How to Build a Career in Responsible Tech

A better, more inclusive, more just tech future starts by opening the tech economy to people from a wide range of professional backgrounds. Here’s how to do that.
Headshot of author David Ryan Polgar
David Ryan Polgar
Expert Columnist
March 16, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021
Headshot of author David Ryan Polgar
David Ryan Polgar
Expert Columnist
March 16, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021

The dangers from the irresponsible development and deployment of technologies is quite clear: A polluted information ecosystem leads to violence, biased algorithms lead to discrimination and unfettered data exploitation leads to manipulation. The consequences of inaction when it comes to improving the tech industry could prove disastrous.

What is less clear than the dangers we face, however, is how to get involved fixing these problems. A nascent field called responsible tech is focused on the responsible development and deployment of technologies. Given how pressing the problems associated with technology are, along with the public’s growing awareness regarding its impact on civil liberties and the threat it poses to the future of democracy, tech companies have been creating and hiring many new responsible tech roles. Examples include:

What Is Responsible Tech?

The responsible tech movement seeks to broaden the types of people who see a place for themselves in the technology industry. It aims to build a cohort of experts in public policy, law, sociology, philosophy and other disciplines to participate in making technology that is more equitable and just.

 

What Is Responsible Tech?

You might think of responsible tech as an analogue to the Tech for Good movement, though they’re almost inverses of one another.  Tech for Good involves workers in traditional tech roles working for non-traditional tech companies. Responsible tech jobs, on the other hand, are often roles we don’t generally think of as tech jobs embedded within tech companies or organizations that provide necessary scrutiny to the tech industry. Tech for Good emphasizes using one’s technical skills for a so-called “good” company, looking to improve society by giving non-tech organizations access to tech workers. Responsible tech aims to create a more ethical and just tech industry by identifying and mitigating the potential negative impacts of a given product and better aligning technology with the public interest.

In general, the responsible tech movement seeks to build a better tech future in two distinct ways. One approach is focused on making the current tech workforce and pipeline more aware of and able to respond to potential problems. Initiatives across the industry are targeting this goal. For example, Mozilla’s Responsible Computer Science Challenge seeks to add more ethics training to computer science curricula. Similarly, Omidyar Network’s Ethical Explorer promotes a culture of questioning industry assumptions. Finally, Logic School provides online training to empower tech workers to push back against unethical behavior.

The second approach, which is where my focus has been with my organization All Tech Is Human, is aimed at altering the development of technology by creating career pathways to attract individuals who may not be in the traditional tech pipeline but who have important contributions to make. Our work is based on the belief that we can improve the outcome of technological innovation by altering the composition of the tech workforce. This means greater diversity, seeking out people with backgrounds from a wide spectrum of disciplines and including people dedicated to ensuring the field is aligned with the public interest. So, in addition to the work other groups are doing to empower current tech workers, we also want to broaden what types of folks enter the field.

The group of people that we’re seeking to engage is incredibly diverse and multidisciplinary, given that the problems related to technology often intersect with law, public policy, psychology, sociology and more. It taps into the rich knowledge base of researchers, academics and activists who have all long warned of the risks associated with social media and other emerging technologies.

Although these problems are often referred to as “unintended” consequences, they’re typically quite foreseeable. We know this because every major tech concern that has gained the attention of media, policymakers and the general public has been preceded by years of warnings from experts.

For example, filter bubbles and echo chambers became a major topic in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election as social media’s role in polarizing the electorate came under scrutiny. Among experts, however, this subject was already well-covered. Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think had come out in 2012, which followed his TED talk from the year before. Had his work gained wider traction in the tech industry, many of the problems he identified might have been avoided.

The responsible tech movement is aimed at decreasing the problems caused by technology by staffing tech companies with the types of people who are most capable of foreseeing and preventing them. Those folks who have long tried to warn the public about algorithmic bias, filter bubbles, polarization, misinformation and privacy concerns must be actively involved in the tech industry in order to make it more responsible. It’s time to get them off the sidelines into the game.

