Level Up Your Programming Skills And Connections Through Volunteering

Do you feel stuck in your current job?

Maybe you are working on Line of Business desktop apps but you really want to be doing native iOS or Android work? Perhaps you are working for a large corporation–and have been for years–attending a lot more meetings than you used to, and you keep hearing about the good life at small startups.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret I accidently discovered just a few years into my career. I’ve pivoted multiple times, by choice, and last year landed my dream job as the technical co-founder of a local startup in downtown Austin. So what’s the secret?


That’s it!

Now, don’t click away just yet. Thar be some powerful concepts at work behind the gift I just handed you, matey! Stick with me so we can unpack this box.

First Volunteer Work: Sys Admin

First, let me explain how I figured this out.

Active Directory Users and Computers
About 15 years ago I setup a 25 PC, Windows 2000 network for a women’s crisis center for free. It’s a long story but the point is that at the time I didn’t really understand the value of what I did. I just needed
the experience because I thought my dream job was to be a Windows NT systems admin and I was studying for my MCSE at the time. (I aced the tests btw). I completed that project and landed a paying NT Admin job later that year while feeling good about helping a good cause.

Since that experience I’ve successfully voluteered my time to nonprofits, startups, and friends with small businesses. The project size and scope is really up to you to define just as long as it’s valuable to everyone involved.

Forget About Money (For Now)

First off, too many people I know won’t take this advice because they are stuck and failing at earning “market rates” for their work. Your compensation is going to be real world experience that deserves a prominent spot on your resume.

io1Or maybe they don’t have the time. Heck, it’s midnight, and I didn’t start writing this until after I put the kids to bed. I wanted to help a friend by guest posting and sharing some of my best ideas though. I happen to like writing and sharing knowledge with others. (Side note, guest posting is a great way to volunteer your time.) Look for projects which have a very defined scope that you think you can pull of in the time you used to spend power watching random two-star sitcoms on Netflix.

Trust in the fact that it will pay off in the long run. Good deeds don’t go unnoticed.

Problem Solving IRL

In addition to experience, there is something about listening to a client explain their problem forcing you to come up with the solution. That’s the type of knowledge that won’t appear in a textbook and that’s exactly the type of real world problem-solving ability that future employers are looking for.

Volunteering sends a message about the type of person you are. Explaining the project work you did for a nonprofit is interesting. Knowing that you did it to level up your game says a lot.

References Matter

You are also going to walk away with a solid reference if you are successful. Go check my LinkedIn recommendations that others have written.

I received a glowing comment by Kent Odland for volunteering my time to his young startup last summer after having coffee with him once. It was an interesting startup concept and I wanted to learn a specific skill he needed. He didn’t believe me at first. I think he thought I was trying to steal his IP or email list because he asked me to sign about 5 pages of legal documents saying I would be liable for missing deadlines, etc. I didn’t end up signing anything other than an NDA. I simply had the time and wanted to help him.

Do you think Kent would bend over backwards to get me an interview at his employer if I asked him to? I’m pretty sure he would!

Be Of Service To Others

As engineers we typically think of learning as a solo activity. We go buy a book, read through every search result on google and stack overflow, then maybe we create yet another Todo list project on Github, etc. Trust me, I’ve been there too and I still have to resist the urge to rely solely on this method of learning.

Thread Co-Founders
The Thread founding team

What’s interesting is the mental shift that happens when you are working for someone rather than simply working on something. The former requires accountability and relationship building, while the latter often lacks direction and purpose. I’m willing to bet you will learn more at a faster pace by working for someone or some cause than if you go it alone.

When I say “working for someone” I’m talking in the noblest sense that you are being of service to another person. Which is a very humanizing thing. People inherently care about people they know. Working side-by-side in the trenches is such a powerful mechanism. You simply cannot get to know a person by meeting for coffees alone. Work for them, work with them, in order to get to know them.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

Engineering work can be isolating, while career building is a team sport.

Don’t Overthink It

Don’t be tempted to try to identify projects only for people or companies where you believe they could directly help you in some way. If you read about my journey to becoming the technical co-founder of Thread, you might think I had some master plan at work.

The truth is that I didn’t have a plan other than trusting in the process. In hindsight it’s easy to line up all the events that took place and draw a straight line between points A and B. However, that’s not the whole story. I volunteered to help four different organizations last year and three of them didn’t directly lead to my current opportunity. But I do have a stronger network filled with people who would love to help me if I called on them.

