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Let’s Talk Accidental & Intentional Nonprofit Tech Careers

Johanna Bates is a speaker at the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference in March.

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.

Back in 1999, I was a college graduate with a B.A. in the always-lucrative field of Religious Studies. I got a job at a small, nonprofit publishing house in Boston as a writer for their book catalogs. They had mentioned in the job description it’d be “nice” if the person knew HTML. I got the job by teaching myself enough HTML in one night to write my cover letter as a web page. That was the first time I’d ever made a whole web page myself. I never expected where that one HTML document would lead.

I did write a lot of words about books at that job. I also built them a 500+ page hand-coded book catalog in HTML. At first, I tried to tell them that I didn’t really know what I was doing, but they didn’t care. They had someone mentor me, and it was great. I learned a lot and really enjoyed it. But “technologist” was never in my job title or formally in the job description, and my salary was far too low to cover a writer and a half-time web developer, even back then.

What are “accidental techies,” and why is there an NTC session about them?

If you’ve been around the nonprofit technology scene for a while, you might have heard the term “accidental techie.” You might identify with it, you might be tired of it. In any case, the term is important, because it describes a group of people who, for better or worse, are a driving force in the nonprofit sector. They are the program coordinators, marketing staff, or other workers who are not hired to maintain websites, fix databases, or set up CRMs, but who end up doing it because their organization has a need, and they have the aptitude and interest. They are often under-recognized and underpaid. Organizations, their mission goals, their workers, and the nonprofit sector as a whole are best served when accidental techies advocate for themselves, formalize their job functions, and grow in their careers. This is what we’ll be talking about in our NTC session.

Why are accidental techies so good for the nonprofit sector?

The field of technology lacks racial, cultural and gender diversity, and the “pipeline” of people with formal tech training hasn’t yet radically improved. Accidental techies, however, are often women, people of color, and others who may not have had the means, support, or encouragement to pursue a formal computer science degree. And technical work needs more than just demographic diversity. Whether we come to technical work from a background in retail, teaching elementary school, food service, journalism, or whatever, we have unique experiences that inform the way we see everything, including technical work. The more different perspectives we can bring to technology work, the better off we’ll all be.

Why are accidental techies bad for the nonprofit sector?

Nonprofit organizations may be mission-driven, but at the end of the day, they are still businesses. When a competent worker is fixing a broken website in their “spare time”, but isn’t speaking up and advocating for themselves, the org may not notice that they need to support that worker with training and a new role. The cost of the work that person is providing to the organization is obscured. When people are not supported to grow, they will eventually leave the organization. Or worse, they may stay, and become bitter and burned out. If the organization has been underpaying someone to do technical work, it’s going to be a lot harder to replace that lost staff member. Hiding the true cost of doing business sets up an unhealthy cycle of reactive, instead of proactive, business. In the long run, that’s not good for anyone.

If I’m accidentally in a technical role, and I’d like to get intentional about my career path, what can I do?

Whether you’re new to this role or not, feeling stuck or already on your way, please join me, Tracy Kronzak, Jessie Lee, and Cindy Leonard at our 17NTC session From Accidental to Intentional: Taking Your NPtech Career to the Next Level. We’re planning a participatory session with group discussions, resource sharing, and networking.

Quick survey: What are your big challenges?

Whether you plan to attend the NTC or not, we’d love to hear from you. What are some of the challenges you currently face in growing in your tech career? Please take a couple minutes to let us know via this short survey. Thank you!  

Johanna Bates
Johanna Bates began her nonprofit tech career in 1999 when she was hired to write marketing copy for a nonprofit publisher, and ended up hand-coding their first-ever online book catalog as 500 pages of static HTML. She was next hired to build in a new, custom, open-source CMS, and she never looked back. Finding she preferred rural to city life, Johanna moved to western Massachusetts and spent eight years directing technology and writing related grants for Community Partners, a statewide health care advocacy organization. Today Johanna is a strategy consultant, front-end coder, and Drupalist. She co-owns DevCollaborative with Erin Fogel, whom she met through NTEN. Her team focuses on building Drupal sites for orgs in sustainable ways that help them get the most for their limited funds. She's been an NTEN member for over a decade, served on the NTC agenda steering committee for four years, and co-moderates NTEN's Drupal Community of Practice.