March 24, 2023


Epicurean Science & Tech

Layoffs at big tech a boon for climate change firms

6 min read


Layoffs are ravaging Silicon Valley. Tech titans such as Twitter, Amazon and Facebook are shedding thousands of workers, as job cuts and hiring freezes plague the industry.

Many software engineers, programmers and data scientists are out of work, mulling what comes next. But climate technology firms have a tantalizing message: Come work for us.

These companies offer an array of work. Some firms create software to measure greenhouse gas emissions better. Others create materials like cement and steel without using carbon.

Record fundraising in previous years and renewed government support have put the climate tech sector in an enviable position: hiring talent while prestigious Silicon Valley employers are bloodletting.

Now, climate tech companies — which once struggled to compete with the lucrative pay packages and stock options social media companies could offer — are seeing their inboxes filled with pristine resumes once thought un-poachable.

Some climate leaders are skeptical, saying more chemical engineers and scientists are needed, not coders and project managers. But others say the influx of talent could help technology companies that have often struggled to achieve their lofty goals.

In many ways, other scholars added, this is simply a repeat of history, which shows that innovation often comes during or following a crisis.

“It really is a major secular boost,” said Phil Budden, a senior lecturer on innovation and entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School. “All of a sudden engineers are available in the wider world. … There’s greater hope that climate tech will take off.”

Layoff spree in Silicon Valley spells end of an era for Big Tech

Over the past week, tens of thousands of tech workers have lost their jobs. On Monday, Amazon announced 10,000 people would be axed. A few days before that Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said 11,000 workers, or 13 percent of its workforce, would be let go. Twitter has laid off over 3,700 workers, with Elon Musk at the helm.

In the climate technology sector, things are different. Funding for climate tech is cooling, but only after record highs. As of Wednesday, $16 billion has flowed into the sector this year, almost double the $9.3 billion raised in 2019 but lower than the record $30.4 billion raised in 2021, according to PitchBook.

Climate Draft, a coalition of climate tech companies, has a jobs board showing over 4,000 jobs available spread over roughly 360 companies. Another jobs portal, Climatebase, has over 6,000 current postings.

Job fairs are being set up for next week and after the Thanksgiving holidays to promote climate tech openings. Many tech workers on messaging apps and community message boards are urging their laid-off colleagues to consider climate jobs. Laid-off workers are getting a 33 percent discount for 12-week climate change boot camp courses that normally cost around $1,499.

Apoorv Bhargava, chief executive of a climate artificial intelligence company WeaveGrid, said he’s noticed the difference. Normally, his company fields roughly 80 job applications a week. This week: 800, according to company statistics.

His firm, which uses artificial intelligence to help electric vehicles charge without overloading the power grid, raised $35 million on Tuesday and needs to double staff quickly.

Previously, he’d be cajoling the brightest software programmers and data scientists to forgo Big Tech salaries and stock options to work for his firm. But now, his inbox is filled with newly laid off people seeking him out for a job. “My LinkedIn’s a disaster,” he said.

Now that funding and staffing seem less of a problem, Bhargava feels more confident about rolling out his company’s products to more cities. He’s also brainstorming how to expand his business to corporate fleets such as Amazon’s delivery trucks, which requires analyzing large amounts of data.

“That’s going to be something that I think we’ll be able to do in a way that we just couldn’t have done if this kind of talent pool wasn’t excited about moving over into something like climate,” he said.

Eugene Kirpichov, a former Google software engineer who has spent over two years helping to build the Work on Climate nonprofit group, said the layoff-driven influx of talent could be the boon for the climate industry.

Many workers don’t realize that their skills easily transfer to climate companies, Kirpichov said. The misconception, he said, is that workers need a doctorate in climate-related studies, when all they really need are the skills they already have. They just need to use them to solve different problems, he said.

Evan Hynes, the co-founder and CEO of Climatebase, said the shift to climate technology partly reflects falling enthusiasm for Big Tech companies.

“A lot of people at the beginning of Tech 2.0 — like the Facebook days — had this feeling that you could really change the world for the better,” he said. “But as these companies got larger, it was more like being a cog in a big machine.”

Musk issues ultimatum to staff: Commit to ‘hardcore’ Twitter or take severance

Working in climate change isn’t just for scientists or engineers anymore, Hynes said. The top three types of job postings on Climatebase, historically, are business development and sales, communications and software engineering.

Quinn Hawkins, who was vice president of product management at real estate tech brokerage Redfin, says his unit shut down at the company this month. As a result, Hawkins, who also worked on new ventures at Microsoft, is on the hunt for a project management job, preferably in climate tech.

He said his interest stems from an experience last September when he visited a friend in the Sierras near Los Angeles.

“The air was just smoky,” he said. “There were signs hand-painted on plywood in front of farms that said, ‘Pray for rain’ or ‘God bless our firefighters.’ It was apocalyptic.”

After 10 years in the real estate industry, Hawkins hopes to spend the next decade helping with project management at a company trying to address the climate crisis and work toward a better future for his 8-year-old son.

“Even if everything I worked on didn’t work out,” he said, “I’d be really proud to tell him, ‘I’m sorry the planet it as messed up as it is, but your dad tried. He dedicated time and passion to make the world a little better for you.’ ”

Not everyone agrees on how helpful this glut of workers will be.

Jonathan Strauss, chief executive of Climate Draft, said that regardless of what climate firms are making, software is crucial. “They need software to develop that product, to bring it to market, to run it,” he said.

Cody Finke, chief executive of Brimstone, which makes decarbonized cement, disagrees. Companies that focus on hard science innovations, rather than purely software solutions, will make the larger dent, he said. Chemical engineers and metallurgists would be more valuable for his company than coders and product managers, he said. “Fundamentally, software can’t solve the climate problem,” he said. “You need the hard sciences.”

Some tech workers who already made the switch to the climate sector say it’s worth it. Yin Lu vividly remembers the day she decided to leave education tech and get into climate.

It was the summer of 2020, and the air in Northern California was so thick with wildfire smoke that it had turned orange. Her daughter wanted to play outside, so Lu fitted her with a respirator mask and they went to the park.

Watching her daughter play, “I just thought: What am I doing with my career?” she said. “I had this ‘come to Jesus’ moment where I thought, ‘I need to stop working on anything that isn’t climate.’ ”

Lu quit her job and started reading everything she could on climate change — looking for ways to leverage her background in growing early-stage start-ups. Now, she is a partner at My Climate Journey, a climate collective and venture firm.

“Now, knowing that I’m waking up every day and spending time doing work that will make my daughter’s [life] better — there’s no better antidote than that,” she said.

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