Twenty-five years ago today, I walked into Building 1 of the Microsoft Corporation’s wooded campus in Redmond, WA, and reported for work as a programming intern. I had a pretty good time that summer. What I remember most is wondering whether I should buy a bit of stock in the company—and then spending all my earnings on long-distance calls to my new girlfriend. In retrospect, MSFT would have been a fantastic investment; my girlfriend was an even better one. I also remember leaving the company with a desire to work toward purposes more significant for humanity than beating Borland. But I was unsure how I, a programmer and mathematician on the edge of adulthood, could serve such goals.
Twenty-five years later, I have many blessings to count, among them an extraordinary opportunity at the Center for Global Development to apply the skills that brought me to Microsoft in service of the sort of mission that drew me away. Next week, however, will be my last at the Center. No offense, but I’m pretty happy about saying goodbye, and for the best of reasons. After more than 11 years here, and nearly 20 in think tanks, I’m heading for something new. I will begin working for another major Seattle-based institution cofounded by Bill Gates. (Hint: there are only two.)
I started at CGD in March 2002, when this place was months old and the wound of 9/11 was raw. My first assignments were to spearhead the Commitment to Development Index and to assist Bill Easterly in reexamining an influential study suggesting that foreign aid could raise economic growth. Also in those early days I promised Nancy Birdsall I’d investigate the impacts of microfinance. All three projects set me on intellectual journeys that worked out in ways I did not foresee. In the aid-growth work, I fell into an unusual analytical stance: being a demanding consumer of econometric research, unwilling to believe (non-randomized) studies until I had rerun and scrutinized them on my computer. In the index project, I fused those mathematical and programming skills with a penchant for public pedagogy. In the microfinance project, I stumbled on an open style of inquiry, writing a book in public, through a blog.
It was the completion of that book and the outreach for it that brought me late last year to a sense of closure.
On July 15, I will jump to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where I will become a Senior Economic Advisor in a new unit called Policy Analysis and Finance. I’ll work in the foundation’s DC office. Unlike most parts of the foundation, the PAF unit’s main purpose is not to disburse funds against ambitious strategies, but to perform analysis. Its premise is that the foundation’s prominence makes it not just a funder, but also a partner and potential influencer of other institutions working on global health and development: bilateral donors, the World Bank, the government of Nigeria, and so on. Understanding what policy changes would be most realistic and constructive—exercising the influence intelligently—requires analysis from many perspectives: public health, economics, politics, history. Some of the unit’s work is done in-house and some is funded or commissioned.
I hope others have benefited from my labors at CGD. I know I have. It has been a privilege to work in an environment that prizes freedom and rigor and impact, and to do so with such bright, creative, funny, passionate colleagues. It has been a privilege to be given such room to grow. I owe that opportunity above all to Ed Scott and Nancy.
Last winter my dance group performed in a holiday show called Revels. It was essentially a musical: a sequence of gorgeous song and dance numbers picked from centuries of English folk and classical tradition and strung together with a thin plot. However superficial, the story moved me to tears. On a late December day in the 1920s, the ninth Duke of Rutland visits his ancestral manor. He intends to prepare it for demolition so that a motorway can be built. But the Duke discovers that every winter solstice, eight centuries’ worth of his ancestors reunite there for a party—to sing, to dance, to feast. On this night, the revelry recurs, and he and his wife and children are drawn in. Witnessing this cross-century family reunion, I realized that we all have our ghosts, our dead who are still with us at least in memory. And we are linked to them by living traditions. In this dramatic motif is a reminder of continuity over time. In it also is a reminder that each person’s tenancy on life is ephemeral. We pass through. The institutions we build and inhabit, being inanimate, can outlive us—that is, if our heirs care for them.
At 60 employees, CGD is small. But hundreds of people have passed through. It has come my turn to join them (at least for now!). I am proud to have contributed to the culture and traditions that define CGD. I’m sure they will outlast me and thrive.
Roodman, a man of many talents, performs at CGD 10th anniversary celebration, at the British embassy in Washington DC.