance basis based in NYC, and find there are many, many NY-based nonprofits who are aided in their missions when their everyday web sites and apps are working well! There's the Children's Aid Society, tons of educational nonprofits, and the United Nations, just to name a few. During months when I find my work is skewing too much towards my corporate clients and not enough nonprofit work, I take on volunteer projects through New York Cares, which always has gigs where they need IT folks to go into schools or libraries or recreation centers to teach people the basics of computers. Good luck!!
posted by lgandme0717 at 4:52 PM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I do computational biology research. My work helps us better understand the biology of human cells which will lead to a better understanding of disease. So, for me, the answer is a career in scientific programming and research.

Most people working in IT or software development would need some retraining to do this effectively, but many less-computationally-inclined biology labs could probably use some help with their IT infrastructure, internal workings, or web presence that anyone could help with.
posted by grouse at 4:53 PM on May 13, 2012

I produce video games. I get to make people smile. As the girl in the movie "Ikiru" says, when you make toys, you get to imagine you're playing with all the kids in the world. And occasionally, it really does help.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:15 PM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm self employed building and repairing websites. I also ceate and manage pay per click advertising for a variety of large and small clients.

I like to use my skills to help the little guy. Local, mom and pop businesses, middle aged couples starting new small businesses, tradesmen and women looking for an edge in this economy. Its not charity and certainly not free, but the rates I charge are 1/5 what I charge my clients that have the ability to pay market rates.

These endeavors also give me a place to try new things, hone my skills, and experment with things I can ultimately offer as services to my other clients.

I see it as a win-win, on many levels.
posted by bricksNmortar at 5:23 PM on May 13, 2012

I work for a growing regional ISP. One of the reasons I'm taking other compromises to work there is the various times they've taken an aggressive stand for subscriber privacy.

I have also left at least one company because I couldn't deal with the ethics of the company, and another in part because I wasn't really excited about what their product did to the larger culture. It wasn't bad, and I really enjoyed the technology of it, and a lot of people really really love what they do, but I didn't see how that product led to more of the sort of society I wanted to live in.

I also recognize that value is created when we do things that people want us to do, not that we think they need to do. I sit on the board of a local non-profit, serve on a town advisory committee, and we have our own program in which we find various excuses to do cool stuff with underprivileged kids (which reminds me, I need to experiment with aluminum and hydrochloric acid before we do that with the kids...).

So for me it's a matter of picking something in my day job that I think makes society a better place, and then finding ways to make a difference as an individual relating to people.
posted by straw at 5:23 PM on May 13, 2012

In case you DON'T find any of these side paths is another perspective:

If you get the highest paying job available that you somewhat enjoy and isn't morally questionable, you are doing something GREAT if you regularly donate to an organization or project that needs the cash (which is, well, practically every organization.)

Sometimes it's a better use of resources for everybody involved if the person good at X just gives money to the person good at helping people, instead of the person good at X recalibrating his/her specialized talents and try to help people directly.

This is not to discourage you from trying new things, just reminding you that you can stay with a job and still be a huge help to people who need it.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 5:42 PM on May 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

I like computers, I like helping people and lots of people need help with computers. IT support suits me very well. In my dreams I make cool video games, but my real life job helping people with educational software is pretty great. I definitely feel like the larger mission of helping teachers and students contributes a great deal to my happiness with the work. I came to my current job from an educational non-profit and it was the same deal there.
posted by wobh at 6:04 PM on May 13, 2012

If you can relocate, I would try to get in with a medical EMR/EPM company. I've worked for one, and now do vendor consulting. It's an awesome mixture of business side with a large dosage of medical staff interactions. I'll be the first to admit that it is stressful knowing that any mistakes that are moved to Prod can potentially be detrimental to patient care, but that's one of the major draws to it for me. Since you've worked with a software company, your QA should be up to par so that would help.

Other benefits include high pay, job stability, and a growing field.
posted by lpcxa0 at 6:06 PM on May 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

I got a friend who works for "Teach for America" and finds it pretty fulfilling. I'm sure there are plenty of non profits in NYC that can use your skill set.
posted by pyro979 at 7:53 PM on May 13, 2012

The contract I've done in the past with the best karma was working on graphics engines and radiology workstations for a medical software imaging firm. The company produced proprietary graphics cards and rendering software for translating the raw signal output of MRI, NMRI, PET, and other medical scanners into detailed 3D renderings, and also the workstations that radiologists use to select the 2D cross sections desired by surgeons.

