In the last couple of years, our role as data scientists has been deemed the “sexiest job of the 21st century.” Data science is a crucial and growing field, especially in tech startups. That’s a powerful position to be in. So, I pose a question: what if we used this feverous interest in our skills to directly impact social good?
Imagine the potential if we applied the power of data analysis and maturing techniques like machine learning to tackle our planet’s most pressing social issues. We could have a transformative role in improving mental health care delivery, increasing cancer survival rates, cleaning up the oceans, and better protecting people during disaster situations.
From my vantage point, this work is already underway. I believe we are on the cusp of an era of mission-driven technologists — and I couldn’t be more excited to see this movement take off.
From the 1980s all the way through the early 2000s, many tech enthusiasts matriculated to areas like enterprise business software and made Seattle and Silicon Valley the forces they are today. More recently, we’ve seen the rise of ad tech and the gig economy — resulting in unicorn startups that attract elite talent.
For every ambitious technologist developing the greatest new delivery app or devising better mechanisms to target ads — and to be clear, I think these are fascinating and exciting innovations making our daily lives simpler — there is a counterpart whose career decisions are driven by a greater social mission.
In fact, recent studies have found that nearly 60 percent of millennial workers look for a job with impact, and more than half would scale back their pay to work for a company that shares their values. Why are we seeing that this is increasingly important to technologists?
Well, consider all the benefits of pursuing meaningful work: research has demonstrated that it is associated with improved psychological well-being, higher satisfaction, and increased motivation and productivity at work. Don’t we all want to be part of a thriving, dedicated team working together on a greater purpose? I know I do — and I’m fortunate to see it on my team every day.
So what exactly does it mean to be a mission-driven technologist? How can we define and bring this culture to our own tech companies?
Here’s the approach we’ve seen work:
- Create a vision and a roadmap for impact: It was critical to us from the start to support our end users — patients, doctors, and therapists — as we designed and built our machine learning models and products. We developed our roadmap to prioritize their needs, guiding us and enabling work that aligned with our mission.
- Spend time with end users. For us, that meant having our technologists spend days shadowing doctors and meeting with patients. On the data science front, doing so ensured the predictions of our machine learning model fit into doctors’ workflows and enhanced experiences for both patients and providers.
- Build a cross-functional team. We constantly work with clinical experts to define (and refine) features that are both explainable and predictive of risks for mental health issues. We have highly trained statisticians and behavioral economists on our team who focus on uncovering the impact of mental health interventions on people’s well-being. Especially when in lean startup mode, collaboration like this is critical to tackling complex problems.
- Constantly test and iterate. We carefully implement tests aimed at improving the rate and speed at which people find the appropriate mental health care solution. Everything we do is in the interest of furthering our mission — helping people feel and live better.
I know what you may be thinking, that this is just a millennial-driven trend. My take? No way. At my company, this mindset certainly spans our workforce, it’s in our DNA. We want to help bridge the gap between mental and physical healthcare so people can lead happier and healthier lives. That’s a mission any technologist can stand behind.
Looking ahead, I don’t see this movement waning. I firmly believe being mission-driven is not correlated to your age group, but instead, a desire to spend your working time creating meaningful, positive change. We’re seeing a growing pool of talented technologists move into fields like education, healthcare, and economic development — where they can apply their skills to a cause they care deeply about and want to be a part of improving.
Certainly, all the innovative work and accelerated technological advances happening in fields like ad tech, gaming, and finance are important. But I encourage my fellow technologists to look at the mission-driven side of the equation — look for opportunities to apply your brilliance to solving the tough, thorny problems facing our generation. The gratification of creating real, measurable progress that betters the lives of humankind is well worth the hard work.
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