Tag Archives: career

Accidental Technology

This article was originally published on the Idealware Blog in February of 2011.

There’s been a ton of talk over at the NTEN Blog this month about Accidental Techies.  I had a few thoughts on the phenomenon.

If you don’t know, Accidental Techie is an endearing and/or self effacing term for someone who signed up for a clerical, administrative or other general purpose position and wound up doing technical work.  Many full-blown techies start their careers accidentally like this.

The NTEN discussion has wonderfully run the gamut.  Robert Weiner, a well-known NPTech consultant, started things rolling with “Going From Accidental Techie To Technology Leader“, a piece that wonderfully explores the gaps between those who do the tech because nobody else is and those who have the seat at the planning table, providing good advice on how you get to that table.

David Geilhufe then jumped in from an entirely different perspective with “Professionalism in Nonprofit Technology: Should My Techies be Accidental?” — that of a software grant provider who has seen how difficult it is to deal with organizations that don’t have seasoned technology practitioners in place. While his piece wasn’t a screed against accidental techies (ATs), it threw a bit of cold water on any org that thinks that technology can be successful without professional input and planning.

Fellow Idealware blogger and nptech consultant Johanna Bates posted “A Rant About Accidental Techies“. Her post, based in part on her own AT origins,  is full of insight on how the ‘accidental” appellation can be a crutch, She also shines light on the sexual politics of accidental techieism (reflected, unsurprisingly, in NTEN’s bloggers, two of whom are male, non-ATs, and two are female former ATs).

And Judi Sohn wrote “An Ode To The Accidental Techie“, reflecting on her experience as one (as well as VP of her org!) and reflecting on the attributes that make Accidental Techies great.

I am not, and never was an Accidental Techie, although my career path was very similar.  I started doing tech work in a small law firm where my title was “Mailroom Supervisor” and my duties included everything from database maintenance to filing to reception. We had a part-time tech who had installed a five node, token-ring IBM LAN that the legal secretaries, one attorney and I shared. When he quit, I was offered the Network Admin promotion and  a hefty pay raise.  The difference here is that, like a lot of ATs, I was in a clerical position and I had an aptitude for technology.  But, unlike an AT — and this is my big point — I worked for people that anticipated the needs for technology management and support.

There is nothing wrong with Accidental Techies; quite the contrary: they tend to be people who are sharp, versatille, sensitive both to organizational needs and the opportunities to create organizational efficiencies.  Most of all, they’re generous with their knowledge and time. But there’s something wrong if the technical work they do is unheralded and unpaid.  It’s wrong if it isn’t in their title and job descriptions.  The circumstances that create accidental techies, instead of promoting people with those traits to tech positions, are routinely those where management doesn’t have a clue as to how dependent on technology they actually are, or what resources they need to support it.

And you can bet that, in a business environment that creates the conditions for Accidental Techies to flourish, there’s no technology plan.  There’s no CIO, IT Director, or person who sits on the planning  and budget committee whose job is to properly fund and deploy computer and software systems. They’re winging it with infrastructure that can make or break an organization.  And they’re extremely lucky to have proactive people on staff who do see the gap and are breaking their backs to fill it.

So the NTEN blog quartet is required reading for anyone who even suspects that they might be an Accidental Techie. Read Johanna’s first, because she cuts to some core assessments about who you are and why you might be in this role.  Read David’s next, because it’s harsh but true, and it illustrates well the dangers that your org is facing if they don’t have proper IT oversight baked into their system.  Read Judy’s third, because she’ll remind you that, despite the last two reads, it’s still cool — and you’re cool for being someone with heart and talent.  And read Robert’s last, because he’ll tell you how to get from where you are to where you and your organization should be.

Meet The Idealware Bloggers Part 3: Peter Campbell

This interview was conducted by Heather Gardner-Madras and originally published on the Idealware Blog in May of 2009.

The third interview of the series is with Peter Campbell and I had a good time putting a face with the twitter conversations we’ve been having in the past year, as well as finding out more about how he came to write for the Idealware blog.

Peter Campbell

On Connecting Nonprofits & Technology
Peter’s decision to combine technology with nonprofit work was very deliberate. Well into a career as an IT director for a law firm in San Francisco he had something of an epiphany and wanted to do something more meaningful in the social services sector. It took him 9 months to find just the right job and he landed at Goodwill. In both positions he was able to take advantage of good timing and having the right executive situations to create his own vision and really bring effective change to the organizations. At Goodwill Industries, Peter developed retail management software and introduced e-commerce. Now with Earth Justice, he is also sharing his experience with the broader community.

