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Techies volunteering to save the world

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

By Cindy Waxer
December 17, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - 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.

A Day in the Life of a Geekcorps Volunteer

It's not often that an American IBM employee awakes to the sound of the Islamic call to prayer, is served mint tea by uniformed guards and catches a concert by a West African reggae superstar -- all within 24 hours. Yet that's exactly how Scott Jenkins recalls an average day in balmy Bamako, Mali.

Jenkins, an associate partner at IBM Global Business Services, was stationed in the growing capital for two months earlier this year as a Geekcorps recruit. A long way from IBM's tony New York offices, Jenkins lived and worked in Geekcorps Mali's mixed-use, four-story headquarters, where unarmed guards in purple uniforms served techies "a potent mint tea with enough caffeine to just knock you out," laughs Jenkins.

Not that Jenkins was spoiled during his stint in Mali. Living accommodations consisted of a small room with an air conditioner and shared bathroom facilities. And work conditions were plagued by power outages and spotty Internet connections.

Jenkins used his vacation pay from IBM to finance most of the trip; Geekcorps covered his medical, evacuation and travel visa expenses. The nonprofit also paid him a $10 daily stipend to cover his food costs.

Jenkins knew he wasn't in Armonk anymore the moment he landed in Bamako Airport and was immediately accosted by "hundreds of Malians trying to [sell] SIM cards and taxi rides."

He worked 9 to 5 in a 10-person team of Malian and Western IT professionals. And he says it was the people he encountered that defined his experience as a Geekcorps recruit.

Off-hours, when he wasn't picking up a fabulous egg salad sandwich from a roadside food stand, Jenkins says he was frequenting Senagalese restaurants where, by candlelight, he could feast on rice with an "out-of-this-world" peanut sauce for about a dollar.

Nights on the town ranged from visiting the homes of American expats to catching a concert by world-famous recording artist Alpha Blondy.

Jenkins himself was often the center of attention. "I'd be walking down the street, and 90% of the time a child would see me and yell, 'Tubabu, tubabu,' the Bambara word for 'white person,' pointing at me as if I were a zebra walking by," he chuckles.

But Jenkins was embraced by Bamako's friendly inhabitants. "You say hello to everybody you walk by on the street -- everybody," he recalls, noting that the locals eagerly invite foreigners into their homes and share what little they have with complete strangers. "The Western world associates crime and violence with poverty," says Jenkins. "But in a city without any street lights, walking in the dark everywhere with people all around me, not once did I ever feel threatened. Everyone is warm and welcoming."

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