The thing I liked most about that work was that many aspects of the product directly translated into improved patient care:
* More accurate rendering quality equalled better information for the doctors.
* Real time rendering was an exciting new area at the time: it allowed surgeons to create small incisions just barely big enough for their instruments, and then they would refer to a real time projected scan while they operated. This radically reduced the invasiveness of the procedure, and shaved weeks off of post-op recovery for the patient.
* Even making the UI workstation more intuitive and responsive helped keep the medical professionals focussed on their patient, instead of hunting through menus and options.

I got the contract because I had a good combination of experience with real time systems and DSP from previous gigs. Sadly, the medical equipment industry went through a savage period of mergers and hostile takeovers during the tech crash, forcing me to move on. It's an interesting, challenging industry though that you may want to consider.
posted by ceribus peribus at 7:55 PM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know someone who works at Blue State Digital and near as I can figure from his Facebook updates, loves the crap out of working there, both for the general office culture and for the fact that they do good work for good causes. Also based on his Facebook updates, they are frequently hiring more staff.

They have New York offices.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:56 PM on May 13, 2012

University. The day to day can be maddening but I believe in the larger mission.
posted by phearlez at 8:04 PM on May 13, 2012

The International Red Cross is a good organization to volunteer for - they have New York chapters. At the beginning you have to prove your reliability and commitment by volunteering at shelters and soup kitchens, etc, but as you gain seniority you can grow into positions of more responsibility which make use of your unique abilities.

Senior volunteers with experience in the telecom industry, for example, often assist in setting up emergency communication centers in areas where local infrastructure has been disrupted. Others have special talents that are useful in providing logistical support of supplies and equipment, etc.
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:15 PM on May 13, 2012

I do general sys admin stuff for a company that does human genome sequencing. Our work is used for many kinds of research including cancer.

The beauty of being a sys admin is that your work can support almost any field. Pretty much any organization has databases and software to maintain including corporations, non-profits, NGOs and governments. If you have experience, I bet you can get a job doing something that's morally better than simply generating profits.

You may find a position that isn't quite so obviously great morally. For instance, I used to work for a managed web hosting firm back during the .com boom. Many of our clients were simply trying to make a fortune (and generally failing), but some were doing innovative things like making it so that people who required medical monitoring could do so from their homes instead of going in to the doctor's office all the time. I was proud to support that sort of thing.

As for my current job, I found it through Facebook. I keep in touch with my friends, family and professional associates through Facebook, so when I was doing my job search last time I simply posted that I was looking for a gig. Some of my friends worked at companies with open positions so I was lucky enough to have choices. LinkedIn provided a number of leads as well.

If you can't find a place that will pay the bills and help the world at the same time, there is a website for connecting professionals with pro-bono work. I can't remember the name, but I believe it was discussed here on Ask MetaFilter or possibly MetaFilter itself.

Good luck!
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 9:31 PM on May 13, 2012

I'm at the Wikimedia Foundation (hiring), and I came into it from a few years working and volunteering in open source software. I'm the community manager on the engineering side. I help volunteers learn and grow, I contribute to freely-licensed software that anyone can reuse and contribute to, I help nurture the development community that makes the software platform for Wikipedia and other free knowledge projects, and thus I'm helping empower people all over the world with information.

Tech nonprofits are hiring. Examples: Linaro, Participatory Culture Foundation, OpenPlans, Wikimedia, Khan Academy, Eyebeam, university initiatives (sample), museum-tech projects (another). The Electronic Frontier Foundation and One Laptop Per Child seem not to be hiring software developers right now but they'd be interesting for you to keep your eye on in the future. OpenPlans and the Museum of the Moving Image are in New York City, and several of the other tech nonprofits are fine with telecommuters (I live in NYC myself and telecommute for Wikimedia).

Working in open source, even at a for-profit company, gives one the warm fuzzies. So think about that as well.
posted by brainwane at 10:20 PM on May 13, 2012

I meant to move Eyebeam into the not-hiring-right-now list, whoops.
posted by brainwane at 10:32 PM on May 13, 2012

Software we write helps people do their jobs better. Replacing software that sucks with software that's easy to use makes people happy. Replacing a tiresome manual process with automation makes people happy. Helping people get more out of public transport makes people happy.
posted by mattoxic at 10:54 PM on May 13, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the suggestions! Some of these ideas had occurred to me, but many hadn't. Since it's late in the thread at this point, I think I'll follow up in MeMail with some of you...
posted by molybdenum at 12:02 AM on May 14, 2012

Computational biology here as well. It's nice to build stuff which makes life easier for my non-programming colleagues day-to-day, and also there's the knowledge that I'm contributing to the complicated blob of knowledge we call science.
posted by primer_dimer at 1:23 AM on May 14, 2012

I'm an analyst for a software company and I love my job. All I do all day is sit in my cube and do Excel spreadsheets and manage our CRM.

