Some End Users Are Like Squeaking Brakes

It has been a busy couple months and amongst the multiple projects I have been involved with, I have been living through a complete revamp of our network. During this time, I happened to be going thru some car problems too. They don’t seem to be like topics that go together, but stay with me for a second.

We all have  been behind the car that has the squeaking brakes (I hope they weren’t mine) and most of us realize that when your brakes are squeaking, you have to pay attention to them. Well, if you are a nonprofit techie, you probably know which end users are your squeaking brakes. You can probably start rattling their names off without even a moment to think. I believe that they tend to be your more computer-savvy users and they have a defined idea of how things should work. They are probably the most likely to identify their computer that they use at work as “their computer” and challenge you at all times. Often, you don’t have to go to them to ask them out things are going – they are coming right up to you and telling you what isn’t the way that they desire.

But there are other problems that I had with me car this year. I had a lot of vibration in the steering wheel and my mind started to churn all kinds of problems that it could be. All were expensive to solve too. Well, I think that there are end users that fall in this category too. You may not have to do much with them, but when something starts to go wrong with them, it tends not to be an easy solution at all. Since it is more sporadic, you may have to actually stop and think about who falls in this category, but once you start thinking about it, you know who these end users are. I believe that they are the workhorse workers and they can go with changes to the computers that you are doing usually without any problems. But once one thing, that is most vital to their job, starts going wrong, everyone is going to know – especially their boss and their boss’ boss. You have to solve problems with this group pretty quickly.

There is still another group. This is the oil change group. You know of horrible things that can go on if you don’t change your oil. But really, there aren’t to many symptoms that you are due for that 3,000 mile oil change in your car. You actually need that sticker on the driver side of the windshield to remind you that you have to get your oil changed. These end users haven’t fallen into any of the other two types and you might have to actually think about them. They may not even know that you have a techie on staff. Because these end users aren’t going to show signs of problems such as squeaking brakes or vibrating steering wheels, you have to stop and focus on them.  For your entire car to run, all parts have to run.  These end users may even need more of your attention than the other two groups – and you may not even know it.

In the end, the work that I had to do on my car wasn’t as expensive as I feared. But I still have the squeaking brakes (they claim that they are A-OK and sometimes brakes just squeak. The same goes with your end users. Some are never going to stop needing that specialized attention that you don’t have to go find out about. But please, don’t forget those silent end users. They need just the same amount of attention!

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.

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.