by Adi Melamed
Click the link that follows for other stories in the Tech for Social Good Spotlight series and more news items about our innovative and pioneering alums.
The Tech For Social Good Spotlight is a series focused on recent Brown Computer Science graduates working at the intersection of computer science and social good. The goal of these interviews is to explore what it means to work in the technology for social good space, what technology for social good might even mean in the first place, and most importantly, share advice for Brown students considering this path. The spotlight is organized by Impact Labs, a student-run organization creating awareness and access to opportunities in the tech for social good space.
Ben Spector (Class of ‘17) has a BA in Computer Science and Music. He works as a Lead High School Instructor for Operation Spark, a nonprofit coding bootcamp focused on providing training opportunities for low-opportunity individuals to ease the process of getting software jobs.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What were your past experiences in the CS for Social Good space?
My sophomore summer I did an internship at a popular travel website doing software engineering, which was my first experience doing actual software engineering. I really liked the company, and really liked the people I was working with, but I didn’t love the job I was doing. That also came after the year where I was taking CS 32 and CS 33, as well as CS 22... Yeah, so it was just a really intense, full year, followed by the internship and I just felt really burnt out. The next summer I got an internship at one of the big tech companies doing software engineering. I was hoping I would feel a little different about software engineering in general, but pretty much from the moment I got there I realized I didn’t want to be doing software engineering….I didn’t like the people, I didn’t like working for the company, I didn’t like what I was doing. So during my senior year I was really trying to figure out what exactly I was trying to do. I started taking some more education courses, and I started volunteering with BEAM (Brown Elementary Afterschool Program)...I had worked with kids before, and I always thought that teaching is something that I’d be interested in.
...Then, I don’t remember how I found Venture for America, but it is a fellowship program aimed at getting recent college grads jobs at startups in cities with smaller startup ecosystems. After graduation, I knew I wanted to work at a startup after working at two big companies and I also wanted to work at a company that had some social impact to it. So I got into Venture for America, and then the job hunt phase started: There are over 400 startups you can join, and I was connected to Operation Stark through them… Operation Spark is really the reason I joined Venture for America… it checked all the boxes, it was CS and education, and allowed me to teach in a non-traditional teaching environment.
What do you enjoy most about working in a social good tech startup?
I see education as a way to take my skills and apply them for good. The thing that really turned me off about my internships at the travel site and larger tech company was the fact that I wondered, well definitely at the former, why am I building this website for people to find vacations? I think it’s great, and it’s a great website, and the company itself is amazing, but I felt totally disconnected from what I was doing. At the large tech company it was even worse. I was building this ad search engine, it just felt very disconnected from what I am interested in…
Education is definitely something I want to continue being a part of. Working with kids is really fulfilling. Schools here [in New Orleans] don’t have computer science programs. It’s really cool to provide opportunities for these kids, and seeing them get excited about it is really cool. Being able to build relationships with them is really rewarding.
What is your advice for students at Brown interested in pursuing a career in the tech for social good space?
My advice would be to take time to look for what’s out there because there are tons of opportunities for people. Part of what everyone knows from going into computer science is that it is a highly sought after, highly marketable skill. Yes, you can make a huge amount of money going to one of these enormous companies, but there are also tons of companies out there that are trying to to use software to make a social impact. You just have to find them. You probably won’t end up making six figures in your initial job, but 99% of people aren’t going to be doing that anyway. I think there’s a little bit of adjusting your expectations that needs to happen... I think if you are really driven to make social change there are a lot of opportunities, and yes you have to look for them, and you may have to make certain sacrifices, but it’s not really a sacrifice if you don’t view it as a sacrifice. You just have to change your perspective on what is expected, particularly at Brown, which is a very elite place. People here have high expectations, people are driven by prestige… and I think it kind of corrupts what you view as normal. Brown is a place where “normal” is working at a top 5 bank, consulting firm or tech company, and I think that’s great, but I also think you need to understand that that is not normal.
The views and opinions expressed above are those of an individual, and do not necessarily state or reflect those of Brown University or Brown University's Department of Computer Science, nor does their publication here constitute an endorsement of them.
For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communication Outreach Specialist Jesse C. Polhemus.