Keep Your Quirks – Uniqueness Assists the NonProfit Technology

“Insist on yourself; never imitate… Every great man is unique” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you work for a nonprofit, you probably have a reason why. I don’t believe that those of us who decide to work in nonprofits do it for the money. There is something else behind that drive to assist others, be passionate for the mission, and to change the lives of others. Theoretically speaking, you could find all of those things in a for-profit also. Yet, in my experience, I have found that some of the most unique people work in nonprofits. That may be way there was such a rise in ‘accidental techies’ in nonprofits years ago.

There is also probably a reason why you became the accidental techie. I knew how to install a CD. For others it could be that they learned how to backup the accounting software so they learned how to backup computers. For someone who was doing media relations, as they started to work on websites, they were seen as being more technical in nature.  It’s the one (or two, three, four…) things that made you who you were. If you are working on transitioning from accidental to purposeful, that doesn’t mean that you should lose those unique things that are you – those quirks.

Yet there is a delicate balance because if you are making a transition away from being accidental, you have to realize that you can’t do it all. It was so rough for me. I loved handling all things creative. I loved self-learning Quark because that meant I had a hand in the newsletter. Learn HTML on the fly? Sure – I’ll do that too. How do you keep the costs down in implementing a VOIP phone system? I’d learn how to do all the adds, moves, changes, hold music, and all other phone related things. At a certain point, I had to learn to let go of some of the things that I loved to do.

I have kept my hand in the pot though. I equate it to the ‘fun’ component of my job. Sometimes I do need to back away from the disaster recovery meetings, designing new SharePoint Portal, and implementing databases to get my hands dirty in a brochure or to help out with a video. It gives my mind that break from things that it still isn’t quite use to doing all the time.

So, my suggestion, is that you try to keep something that is uniquely you, and you hold onto it. It is the foundation that you built when you started your career and it is probably the one or more things that actually got you pointed into nonprofit technology. It is perhaps the one thing that made you the accidental techie to start with – and while I advocate moving away from that status – you also have to always pay homage to those roots.

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Relations with a Vendor

While I was just starting out in technology, I did not realize how important my technology vendors were going to be to my personal success along with the success of implementing technology. It took me a long time also to realize that my technology vendors were not just the service provider we were aligned with, but also had to include the company that did the wiring/cabling, phone company/broker, cell phone company/broker, training schools, database developers and the numerous companies who provided us software.

Most things with building the relationship with the vendor have little to do with technology and much more about communication. The accidental techie can also face the challenge of being concerned that the vendor knows much more than they do and may find it personally challenging to believe that their voice can be heard.

I will give you my story on this one. I had worked with one support company for a couple of years and it did not go so well. Ultimately, my boss and our board committee decided it was time to part ways with that support company. I went about 18 months with no support company other than a board volunteer. I knew that he respected my knowledge and I never felt like I didn’t know enough. However, when it was time to get a support company again, it scared me. In fact, one of the first people I met from the new company scared me. I was sure that he knew that I knew nothing (and back then, I didn’t know as much as I do now). I would quake in my shoes and would feel sick whenever having to deal with him. He was very knowledgeable and was full of ideas that helped us immensely.

Overtime, I worked with other staff from this support company. In fact, they are still our selected vendor of choice. I grew in my knowledge and my confidence in my knowledge. I hadn’t worked with this man for a long time until recently again. I looked at him and realized that I wasn’t scared of him any longer and that he did respect what I did. I think it was funny when he looked at me and said, “You aren’t scared of me any longer.” Since then, the joke is that I have him on his toes because I ask lots more questions than I ever did and I will not back down to just accept his answers.

My point in sharing this almost embarrassing story from my past is that I am sure that other accidental techies have probably felt this way in front of vendors. Vendors are to be the experts and you are accidentally in technology. It’s easier to worry about managing the money and contracts with the vendor than it is to want to handle the conversations with technology. It can be very easy to believe that the vendor knows what is right and it may cause you doubt in yourself.