On Blogging
Although Peter always wanted to incorporate writing as a part of his work and wrote a good bit, the advent of blogs didn’t provide a lot of motivation for him because he wanted to be sure to have something worthwhile to say. A firm believer in blogging about what you know, he was intrigued by the opportunity to blog at Idealware since the topics and style were aligned with his knowledge and experience. So while the previous 3 years of blogging had only yielded about 50 entries, this was an opportunity to get on a roll, and if you have been following this blog you know that it has really paid off and provided a lot of great resources already.

The Magic Wand Question
One of the questions I asked in each interview was this: If you had a magic wand that could transform one aspect of nonprofit technology in an instant, what would it be and why?

Peter’s answer is simple and echoes a common thread in responses to this question: Change the way nonprofit management understands technology – help them realize the value it offers, the resources needed to get the most out of it, and how to use it.

The Next 5 Years
In response to a question about what he finds to be the most exciting trend in nonprofit technology in the next five years Peter felt there are many of things to be excited about right now.

He feels that transformations in technology are cropping up quickly and nonprofits have a real opportunity to be at the forefront of these changes. The data revolution and rise of cloud computing will liberate nonprofits and turn the things we struggle with now into an affordable solution. Virtualization, as well, will provide new freedom and efficiency. According to Peter, these trends will work together to change the way we manage and invest in technology. In his words – right now its still geeky and complex, but it will get easier.

Personal snapshots
First thing you launch on your computer when you boot/in the morning?
Twitter client, then FireFox with Gmail and Google Reader and 2 blogs open in tabs.

Is there a tech term or acronym that makes you giggle and why?
Not really, but there are some that infuriate me. I am a fan of BPM (Business Process Management) because it describes what you should do – manage your processes and realize that tech is the structure to do it with, not the brain.

Favorite non-technology related thing or best non-techy skill?
Besides technology, I hope my best skill is my writing.

Which do you want first – Replicator, holodeck, transporter or warp drive?
Transporter is the great one, but I don’t want to be the beta tester.

See previous posts to learn more about Steve Backman and Laura Quinn.


About the new job

So, I think it’s safe to let everyone know that I start a new gig as IT Director at Earthjustice this month. For those of you who don’t know, Earthjustice is a law firm dedicated to protecting natural resources and the environment. Originally founded as the legal arm of the Sierra Club, they now do advocacy and litigation in defense of the planet. They are an international firm with the awesome tagline “because the earth needs a good lawyer”. My role there is a strategic one — in addition to managing the IT Department, I’ll be looking at ways that we can decentralize the technology platform so it can better support the global operation. This is a challenge that I know I’ll enjoy, and bring a good perspective to.

It’s funny how many connections I had to this organization prior. First, the Communications Director there is a dear friend of mine who used to work for me at Goodwill. When they asked for my references, I had to explain that she had been on the list for years. Second, the consultant they were working with is a friend of mine through NTEN, and he had actually introduced me to my predecessor there last year, who gave me a heads up about the job.

But the connections are even deeper. My first “real” job (discarding the ten years I spent working in restaurants and playing in bands in Boston in the late seventies/early eighties) was with a small law firm in SF that had spun off from a larger firm called Lillick & Charles. My second job, where I was first promoted to the IT Director role, was with Lillick & Charles (since merged with giant firm Nixon Peabody). I took a very intentional detour after that out of the for-profit world and to Goodwill. Earthjustice, oddly enough, was founded by a couple of Partners from Lillick & Charles. So it’s a small world I work in.

What happened?

Well, work happened, and I have to admit that I am not the driven blogger who can maintain a steady flow of posts while working full-time. I’ve been doing a consulting/contracting gig in San Jose that not only keeps me busy, but takes huge chunks out of my day for the commute, so my attention to Techcafeteria has suffered unduly. I’ll be wrapping up the work in San Jose and transitioning to a new, full-time position over the next month or two, returning to the ranks of Non-Profit IT Directors that I didn’t imagine I’d stay out of for long. More on that position later – I’ve been asked to keep it under wraps for a week or so.

