Trading Off, but Not Selling Out

How a physicist by training became the CTO of a social enterprise.

by Hunter Elliott, December 5, 2017
Adam Roe - Kiron

Start-up employees are sometimes as adventurous as the products their companies sell. To find out what motivates them, we picked the brain of Adam Roe, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Kiron Open Higher Education, a trailblazing, Berlin-based start-up that has been using tech to help refugees around the world pursue higher education since 2015. Adam’s story shows us that having the courage to deviate from the career path laid out for us often promises the most satisfaction, even if it means we have to eschew a few creature comforts along the way.

Vicky: You’ve had a very interesting career path! You’re from the US originally, became a research physicist and then ended up working as a freelance photographer in Berlin. Could you tell us more about how you ended up working at Kiron?

Adam: In the summer of 2015, when refugees were coming to Germany in waves, I saw an article in the newspaper Die Zeit about Kiron. I sent them an email to ask if I could volunteer there, thinking that it would be a bit more useful than just running around Moabit in Berlin, handing out sandwiches and finding places for refugees to stay. I had all these degrees in physics that I wasn’t using. My initial goal was to volunteer for one hour a week, perhaps teaching refugees around Germany and the world about physics and math, similar to what we are doing now via our Direct Academics program. I ended up coding and building a few websites until Kiron’s founders, Vincent and Markus, realised I also had people skills, and offered me the chance to lead the Tech Team.

Vicky: With a background in physics, you could have pursued many other and better paid career paths, for example in the private sector. You also worked at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland. When you were still studying and writing your PhD, did you ever imagine yourself working in an NGO or a tech start-up?

Adam: My background as a physicist is actually not that far removed from the NGO world. While technically not an NGO, CERN is an international organization funded by governments in the same way as the United Nations. I was always interested in doing something that was good for people and humanity, even if it wasn’t in the best paid job. Even when I was 19, I was getting blind offers of US$50 an hour to work for defense contractors, as long as I didn’t ask any questions. I always chose the more social path, however. Lots of people from all over the world with vague leadership responsibilities are trying to make the world a better place, so for me, the idea of working at a non-profit comes very naturally. I have also done this kind of thing before — from soup kitchens back in New York to various random projects — so it’s not a surprise to end up at an NGO.

Vicky: Quite often, people say that members of our generation are much more concerned with personal fulfilment and “making an impact” in their careers, in comparison to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Would you say that you need different skills to work in an NGO or social start-up, compared to those required in a corporate environment?

Adam: The motivation to work in a non-profit environment has to be more intrinsic. My impression of corporate work, based on my friends’ experiences, as well as my own, is that for most people, it’s just a job. Of course, this doesn’t apply to the people who created the company and run it. They really live the experience and love it. Most people, especially in our generation, don’t have that much loyalty to what they do or to the company they work for. The only really extrinsic motivating factor for me to work at Kiron is that when I talk about my work, everyone thinks it sounds amazing! The downside is that I don’t get a lot of the things that you get in the corporate sector like your own office and electric desks or actually leaving your work tasks at work and vacations where I’m finally left in peace (laughs).

Vicky: Kiron is still a young organisation where processes need to be set in place that give the organisation more structure. You have stayed at Kiron since the beginning, despite the absence of the benefits you get in bigger corporations. What is your motivation?

Adam: There are a lot of trade-offs in life that you have to be ready to accept. Intrinsic motivation and passion are so much more important in our field. We might miss out on a few comforts here and there, but not everyone needs these. Above all else, I feel a strong responsibility towards our students. Despite the chaos that you would get in any startup, our focus is on what we can do for our students, and for the world more generally.

Vicky: Working at Kiron gives you the chance to do something personally fulfilling that also gives back to the global community. What values or qualities would be most important to you, if you were looking for a new job?

Adam: I’d be interested in the team and how its members communicate with each other. When we look at Kiron, for instance, we have a number of great individuals with strong characters here. I think any one person here probably can do an amazing job, but if you put us all together, we might end up fighting! Constructive communication is key and it takes a lot of teamwork to change anything in the world. What is also important to me is the team’s shared vision. People must believe in the same thing. At Kiron, that means that everyone must share a commitment to serving our students. That would be important to me, especially in a social organization.

Vicky: As the CTO, how do you keep your own team motivated to stay at Kiron? There is a high demand for techies these days. They could be tempted to pursue other opportunities.

Adam: I buy them beer. Just kidding! (laughs) Our techies are also human beings. Like me, they’re here to support our students. Many of the people in my field are attracted by very high salaries, but have very little loyalty to their companies. I see CVs all the time in which people change jobs once a year. Part of that is about money and part of that is also about solving problems. Engineers, in general, are really creative and intelligent, so they are motivated by interesting problems that they can solve. They get bored very easily. It is really important that their work is intellectually challenging and also brings us forward. Generally, it is much more about that than about salary. A bored engineer will start doing all kind of technically creative things that have no value to our students, or for the end user, but are fun engineering games.

Vicky: What advice would you give to individuals coming from an academic background who are looking to join the non-profit sector? Do they need to have studied certain courses, for example?

Adam: Do it! I value people who have changed fields and backgrounds quite a bit. To me, it means that they are more well-rounded - maybe a bit fidgety, but they certainly are more interested in their work. I don’t want to work with someone who is so narrowly focused that he only can do one thing and has done that for 20 years. Don’t be afraid to change fields.

The whole start-up world is a great way to do it, because there you find young people with great ideas who want to do interesting work. If we are talking about switching to the non-profit world, it is often quite the same. Sometimes your studies don’t really relate to the job you end up in. Is a degree in political science any more related to non-profit work than a degree in physics? Maybe, maybe not. Being a physicist, there were ways I was perfectly qualified for this job and other ways in which I absolutely wasn’t. For most jobs, you’re not completely qualified, unless you’ve done the exactly same kind of work already.

Work is really about learning by doing. If you already have 80% of the skill set included in a job description, don’t worry. You can learn the rest on the job.