Volunteering Can Buy You IT Experience

Volunteering Can Buy You IT Experience

A supposedly hot certification or a few months of technology training isn't always enough to propel you into the market for tech jobs. Employers almost always prefer to hire people with real-world experience.

To aspiring techies, it's a catch-22: You can't get a job without experience, and you can't get experience without a job. One solution: Volunteer work.

Grassroots environmental groups, homeless shelters, churches and other nonprofit organizations often rely on technology professionals or professionals-to-be to do everything from set up local area networks to develop Web sites. Though it's not a guaranteed way to overcome having no professional experience (nothing is, after all), volunteering is a valuable way to prove yourself outside the classroom. It can also help you make the contacts essential to a successful job search.

"It's great hands-on experience, and it looks good on a resume," says Joan Heberger, program associate at TechSoup, a San Francisco-based organization with a program that matches techies with volunteer work. "It's building technology skills, but also people skills. It's also showing that you can see things through to completion."

That's just what employers want to know when they've got an applicant who is self-taught or newly trained. Can the applicant work on a team? Can he handle deadlines? Does he know how to translate classroom lessons to the workplace? Volunteer work provides answers to those questions, and it can also provide something else you'll need. "You're probably going to get references out of it," Heberger says.

Case Study in Volunteering

Consider Charles Smith, now the network administrator for the Center for Media and Independent Learning at the University of California at Berkeley. When Smith started to volunteer through TechSoup, he was in the midst of a career transition, having worked as a chef for 10 years. In his volunteer assignments, Smith worked as a computer technician, rebuilding and troubleshooting computers for underprivileged families for Berkeley Neighborhood Computers and designing Web sites for nonprofits through CharityFocus.

"Volunteering at these different nonprofits allowed me to try several different types of jobs in the high tech industry," he says. "I was able to figure out if I liked writing code for Web sites or tearing apart old computers."

Techies in some fields will have an easier time than others looking for volunteer opportunities. Anyone with an A+ certification, for instance, is likely to find organizations, such as Berkeley Neighborhood Computers, devoted to rebuilding donated PCs. Web designers and developers are also likely to find groups looking for free assistance with their sites. Those looking to gain networking experience may have more of a challenge, as organizations may want an experienced techie for the job. Even if you're not able to set up a network on your own, consider opportunities that would allow you to assist in the task.

Of course, if you're planning to volunteer, you should also have a genuine desire to help the organization rather than just gain quick experience and split once you've got a full-time job. Experienced IT pros often find a distinct type of reward in their nonprofit work. "If you set up a network for a nonprofit, you can immediately see it's made a huge improvement," notes Heberger. "That's one of the reasons why they volunteer; the impact is visible."

Where to Volunteer

Techies looking for volunteer opportunities should consider these resources:

  • Volunteer Matching Organizations: These groups match volunteers with opportunities. Some, like TechSoup in San Francisco or Voluntech.org in New York City, specialize in connecting techies with volunteer assignments. For a listing of volunteer matching services, see the list at TechSoup.org.
  • Community Volunteer Centers: Many communities have volunteer centers or point people to coordinate opportunities. Call the city or town hall or the Chamber of Commerce to find the appropriate contact.
  • Do-It-Yourself Volunteering: You may want to create your own volunteer assignment. If you're associated with a particular organization, suggest a tech-related project you can handle.

Learn more about charity careers.