NTEN Community Voices: Nonprofit Tech Leaders Revisit Their Accidental Techie Roots

After reading the Connected Cause blog post Top 5 Things Accidental Techies Need to Know Right Now, I shared it in the NTEN Accidental Techies Community of Practice and asked what happy accidents brought people to their jobs in the first place. The themes that emerged—from the spirit of curiosity that motivates continuous learning to an impatience for inefficiency—are ones that I suspect will feel familiar to most technology champions and emerging #nptech leaders.

Here’s a small sampling of stories shared by our community members.

Joseph Klem, Vice President of Online Strategy, Urban Land Institute

I got my first job in 1985 as a newspaper reporter at a small suburban weekly. We would type our articles using typewriters and white-out, and bring all the copy once a week to an outside typesetting firm, who would key the stories into a typesetting system. Then we pasted it up onto boards for printing.

But the following year, they decided to buy a bunch of Macs, laser printers and external hard disks, all daisy-chained together. From the first day of training, it was clear that I understood the system better than my colleagues, despite having had no computer training before. So I became the go-to resource (the help desk, I guess). Still did my full workload of writing and editing, but also the new Mac gig. And I enjoyed it so much, I didn’t really mind.

I even came into the office on weekends, sitting for hours alone to reformat their hard drives, which were constantly crashing because we we trying to make them do things they weren’t designed to do. So I would back up files onto 3.5 inch disks, reformat the hard drives, then restore those files again. (Looking back, a guy like me made it possible for the newspaper to go cheap on technology and get away with it!)

That was the start for this “accidental techie.” Ten years later it was all about multimedia computer-based training, and then the web work followed closely behind. Still, through it all, my focus has remained on communications and UX – delivering content that meets the audience’s needs in the way(s) they want it. The tools constantly evolve, but the basic premise does not.

Jenn Ross, CIO, Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofits

I managed to graduate from college in ‘93 without using a PC (except to draft my resume) or a Mac (except for one course whose professor required it).

My first job out of college was working on the fundraising team for a gubernatorial candidate. I got very frustrated by the lack of automation – we had books of handwritten fax cover sheets and used a Word for DOS program to type out letters. We had the shell of a database, but we could only input items. If we wanted to add another field, we needed to fly someone in to adjust the database. I’m a big fan of efficiency, so whenever the database consultant flew in, I would observe what he was doing. Although I couldn’t make the changes myself because it was structurally prohibited, I started understanding the concepts of how it worked.

By the time I started working at the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations in ‘97, I had decent computer and networking skills. I thought we should have a website that year so I negotiated something with a vendor, learned how to make some basic changes in html code, and figured out how to ftp files through AOL.

When we worked with a PR firm a few years later to improve our print newsletter which had been designed in Wordperfect, I thought they were charging a lot of money for me to have to keep editing what they had done. I asked a friend to show me how PageMaker worked to see if I could manage it. I found that I could and then after one edition, I took a class at the local community college to improve my skills.

Over time, I’ve taken advantage of learning from our paid consultants; have taken classes as needed; and have taught myself whenever I wanted to learn how to make something happen.

Terri Schwartzbeck, Senior Digital Outreach Associate, Alliance for Excellent Education

My story begins in 1993 or so. I was in college and needed a part time job. I had worked on my high school newspaper (natch) so I knew how to use PageMaker. I found a gig doing graphics and marketing for the Dining Services office at my university. I had never thought of myself as an artist, but I actually designed logos, helped design pamphlets and brochures, and did the slightly less riveting work of updating bulk food order forms and menus. I think I used an Apple IIe and programs like FreeHand. I loved it, but I majored in Political Science and History and wanted to change the world.

Fast forward to around 2002 or so, when I was working at an education association. I developed some pretty mad PowerPoint skills and served on an organization-wide website redesign team, so I got some basic experience doing simple CMS type stuff as we rebuilt our website. Then, in 2010, I landed in a federal contractor gig working on research dissemination. The higher ups had decided we needed to be using social media, so we had a firm come in and train us. Best training I ever had! I was hooked on Twitter after that. We also did webinars using WebEx, and when I landed at my current organization (nonprofit policy and advocacy), we had a kicked-up webinar system that involved our own video production studio! Best of all, I got to start working in the educational technology field, so got quickly hooked into even more social media awesomeness.