Takeaway: Volunteer To Learn Specific Skills

The final lesson I want to leave you with is that my only “plan” was to be of service to others while developing some very specific skills.

In this case, my thesis was that iOS development was in high demand and my enterprise mobile background was already a good foundation for this pivot. I made a ton of connections along the way and many of those relationships will just continue to grow. I never knew where it was going to lead me but I was always confident that I would find something interesting if I kept going.

I hope you consider volunteering time as a valuable career building strategy and a great way to help those around you.

Be hungry and trust in the process my friend.

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Start something that you’re passionate about.

topofmygameYou’ve made it! You’ve followed all of the DREAM principles and you’ve built yourself a pretty sweet programming career. You’ve DISCOVERED who you are. You’ve REFINED your identity and you’ve set your goals. You worked hard to ESTABLISH your presence in the industry. You’ve done all you could to ADVANCE towards the goals that you have set for yourself. Now, you’re working on MASTERING your success by leveraging your experience and honing your awesomeness. You’re at the top of your game and things are great right?

Well, maybe not. Maybe, there is something inside of you that remains unfulfilled. You might not be getting all that you want, or need, from your current job. But why? This doesn’t make any sense. You love what you do, the people you work with and even the company you work for.

The problem, I think, is that a job, by definition, is not very fulfilling. Yeah, I know, that’s a bit of a downer, but bear with me. I am not saying that a job can’t be fulfilling at all or that a job can’t be fun, exciting or awesome. In fact, I absolutely LOVE my job. I think I work for the best company in the software development world! What I’m saying is that it just isn’t what you would be doing if you had your way. If you could choose to do anything, odds are it wouldn’t be to go work for someone else. You would probably do something for yourself.

In the end, a job is exactly that…A JOB. Somebody pays you to do something for them.

In the end, a job is exactly that…A JOB. Somebody pays you to do something for them. Let that marinade for a while. You are getting paid to do something that somebody else wants you to do for them. The fact that you’re getting paid for it implies that you would not otherwise be doing it. Maybe you wouldn’t be doing it at all or maybe just not at that very moment. Whatever the case may be, you are not getting paid to do what you want, but what someone else wants. Now that doesn’t sound very fulfilling does it? But what if you could do the things that YOU want to do?

This is something that I’ve struggled with most of my career. I’ve tried several times to starts something for myself but haven’t had a lot of success. I tried to go out on my own but was never able to make it work. I also tried, on several occasions, to start something with family, friends, coworkers and other people that I respect. Each time, the project started with a frenzy of activity but would eventually fizzle out as enthusiasm from other team members subsided. I’ve been trying to figure out why this happens for a while and I think I’ve finally made a breakthrough. I just haven’t been doing it for the right reasons.

Each and every one of my previous attempts to do something outside of work was missing passion.

Every time I’ve tried before, I’ve started a “project” for the wrong reasons. Maybe it was that I wanted to quit my job or that I wanted to work with a group of people that I liked or maybe it was just that I wanted to make more money. Therein lies the problem. Each and every one of my previous attempts to do something outside of work was missing passion. Yes, I love software development and I liked the people I partnered with but I wasn’t working on something that I was truly passionate about. My drive was to build a business, not to do something that I loved.

This endeavor wasn’t one that we were searching for or had to conjure up. It was born from the things we were already doing every day and were excited to share with our family, friends and coworkers.

Green-Start-Now-ButtonThis time around though, I think I’ve stumbled upon the perfect storm of circumstances. I am extremely fortunate that I’ve partnered with a couple of really talented guys that share my passion for helping people advance their careers and avoid the mistakes that we’ve made along the way. This endeavor wasn’t one that we were searching for or had to conjure up. It was born from the things we were already doing every day and were excited to share with our family, friends and coworkers. Eventually, we realized that others might benefit from it so we decided to make it available here. This has translated to a wonderful collaboration that is unique amongst all of my attempts to start something outside of work. And the key, I believe, is the passion that we all have and that was missing from all of my other endeavors.

So my advice to you is to find those one or two things that you are passionate about. Look for the things that you are always happy to discuss and that make you happy. Share those things with your coworkers. Share those things with your friends. Share those things with the world. Who knows, those things might be interesting, helpful or a useful resource for others.

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