I have some suggestions:

  • There is no such thing as a dumb question – If you are going to build a relationship with a vendor that is going to be strong and good for your agency, you have to feel comfortable asking the questions. The right vendor is going to answer all of the questions for you.
  • Share with your vendor – It is important to let your vendors know more about your agency/organization than just what your technology needs are. They need to know who you serve and how you do your job. One of my commitments when meeting a possible new vendor is to be direct with them and admit we anticipate that our vendors will support our agency in return. Get that kind of committment out there in the open and you may be able to even get a fiscal supporter out of your vendor.
  • Learn who is who at the vendor – I have a small secret – sometimes people will help me outside of ‘work’ to help me get things done. It’s not a contracted relationship and it is a very slippery slope that can get someone into trouble counting on their work regulations. But if you can build a friendship with someone who may be able to give you a quick answer to something or help move a rack in the server room, I couldn’t say that I haven’t done that.  But watch out – the sales representative is not going to go for this. Get to know the roles of the people you interact with before trying anything on the side.
  • Research – The internet is a wealth of information, and I’ll probably share some of those in further posts on this topic. New ideas on how to manage vendor relationships are always out there – so take some time every year to just do a general search on Google and read anything of interest.
  • Stay in touch – even with the big vendors – When I say “big vendors”, I mean those representatives from companies like Cisco, Microsoft, Citrix, and any other large vendors. It helps out for me to touch base with my representatives about once a year. Sometimes this will just be a sales pitch for something that you aren’t ready for, but other times, you really learn some new product that will help you out immensely.

So, work on your vendor relationships and know that it is time well worth it in the long run.

Finding Allies

Do you remember the song “A Little Help From My Friends” by the Beatles? I remember it so clearly as it was one of my father’s favorite songs. I remember in elementary school having the chorus teacher tape a bunch of my friends and myself singing it as a birthday gift for my father. It really is a great song with a great message – you need a little help from your friends.

Your allies are your friends. On Wikipedia, allies is defined as: people, groups, or nations that have joined together in an association for mutual benefit or to achieve some common purpose, whether or not explicit agreement has been worked out between them.

It is so true because at first I didn’t know about the term accidental techie. If you are reading this blog, it is probably because you have some sort of relationship with me or you have contact with one of my allies that has recommended me. It is a prime example of allies at work.

When trying to transition from the accidental techie to the purposeful techie, I rank allies as being just as important as having advocates. This is your emotional support group, others in the trenches just like you, and people who just get “it”. You know that you can vent, rant, complain, cry, and celebrate with them – and that it’s ok to do that. You may have never crossed paths with these allies if it wasn’t for the fact that all of you are/were accidental techies.

I was lucky. I didn’t have to try hard to find my first set of allies. The Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University did the work for me. They created a group that now are my Bagels and Bytes friends. At first I wasn’t sure if I felt that good in the group. I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay with working in technology. But now, I regret when I have t miss a meeting one month and if I miss too many months in a row, I make it a point to make it an absolutely have to attend.

These allies helped me to admit that I wasn’t an accidental techie any longer. I had to hear it from them first – someone from the outside looking in at me. They have me leads on articles that supported my thoughts that after years of being accidental you aren’t accidental any longer. They were the allies that got me connected with NTEN. They opened up my eyes and now I feel like I have to participate so I can be among the allies that others in that group rely upon.

I’m going to keep this post brief and I hope for comments on it. I always look for other examples of allies out there. I do see them differently than advocates because I do believe you can get too many advocates. However, I don’t think you can ever have too many allies. The more allies you have, the more connections you have – the better you are.  So please comment on other groups that have become allies for you. I’ll share more on this in the future – I have plenty to talk about when it comes to allies!

Advocates for Accidental Nonprofit Techies?

By looking up the word advocate at Webster.com, you get the formal definition of what an advocate is:

  • 1: one that pleads the cause of another; specifically : one that pleads the cause of another before a tribunal or judicial court
  • 2: one that defends or maintains a cause or proposal
  • 3: one that supports or promotes the interests of another

Hopefully accidental nonprofit techies are not in need of an advocate to handle a tribunal or judicial court, but advocates are vital to assist an accidental nonprofit techie get the work done that they need along with moving from accidental to purposeful.

