Are Universities Training Socially Minded Programmers?

Four Stanford engineers started a club for students interested in using their skills for social good. But then came job-recruiting season.

Students and faculty are pictured in conversation.
Students and alumni discuss CS+Social Good class projects with Stanford faculty.  (JR Cabansag)

Vicki Niu arrived at her freshman orientation at Stanford, in 2014, with dreams of changing the world with technology. At Stanford, professors consulted for Facebook and Google, and students took classes in buildings named for Gates, Hewlett, and Packard. Google, Yahoo, and Snapchat had been started by students while they were on campus. “I remember before coming here, I looked up a list of Stanford alumni, and was like, I can’t believe these people started all these companies,” Niu told me. “It had to be this place that made people so exceptional.”

But even as a freshman—years before popular sentiment began to turn against the tech industry—Niu took issue with an engineering culture that she saw as shallow. “I saw my really bright peers starting these new social networks and anonymous question-asking apps,” she said. “And I just didn’t understand how smart people were working on problems that seemed so inconsequential to me.”  So, in the spring of her freshman year, she and three classmates launched CS + Social Good, Stanford’s first student group focused on the social impact of computer science. “We wanted to create a community of people that valued impact,” she said. “To remind computer scientists that they have skills to do things that matter and remind folks who are already doing impact-oriented work how technology is a tool they could also leverage.”

Niu was ahead of the times. Stanford and other top engineering universities have offered courses on tech ethics for decades. But now, in the wake of such revelations as Cambridge Analytica gaining unauthorized access to up to 87 million Facebook users’ data, courses that explore the ethical implications of emerging technologies are cropping up across the country. This past semester, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offered a joint course on artificial-intelligence ethics, and last fall Cornell University introduced a course in which students learned about the ethical challenges in the field of data science. Stanford professors are developing a new course about computer science, ethics, and public policy for the coming academic year.

CS+Social Good members lead a workshop on AI. (JR Cabansag)

Joe Edelman, a social scientist who studies how communities define and measure their values, sees the proliferation of ethics courses at schools like Stanford as one part the tech industry’s greater reckoning with its role in society. “All of the universities prepare [programmers] to know what they’re doing in situations that are not very dangerous or volatile,” he told me. “Schools are beginning to realize technologists need some kind of ethics training to navigate situations where that isn’t the case.”

Student-led clubs like CS + Social Good have been created at MIT, UC Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania, and other campuses. Three years after Niu helped found hers, it has become very popular among students; Stanford highlights it on its website. CS + Social Good helps teach project-based classes, hosts discussions of issues such as the gender gap in venture capital and biases in AI, and offers fellowships for students who want to spend their summers working on projects about resource allocation for refugees rather than, say, urban food delivery. Its mission, according to its website, is to “empower students to leverage technology for social good.”

But in college, where activism is celebrated and time is abundant, joining a club like CS + Social Good is a low-cost way for students to signal their values. The question is: When they enter the outside world, will the injection of social consciousness into their otherwise technical educations have made a difference?

When Google makes money, Stanford makes money. Like most research universities, it holds patents for inventions conceived on campus; the university has brought in more than $300 million in royalties from Google’s PageRank tool, which Larry Page and Sergey Brin patented at the engineering school in 1996. Down the street at the business school, change lives posters hang from lampposts outside buildings named for prominent hedge-fund managers and finance executives. Stanford would seem to have a financial incentive to encourage students to join the biggest tech companies, investment banks, and management consulting firms. A Stanford spokesman said via email, “We want our alumni to find satisfaction and success—however they may define that—regardless of the path they choose when they graduate.”

For Niu, any pressure to join a brand-name employer came from classmates, not the school. During her freshman year, when on-campus recruiting began, her engineering classmates started to talk about who was interviewing where and who had what lined up. “I felt this immense need to prove that I was smart, to prove that I belonged here,” she said. “But I didn’t feel like I was actually doing things that aligned with my interests.”

Niu sought out the advice of Keith Schwarz, a computer-science instructor who had been teaching in the department since he graduated from it in 2011. Through Schwarz, Niu met three other socially minded classmates—Lawrence Lin Murata, Manu Chopra, and Edward Wang—who would become the CS + Social Good club’s co-founders.

Like Niu, Murata had come to Stanford with the impression that the brightest minds would be working on the world’s most pressing issues, but had quickly become disillusioned. “It seemed like the holy grail in tech was to build a company like Snapchat,” he told me. In the computer-science department, “there was very little attention paid to nonprofits or other mission-driven companies.” Niu added, “The classes were really good at teaching technical proficiency, but they often lived in an idyllic bubble. They didn’t talk about how to be a socially conscious engineer.”

The club was founded with the goal of changing the culture on campus—and it seems to be working. Stanford’s introductory computer-science class, CS106A, which is the most popular class on campus, now offers a supplemental lab for students interested in using code to address social issues. Three of the club’s student-initiated classes can now be taken for course credit. And hundreds of students attend CS + Social Good’s events each year. “If we can get people to think about the implications of computer science, it could have huge ripple effects downstream,” Niu said.

As graduation approached, Niu and her colleagues found themselves gravitating toward for-profit companies. Chopra now works at Microsoft Research in India, Wang is employed by a game-development studio in San Francisco, and Murata runs a transportation-safety startup in Palo Alto. If the development might seem to be in conflict with CS + Good’s ideals, Niu and her colleagues see it differently. At Microsoft, Chopra is focused on using technology to address poverty. Murata told me, “If we can get people at big tech companies—including within branches that are not social-good-related—to become more thoughtful about how their work impacts society, then that’s a tremendous net-positive impact for the industry.” And it’s hard to fault students for prioritizing lucrative career paths, especially given the fact that the median monthly rent in the Bay Area is over $1,500.

During college, Niu interned at Yelp, Google, and Chain, a startup that builds blockchain technology. She graduated from Stanford this spring and will join Chain full-time, helping build financial-services software. Niu believes Chain’s products will eventually make it easier for people to gain access to capital and send remittances overseas. Still, she grapples with whether she is choosing a comfortable, low-risk lifestyle over work that directly addresses injustice. “Although I’m doing what I think is right for me, I also know that I’m doing something that’s easy,” Niu said. “I’ll still get to live in a metropolitan center, with a high-paying job that is prestigious in the eyes of my peers.” Ultimately, she hopes to use her technical expertise to solve a social problem. For now, she’ll make a living.