Techies Volunteer, Share Skills

iesc, geekcorps, volunteer
Ryan Whitney had been back in the U.S. less than two months when he received an urgent call from Geekcorps.

The nonprofit service agency wanted him to travel to Cape Town to help a consortium of African universities develop and promote open-source software. Although Whitney had just spent nine months backpacking through Central America, he leapt at the chance to return to foreign soil.

Whitney isn't some rudderless techie with time to kill. Before hitting the road, he had been earning six figures as an independent IT contractor, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing in his career.

"Over the last couple of years, I realized that technology wasn't the problem; I just had the wrong job," Whitney says. He called it quits in the summer of 2007 and enlisted with Geekcorps. "Geekcorps was an opportunity to do some good with my skills," he explains.

Whitney is just one of a growing number of seasoned IT professionals trading in annual bonuses and executive perks to volunteer their time and expertise in developing countries. In fact, phone calls and e-mails from techies interested in registering with Geekcorps have increased 30% over the past year, says Karen Muir. "We have more geeks now than we have projects," she admits.

Muir is senior director of program development at Geekcorps' parent organization, the International Executive Service Corps. Geekcorps itself is a nonprofit that sends highly skilled IT professionals to developing countries to assist in computer infrastructure development projects.

It's one of a number of nonprofits such as NetHope, Engineers Without Borders and ACDI/VOCA that send teams of techies around the world for two to 12 months to offer technology training and resources -- for free.

Corporate Cooperation

But nonprofit organizations aren't the only facilitators of volunteer activity. Although the turn-of-the-millennium's dot-com bust drove yesterday's techies into the arms of nonprofits, and today's economy may have the same effect, healthy companies have also been supporting volunteerism.

"Companies now have a renewed sense of giving employees the flexibility to do volunteer work," says Muir. For example, earlier this year, IBM launched a program called Corporate Service Corps to send 100 employees to Romania, Turkey, Vietnam, the Philippines, Ghana and Tanzania to work on projects that combine economic development and IT. And the response was impressive: More than 5,000 employees applied to participate.

Such programs mark a significant shift in the way some companies view volunteerism, and they're not only facilitating humanitarian efforts, but also helping IT professionals discover a previously untapped job market.

Just ask Steve Ollis, a former IT project manager and consultant. His overseas volunteer experience includes analyzing the financial systems of a farmers savings and credit cooperative in rural Kenya for ACDI/VOCA and helping the consortium of African universities that Whitney assisted through Geekcorps.

"I was looking for an adventure," says Ollis. "If I was working as hard as I was, I wanted to be working for something that had more meaning than just making money."

Shortly after completing his two-month stint with Geekcorps last year, Ollis landed an IT management position with a nongovernmental organization (NGO) specializing in international health care. Now stationed in Tanzania, he says he never would have qualified for the job without his overseas volunteer experience.

Whitney, too, has been able to parlay his volunteer experience into full-time employment with an NGO. He's now a technical program manager with the Grameen Foundation, where he's building an open-source software system in Tunisia to help microfinance institutions fight global poverty.

Into the Mainstream

High-tech positions with a social agenda, such as those available through NGOs, are becoming an increasingly mainstream option for skilled IT professionals.

That certainly holds true for Edward Granger-Happ. Granger-Happ is chief technology officer at the nonprofit organization Save the Children and a co-founder of NetHope, a consortium of 22 international nonprofits focused on communications technology and collaboration.

"Most of us that are working in IT in nonprofit organizations can double our income by going elsewhere," he says. "But there comes a point when the next dollar isn't worth it."

In fact, corporations are facing increasing competition from NGOs in the IT talent market, particularly as a labor shortage looms. In a 2006 study by communications agency Cone LLC, 79% of the 1,800 13-to-25-year-olds surveyed said they wanted to work for a company that cares about how it affects and contributes to society. And 69% of survey respondents with jobs said they were aware of the extent to which their employers were committed to social and environmental causes.

Many large companies have risen to the challenge by rolling out in-house volunteer programs and granting employees' requests to work with organizations such as Geekcorps. Leading IT companies, including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco, have loaned employees to the popular nonprofit.

"Companies are starting to realize that they don't just have a financial responsibility but a social responsibility as well," says Whitney. "There's more to being a corporation than making money."

Of course, corporate intentions aren't entirely altruistic. A growing number of companies now view overseas volunteer work as an experience that can deliver value to enterprise IT teams. In fact, in an April 2008 Deloitte LLP study (PDF) of 250 human resources leaders, 91% of the respondents said that they agreed that skills-based volunteering (which involves lending business knowledge and experience to nonprofits) would add value to training and development programs by fostering employees' leadership skills.

Clement Marcellus was willing to take a chance on that proposition. Marcellus is practice area leader at IBM Global Business Services. Earlier this year, he approved employee Scott Jenkins' request to spend two months in Bamako, Mali, working with fellow Geekcorps volunteers building radio stations and training local people to maintain them.

"We really encouraged Scott to volunteer overseas, but it's a two-way street. These volunteers are also bringing back a lot into IBM's own IT environment," says Marcellus. Nearly 70% of IBM's IT projects involve "a mix of talent, languages and culture," he adds -- and they can only benefit from the experiences of a well-traveled technology pro.

Off the Track

Temporarily abandoning the rat race to work in a developing country may no longer be considered a blot on an IT professional's résumé, but not all employers support the concept.

"Sometimes people read [about overseas volunteer work] and think it's the coolest thing in the world. Other people have a closed-minded view and see volunteering as a less ambitious goal," says Jenkins, now an associate partner in the application innovation services practice within IBM Global Business Services.

Recruiters aren't completely sold on the idea either. According to Andy Steinem, CEO of executive search firm Dahl-Morrow International, volunteering may "show strength and the capacity to be flexible," but "potential employers want to know why you were on the fast track and all of a sudden took yourself off."

John Estes, vice president of strategic alliances at staffing firm Robert Half Technology, warns that although volunteering can enhance a CV, too much of it raises a red flag. "If I saw a résumé that was dotted with a lot of volunteer work, I'd question how money-motivated they are," he says. "Employers want people to jump in and earn bonus money."

Turning off potential employers isn't the only risk techies face when they choose to volunteer in developing countries. Temporarily moving from a well-oiled, state-of-the art IT environment to a makeshift tech shop in rural Kenya can result in culture shock. "In the U.S., we complain about network speeds and computers that don't work. But when you're working in a rural setting in Africa, you're happy if you have electric power," says Ollis.

And then there's the difficulty of reacclimating after spending months abroad. "It's very hard to travel to a developing country for any length of time and not be affected. Reverse culture shock is very common," says Muir.

But it's a danger that more and more techies are willing to face as personal enrichment -- not just riches -- takes center stage in some IT careers.

Waxer is a freelance writer in Toronto. Contact her at cwaxer@sympatico.ca.

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