CXO

Helping yourself by helping others

If you're considered too junior or your lines of advancement are blocked then it might be time to volunteer your time to create future opportunities.

Are you in a job that provides limited opportunities to improve your skills and pay packet? If you're considered too junior or your lines of advancement are blocked then it might be time to stop complaining and volunteer your time to create future opportunities. Not only can it deliver career benefits it may well just give you that warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from helping out those less fortunate.

Whether you're an IT student looking for work experience, or a programmer looking to spread your wings into business analysis or project management — helping a community organisation take better advantage of IT can boost your resume with proven, real world experience gained with respected organisations.

While this is a win-win situation, there are two particular problems:

  • How do you find an organisation that needs your help?
  • Why should the organisation trust you to do a good job when your objective is to gain additional skills?

The Melbourne IT Mentoring Group (melbitmentor.wetpaint.com) was set up with the aim of bridging this gap. It grew out of founder Scott Evans's voluntary work with the Brotherhood of St Laurence, helping refugees find work in IT. Getting a job with no local experience could be problematic, so he began matching people with community projects and mentoring them for the duration. It also draws on Evans's experience of being in a job with a tightly defined position description that makes it hard to get broader experience.

The time commitment is around four hours per week for three months for participants, while mentors attend one-hour weekly meetings with their mentees. The idea is to make mentees as autonomous as possible while giving them the support they need to address any issues that have arisen during the previous week.

One completed project involved the development of a membership database for the American Women's Auxiliary (www.awamelbourne.org). This provided the participant with an opportunity to take on the role of a business analyst, determining and documenting the requirements, as well as applying their existing development skills.

Wildlife Victoria (www.wildlifevictoria.org.au) also has a membership database created by one of Evans's mentees, this time an unemployed database administrator looking for development experience. This participant was subsequently engaged for a paying project with another organisation, but later decided to leave the field and is now working as an inventory controller. However, Evans points out that some of the experience gained in the program — notably interacting and negotiating with people — is being actively applied in this new role.

Evans is currently mentoring an IT student who realises employers prefer candidates with at least some experience. The student is creating another membership database — this time for Waterkeepers Australia (www.waterkeepers.org.au) a national network of local community-based organisations protecting their local waterways.

In addition to the technical and analytic skills that are directly needed by the projects, participants also gain exposure to tools such as wikis that are used to support the projects. Writing and presentation skills are also developed along the way.

The problem with potential liability has been solved by only accepting projects with organisations that are registered with goodcompany (www.goodcompany.com.au) or other bodies that require participating groups to have volunteer's insurance.

According to Evans, there are far more opportunities for projects in the community sector than the number of mentees, but he is also looking for experienced IT professionals to get involved to increase the number of people that can be mentored at a time and to attest to their on-the-job performance. He is looking to business-oriented user groups such as those covering PHP, .NET and Lotus Notes as a potential source of mentors.

Mentoring isn't restricted to project work. For example, Evans — by day a senior analyst/programmer with Fujitsu — has also helped a recent graduate determine exactly which types of programming job to apply for.

Looking ahead, he wants to put the group on a more sustainable footing by establishing links with IT employers and recruiters. The idea is help participants find appropriate employment — especially unadvertised vacancies — while providing employers with a stream of quality candidates. Recruiters and employers would be charged a spotter's fee, and this would augment the annual membership fees paid by mentors and mentees.

To the best of Evans's knowledge, this is the only group of its kind in Australia. While other volunteering programs exist within the IT industry, none of them has the dual goals of providing volunteers with practical experience while delivering IT systems to community groups at low cost.

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