How could a major in English or anthropology lead to a career on the leading edge of the tech economy? Bowdoin students got a chance to find out after a recent campus visit from two alumni.
Dave and Charlotte Willner, both class of ’06, met and fell in love when they were students at Bowdoin. Since graduating, they have had parallel careers in the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley.
The Willners began their careers at Facebook — Charlotte started in 2007 as its 250th employee, Dave in 2008 as the 270th. They were there in the heady early days, when Facebook was growing exponentially and figuring things out as it raced along.
The two became critical participants in shaping the company’s content policy and safety standards — aspects of Facebook’s business that have become only more important as the site has become nearly ubiquitous.
After becoming specialists in this burgeoning field, they moved on to other jobs. Currently, Dave is working at Airbnb as head of community policy, and Charlotte is safety manager at Pinterest. “As young people in emerging fields at Facebook, they were in charge of making decisions about data and content during incredible times, and they attribute their liberal arts education to helping them with the problem solving they faced,” said Susie Dorn, Bowdoin’s leadership gifts officer.
The Willners visited Bowdoin this week, dropping into several classes to discuss a wide range of topics: free speech and ethics on the Internet; safety, privacy, and security on social media; women and diversity in Silicon Valley; and government regulations in the sharing economy.
They also gave a career talk to students thinking about pursuing careers in technology, inviting both students with computer science skills and those studying other subjects. Charlotte graduated with a major in English and a minor in art history. Dave was an anthropology major and archaeology minor.
When they spoke to students enrolled in digital and computations studies, the Willners described the trajectories of their careers and the challenges they, and their companies, have faced. Below the photo is a sampling of their remarks.
On requirements for liberal arts graduates who want to succeed in technology:
Charlotte: The requirements are technically more stringent but the requirements for success are the same. What you are learning to do at a place like Bowdoin is to think, and to talk about why you think what you think, and if you are not doing that in class, then you should start, because that is going to be your career.
Dave: What is a liberal arts education for? It is to produce informed citizens in a democratic society. The current wave of technology is consumer technology — we’re not talking about careers where your job is making very tiny wires. When we all talk about jobs in tech, we’re talking about jobs in consumer technology or the sharing economy, and those are fundamentally about human interactions. And while Facebook has technically hard problems — like it has to store two billion people’s photos indefinitely for the rest of time — the hard problems those companies face are, what do you do about live video murder? In terms of consequences for the company and the societal impact, the hard problems are the human problems.
Charlotte: People who are good at problem solving are good at the jobs we do, and people who make an effort to solve problems and who try to get to the best answer. Those are the people who are really going to succeed in our field or fields tangential to ours.
Dave: Solving the problem is sometimes the easy part. Because these decisions are fraught, the hardest part is building consensus with everyone who has opinions, like PR, public policy teams, legal teams, and whoever else.
On the Internet and the politics of free speech:
Dave: Technology is not politically neutral. The Internet as it exists today is built on the premise that a multiplicity of voices is good, and that is wired directly into how the whole things is built. That is one of the reasons why spam is such an unstoppable monster. Because fundamentally the Internet was created in a way that resists centralized control. And I would say the same thing to some extent about Facebook. The idea that the world should be more open and connected is not a politically neutral idea, it privileges the idea that everybody should have a voice.
On doing business around the world:
Dave: The average Facebook user is not anything like you. There are almost 2 billion people on Facebook. The average user at this point probably lives somewhere in the Middle East, Africa, or Asia. The people who are having the conversation [such as on how Facebook regulates political stories] are in their imagined world of what Facebook is — the people they’re friends with — and that is not true. Eighty to ninety percent of the users are outside of the United States.
Charlotte: The average user is probably a dude sitting in an Indonesian internet cafe.
Charlotte: Pinterest has different country teams that are responsible for growth and engagement in those countries, and two of them are Japan and Brazil. And what we hear from Japan every week is, “Ugh, too much racy stuff! There are a lot of bikinis and hot girls on cars!” And what we hear from Brazil every week is, “Not enough racy girls, too few girls on cars!” It’s all the same content but what drives engagement in these two countries is super different.
Dave: It is very easy for us to say we want Airbnb to be a place where you can be trans and be accepted, and that is very much in line with our mission of belonging. But some people live in Saudi Arabia or Morocco, and even seemingly uncontroversial things like traveling while not married is illegal in a fair number of countries, and in some countries it is not illegal, but police will raid your house anyway. And so we have a tough choice there because we want all Airbnbs to be open to everybody…but that will functionally mean that in some countries some hosts must violate the law and put themselves in danger, or be banned from the service. How do we let people set those lines without themselves reenacting the animus that might underlie those laws? For us, flexibility has been necessary. We have to meet the world where it is, not where we wish it was.