FRAMINGHAM (09/18/2003) - IT professionals who do charitable volunteer work get a variety of benefits, including recognition in the workplace, new management skills and a good-looking line on their resumes. But the volunteers say it's really the feeling of doing good that motivates them to contribute their expertise to the less fortunate.
Nonprofit organizations like Geekcorps in North Adams, Massachusetts, and Tech Corps in Maynard, Massachusetts, recruit and place IT volunteers in underdeveloped nations and underfunded schools to help create and maintain a technology infrastructure so that emerging nations and U.S. schoolchildren can participate in the increasingly global and high-tech economy. In the process, volunteers can pick up skills that will bolster their careers.
Eva Bradshaw begins her fourth year as a volunteer for Tech Corps this month at an elementary school in a tough neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. Bradshaw and other members of the informal Ohio State University (OSU) Women in Technology group were concerned about the lack of interest young girls evince in computers, math and science - and decided to do something about it by volunteering with Tech Corps.
The women helped fourth- and fifth-grade girls learn about PCs, including software for word processing and Web design. The girls also disassembled and assembled hardware and learned what each computer part does. Bradshaw says their excitement about the after-school project was infectious.
"It energized me working with them, despite it being after my full workday," says Bradshaw, an OSU technology director.
She says it also boosted the reputation of her group on campus. "Within the CIO's office, it enhanced our professional image, because we were able to put the project together and make it work," she says.
Karen Smith, executive director of Tech Corps, says the nonprofit group screens volunteers for nearly 2,000 schools in 20 states, but she claims that the current fiscal crises among the states have created a "crying need" for more IT volunteers. "In this era of budget crunch, the technology coordinator position for schools is in jeopardy," Smith says. Tech Corps estimates that a typical school district has one paid tech coordinator for 750 computers.
Geekcorps, which is a division of International Executive Service Corps, a nonprofit development group, has had little problem attracting volunteers, according to Executive Director Ana Maria Harkins. Its database boasts 1,500 willing workers, but Geekcorps sends out only 50 people a year to projects in Bulgaria, Ghana, Mongolia, Rwanda and elsewhere.
Olivia Given was "just a coder" when she took a leave of absence from SeniorBridge Family Companies Inc., an elder care provider in New York, where she would typically "put on a set of headphones and say, 'Don't bother me.' "
But Given's Geekcorps experience in Ghana, where she taught programming and database development techniques to start-up companies, changed her attitude about her career.
Because of the culture and the way business is done in Ghana, "you always have to be friendly. . . . So I got practice with social interaction and networking," Given says.
"When I came back, I felt lonely with my music and my computer screen," she says. "Now I'm able to add the interpersonal component to my job." As a result, she says, "I went from 100 percent coding to about one-third management consultant at my company."
Matthew Blakely says the soft skills he picked up while developing a document management system in Ghana were considered valuable when he interviewed for his current job as a financial analyst at Gateway Inc. in Poway, California.
"During the interview, it was a great thing to have on my resume," he recalls. "People saw my experience there as proof of resourcefulness and teamwork."
Robert Mork, a technology recruiter at Mason Concepts Agency in Los Angeles, agrees that when choosing between two equally qualified candidates, volunteer experience would be considered a plus, because "the work would be seen as generous and well-meaning."
"On the other hand," he says, "if it was mundane technically, it could be a negative."
Avoiding mundane work is what prompted Ken Matusow to volunteer for Geekcorps' business development efforts in Bulgaria. "Silicon Valley is dormant right now," observes Matusow, CEO of Synergicity Inc., a consultancy in Moss Beach, California. "Talented people are not working; they're looking around for 'the next big thing.' "
However, he says that "the next big thing may lay in geography, not technology." Matusow says that if Silicon Valley is going to grow at its historically fast pace, it needs to create demand for its products in new, expanding markets overseas. And Geekcorps, he says, can be a catalyst to help companies abroad grow into Silicon Valley customers.