Characteristics of your early adopters to tech projects

Apple Store, University Avenue, Palo Alto, CA

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We all have seen the news stories of the line around the Apple store when iPhone was released and then again when iPad was released. It’s pretty clear to see that those customers outside that store are the early adopters of Apple’s technology. They are completely invested in trying the new tool out and they willingly go forth knowing that first generation usually will have some blips and beeps that aren’t exactly right.

So when you are facing a new project, what qualities or characteristics do you need to see in the people around you to know that they are your early adopters? For me, I have found that often what I need in an early adopter of a tech project is not always the same person who is standing outside of Apple waiting to have a new iPhone or iPad in their hands. Sometimes, I have found that those Apple early adopters are amongst the most difficult people to get on board with my tech project.

I’ve noted a few characteristics and I really hope that this drives some conversation, because early adopters are the life blood of almost any tech project. I’m always looking for new ways to convert over more to this category and I might not see something as a sign of being this type of person – but you might. Let me know what other characteristics you would include on this list.

  • Leadership – There are two things I must mention under leadership – I need both types – the leaders with official power and the leaders without official power. Most tech projects do not get launched if there is not a member of upper management who has given their blessing. If I can’t get that leader to bless the ‘go forth’ movement, I have to go above them – to the board tech committee. That is very rare now. But the more important leader you need to get into the early adopter category is the unofficial leader. This is the person that others might go to for help because they are afraid of tech staff. This is the person who you know if they discount the project that their word will care far more harm. I find most of my time is spent with these types of leaders – but no doubt about it – you need both leaders.
  • Ability to give constructive feedback – There are some people who are going to find every single thing wrong with a project. If it is a database project, they are going to hate the font, color, logo, and even the pace of the cursor blinking speed. This person is just providing criticism – not truly useful feedback. Constructive feedback never feels like an attack and it provides more information. Maybe the issue with the font is a true issue. The person providing constructive feedback would indicate that the font is an issue and then provide examples about why it is an issue. That why is so important! For more about constructive feedback, read The 4-1-1- on Constructive Criticism.
  • Independence – Counting on the scope of your project, you may not have a lot of time to provide one-on-one training. Early adopters are more than happy to explore on their own. In fact, they often prefer to be given a little bit of information and go off on their own. While this can be scary (they might run into something that isn’t done!), it is so useful for you. Your time can be spent on preparing for those other users who need more guidance and assistance.
  • Sees the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ – Again, your type of project impacts how important this is. Switching out hardware probably won’t be hard to sell the end of the project. But if you are in a project with lots of twists and turns (database development is my example here again), you need to have someone who can see that after a lot of work up front, the work will be less at the end. Too many people get hung up with how much ‘extra’ work there is at the beginning of a project. Their fears get in the way as they begin to fear that it will always be all this extra work to make it happen. Your early adopter needs to be invested in your vision of the end of the project. They then become your voice with others when you start pushing the project out to others.
  • Ability to market the project – You are not the best person to sell your project to other end users.  Your early adopter is the best person to sell your project. These early adopters should be able to communicate either verbally or written the positive points of the project. They will tie in the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ vision along with benefits they have found. Your early adopters are going to find benefits that you haven’t even thought of – and they should be able to tell others about it. They need to be able to talk to you, of course – but more importantly, you need them talking to others.
  • Not always tech savvy – While I would want users who are a bit more tech savvy if I was working on a completely mobile solution, I know the big kudos that can be gained if you get that person who isn’t as comfortable with technology involved in your project. Often users don’t believe me when I saw that I’m targeting the project for the non-technical comfortable person more than the ones who may have been out buying an iPhone or an iPad that first day. Truly, projects fail if you aren’t able to address that user who struggles with figuring out the power button. If you can get someone like in as an early adopter, you are tapping into a valuable resource that in the long run will make the project more successful.

Early adopters are so important that I plan on spending more time on this topic. It has been a very vital part of my job of late and I know as a nonprofit techie I cannot always find enough tips on how to find, manage, assist, encourage, develop and maintain these early adopters. They make the projects successful.

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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.