I visited a friend who lives in a remote, tropical region of the United States. He’s a doctor and a practicing eye surgeon. The island has both the very rich and the extremely poor. It’s known for both the beautiful beaches and gun violence in poorer neighborhoods. There’re no Starbucks for over 50K residents. There’re a few richer patients that have good insurance or pay cash, but the majority are older natives with a large proportion on Medicare. A dozen surgeries or 60 patients a day is considered uneventful. A full night operating in the ER only happened once during our stay. There’re talks about closing the only hospital.
The phone rang in the middle of a dinner with a fellow doctor on the other end of the line, and our side of the conversation went something like this: “It sounds like this patient really needs to be seen by a doctor first thing tomorrow morning, so if she doesn’t have a Medicare coupon for a specialist, we’ll see her for free.” I asked him how that’s even an option? He replied that the money made with so many patients is good enough, and the health of the resident population is so precarious, that it just makes sense to be helpful as much as possible.
I think there’s a valuable lesson to be learned here for everyone writing software, too.
By all accounts we’re paid extremely well and we’re as much in demand as doctors. An even smaller percentage of us are the kind of specialists capable of building the software equivalent of performing eye surgery. Of course, there’s no true comparison with being able to directly affect one’s vision with a surgical instrument and the next website, but how can we use our privileged position to, at least, be more helpful? Here’re a few ideas.
If you can afford it, work for a non-profit. If you’re in NYC, I would start with DonorsChoose. Their Engineering team is lead by a very experienced techie and an amazing guy. They promise you’ll never get rich, but you’ll wake up every day with a purpose and heartwarming “thank you” emails from thousands of children in the public school system around the US.
Don’t work for anyone evil. One way to ensure that is to join a company that encourages, promotes and writes open-source. I try to practice this as much as possible by going the extra mile of creating new open-source projects, contributing to existing ones, answering questions on mailing lists and educating rising technologists without expecting anything in return. Software has eaten the world, so even if you don’t completely side with Richard Stallman’s vision of freedom activism, you could, maybe, compare the little bit of your open-source work you do to an occasional free visit to the doctor.