Case Study

Riti’s Tech for Good pursuits

To apply the SELF framework to a more real world scenario, we’ll walk through one person’s consideration process for three specific roles:

After completing a bachelor’s in computer science, Riti spent a couple of years working as a software engineer at a large for-profit corporation. This position provided her with plenty of hands-on experience and career capital, but after a while, she felt compelled to do something more purposeful. Turns out, there are a lot of ways to apply a technical background to make a positive impact on the world! After investigating a few promising cause areas, Riti decided she wants to work in Global Development. Not only is it aligned with Riti’s values, but there are also incredible opportunities to tackle important problems within it. 

Having applied for several positions within this cause area, Riti now finds herself considering a few different roles. At first pass, they all seem like good options, but determined to actually make a difference in the world, she wants to carefully consider their potential for positive impact. This doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll come to a decision just yet – and there are likely a lot of questions she’ll want to further investigate. For now, Riti hopes to utilize the SELF framework to improve her comparisons between different options and gain a better sense of how promising these opportunities are.

Option #1: Software Developer for a nonprofit

First up is a software developer role for SmartDonor, a nonprofit that evaluates charities in an effort to “improve philanthropic decision-making and empower donors to give effectively.” To fulfill this mission, SmartDonor analyzes the effectiveness of thousands of charities and provides donors with research-backed overviews and comparison tools. The significance and efficacy of this option seem fairly evident; a lot of impactful charities need funding, but the most effective charities might not receive the most donations. Moreover, SmartDonor is transparent about its methods and experts agree that it is a uniquely impactful organization. If Riti’s work could equip funders and donors with a simplified tool to compare different charities, more donations could be allocated to cost-effective, impactful charities. This could enable progress on multiple problems, leading to an outsized impact.

When it comes to Riti’s leverage, she’s a bit less sure. While her specific role does serve a useful purpose, she can’t think of many reasons she might have uniquely high leverage in the position. She wouldn’t influence the organization’s wider goals or manage/enable others within the organization. More likely, she would fulfill her part in the bigger chain. She concludes that her leverage would be average, without any specific reasons to think it would be particularly high or low.

Lastly, Riti wonders if she would make an especially good fit for the position. Although she’s technically competent, the role is vastly different from her previous jobs. The position is also in-person, and she would prefer the flexibility of a remote environment. As with leverage, Riti’s personal fit doesn’t seem especially high or low. Overall, with very good problem significance and efficacy and average leverage and personal fit, working with SmartDonor seems like a good option with a clear path to making a real difference.

Option #2: Social impact team at a tech company

Riti’s second option is to join the social impact team at a major tech company. The team works on various pro bono projects for a range of nonprofit organizations — assisting with UX design, web development, and fundraising tools. Although Riti initially feels wary of continuing to work in the corporate world, this role would work towards more altruistic goals than she had previously worked on. She decides it’s a good option to look into and realizes she could have a great personal fit for it. She has connections within big tech, she has worked on UX projects in the past, and she has excellent project management skills. Further, she feels motivated to work on several different tasks rather than focusing all her energy into one. 

Riti moves on to assess the role’s leverage. As an integral member of a small team, Riti would guess the role is genuinely useful to the company. Beyond this, she’s also hopeful that the role would provide the opportunity to influence and increase the team’s overall impact. Perhaps she could push for projects that help especially effective and impactful nonprofits, or at least improve the selection criteria. If so, Riti could have uniquely high leverage in the role. It could also mean that Riti would have a large counterfactual impact – since she could utilize the company’s resources in a way that someone else might not. Riti is hopeful that the role could have great leverage but will want to talk more with the team to understand their processes. For now, she concludes that the leverage is at least pretty good. 

So far, this opportunity seems very promising. She would be a good fit and her work seems genuinely useful. However, Riti has some hesitations about the significance and efficacy of this role – both of which seem a bit harder to assess.