 

How Do You Build a Career In Responsible Tech?

As the founder and director of All Tech Is Human, which is committed to building the responsible tech pipeline, I sit at the intersection between the diverse range of individuals interested in ethical tech careers, the universities educating the next generation that will work in the field, and industry looking to find qualified individuals for these new roles. All three of these groups are currently struggling to find each other, develop pathways and agreed-upon nomenclature and forge a cohesive ecosystem. The group I hear from the most are the individuals who are looking to build a career in responsible tech but unclear on the steps involved. From my experience, the common issues fall into one of the following categories.

 

I’m Not a Technologist!

People utter this phrase far too often. An unfortunately common misconception is that the tech industry is just for technical experts. It’s not. Technology is ubiquitous and intertwined with society, and most of the problems facing tech are actually sociological and political in nature. They’re not all bug fixes and engineering upgrades, but, rather, these problems are related to a given piece of tech’s impact on individuals and society writ large. The tech industry has long undervalued social sciences, but that shows signs of changing. The first step to building a career in responsible tech is to know that people from all intellectual backgrounds are welcome and necessary.

 

My Experience Is Too Weird!

Careers in responsible tech are often hybrid roles, so individuals who have a broad knowledge and experience base are at an advantage. Since we deal with the impact of technology, the field necessitates an understanding both of the technology itself and how it intersects with law, psychology, economics, politics, sociology and more. Individuals working in responsible tech are usually comfortable toggling between disciplines.

Although the course of study in a standard university is still based on majors, those interested in responsible tech careers can expand the breadth of their knowledge and experience through volunteering, finding collaborative projects and credential programs such as the Certified Ethical Emerging Technologist. Anyone who is interested in gaining more experience can always take part in one of the many collaborative projects that All Tech Is Human spearheads. Recent reports like “The Business Case for AI Ethics” and “Improving Social Media” involved nearly 200 collaborators, so there’s always space for participants. Collaborators instantly gain a larger network and greater experience, which is crucial to building out the next generation for responsible tech.

 

I Can’t Find Any Jobs That Fit My Experience!

Many of the job postings in responsible tech currently ask for multiple years of experience and typically an advanced degree. As these roles grow and departments expand, however, entry-level job positions are coming online. For example, IBM has been investing in the AI ethics for some time and has multiple mid- and high-level positions in this area. The company is now expanding into internships focused on AI ethics, such as this one for an AI Ethics Communications Specialist, which can open the door to a responsible tech career. Likewise, many of the folks who get funneled into entry-level positions will have gained experience and reputational value through fellowships like these with Aspen Tech Policy Hub or Mozilla.

 

I Don’t Understand How Any of This Works Together!

Most people who reach out to me asking for advice are unaware of just how big the responsible tech ecosystem is and how many different stakeholder groups are involved. Building a career in the field requires understanding who the key players and organizations are, which is why All Tech Is Human put together this “Responsible Tech Guide,” which showcases a broad range of individuals and organizations in the space. Understanding the ecosystem allows you to see the work that is currently being done and will open up opportunities to network, volunteer and be well-positioned as roles become available.

 

How Do I Start Making Connections?

Given that the responsible tech ecosystem is still relatively small compared to the broader tech economy, a person’s reputation and network is going to affect whether or not they’re hired for a role. It’s crucial to build up a large network in the field, which necessitates finding events to attend and networking with the individuals you find there. Seek out advice and mentorship. My own personal philosophy has been to “find the Kevin Bacons.” Most networks feature a few heavily connected power nodes. Find these folks and start networking from there.

In 2021, the problems associated with irresponsible tech are clearer than ever before.  Fortunately, a whole host of young and engaged professionals, having seen the ramifications of unfettered technology, stands ready to stem this tide. The responsible tech movement will empower them to share their skills with the tech industry at large.

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