IT for Free: Volunteering Today
By Wayne Anderson
“Sorry, Mr. Smith: You have a great resume and the school you graduated from has an excellent computer science program, but we just need someone with more experience.”
“Nicole, you have a lot of potential and I would love to hire you, but without more experience you may not be able to keep up with the needs of our department. Come back in a couple years.”
These conversations, and so many like them, are all too familiar for novice IT professionals. It’s a catch-22 situation: Companies are looking for experienced professionals, even for entry-level positions, but it is difficult to obtain experience without being able to work for these larger firms. This is especially true in today’s competitive marketplace, where jobs are increasingly scarce and the race for each available position is increasingly tight.
For years, entry-level programmers and administrators have been turning to volunteering to build the basic hands-on experience that leads to future opportunities. In the lexicon of many new graduates, the word “volunteering” may conjure images of community service with children’s groups, picking up trash or other such activities. But in today’s technology-integrated society, there are many opportunities to put professional-level technical skills to use for nonprofit and commercial groups in the form of internships with an organization or lower-rate contract work, as well as making unsolicited services offers or potentially taking part in open-source projects.
It is critical that young professionals hoping to break into the field of IT understand the ins and outs of volunteering.
Internships offer young IT professionals the opportunity to work for an organization either on an unpaid or below-market-rate basis, often with more guidance and mentoring than the organization may provide to full employees. Typically, these internship roles partner the newcomer with a more senior member of staff to serve as a direct assistant, a junior administrator or developer within that team.
Development internships tend to focus on the testing or repetitive coding needs of a project. Such a specified, repeatable process can easily be learned by the intern and applied with quality. However, this kind of development task may not be the kind of experience the new intern is interested in targeting. In this case, there are other internship opportunities, particularly with larger firms, where the developer actually is provided limited-scope sections of code to write.
Infrastructure-focused professionals may find a similarly limited scope to work within. In many engineering- or infrastructure-focused internships, the professionals may find themselves building servers, cleaning server roles or arranging or reconnecting hardware. These steps form the building blocks of a stable, well-used environment.
Although some of this work may seem relatively trivial to a professional anticipating more involved work, each of these tasks offers a beginning administrator the opportunity to observe how the business is conducted: How are the servers racked? What kind of environmental considerations go into how they are arranged in the rack? How is this system documented?
Contract work usually is paid and involves an organization that has a narrowly defined scope and focus. While contract work might not be viewed as a type of volunteering, in some cases, the professional can choose to accept a low pay rate to build needed experience. Contract work in the IT industry varies widely, but its limited scope allows the candidate to determine if the work is of interest to pursue it professionally.
However, acquiring contract work is different from volunteering services because contract work is paid, and therefore the qualifications that a candidate needs to be able to secure the position will be more advanced and might require certification. Further, a contract position will not include the same level of support, direct contact and mentoring that an internship or more learning-focused position will include. The contracting professional is assumed to be fully educated and capable of performing services for a given project.
Another way to build experience through volunteering is by making open-ended unsolicited offers of IT services to a local organization. This is one of the least predictable methods, however. Unsolicited offers are nearly universally unpaid, as the position is not planned for in the organization budget. Also, because of legal considerations in making use of freelance assistance, many larger organizations will not make direct use of unsolicited offers. The starting professional will want to target educational institutions and nonprofits instead.
The other element to consider with unsolicited offers of assistance is that the work likely will be limited in scope, as the organizations that make use of these services are smaller and do not have an adequate picture of the volunteer’s set of skills. As a result, the organization may take some time to find an opportunity for the candidate to contribute in a meaningful capacity.
The last common way to build experience through volunteering involves open-source project work. In recent years, the expansion of the number and type of open-source projects has led volunteering professionals to have some of the most advanced development experiences available. Development-focused professionals may find ample opportunity to volunteer for projects that are used by large numbers of individuals and organizations.
However, open-source projects are not without their challenges. They are almost always unpaid efforts with both code contributions and project management coming from volunteers. There is almost never a formal structure by which the starting developer could take advantage of mentoring or working directly with another professional.
Also, code contributions to these projects often are moderated by a community at large. It may take some time for the professional to build up a reputation in the community so that code submissions are accepted for important functional areas of the application. The community usually does not accept resumes, nor is there usually any way to otherwise communicate qualifications. As a result, this community trust can be difficult to engender, and the only way to earn it is to be an active participant in the code submissions, bug fixing and discussions related to the particular project.
One of the other challenges to be aware of with open-source projects is that because there is no consistent structure and little in the way of formalized code assessment or individual contribution assessment, it can be very difficult to list this kind of volunteer experience on a resume. Often, open-source experience is more easily categorized once the individual has moved into a more formally specified position, such as project lead or code moderator. Or if an IT pro has served as a contributor to an open-source project, it is important to list specifically the systems for which he or she has constructed code.
Recognizing When Volunteering Is Right for You
Not all professionals are excellent volunteering candidates. Often, after completing trade school, college or technical certifications, professionals need compensation to pay off loans or simply to move forward in their careers. Many types of volunteering offer little to no income and therefore may be unsuitable. In these cases, the professional may lean more strongly toward contracting. Contracting offers the opportunity to obtain sustained compensation for professional services but may not be quite the development experience that a more open-ended, mentoring-focused opportunity that an internship will proffer.
Further, more experienced professionals might find that their career trajectories are harmed if they engage in volunteer work. From the perspective of a recruiter considering the candidate’s resume, a professional position followed by a volunteering opportunity could be seen as a step backward, potentially indicating previous poor performance.
To avoid this perception, the experienced candidate will need to ensure that the volunteering position is no less senior than his or her last position, implicitly indicating that he or she has continued to apply relevant field experience in the new opportunity.
The Challenges of an Evolving Industry
The challenges of a tough economy affect the funding available for extended volunteer opportunities at an organization. Some organizations are scaling back their investments in or temporarily eliminating professional internships. That’s because internships are supported by the notion that the organization potentially is investing in future full-time employees, and when funding internally becomes tight, these programs don’t directly offer a high-value outcome for the company’s bottom line — and therefore they don’t merit involvement from senior executives.
Further, as the technology community evolves, the type of opportunities available change. For example, the number of entry-level or low-experience contracts published to public job sites has exploded in recent years as firms recognize that engaging contractors is a way to obtain IT or development assistance without incurring additional head count. Also, as the popularity of open-source licensed applications has proliferated, so too have the opportunities to contribute to these products.
Young IT professionals have plenty of opportunities to log in time with new technologies and build hands-on experience. A professional willing to be patient, find a volunteer opportunity that matches his or her ability and accept lower levels of compensation may find a tool to build a base of experience in the hopes of securing a more extended, full-time position in the future.