First, there’s a question of whether or not the team’s work actually influences their nonprofit clients to do more good. It’s possible that helping these organizations have more engaging and easy-to-use websites could vastly increase their donations and volunteers. And maybe, this would somehow lead the nonprofits to do better work and help more people. 

On the other hand, it’s possible that a new website is not very critical to the nonprofit’s fundraising or operations. It may just be a nice bonus rather than a significant factor in the nonprofits’ ability to make an impact. To better understand the method’s efficacy, Riti will want to further understand the team’s successes so far and read about some of their concrete outcomes.

Second, there’s a question of whether or not the team’s nonprofit clients are effective in their efforts and helping solve significant problems. If not, then the role itself wouldn’t contribute to a very meaningful change in the world. 

At the moment, Riti doesn’t know how the company’s social impact team chooses its clients. Without having explicitly heard that the team specifically targets highly effective charities, she assumes that the organizations they help are fairly average nonprofits – meaning they may not make much of a difference relative to very best charities. On the other hand, if Riti’s role puts her in the position to meaningfully affect which organizations the team helps, the significance of this role could be much higher. Ultimately, the potential impact of this role largely depends on how much leverage Riti would have in practice.

Unlike Riti’s first option, it’s less clear whether this role would be genuinely impactful or not. It could be more impactful than the role at SmartDonor – Riti has an amazing fit and could alter the way resources are used. But there’s a chance that Riti would have little say in which projects the team worked on and, instead, is limited to projects that boost the company’s public image rather than make a real impact. To parse out these uncertainties, Riti will need to do a bit more investigation into the company’s dynamics.

Option #3: Early team member at a medical tech startup

Riti’s third option is to join a small software development team at a new medical startup, Thrive. Thrive uses AI to improve the accuracy of diagnosis and staging for numerous diseases – from Alzheimer’s to heart disease to different types of cancer. This all sounds exciting and purposeful to Riti, who immediately feels it could be a great fit. She’s drawn to the prospect of working in a startup environment and feels motivated by the founder’s ambitious visions. It also suits her work environment preferences and desire for a remote position. Further, because Riti would join at such an early stage, she suspects she could have a lot of leverage to influence decisions and resources. Her role would be integral to the team, and she could possibly help shape its future. 

When it comes to the significance of the problem Thrive works on, Riti also feels pretty good. Millions of people suffer from these major illnesses, and Thrive could vastly improve how we identify and treat them. If her work could help alleviate this burden, she can see this role having a large direct impact on the world.

So far, everything looks good – but when it comes to the efficacy of Thrive’s methods, Riti isn’t so sure. After doing some minimal exploring, Riti discovers that there are a lot of other companies working on this same technology for similar diseases. If Thrive is successful, it’s very likely they could do this work for slightly less money. However, Riti hasn’t been able to understand what makes their technology especially unique in the marketing she’s seen. She has heard some explanations from Thrive’s founders, but after looking into what the competitors are doing, she wasn’t persuaded that Thrive will do something that others don’t or can’t. In fact, in a world without Thrive, Riti would guess that other companies would offer similar services with similar technology.

Although Thrive might have a significant direct impact, Riti thinks that the company is likely to have very low counterfactual impact. This ultimately leads Riti to conclude that the efficacy poses a big issue for this option. In fact, the efficacy may be so low that it negates all the other good things about it. Because taking this role doesn’t seem to improve the world in a meaningful way, Riti decides to prioritize her other options first.

As Riti’s case illustrates, assessing impact through the SELF framework is a helpful tool for improving how we think about impactful career opportunities – while illuminating problems or possibilities that we may have otherwise overlooked. Before making a final decision, she would likely need to do a bit more exploration and experimentation to clarify the uncertainties that came up in her assessment. In the next section of the guide, we’ll look at how to apply what we’ve discussed so far to your own career decisions and planning — whether you’re deciding between specific jobs like Riti or just starting to explore your possibilities.