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03 April, 2009

Cure cancer, or make Excel easier... which has greater impact on the world?

I am not really sure what the answer is to the above question. And of course, it is somewhat of an absurd question. But it is one that certainly relates to my life experiences. I studied biology and genetics, and had the opportunity to pursue a career in research. At one point, I did research at a renowned cancer research institute. I would not say that I did good research, and I would not say that I did very much research there at all. But I was there. And the greatest impact one could imagine having would be to unlock the secrets to curing some type of cancer that afflicts many. Or to mitigate the pain, or prolong the life span of those who suffer. That's a noble cause, right?

I left all that to work in the software industry, also as a researcher. People have asked me why I did it, and if I felt some sort of moral weakness for having gone to "The Evil Empire", as they put it. My response, while somewhat facetious, is actually tongue-in-cheek serious: Perhaps I have a greater chance of impacting the world by making Excel better than I did by working in biological research?

How could I say that?

Well, the reality is simple. There are thousands and thousands of researchers working on disease, and basic science, trying to answer fundamental questions. The knowledge we obtain is at best incremental, save for rare breakthroughs. And much of the knowledge is just mental masturbation. We can make a mouse that glows in the dark. Big fucking deal. True, that technology was also used to do things like tagging molecules in living organisms so we can track their progress during development or other cellular processes. But much of what comes out of academic research is a lot of "Gee Whiz" without actually curing anything, or producing anything that will have a direct impact on anyone's lives.

Contrast that with being one of a handful of people in the world whose job is to engage in research and design of a software product that is utilized by hundreds of millions of people. If I can do research, even quite simple and modest, that leads to my product becoming easier for people to use, I have the potential to reduce stress, and increase job satisfaction for an enormous number of people around the entire world. It doesn't require killing animals. It doesn't require wasting large amounts of plastic. It just requires evaluating designs, and then testing them on a handful, or a few dozens of people, to see if our thoughts about how to design the product were correct or incorrect. Ironically, making people's work lives less stressful could actually have a greater impact on health than studying medicine or biology could have done.

Of course, there's an assumption that the improvements we make will be appreciable enough to actually make people's lives better. But with hundreds of millions of users, and just a few of us researchers, I feel like the odds are actually pretty good of having an impact.

How can I complain about that?

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