By Matthew Turk
Nine years after The New Yorker magazine labeled Stanford “Get Rich U,” Silicon Valley’s allure remains powerful for many students.
The number of undergraduate majors in computer science at Stanford has nearly quadrupled since 2010, and hackathons are almost as easy to come by as fraternity parties. When Facebook, Microsoft or Google pay over $12,000 for a table at a Stanford career fair, the return on investment is assured. Their famous brand names — not to mention their six-figure starting salaries and amenities-rich work environments — are certain to attract large crowds of talented job candidates.
But there are also students whose appreciation for the technology industry is tempered by concerns over ethics and corporate cultures in the Valley.
Hannah Mieczkowski, a rising fifth-year Ph.D. student in communication, recently declined an offer to interview with Google for a research internship, citing the firing of artificial intelligence (AI) researcher Timnit Gebru ’08 M.S. ’10 Ph.D. ’15, which she described “as indicative of a larger pattern of unjust behavior.”
Gebru, a pioneer in the field of ethical AI, came through the Stanford pipeline, as did Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Gebru announced that Google fired her on Dec. 2, 2020, after she criticized the company for blocking her from publishing her latest studies on bias in AI systems. Google CEO Sundar Pichai, in an email to employees on Dec. 9, acknowledged that “we need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily,” and promised to review the circumstances that led to her departure.
Like Gebru, Mieczkowski has observed the adverse effects of algorithms throughout the evolution of Silicon Valley. She referenced public backlash surrounding Twitter’s recently discarded image cropping algorithm, which would crop photos with a white person and multiple Black people in a way that, nine times out of 10, would only show the white person in the image preview, according to Mieczkowski. She added that there were repeated instances in which Twitter would crop women’s chests without user input. After immense criticism, Twitter removed the automatic cropping feature.
But what Mieczkowski called the “most invigorating aspect of change in Silicon Valley, and across the country,” are attempts of labor organizing inside technology companies. She cited the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) — named for the parent company of Google — as a rare creation in an industry historically resistant to the unionization of its white-collar workforce. She described these labor unions as part of “solidarity-centered” change in the industry, which is “hopefully going to make big waves.”
Similar to Mieczkowski, Alyssa Romanos ’22 declined opportunities from Big Tech in search of an environment that more closely aligns with her belief systems. Romanos is preparing to intern as a software engineer with Gusto, a San Francisco–based startup known for its modern approach to providing payroll, benefits and human resources to small businesses. Romanos said she was drawn to Gusto because of the company’s “mission-driven” nature and commitment to “helping small businesses, especially at a time like this.”
An entry-level software engineer at a top Internet company can expect an annual salary of $140,000 upon graduation, often with perks such as free food in the office by Michelin-starred chefs, walking trails, massage specialists and juice bars. To Arnob Das ’22, when he recently visited Google’s Mountain View headquarters as a prospective intern, something about this all seemed too good to be true.
“They have their showers, their beds and dinners set up and everything — and you never leave,” he said. “There’s no separation between productivity and your life. I think there’s more to life than working all the time.”
Das participated in a program at Global Good, a social-impact startup accelerator backed by the Gates Foundation and Intellectual Ventures. Upon receiving capital from Beverly Hills–based firm Kairos Ventures, he co-founded Hex Labs, a startup designed to develop new database technologies for medicine, quantum computing and energy, in June 2016. Das continued the company as he entered college.
Hex Labs was successful enough to be deemed one of the top-50 emerging companies in 2019 by Inc. magazine. But even then, Das had conflicts about what he was doing. As he continued to develop the startup, he noticed some fellow entrepreneurs “cutting a lot of corners” and making morally questionable choices. He was a junior in high school when he learned that one project he had worked on could be weaponized for railgun technology.
“So I was seeing how even philanthropic efforts are not clean,” he said.
In January, Das dissolved Hex Labs and is now working toward an individually designed major in molecular engineering, as well as a minor in feminist, gender and sexuality studies. He said that, in the process of creating Hex Labs, he learned a lot about the value systems that drive a company’s culture.
Computer science major declarations at Stanford started to rise significantly in 2007, according to an April report from the Tech History Project. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of conferred bachelor’s degrees in the department swelled from 86 (5% of the senior class) to 307 (17%). The number of conferred master’s degrees in computer science doubled, and the number of doctorates increased slightly. Among types of classes, those related to data science and interdisciplinary technology saw the greatest growth in popularity.
In the 250-page Tech History Project report, a team of students led by Nik Marda ’21 and Julia Ingram ’21 (also former editor-in-chief of The Daily) narrates the good, the bad and the ugly of Stanford’s role in technology and public policy over the past decade. The report includes several recommendations to the leaders of tomorrow. They are centered around maintaining Stanford’s status as an innovation hub, increasing diversity and inclusion, and creating more technology with ethics and the public interest in mind.
Marda came into college thinking he would get a degree in CS, maybe explore some politics and then pursue a career in Silicon Valley — “the classic Stanford path,” as he put it. Then came the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal of 2018. Marda said that he remembers watching Mark Zuckerberg testify before Congress. “It was also very clear from that hearing that we have a lot of work to do, not just to properly regulate technology, but to have the right conversations around it in the halls of Congress and in civil society,” he said.
Marda’s interests eventually started to crystallize at the intersection of technology and government. In the middle of his pivot, he encountered Constanza Hasselmann ’21, the founder of the Public Interest Technology (PIT) Lab, a student organization centered around public-interest technology at Stanford. The next year, he joined her in co-leading the organization.
“The number of students I see that are interested in, for example, technology policies, at least empirically, is much larger now than I thought it was in 2017 or 2018,” Marda said. “And I think now there’s a lot more support, whether it’s from organizations like PIT Lab, or from the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, or all sorts of organizations for students to start engaging with work.”
The popularity of Big Tech jobs is still strong, but conscientious objection is becoming more common among youth, with echoes of the past, according to Katie Creel, an Embedded EthiCS fellow at Stanford. “If you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, it was extremely common for applied mathematicians and early computer scientists to be very public and vocal about projects they wouldn’t work on,” Creel said. Likewise, today there are more and more professionals in Silicon Valley who are thinking about their values and the big-picture impact they want to have on the world.