Now I handle all the social media for our ed tech work, run webinars, blog, and have had to start using more of the back-end stuff on our Drupal website. I also have been handed a project to grow our digital video presence, so I just taught myself iMovie yesterday. I’m wishing I could re-develop my graphic design skills, because I’m going to need that soon and I don’t have $10,000 to spend on a designer. And I sort of wish I knew how to code.

Martin Dooley, IT & Operations Manager, Center for Resource Solutions

I majored in French Lit, naturally. Moved to San Francisco, was a jack of all trades – temping, food service, training, facilitation, diversity, etc. After getting laid off ‘cause a nonprofit lost the bid for our primary contract, I was unemployed. An activist nonprofit needed someone to replace their longtime operations manager while he was out of the country for four months. He was smart, but had no documentation for any of his job responsibilities in four arenas: human resources, operations, tech, and bookkeeping. They weren’t having any luck finding someone on short notice with such a diverse skill set, especially someone who would do a 60 hour-a-week job in a 40-hour nonexempt slot…until one of my former coworkers told him, “Ask Marty, he can figure out anything.”

So on my first day, somebody handed me a laptop that crashed, expecting me to fix it. Supposedly IT headquarters in DC was going to support me but they ignored my calls and emails. They assumed if I was replacing this guy I had to have some tech skills (wrong!) and they thought my questions were too basic to be serious. Meanwhile, the guy I replaced was theoretically available by chat – until we learned that internet in that country was capped and only available eight hours a day.

In desperation I called my college friends who majored in computer science, and they told me “I don’t frigging know, what I learned then is worthless now. Just Google the error message.” And thus I learned tech like most everyone else – by cowboying it.

Karl Hedstrom, IT Director, NTEN

My college background was pretty technical with a degree in Physics and Math, but in 2003 when I decided to alter my plan of pursuing a Physics PhD and instead join the Peace Corps, my technical skills took a bit of a hiatus. I served as a community organizer for 2 years in a small village in Niger, West Africa, returning to the States in 2006 with a desire to continue working in the development or nonprofit sector.

That fall I landed a yearlong AmeriCorps position with NTEN, and despite being 2 years out of the technology loop (I still used the phrase “Mapquest it” for getting directions, and hadn’t even heard of Facebook), I quickly fell into the accidental techie role as I was tasked with wrangling our badly neglected database.

By the end of my AmeriCorps contract, I had really started to get a feel for this type of work, and was lucky enough to be hired on full time as NTEN’s Data & Systems Manager. Since then I’ve continued to grow in my job here at NTEN, helping create NTEN’s IT Department and now serving as the IT Director.

Mary Jane, Social Worker and Policy Professional, New York

Way back in the day, I was a nerd hanging out on the junior high A/V squad so I could type lines of DOS code from a book into a TRS-80 in hopes that I could maybe—MAYBE—get to play a computer game. We always ran out of time, though, and so we couldn’t download the code onto the cassette tapes to load up when we wanted to play in the future. DOS coding was not my passion by any means, and so I became a social worker.

Turns out those frustrating hours at the TRS-80 gave me some insight, because when they started giving the social workers computers, I had a knack for getting them to work and for helping my colleagues understand how computers “think” (and how it’s different from how humans think). Then I became a computer trainer, and later directed management information systems, and I picked up some hardware/software/networking and other tech stuff along the way.

At the organization where I work now, tech is outsourced, but I’m the closest we have to a techie on staff. I still find myself explaining how computers “think” differently from humans.

This is just a small sampling. Thanks to everyone who shared stories in the thread.

Do some of these themes sound familiar? If you identify as an accidental techie, join the Community of Practice and share your joys and (we hope only occasional!) heartaches.

Julia Smith
Community Project Manager, Communities of Impact Project
Julia is an independent consultant currently based in Chicago. Previously, she worked at Interfaith Youth Core (directing online programs and communities, and before that, managing marketing and communications projects); at NTEN (managing educational programming and, before that, community initiatives and special projects such as the 2013 Communities of Impact cohort); and at Idealist.org, among others. She also co-founded the literacy nonprofit 826DC and volunteers with grassroots racial justice and political campaigns. Find her on Twitter at @juliacsmith or subscribe to her newsletter: julia.substack.com.