Calvin Dong
4 min readFeb 3, 2021

I just turned 24 a few days ago. I couldn’t believe how the time flew, really — I had this distinct memory of sitting at the dinner table with my family, celebrating my 23rd birthday while eating fruit cake, and I just relived the same thing 4 days ago, but for a new number. Talk about deja vu.

Obviously, it’s a different world now than it was a year ago. The pandemic has brought a lot of new things in focus for me. When there was (and still is) so much chaos in the surrounding world, I started to think more critically on what my priorities really were in life, and whether the direction I was currently going reflected those priorities. My conclusion was that no, they didn’t, and I had to make some changes to get there. Some things I learned were:

I fundamentally don’t see myself continuing long-term in the tech industry

I define “tech” industry as the traditional path at a relatively mainstream tech company, while working 9–5 and ascending the career ladder (which for me, is the software engineering path). The reasons I can’t see myself continuing down this road are some fundamental differences between how the industry works and what I think is important. When I first came to the Bay, and wanted to work in the tech industry, I was attracted by the allure of technology being responsible for societal progress. The more experience I got, the more I realized how incorrect that assumption was. I wrote about some of my naive college freshman experiences here, but to sum it up, the tech industry is far more concerned with making money than it is with doing good to society. If a company were to sacrifice 50% of its profits to do 50% more good, versus sacrifice 50% of its impact to make 50% more profits, any tech company would choose the latter in a heartbeat. That’s not the space I want to work in, and I’ve deeply missed the time I used to spend with nonprofits, when helping their mission succeed was the only goal.

Similarly, while I’ve met many friends who work in the industry that I like and am friends with, I can’t shake the notion of performative activism out of my head. People will spam their Instagram stories with quotes about fairness and equality, but yet will continue spending a third of their lives working for companies who haven’t moved the needle on diversity numbers, are actively working to create a monopoly, and arguably make the world objectively worse by their sheer existence. I’ve unfortunately learned that many in this industry want to seem like they care, without putting in the effort to actually make it so. With the amount of tech companies in existence, the amount of money you make or the prestige of it is no longer a valid argument. It would be different if, like the people I know who work in Wall Street, they just ignored social issues entirely. There’s no pretense about working in finance/banking/etc. They’re there for the money and the prestige, and that’s it. However, something that’s uniquely different about tech is that everyone will claim they’re interested in the “intersection of social good, technology, and progress” and then proceed to work, for example, for a predatory payday loan company disguised as a tech company. I can’t possibly reconcile those two actions in good faith.

The silver lining is that thinking about what I don’t want has given me more clarity to what I do want.

I want to work on my own projects, with people I want to work with.

Luckily, I actually enjoy the act of coding, enjoy the act of bringing new things in the world. I want to be able to work on my own projects, on my own time, that represent things that I wish existed today. The commodification of something I love doing, programming, is a key reason for my distaste of the industry. It would be so much different if I could just build what I wanted without the nagging voices of “stakeholders” and profits in the background.

To that end, I’m making some changes in my life. I’m joining the OnDeck Founders Fellowship and working on building my own things full time, starting with Afterword, which will someday be the Goodreads I’ve always wanted. Will this result in a traditional, venture backed, tech company? Definitely not. Can it result in a sustainable, ethical project that I can foresee spending years and years on creating? I think so, and that’s what is most important to me.

I’m also moving to Seoul for 3 months, minimum. I figure the city will help tremendously for my own creative inspiration, and it helps that they’ve basically figured out how to deal with Covid.

I think that this is what’s best for me, and at the very least, I couldn’t be happier that I’m figuring out where I want my life to go. Welcome to the mid-twenties, I guess.