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15 mar201815

Finding soul in the (corporate) machine

Durham, United KingdomDurham, United Kingdom
Looking for the new beginning
During the last 12 months I spent on the road I have been asked many times about what made me take a leap of faith in regards to my career, what or who was my inspiration, and how was I going to survive. It brings me back to one conversation in early February in the kitchen of the office of my previous employer. One of my colleagues, after having heard I was leaving, with no hesitation said he could not believe I was doing it, that I had some guts to go along with a plan like that, and that he wished he could have done something like that too.

It took months of preparation and planning to make sure my risks were calculated, my future was at least reasonably safe, and my goals were clearly defined - foundations of a good plan!

It is never easy to just pack your bags, hitchhike to the next airport, and take a flight of your choosing. I knew I would miss my British life a bit when I leave. My tap dancing classes, my snooker lessons, my shifts at Spot White with the best crew ever, my house Edward, my gym, and my routines. But in my heart I knew that the change was needed.

To be perfectly honest, people who know me even a bit know that I could never approach this leap the easy, unprepared, pack-and-go kind of way. I love travelling, definitely have the wanderlust gene in my DNA, but being able to travel and explore the wonders of this planet has always been a reward to me - A reward for hard work.If I wanted to change my life, take a leap into the unknown, I had to make sure it has that main component - meaningful work.

I started my previous job in 2011 as a JavaScript Developer in a 13-strong team of behavioural marketing company. We grew quickly throughout the years and I grew with it. I became Senior Data Analyst and was able to do what I really liked: managing databases, coding, querying, generating reports, graphs, and all that has to do with data. 
Always the last to leave the office when we were moving to a bigger place
There was, however, a part of me that has always longed for something different. Part of me knew that my job was good and secure, and for most of my life I thought that is all one needed. The other part had always wanted to break free, work in social development or non-profit sector, but having no academic background, therefore very limited network, I could not see a way to step into that world. It is said that the need is the mother of invention and I fully agree with that. The universe was on my side when I was really eager to change my scenery, as that is when my inspiration came to my life.

Mei, my dear friend from Singapore, had always been telling me that it is possible for me to transition my skills into a non-profit job and all I have to do is find the right people to see those skills and take a chance on me. She has been working in NGOs or companies that work with or outsource consultancy to NGOs, for many years and I always took everything she said very seriously. In 2016 after many conversations and heated discussions I decided to go to my first volunteering trip. Despite it being one of those quick two-week excursions where you can not really make a lot of impact, it made me realise what I really wanted. While doing the work in Nepal for Creating Possibilities Nepal, I felt like I was with the right people in the right place doing the right thing. Believe me, this feeling comes more rarely than you think. At that moment I learned that being with people focused around the same cause and equally dedicated to do something about it, meant much more than just a good paycheck.
With Mei during my third trip to Singapore
After I had come back from the trip I started wondering, could I push myself to work in a place where I would feel like that every day? I decided to take an action. I spent countless hours researching what I could do to get into the non-profit sector and that is how I stumbled upon MovingWorlds. Their mission resonated with me as much as it could. I wanted to volunteer, expand, and adapt my specific skills to the social development world. At the same time I knew that if I left UK I would be able to travel a bit first, mostly to see all my lovely Canadians I had met in Nepal few months earlier. My Canadians (as I like to call them) are amazing group of people who also had a great impact on my decisions. All of them have been connected to various non-profit organisations and by talking about my plans for the future they made me believe that what I wanted to do was not such a crazy idea as it seemed at first.
Expressing my excitement during a weekend trip to Pokhara, Nepal
 
Experteering that changed my world
One of the projects I found on MovingWorlds and was accepted to, was Monitoring & Evaluation Coordinator position at LAFF (Latin American Foundation for the Future) in Cusco, Peru. What has data analytics in common with monitoring and evaluation - you might ask? Thanks to my friend Mei’s advice, a lot of pushing, and enormous amount of believing in me, I started learning more about how traditional M&E changes its nature nowadays to be even more data-focused and progress further in the “era of data”. After few courses, copious amount of reading and assignments,  I began to see a clear path where I can fit in that world. For the first time in years I felt like a have a clear goal and despite its level of difficulty it did not seem unreachable, just challenging, and I am always up for a good challenge.
One of the LAFF traditions: goodbye dinner for leaving volunteers. In this case it was our Local Fundraising Coordinator - Anushka (first on the right)
During my placement in Cusco I had a job interview with an organisation from New York and I remember vividly when I was asked the following question: “What, in your opinion, are main differences when working for an NGO and working in a corporate environment?”. I did not have to think twice about it. Working for LAFF reminded me of the golden years of my previous employment, the first three years of a startup when there was a handful of people and twice as many jobs to do. Thanks to the prevailing and common mindset “do whatever is necessary for the good of the team” we did everything we had to, but we did it because we wanted to - and that made all the difference.