There are three main things to look at when searching for an advocate for yourself:

  • Status of Knowledge – This means that the advocate should have at least worked in the technology field, is currently working in the technology field, or has knowledge that is specific to technology. Sometimes an intern working on a degree in computer science may be enough to confirm that you are doing the right thing if you are working in a small nonprofit. However, don’t be surprised that for your advocate to really help you out, you will need someone with a proven track record that no one will question. If the superiors or Board doesn’t recognize the advocates skill and knowledge, they will be less effective for you. This is where that alphabet soup of certification and degrees that accidental techies don’t have after their names, helps to be after the names of your advocates.
  • Desire to Assist – If you find a person you feel is going to be a perfect advocate, you need to make sure that they are willing to assist the agency and most importantly, help you. You need to be able to talk to this person and have them see things as they currently are for you and what they could be for you in the future. If this person is looking for another thing to add to their resume, this might not be the appropriate advocate for you. You also need to learn how well your advocate follows up on their ideas. If an advocate has wonderful ideas and gives you a long list of things that they will do for you, if they don’t actually do it, you need to be prepared.
  • Action-orientated – I found that I had to get a group of advocates to work together in assisting me. It took two of them to make things happen. One by themselves got a voice to my superiors, but two of them working together and speaking up together, got things to change. If you find someone who wants to just give you ideas, that’s great. But sometimes you will need to have a person who will look at your superiors and say that things need to change. For myself, this meant that I had to find advocates that were Board Members.

Once you have found some advocates, what do you do? Sometimes, counting on where you work, you can keep it informal. For most of us, these advocates start to become the beginning of a Technology Committee that you can use as advisors to projects and ideas.

But also remember that you should always be looking for advocates. You may have to change your advocates up once you reach a new plateau or once you have finished a specific project. I don’t believe there is such a thing has having too many advocates. Even now as I am no longer an accidental techie, I know that I still need my advocates. There are a few that specialize in making the arguments to the Board, there are few that handle all the special requirements of assistive technology, there are a few that assist with social media, and there are a few that just say “you are doing a great job”.

Your advocates will be your support system – so select wisely.

Keys to Transitioning Away From Being A Nonprofit Accidental Techie

Recently, while soul-searching about the things I wish I had known when I declared I was no longer an accidental techie, I wrote a list of things that I found to be keys to that transition. In fact, these keys are going to be the basis for this blog and they are now categories for the upcoming posts in the future. Since I know that I am still in the transition phase of this myself, I may have new categories in the future. There is no research behind my keys. They are my observations based from my experience and maybe they will help others out there.

