Additionality, impact, software

Nov 25, 2022

A lot of people care about the impact of their work. When they say this, what they mean is that they want their work to have positive consequences for the world.

I would argue that there’s a much more important way your work can be impactful: it can be “additional”. Additionality is the effect of your work versus the baseline. If you weren’t there, what would have happened differently?

One common piece of career advice is: “If you’re early on in your career, join a rocketship.” This might be good career advice, but it might not be good advice for impact. By definition, a rocketship is a company that is on a good trajectory. Did the fact that you joined really change the outcome, or would it have played out similarly without you there?

Better advice for additionality would be something like: “Join an effort that will probably fail, but would be incredibly important if it worked.” That’s good additionality advice, but it might be bad career advice!

My mental model of impact

My mental model of impact looks something like:

Impact = (Positivity of consequences) X (Additionality)

Additionality is a sliding scale, which is what makes this equation work. Weak additionality means that you mattered a little, strong additionality means that you mattered a lot.

Pioneers are usually highly additional because they changed the way things were done or thought about. The person who is alive today with the highest additionality to their work is likely Elon Musk. Any reasonable person would agree that two entire fields (aerospace and EVs) would look fundamentally different or not exist at all without his direct effects on them.

Is your work truly additional?

Additionality of your work is a tough thing to discuss, because it involves counterfactuals. What would have happened if you weren’t there? We’ll never really know. In an organization, you can be creating motion and improving things… but did it really matter? If you didn’t join, would that have really changed the outcome, or would your spot have just been filled by someone else?

Your additionality doesn’t have to be perfect during your whole career. It’s clearly worth putting yourself in situations where you simply enjoy the work you’re doing, or you’re learning or gathering resources. Doing that sort of stuff will also help you get into positions where you can be additional.

But I think additionality is a hard criteria to meet, and most work does not satisfy it! For example, I was employee #5 at a company that is now worth $900M. I felt like I did great work at that company and certain things would have been quite different without me there. But if I’m truly honest with myself, I don’t think my work meaningfully changed the outcome. There was a ton of positive momentum around the company, and maybe I changed the trajectory slightly, but I was not existential there.

Footnote: Additionality of different fields and “pure software”

Additionality probably exists in every field, but some fields are more “fertile” to additionality than others.

Usually, fast-growing and immature fields foster more additionality. When a field is mature, systems are built to capture value and opportunities get more eyes on them. Mature fields trend towards efficiency, and systems are built that actualize ideas when they make sense.

My claim is this: software is becoming a less fertile ground for additionality as a result of its maturity. A few years ago, I read the blog post “When Tailwinds Vanish” by John Luttig. The post is a good exploration of what a maturing software industry means. Here are some extensions of this theme:

  1. Software is trending towards an efficient market

In software, when ideas make sense, they tend to get built. Often, trends in software are identified a year before the businesses are actually built.

  1. The vast majority of software work is not additional

Things are more becoming more zero-sum. Most software businesses that grow very large have 1-5 competitiors trying to do very similar things. Additionality of work done in intense competition is likely to be low.

It’s tough to tell if the sector would have existed without the first mover. But damn, it is demotivating to spend several years in intense competition if your goal is additionality. You’re fighting to be the winner, which is satisfying in it’s own way, but I don’t think it’s impactful.

  1. The highest additionality work is not within pure software anymore

If I could go back in time and advise my 16 year old self, I’d tell myself to build stuff with my hands. I’d tell myself to study mechanical engineering or synthetic biology.

John Lutting agrees. The line that I find most interesting in the whole blog post is buried at the very end:

Founders may seize this moment to build new tools to better understand operational investments, create the financial layer of the Internet, or look beyond the Internet to build new platforms in biotech or energy.

For 20 years, software was incredibly fertile group for highly-additional work. It is no longer the case, but the perception remains for our youth. I didn’t get into software for the money, I got into it for the impact. But software is not the place to find high impact anymore.

There are clearly places to work in software that are high additionality. If you’re working on generative ML or building software applications for developing markets, it’s quite likely you can find work with high additionality. However, that’s not the vast majority of software applications, which end up being relatively low additionality under intense competition.