Leaving the Rat Race to Save the World

How to enhance your high-tech career with new skills -- and meaning.

Ryan Whitney had been back in the U.S. less than two months when he received an urgent call from Geekcorps.

The nonprofit service agency wanted him to travel to Cape Town to help a consortium of African universities develop and promote open-source software. Although Whitney had just spent nine months backpacking through Central America, he leapt at the chance to return to foreign soil.

Whitney isn't some rudderless techie with time to kill. Before hitting the road, he had been earning six figures as an independent IT contractor, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing in his career.

"Over the last couple of years, I realized that technology wasn't the problem; I just had the wrong job," Whitney says. He called it quits in the summer of 2007 and enlisted with Geekcorps. "Geekcorps was an opportunity to do some good with my skills," he explains.

Whitney is just one of a growing number of seasoned IT professionals trading in annual bonuses and executive perks to volunteer their time and expertise in developing countries. In fact, phone calls and e-mails from techies interested in registering with Geekcorps have increased 30% over the past year, says Karen Muir. "We have more geeks now than we have projects," she admits.

Muir is senior director of program development at Geekcorps' parent organization, the International Executive Service Corps. Geekcorps itself is a nonprofit that sends highly skilled IT professionals to developing countries to assist in computer infrastructure development projects.

It's one of a number of nonprofits such as NetHope, Engineers Without Borders and ACDI/VOCA that send teams of techies around the world for two to 12 months to offer technology training and resources -- for free.

Corporate Cooperation

But nonprofit organizations aren't the only facilitators of volunteer activity. Although the turn-of-the-millennium's dot-com bust drove yesterday's techies into the arms of nonprofits, and today's economy may have the same effect, healthy companies have also been supporting volunteerism.

"Companies now have a renewed sense of giving employees the flexibility to do volunteer work," says Muir. For example, earlier this year, IBM launched a program called Corporate Service Corps to send 100 employees to Romania, Turkey, Vietnam, the Philippines, Ghana and Tanzania to work on projects that combine economic development and IT. And the response was impressive: More than 5,000 employees applied to participate.

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