Leaving the Rat Race to Save the World

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

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Clement Marcellus was willing to take a chance on that proposition. Marcellus is practice area leader at IBM Global Business Services. Earlier this year, he approved employee Scott Jenkins' request to spend two months in Bamako, Mali, working with fellow Geekcorps volunteers building radio stations and training local people to maintain them.

"We really encouraged Scott to volunteer overseas, but it's a two-way street. These volunteers are also bringing back a lot into IBM's own IT environment," says Marcellus. Nearly 70% of IBM's IT projects involve "a mix of talent, languages and culture," he adds -- and they can only benefit from the experiences of a well-traveled technology pro.

Off the Track

Temporarily abandoning the rat race to work in a developing country may no longer be considered a blot on an IT professional's résumé, but not all employers support the concept.

"Sometimes people read [about overseas volunteer work] and think it's the coolest thing in the world. Other people have a closed-minded view and see volunteering as a less ambitious goal," says Jenkins, now an associate partner in the application innovation services practice within IBM Global Business Services.

Recruiters aren't completely sold on the idea either. According to Andy Steinem, CEO of executive search firm Dahl-Morrow International, volunteering may "show strength and the capacity to be flexible," but "potential employers want to know why you were on the fast track and all of a sudden took yourself off."

John Estes, vice president of strategic alliances at staffing firm Robert Half Technology, warns that although volunteering can enhance a CV, too much of it raises a red flag. "If I saw a résumé that was dotted with a lot of volunteer work, I'd question how money-motivated they are," he says. "Employers want people to jump in and earn bonus money."

Turning off potential employers isn't the only risk techies face when they choose to volunteer in developing countries. Temporarily moving from a well-oiled, state-of-the art IT environment to a makeshift tech shop in rural Kenya can result in culture shock. "In the U.S., we complain about network speeds and computers that don't work. But when you're working in a rural setting in Africa, you're happy if you have electric power," says Ollis.

And then there's the difficulty of reacclimating after spending months abroad. "It's very hard to travel to a developing country for any length of time and not be affected. Reverse culture shock is very common," says Muir.

But it's a danger that more and more techies are willing to face as personal enrichment -- not just riches -- takes center stage in some IT careers.

Waxer is a freelance writer in Toronto. Contact her at cwaxer@sympatico.ca.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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