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Finding a job in climate as a front-end engineer

— 7 minute read

In October 2021, I left my job at Google to see if I could find a role in climate tech. When I left, I didn’t have a job lined up, nor did I know how to go about finding a job in climate, so I wanted to write this post to share what I learned along the way. I’m happy to say that I have since found a new role in the climate space (something I’ll write about soon) and hopefully the information below will help you do the same.

Do climate companies even need front-end engineers?

Right out of the gate I can say an emphatic yes—there are plenty of web dev roles available at climate tech companies. Also, you don't need to be a climate expert to apply. None of the places I spoke with assumed that I had any prior knowledge of their domain, but they were all really motivated to help me get up to speed. I learned a lot just in the application process and I imagine you will as well.

Unlike traditional tech companies, web (and mobile) are not always the centerpieces for climate tech companies. Many are focused on building new kinds of batteries/fuels/sensors/grids/etc. So when you're searching for roles you'll see a lot of IoT and low-level programming, plus cloud and big data. But there's absolutely demand for front-enders as well.

Where to find jobs

The best resource for job hunting is Climatebase. I cannot stress this enough: sign up for their newsletter. It comes out weekly and gives a brief rundown of what’s new in the world of climate and then lists all the new jobs and companies for that week. Here’s a sample from October.

Take the time to fill out a profile on Climatebase and each week they will email you roles that match your skills.

You can also go through the back catalog of the My Climate Journey podcast and look at the careers page for the companies being interviewed.

How to educate yourself

The Work on Climate group has some good resource starter packs. They also have a Slack that you can join to converse with like-minded folks. Personally, I didn’t use the Slack much, but I did find the starter pack reading material interesting.

I listen to a lot of podcasts and I found the Volts podcast/newsletter by David Roberts to be really helpful. Go through the archive and pick an assortment of episodes that seem interesting. Some are incredibly dry and wonkish (be forewarned) but others are really good explanations of topics that I only kind-of, sort-of understood. Here’s a great starter episode that’s all about methane.

Another podcast is How We Survive by Molly Wood. It’s a nine-part series that mostly focuses on lithium batteries, but it does a good job of talking about the social justice side of climate change, as well as the tech.

The most helpful book I read was The Ends of the World which is a fascinating retelling of all of the world’s mass extinction events and how all of them (yes, even the dinosaurs) were connected to the planet’s carbon cycle. Understanding how the carbon cycle works and what happens when there’s too much or too little CO2 is just really interesting.

What the employment landscape is like

Most of the companies are startups

I realized early on that I didn’t know any “climate companies”. It’s easy to name big tech companies, but there hasn’t been enough time or investment for climate companies to become household names. So most of the places I spoke to were in the range of tens of people, to maybe a couple hundred.

On the one hand, this is great. I got to speak directly to the founders of some companies and the engineering teams felt tight-knit and energized. Your work will almost certainly have a big impact on the organization and that can be really motivating.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of career and financial uncertainty when joining a startup. The base pay may be less than you currently make and equity will be much riskier/there will be less of it to go around.

I don't say these things to discourage you from working on climate—I personally think we all need to seriously consider making the career switch—but I understand that everyone is in a different situation with their financial responsibilities and it's important to know ahead of time what kinds of companies are out there and what the compensation will be like.

Carbon offsets are popular...for better or worse

A significant portion of the companies I looked at deal in carbon offsets, which are a fairly controversial topic. The idea with an offset is that a big company can pay someone else to capture CO2 (i.e. plant or protect a forest), and this then "offsets" the big company's own emissions. Companies that sell offsets are market makers, they find the projects that will offset emissions, and they package them up and sell them.

There are a number of problems with offsets, a few that I know of are:

  • It's unclear how they're regulated, or if they actually deliver the results they claim.
  • Planting a forest can take years to capture significatn CO2, but your emissions go into the air today.
  • The offset buyer doesn't have to change any of their behaviors.

That last point is a big deal, and one of the reasons why folks say offsets are "greenwashing". Right now a lot of companies are making announcements about offseting their emissions, but imagine if they couldn't buy offsets? Would they be pressured to actually operate more efficiently instead?

It's hard for me to answer these questions, but my gut tells me that offsets are not a good model so I tended to steer away from companies who make them their primary business.

React is king

I interviewed or had exploratory phone calls with six companies, and I’ve also read pretty much every Climatebase newsletter over the past four months. I can say with confidence that the two most in-demand front-end skills are React and TypeScript. Every company I interviewed with is using React, and pretty much every company on Climatebase lists it as a desired skill.

Most companies seem fine with you learning React on the job, especially if you have prior experience with similar frameworks (Vue, Angular, Svelte, Lit, etc).

I personally was not that experienced in React (I've mostly used Lit), but the beta React docs are really good and do great job of explaining newer concepts like Hooks. I highly recommend reading through these.

Most companies want senior full-stack (but don’t be discouraged!)

Because many of the companies are smaller startups, and likely don’t have enough engineers to specialize in front-end or back-end, most of the roles listed are for full-stack engineers, often listed as senior level.

This all makes sense but it can be discouraging. I’m pretty specialized in the front-end, and I shied away from applying to some roles because I wasn’t confident enough in my back-end skills. This doesn’t mean that you can’t find a front-end specific role—they’re certainly out there—but it just takes a bit more patience to find them. I guarantee you that they’re there—I managed to apply to several—there just aren’t as many as full-stack. It can be demotivating at times, but be persistent!

Wrapping up

One thing I didn't talk about yet is how I prepared for the coding interviews or what those were like. I'll write a follow-up post to cover that. But in the meantime, if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter. I'm more than happy to talk about this process if it helps other folks make the switch!

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