So I’ll be closing the consulting services section of Techcafeteria, but I’ll be keeping the website going as time affords. It’s been an interesting year for me, so far. From 1986 until 2007, I held three jobs. I stayed at each one for at least six years, and I secured the next one before leaving the prior. I haven’t been unemployed (aka self-employed) for over two decades. But I have a bit of a self-imposed challenge – I want a job with deep business and technology challenges, at an organization with a worthwhile mission, at a pay scale that, while not extravagant, is enough to support my family living in the Bay Area, where my partner spends most of her time homeschooling our son. Those opportunities aren’t a dime a dozen. I reached a point early in the year where I was downright desperate to leave the job that I was at (a long story that I have no intention of relating here!), and applied at some for-profit companies. I think I sabotaged myself in the interviews, because it eventually became clear to me that having day to day work that combats social or environmental injustice is a personal requirement of mine. My partner supports this — she was proud to tell people that I worked for Goodwill and she’s even more excited about my new gig, which sports a killer tagline. So setting up the consulting practice was — and probably will be again — a means of staying solvent while I was very picky about what I applied for.

One job that I pursued was with an org called the Pachamama Alliance. They are a fascinating group of people. Their story is that the indigenous people of Ecuador put out a call for help to the Western World as they saw the earth and their culture being destroyed by the clearing of the rainforests. The group forming Pachamama answered that call, and their mission is to “change the dream of the western world” into one that is in harmony with nature, as opposed to dominance and disrespect of it. They maintain that environmental injustice and social injustice are tied at the knees – where you find one, you’ll find the other. For those of you who saw Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, you’ll recall the fact that the main water source for the Sudan dried up a few years ago. That bit of trivia puts the subsequent genocide in Darfur in an interesting perspective. Pachamama has adopted Gore’s tactics with a multimedia presentation that both educates and inspires people to adopt a more sustainable dream. It’s a timely movement, as it’s becoming clear to all of us that our current rate of consumption of natural resources is having dramatic impacts on the environment. Pachamama spreads the word by training volunteers to share the presentation. Well worth checking out.

In other news, I’m hard at work on an article for Idealware that attempts to deflate all of this big talk about APIs and put it in terms that anyone can use to understand why they might want to migrate data and how they might do it. I’m also talking with my friends at NTEN about doing a webinar on the best practices for rolling out CRM at a non-profit. As long-time blog readers have probably picked up, I consider Constituent Relationship Management software to be the type of technology that, deployed correctly, completely alters the way a business is run. It’s not just about maintaining business relationships and tracking donors – it’s about working collaboratively and breaking down the silos of business relationships and data. So installing the software (if software even needs to be installed) is the least of it, and data migration is just a chore. But aligning business strategy to CRM technology is the real challenge.

So, I’ll post next week about my new gig, and look forward to a long life for Techcafeteria as a resource on non-profit technology, with less of the hawking of services.

Why I won an Anonymous Blogger award at NTC

I’m just back from NTEN‘s wonderful annual conference, which was in DC this year. This is my third year attending, and my first in my brand new career as a technology consultant. You can check out that gig at my new domain, Techcafeteria.com. Right off the bat, at the Member’s reception, I was the proud recipient of an “NTENNIE”, which is awarded to those of us who are big NTEN supporters. It’s a pretty congenial and humorous honor – recipients receive a headset of antennae to wear, and my seven-year old boy was thrilled to appropriate that on my return.

I was somewhat surprized by the category I won in – “people most likely to be blogging anonymously”. I asked Holly which anonymous blog they suspected I was the author of, and she didn’t have one – they just thought that it roundly described me. So, what I take away from that is that people recognize that I have a lot of opinions and I’m not shy about jotting them down on public forums. But, clearly, my lack of attention to this blog has made it completely invisible.

Now, my last day, after six and a half years, as the lead technologist at SF Goodwill was Friday, March 30th. And the conference ran April 4th through 6th. The timing was great – I made a lot of good connections, and walked away with some serious referrals and opportunities to ply my new trade. It was really different attending the sessions, though, not as a representative of a large non-profit, but as an independent consultant, more interested in selling my services than buying others. I think I have a lot of chops that I can offer quality consulting with, and I’ve been picturing the work and looking forward to that. But the actual consulting is only half the job. The other half is business development, and that’s a bit of a stretch for me. At the conference, I conferred with a lot of other IT consultants and really started to work through what this career change means. It’s clear that I have to do what I pretty much did at the conference, and become a salesman. When all is said and done, it’s about paying off the mortgage and feeding the kid. But it’s also clear to me that the best way to sell my services is to be an active member and healthy contributor to the non-profit tech community, something which I’ve been unable to do successfully while working those 80 hour weeks at Goodwill. So I can’t afford to be an anonymous blogger. Heppy lend is going to pick up steam, and it will be republished at Techcafeteria, which I plan to build into a large resource and home for advocacy of sound technology practices at non-profits. The big issues, today?

