How to Expand Tech Ethics Career Pathways

Rows of columns and arches at Stanford University

How can we build more career pathways for students interested in tech ethics? The Tech Ethics & Policy Fellows Program for undergraduates aims to do just that. 

Through the Tech Ethics & Policy (TEP) Fellows Program, Stanford students have the opportunity to engage in the technology field as it intersects with public policy and social impact work. Sponsored by the Ethics, Society, and Technology (EST) Initiatives at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society (McCoy Ethics Center) and the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI), this program aims to provide tech policy opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. While HAI supports the Tech Ethics & Policy Summer Fellowships in D.C., which are designed to place technical graduate students in D.C. to work at the intersection of tech and policy, the McCoy Ethics Center leads the undergraduate arm of the program.

The inaugural year of the undergraduate TEP Fellows program had 13 students and ran from April to October 2023. It included a course on ethics, technology, and public policy, as well as a paid internship opportunity at a technology company, civil society organization, or public agency during the summer. 

As part of their final projects, participants were asked to reflect on their tech ethics journey and experiences during the program. Read below to find out about lessons learned and practical advice for future fellows. 

Tech Ethics in Government

“I was initially drawn to the field of tech policy because the tech bro/start-up/techno-solutionist culture of Silicon Valley frustrated me intensely…. Why is innovation considered unequivocally good? Why do we work endlessly to make arbitrary things faster and more streamlined? I hated that so much passion and talent is spent creating technology that either is not necessary or actively harms the world….I found the people, discussions, and resources I craved in the tech policy space at Stanford.” - Emily Tianshi, Stanford junior studying Data Science and International Relations

For Emily, the TEP Fellows Program offered the space to be challenged academically and created a tight community with the teaching team and cohort. As an intern at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a federal agency within the Department of Homeland Security that provides cybersecurity and infrastructure protection across the United States, she focused on three main areas: open source software security, AI security, and Secure by Design.

Working in the federal government, she had the opportunity to learn about how CISA supports threat hunting, vulnerability management, R&D, capacity building, industry collaborations, and more. She experienced how CISA operates like a startup and learned that integration is key to the agency’s success, making sure that the thousands of employees, hundreds of teams, and numerous projects each contribute to the agency’s larger mission.

Ethics in Industry

“For all the conversations at Stanford about how to develop technology, there aren’t nearly as many conversations about how to develop technology ethically. The TEP Fellows Program offers support for students to do just that and more.” - Ayesha Khawaja, Stanford junior studying Symbolic Systems

Having had an interest in the social impact of technology and past experience with developing technology to try to mitigate social issues, Ayesha still didn’t know much about the broader sphere of trust and safety engineering. She was also uncertain about what other opportunities were out there for focusing on ethical technology development. The TEP Fellows Program provided that opportunity – from the spring class, where she met fascinating leaders in the tech ethics space to the summer internship, the crux of the fellowship. 

As an intern at Avanade on their Emerging Technology & Ventures team, Ayesha spent the summer helping Avanade develop their internal AI governance model, researching the ethical considerations of using different emerging technologies, and supporting a few client requests related to what they should be thinking about if they want to implement a particular technology ethically. Her internship provided the experience to see what it was like to work at a large tech company with sizable resources and intern support, which is something she really wanted to do. It also allowed her to see how others in the industry, including her supervisor, were passionate about digital ethics in the face of potentially competing corporate interests. 

Lessons Learned and Advice for the Future

“What stood out to me about the TEP Fellowship was the level of depth we were able to reach in our conversations. Often, discussions of technology ethics only begin to scratch the surface—with TEP, there was space for thoughtful dialogue and reflection that emerged far beyond surface-level debates.” - Lila Shroff, Stanford junior studying Symbolic Systems

Lila worked at Credo AI, a responsible AI governance platform for enterprise, where she was a part of Credo’s Global Policy Team, along with another TEP Fellow. There, she worked cross-functionally to align company policy strategy with AI research. Lila led a final project focused on enterprise data governance strategies. Through this project, she learned the importance of addressing data quality from the earliest stages of a system’s development. Failure to address data quality in the early stages can lead to "data cascades," where issues snowball downstream, affecting the entire AI system.

Lila offers the following practical advice to future TEP fellows:

  • Supplement what you work on with outside perspectives. While every organization will look different, employees within the same organization can have shared beliefs regarding the politics and/or ethics of the work that they do. Regardless of how your own opinion aligns with internal beliefs, understanding the perspectives of those who may disagree with your organization’s mission can be really enriching. 
  • Learn how to approach disagreement thoughtfully—especially when it comes to ethics. It is already difficult enough to learn to disagree with your co-workers, but disagreeing on ethics or politics as an intern is harder yet! Approach disagreement from a place of genuine curiosity: Why does a co-worker think differently from you? How has their opinion been formed? 
  • Stay in touch with your cohort throughout the summer. After the spring fellowship course, my cohort dispersed to various locations and spent the summer (largely) disconnected. I wish we’d put a stronger collective emphasis on community throughout the summer. Something as simple as a group chat for checking in with each other would have made a big difference.
  • Take advantage of being part of an ecosystem. Maybe, you’ll find yourself in a role where you are interacting with customers, clients, and partners all day along. Or perhaps, you will spend most of your time with your co-workers. Either way, you’ll be getting exposure to a much broader tech ethics and policy ecosystem along the way. Learn about the backgrounds of the people you meet and how they landed working in this space—who knows what serendipity may emerge!

Applications are now open for the 2024 cohort of the TEP Fellows Program. Round 1 applications are due on December 1, 2023.

Learn more and apply: 

These fellowships are made possible in part by Frank McCourt in association with Stanford’s partnership with Project Liberty’s Institute.