To some, this might seem far away from a helpful, caring profession, but I view it as a way to help our computer challenged employees interact better with their computers and software.

When people call me, they're desperate for help of some sort, a report, getting the CRM to do something, whatever. I can calmly assist them and get them what they need.

It's the starfish thing all over again. I can't save the world, but that one guy I just helped, I made a difference in his life.

Not everyone can save the whole world. It's hubris to try. But I can help a couple of folks every day, then hey, that's good enough for me.

In one of my previous work lives, I taught kids in the ghetto. On the surface I should have been completely fulfilled, but what I discovered was that the constant bombardment of disrespectful attitudes and the difficulty in seeing progress depressed me.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:08 AM on May 14, 2012

I help make websites for big nonprofits, helping get data out to the people who can use it to make the world better. I think that's pretty cool.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 10:07 AM on May 14, 2012

I work IT for an energy efficiency non-profit funded by power companies in the Northwest US. A lot of my job is assisting in creation of webpages, table'd email bulletins, support of legacy systems (win 2k3 web server, confluence wiki, custom cms), user support, and the such. Very unexciting compared to working at a tech start-up, but what we do (and in part, due to my support) saves the equivalent of a coal power-plant worth of energy a year.

The guy who joined us a few months ago as a SharePoint administrator came from a major Dept of Defense contractor (one of the kinds that you've never heard of unless you are in that world), so this job is about as night and day from destroying the world to saving it.
posted by wcfields at 10:18 AM on May 14, 2012

I work as an analyst/software expert in using a program called Epic, helping health care install electronic practice managment solutions. There's modules for an EMR, automated scheduling, registration and billing, OR documentation and orders, etc.
I learned everything I know on-the-job, and really do not use my Jornalism bachelor's or Master's at all. I make a ton of money and I am going to milk it as long as I possibly can.
posted by jen14221 at 10:28 AM on May 14, 2012

I work in the commercial aviation industry, mostly as a software verification engineer. Basically I try to find problems in the software and try to make sure the software behaves at it is required to behave. The better I do my job the safer aircraft are to fly in. There's a lot of documentation and procedures to follow and sometimes it's daunting (and being a contractor sucks) but I'm pretty proud of what I do.

I fell into this job on accident. One of my classmates told me about a job he got hired for just after graduation. I applied and after some very short phone interviews I got hired on a '3 month' contract. So I moved from Michigan to Florida. From what I can tell, I was basically hired as relatively cheap labor, but my classmate and I did a good enough job that they kept us around long after the 3 months were over.
posted by Green With You at 11:09 AM on May 14, 2012

My partner used to work in IT for a major university. He felt he was doing good work because he was supporting education and research, something we both in high value (and also because he was able to bring more open source projects into the department, something else important to him). He currently works for a social networking company (one most people consider "the good guys"), and feels good about supporting something that facilitates the sort of amazing, revolutionary communication that their product has.

I volunteer for a well-established but small sexual health education nonprofit. Our mission is an important one, and competent IT folks (coders as well as network & desktop support) definitely help support our mission. Unfortunately, we're volunteer-only, so it's great important feelgood work but not a paying job, and it sounds like you've already got the public health volunteer work thing covered.

I work for a sex toy company, and I feel great about working in a place where I can directly bring more pleasure and comfort into people's lives and relationships. I don't work in a technical capacity myself, but we have a staff of developers and designers who work on the website. It's often really difficult for us to find technical, legal, marketing, and other support staff because a lot of firms aren't willing to represent and work with the adult industry, so if this is an area that has significance to you, you could do some good by being willing to work with companies like ours.
posted by rhiannonstone at 12:23 PM on May 14, 2012

In the "tech non-profits" category, I work for Mozilla, a non-profit open source community project with a public service mission to preserve and build the internet as an open resource for humanity. Aside from building the Firefox web browser, we also work on projects to improve education, journalism, video publishing, and more.

We're hiring! I work remotely for Mozilla from Seattle, and there are several employees in NYC. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:54 PM on May 14, 2012

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