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.