Leaving the Rat Race to Save the World

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

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Such programs mark a significant shift in the way some companies view volunteerism, and they're not only facilitating humanitarian efforts, but also helping IT professionals discover a previously untapped job market.

Just ask Steve Ollis, a former IT project manager and consultant. His overseas volunteer experience includes analyzing the financial systems of a farmers savings and credit cooperative in rural Kenya for ACDI/VOCA and helping the consortium of African universities that Whitney assisted through Geekcorps.

"I was looking for an adventure," says Ollis. "If I was working as hard as I was, I wanted to be working for something that had more meaning than just making money."

Shortly after completing his two-month stint with Geekcorps last year, Ollis landed an IT management position with a nongovernmental organization (NGO) specializing in international health care. Now stationed in Tanzania, he says he never would have qualified for the job without his overseas volunteer experience.

Whitney, too, has been able to parlay his volunteer experience into full-time employment with an NGO. He's now a technical program manager with the Grameen Foundation, where he's building an open-source software system in Tunisia to help microfinance institutions fight global poverty.

Into the Mainstream

High-tech positions with a social agenda, such as those available through NGOs, are becoming an increasingly mainstream option for skilled IT professionals.

That certainly holds true for Edward Granger-Happ. Granger-Happ is chief technology officer at the nonprofit organization Save the Children and a co-founder of NetHope, a consortium of 22 international nonprofits focused on communications technology and collaboration.

"Most of us that are working in IT in nonprofit organizations can double our income by going elsewhere," he says. "But there comes a point when the next dollar isn't worth it."

In fact, corporations are facing increasing competition from NGOs in the IT talent market, particularly as a labor shortage looms. In a 2006 study by communications agency Cone LLC, 79% of the 1,800 13-to-25-year-olds surveyed said they wanted to work for a company that cares about how it affects and contributes to society. And 69% of survey respondents with jobs said they were aware of the extent to which their employers were committed to social and environmental causes.

Many large companies have risen to the challenge by rolling out in-house volunteer programs and granting employees' requests to work with organizations such as Geekcorps. Leading IT companies, including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco, have loaned employees to the popular nonprofit.

"Companies are starting to realize that they don't just have a financial responsibility but a social responsibility as well," says Whitney. "There's more to being a corporation than making money."

Of course, corporate intentions aren't entirely altruistic. A growing number of companies now view overseas volunteer work as an experience that can deliver value to enterprise IT teams. In fact, in an April 2008 Deloitte LLP study study (PDF) of 250 human resources leaders, 91% of the respondents said that they agreed that skills-based volunteering (which involves lending business knowledge and experience to nonprofits) would add value to training and development programs by fostering employees' leadership skills.

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