Education

Volunteering your IT expertise pays off professionally and personally

It takes time and organization, but volunteering can boost a consultant's career in more ways than one. As one consultant explains, he learned time management and other new career skills.

Professional consultants, by donating their skills and time, can make a difference—especially when it comes to helping to develop young minds. I know this first hand; I’ve volunteered as a computer teacher, and while my goal was not to reap professional rewards, the effort has had a positive effect on my career.

Volunteering, as most people realize, isn’t easy. It requires time management and organization skills. I’ll explain how I handled those issues and the lessons I’ve learned in my initial volunteer experience.

How it began
Three years ago, my boss asked me if I could help a local community center that had built a new computer area where teens would come and use the Internet after school. It seemed the Internet connection wasn’t working well.

When I visited the center, I found a network admin’s nightmare: 15 computers of varying configurations running a combination of Windows versions. There was a shared dial-up connection with no controls on it, virus symptoms on 12 of the 15, and a patchwork of cabling. The center’s administrator, Gabe Mekies, explained that the various systems and issues were due to the fact that the center had to make do with whatever community members had donated. He told me that the volunteer staff found it easier to reformat infected computers as needed, even though he knew there must be a better way of protecting them.

Over the course of several meetings, we planned what we called a wish list—the parts and software needed to upgrade the ragtag network into a respectable business-efficient domain. We approached the center’s executives, who provided us with a small budget. With that and some local donations, we began to make necessary changes.

Today, the center runs a Windows 2000 domain with 19 Windows 2000 Pro workstations and a centralized corporate antivirus solution.

Along the way, Gabe and I discussed holding weekly classes to teach computer skills to the adolescent volunteers and a Thursday Night Tech Club was born. Each week, I would ask the students what they wanted to learn, and then prepare a lesson for the following week.

What started as a "quick" help request to get Internet service stabilized has evolved into a weekly commitment for the past year. The class program has a weekly attendance of between 10 and 15.

The unexpected payback
My volunteer work has helped my career in several ways, even though this wasn't the reason I started or the reason I continue to help. The greatest benefit is the feeling I get.

My teaching experience has caught the attention of a number of corporate clients that have hired me to teach half-day seminars on a myriad of IT-related topics to various groups. The audiences range from secretaries to IT managers to presidents and directors. Depending on where you volunteer, you might receive any number of perks, such as club memberships or sports tickets. Another benefit might be tax receipts for the work, which can make a nice difference in your bottom line.

These indirect and ongoing financial benefits prove that though virtue may be its own reward, there can be added benefits as well.

Teaching boosts career skills
The better an IT consultant you are, the better the variety of ready-to-teach lesson plans you have at your fingertips.

From the beginning, I told the class the focus would be on what they wanted to learn—not what I wanted to do or teach. Topics have included configuring a print server, DNS and DHCP, building and repairing a PC, and a favorite of mine—viruses and other threats and how to deal with them.

If someone expresses an interest in a subject, I add it to my course list. Occasionally, a subject comes up that I'm not comfortable with, and I'll hit the books before class.

My consulting clients have always appreciated my ability to discuss technical subjects in language they could understand, and by bringing this skill (as well as a background as a stand-up comic) to the classroom, I can keep my students interested.

One teaching tool I’ve found useful is the overhead projector. Initially, I did all of my demonstrations on a 19-inch PC screen, but found it difficult and inefficient to have everyone gather around to see what I was doing. The overhead projector allows me to comfortably do my presentation and the class can easily follow along.

Another popular approach with my students is providing hands-on work. Whenever we get up from the classroom setting and gather around a workbench to perform surgery on the computer, it's a popular class. These lessons have also proven beneficial to the center because students are fixing computers previously thought to be dead. We have no fewer than six revived computers that Gabe and the other students fixed as a direct consequence of our lessons.

Time management issues
Independent consultants, due to their profession, are slaves to the clock and volunteering means giving up hours that may otherwise be profitable billable client hours.

When I started teaching, I thought it would literally be a few hours whenever I could fit it in. But this made for problems with consistency and attendance. I realized I needed to map out my time commitment so there’d be little interference with my new consulting business.

I decided that the class would be held every Thursday from 6 to 9 P.M. and two things happened: Class attendance soared and my clients realized that my volunteer work was a stable commitment.

In making the specific time commitment, I realized that I also had to organize my class. The evening before class, I sit down and outline my lesson strategy. I always have a clear goal for the class and go into class and explain what I will be teaching in a short overview before diving into the meat of the lesson.

Walking into class unprepared literally meant the class would prove useless to students. However, when I walk into class with a clear lesson plan outlined, they sit through the class and listen to every word, they ask intelligent questions, and we all have a good time.

The extra work involved
From the beginning, I've told my students that I'm there to help, and I make myself available to answer their e-mail questions during the week. At first, I would field calls from students, but I found that many questions were taking time away from clients, and boosting my cell phone bill.

By limiting student access to e-mail only, I'm still available to help, while limiting the effect on my workday responsibilities. In fact, it’s proven more productive than a call back because I can include links to valuable articles, Web sites, and white papers in the e-mail response. The e-mail solution allows me to reply at my convenience, without the risk of hurting anyone’s feelings or stealing time from clients.

Intangible benefits
Aside from the benefits that come with any volunteer work, my teaching effort has added two lines to my CV, and more importantly, I’ve learned that many potential clients like good corporate citizens. If the difference between two consulting candidates is that one does volunteer work and the other doesn’t, I believe most will hire the one who gives back to their community.

I’ve also learned that there are many parallels between teaching and consulting. I’ve learned that teachers, like consultants, need to stick to what they are sure of—what they know. When a class topic request comes in that I cannot cover, I either tell the class outright that I'm unprepared to teach that subject, or from time to time I will bring in a guest lecturer. Your students, just like clients, don't expect you to know everything, and they will appreciate your honesty.
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