  1. Finding Advocates – There are natural connections inside of your organization that can help you find the ability to create a network of support who believe in your transition. This may not be your boss. More often it may be a board member or a person from another department. Finding these advocates help you get a voice to have the ability to transition away from being an accidental techie.
  2. Finding Allies –Without the support of some organizations in Pittsburgh, such as the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management (specifically the Bagels and Bytes group), I do not believe that I would have felt comfortable in identifying myself as a true professional techie. Those allies are out there and they are a support group that everyone needs. Finding them at the beginning is the key and turning around and being part of the allies for other accidental techies is so important.
  3. Vendor Relationships – Vendors can either support or hinder the transition from being accidental to purposeful techie. Even within one vendor you could find a difference in opinions from person to person (e.g. the sales representative wants you to stay accidental while the technicians help you gain skills to be purposeful). Vendor relationships matter so much and changing them while you transition away from accidental techie are vital to making the transition successfully.
  4. Epiphany – The moment your brain clicks and says “A-HA! I’m not accidental!” marks a huge victory. Until you know it and feel it, you will still be accidental in many ways. For myself, I had to have the epiphany moment several times before I truly and honestly started to believe in it. I’ll share some of them with you, but I’m hoping to get some other “reformed accidental techies” to let me feature their epiphany moments because the more you hear about them, maybe you can start identifying your own “A-HA!” moment.
  5. To Certify or Not to Certify – Some industries out there do care about all the certifications and indicators of ‘formal education’ you have in order to say that you are a techie. That alphabet soup can look daunting to a nonprofit accidental techie and it may be something that you feel you absolutely need to do. It is a question that I have struggled with and I still am unsure about what the answer is. There are pros and cons. It’s about finding the balance and figuring out what you plan on doing next.
  6. Toolbox – When maintenance comes into the office to repair a leak they often arrive with that worn red metal toolbox that is bumped and squeaks when it opens to find a mess of tools within. Our tools are different – books, websites, blogs, freeware, smartphones, usb keys, and gadgets. I can help you fill your toolbox up because all techies need a good toolbox – virtualized or not.
  7. Changing Identity – I found that some coworkers had already started seeing me as a techie when I finally said I was no longer accidental. However, I still have coworkers who see me as the social work intern who knows how to install software (and that was a decade ago). Changing your identity for anything is hard. You can’t just go to the facilities manager and tell them to change your ID badge.
  8. Now What? – I guess I had a view that when I dropped the word accidental from in front of techie that my job would suddenly seem easier and it would be an easy street. Yet, what I found, there was suddenly this whole new set of responsibilities and expectations that I was not ready to handle. Overnight it was believed that I would know about technology budgets, tech plans, technology policies, RFP, grant writing, social media marketing, managing interns, creating a department, and a whole slew of other things that I’m still learning are now expected.
  9. Uniqueness – This key almost seems to be at odds against the key of “Changing Identity” but after reading the book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?  by Seth Godin I got it. There was a reason why I started where I did. I liked fundraising, development, newsletters, marketing, and special events. It tapped into my creativity. While moving away from being accidental, there are a lot of things that I used to do that I had to give up to others. Yet, there are some things that I fight to continue to do, because it is what makes me unique, happy, and in Seth Godin’s words, it makes me a linchpin.
  10. Staffing – Once it was clear that technology in my organization was not going to go away and that by myself I could not keep up with what was needed, I got to hire a staff. But does a former accidental techie hire another accidental techie or do they hire someone who is a trained techie. There are pros and cons to both that make staffing a challenge. How do you evaluate the needs of the position to determine what is needed? How would you feel about hiring a trained techie?

These are the ten top things that I personally thought about in my personal adventure in this transition away from being the accidental techie. It didn’t happen overnight. It has been a decade in the making and there are times that I still feel like that accidental techie. I hope that if you do have tips in any of these keys that you share with me, comment to my posts,  let me integrate your experiences into a post, or even become a guest writer for a post or two. Together, I’m sure that we can help more accidental techies drop that accidental word and be techies.

Welcome to Geeka507’s New Blog

Once upon a time, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh arrived at her internship at UCP Pittsburgh (now UCP/CLASS) and she was handed the Y2K Windows Patch disk to install on all of the computers. It was to give her a way to meet all of the staff and for the staff to meet her. Instead, she met a new career path that she didn’t realize was there for her. She was instantly welcomed into the world of being an accidental techie.

That was how I started my adventures in technology. There was nothing planned about my knowledge of computers and technology. I simply knew how to install that Y2K disk because I had to install it on my home computer so I could write papers for school. In fact, in middle school I failed my computer class and until my Junior Year of high school, I could only type by ‘hunt and peck‘.

I spent many years being that accidental techie. I didn’t mind self-teaching myself Quark to edit the newsletter. I told myself that I was doing it because I was going to edit the newsletter. I got on-the-move training on networks during a middle of a renovation. That was a time where I knew that I wasn’t really a techie and I felt so uncomfortable in my role when I was talking to ‘real techies’. It wasn’t until we began to install a Cisco VOIP solution that I started to realize that this wasn’t accidental anymore.

That transition hasn’t been easy. There have been so many bumps in the road and so many things that I know that I still have to learn. Guess what – what’s left to learn isn’t the technology parts! This is a topic that I can easily share with the world. It is something that is an emerging topic: transitioning from an accidental techie to a purposeful tech (a.k.a. a ‘real tech’). All of this was confirmed recently when I read a post from Holly Ross at NTEN titled Rebranding the Accidental Techie. I then was pulled into a discussion on LinkedIn about this blog post. It was interesting to see a vivid and active conversation on LinkedIn that echoed a lot of my life.

So my new blog was born. It is just starting out. I have plenty of ideas for posts. Please stay tuned, comment, and maybe all of former accidental techies can figure out the new world we find ourselves as we are no-longer-accidental.