  • Data standards, data management, data planning. This was my theme at NTC, where I led a session on “Managing Technology 2.0” and participated in the live version of the Open API Debate.
  • Breaking the myth that technology funding is overhead that drains mission-effectiveness. This is a battle-cry that needs to be brought to the technology-averse funders and CEOs who don’t understand that not investing in a technology strategy is equivalent to organizational suicide.
  • Deployment planning and strategies. Orgs need to have a sustainable approach to technology purchasing, development and implementation that factors in how they will keep it running, not just how much it will cost to get it installed. My second bullet is meaningless if there aren’t effective strategies for using the technology that’s deployed.

Overall, I’ve just stepped out of a 21 year career as a technology startegist and implementer, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way (I’d say “hard lessons”, but, the truth is, I’ve managed to avoid a lot of fiascos in my career!). There’s a lot more to technology deployment than just buying the server and training the staff. If technology isn’t tightly aligned to organizational strategy, objectives, and business processes, it’s a sinkhole – you might as well stick with the typewriters. So look for this to be the meat of this blog and the message of Techcafeteria.com for the near future.

Looking for a nptech job?

Okay, I’m using my blog to blatantly advertise, but, hey, it’s for open jobs in my department, so I think it’s kosher…

I have two positions open at SF Goodwill in the IT Department that I manage there. I always prefer finding people who are motivated by our mission, and SF Goodwill is a particularly exciting place to be right now under the leadership of Deborah Alvarez-Rodriguez. With a dramatic change in management and a new focus on distributed leadership, Goodwill is now a place that considers technology a key enabler, and our recent budget approved a number of strategies that I think are particularly compelling.

Goodwill supports its mission of bringing people with barriers to employment into the workforce, and we do it by providing counseling, training, jobs and other forms of support to people coming out of poverty, drug habits, homelessness, the criminal system and other disabling conditions. We are a social enterprise, running businesses in order to support our services, and we are best known for our retail thrift operations. We are non-secular, unlike some well-known competitors, and, in addition to our goals of overcoming poverty and building communities so that every person who wishes to work, can work, we actively support the environment by running green operations, recycling computers and other goods, and actively promoting landfill diversion activities.

The two positions are a Database/Web Developer (System Integrator) and a Retail Technology Support Analyst. The first position is new; the second currently vacant.

On the retail side, we are looking at how we can better understand and market to our customers and donors, as well as how we can continue to automate our supply chain. Handling truckloads of donated goods daily is a laborious process, and we want to maximize efficiency while creating a healthy environment for our staff and clients, that will provide them with retail skills applicable beyond Goodwill. The main focus of the job is Point of Sale (POS)/Inventory Management, POS support and training, and retail project management.

You can read about the job and apply for it here

The new position might be particularly interesting to people excited by the nptech project. Goodwill, like most organizations, is run on a cluster of databases. We are committed to (where necessary) migrating our databases to client/server systems and building the links and data warehouses that will allow for high-level dashboards and work flow automation. We are also looking at our web sites (internal and external) and strategizing on how to move them to “Web 2.0” – the social web that is emerging. This job requires solid SQL skills, XML, and server-side scripting. Most of our existing web infrastructure is LAMP-based: Linux servers running Apache, MySQL and PHP. We see RSS as a core element of our web-publishing strategy. If this sounds broad, it’s because I don’t separate internal databases from external web sites – it’s all about managing information and communicating, so we take a holistic approach. We do have a web designer on staff — we’re looking for a programmer who knows SQL, PHP (or something equivalent — we won’t throw out Ruby or Python skills), XML and RSS, xHTML. Design talent is a plus, not a requirement.

You can scan this job description and apply here

Okay, so, yes, we are a non-profit. The pay is on the lower side of market, not the higher. The perks in this job are the environment (friendly, diverse, collaborative, exciting) and the mission (the end result of your work directly improves the community and people’s lives).

If either of these jobs are in your area and sound intriguing, go ahead and apply!