How do I start a programming career in the West?

I was expecting great things when I graduated from high school. I scored 35 on the ACT, was messing around with crypto, and fully expected to drop out of college to start a business. Things were looking up.

Instead, due to a combination of depression and procrastination, I ended up spending the next 8 years drifting in and out of college before I finally got my undergraduate degree. I wish I was out partying during this time since that would at least give me some good memories, but I honestly just stayed inside and played video games all day. Not my proudest decade.

But eventually, I pulled myself together and graduated. I’ve been employed as a bioinformatics engineer in China for the past 2 years, and have been steadily improving my life. I’m contributing to group discussions, pointing out major problems with research plans, and picking up programming and data management skills. Instead of putting in minimal effort, I’m spending most of my workday coding or researching, an incredible improvement over my productivity in college. I feel like a highly valued member of my team. I’ve published papers, helped design gene panels for cancer treatment, and sifted through papers for new research avenues for my team to pursue.

And then I remembered that I was making what would be considered minimum wage in the US. I know I can do better. I also don’t want the possibility of a multi-month lockdown starting at any time to hang over my head. I have a passion for AI and want to pursue a career in programming/​data science in the West. Since many of you are involved in these fields, do you have any recommendations? I see 3 paths forward:

  1. Continue working for a few years. Pile up papers written, find character references, and acquire more job skills. My problem is that I don’t think our prediction models are going to go beyond logarithmic regression, and I’m feeling increasingly stuck. I suppose this is my default path.

  2. Try to participate in a really impressive side project, and use that as a jump-off point to get into an AI alignment/​capabilities company. The problem is that my personal passions might not match up with what such companies are looking for. I’m currently idea-boarding a cheap (<$20) laser-guidance package for quad-rotor-dropped grenades, but I think war is low-status in Western tech companies and this might actually hurt my chances. Maybe I should write an R package for automated primer design and put it on Github? It was a major pain in the ass to get the existing program in C working. I’m open to offers for collaboration.

  3. Just apply to something immediately. The problem is that I don’t have anything to really impress my employers. I’m not the first author in any of my papers, and the one I’m proud to be associated with only lists me as an editor. I have a pretty good knowledge of cancer genomics, and have neat stories, like the time I helped improve a gene panel by pointing out that having an entirely age <30 control group would cause a lot of false positives from common benign age-related mutations. But they’re just stories, not things that are legible to employers. Most of my code is <100 lines of using mutation data to make plots for ppts with ggplot. I did do most of the data analysis/​graphics for a paper analyzing a subsection of TCGA data, but how do I even explain that to someone not working in the field? “I found that these genes correlated with X in patients with Y. I also made a plot of the same” sounds… not very impressive? I wanted to apply to this job offering from Conjecture, but then realized they were pretty far out of my league. On my resume, I’m just a guy with a bachelor’s in biology.

  4. Transfer to a machine learning job in China. I was going to do this until the US chip ban. I don’t think this is viable anymore.

  5. Edit: I forgot to include getting a Master’s degree overseas. I only had a ~2.0 GPA, so it’s an uphill battle. I think that means I need to talk to professors directly, which I am currently trying.