Very important fact is that LAFF learned very quickly that my skill set does not end on data and M&E, by asking questions that normally would never be asked. They had specific needs but they were never a top priority to fill volunteer positions but in my case of a “tech guy”, they asked me about them few weeks before my arrival. It turned out I had exactly what they needed. The organisation was in the middle of Salesforce implementation that was taking ages. Once they found out I have the skills needed to progress with it, my priorities and focus changed. Adaptability of an organisation kicked in big time and I was impressed by it. You need something, you have somebody who matches your needs - you act on it, you do not wait around for weeks to see if it is right. I was given the responsibility, trust, and I have ve never felt better. 
Visiting one of our projects outside of Cusco.
Even though my new tasks took priority I was still responsible for parts of Monitoring & Evaluation, helped with any technical issues, retouched photos for partner organisation Mosqoy, volunteered my design skills to create posters and flyers, and much more. The best part of the whole Experteering experience was how quickly the organisation adapted to my skills to make sure they use them to the maximum, the trust they bestowed upon me, and the belief that I have what it takes to get the job done. When your employer (of any kind) believes in you, in your ability to learn even if you do not cover 100% of their requirements, is the feeling you can not buy and is rare to find these days. 

It’s a trap!
(If you read this title out loud in the way Admiral Ackbar did, you get bonus points!)
Small, volunteer-led organisations do not have capacity to hire many professionals these days, and to be honest - the technology trap is still out there because it is a no brainer whether an organisation should pay a fundraising expert or a technician. Technology is still considered to be a very difficult area of life for most people and it’s partly the reason why non-profit organisations find themselves in so called “technology trap”. 

The study published in 2016 by OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) explored the distribution of users’ computer skills and unfortunately only 5% of the population (almost quarter of a million of people were surveyed in 33 countries) has high computer-related abilities.  {"type":"www","url":"https://www.nngroup.com/articles/computer-skill-levels","date":"8 March 2018","title":"The Distribution of Users’ Computer Skills: Worse Than You Think"}
While having worked for LAFF I realised that there is a big talent gap between small and mid-sized NGOs and those big ones that can afford technical staff thus leading to the conclusion that experteers like me have an important role to play. My 5.5 months were filled with work, ideas, improvements, discussions, but also knowledge sharing and advocacy about important technological issues (security for example). 

This is topic I will be writing more about as I found it fascinating to compare technological gaps between NGOs and even small corporate businesses. I am glad I was and still am part of LAFF’s digital transformation that will hopefully take them one step further to be more advanced, productive, and independent in regards to technology.

 
Soul in the machine
My main goal was to find a place where I can feel included again, feel like the work I’m doing not only matters but is also creating a positive change. Experteering with LAFF has fully brought those feelings back and I have felt like I was on a new path. Where is it leading? I have no idea but the path feels right and it has led me to my next experteering project, this time for MovingWorlds.
 
Another LAFF tradition - Monday pot-luck lunches where everybody would bring a home-made dish.
I know how hard it is to see yourself changing your career or even wanting to be involved in the “other” world. Sometimes it is difficult to do it on your own and not everybody would be lucky to have somebody like Mei - a person who would guide you to the cliff and push you in the right moment, so that you can finally try to fly.

Making the leap is never a quick decision you make in the heat of a moment, even when some people paint it that way it is never like that. Let the idea grow in you, explore, talk to people, past experteers, leaders in non-profit sector, your friends who perhaps volunteered before. Find a place you would like to see yourself in, whether it’s a 6-month experteering project, a new career, or a yearly holiday that instead of lying on the beach, you can spend making a real difference, and go for it!

Most of us, especially technicians, developers, and admins, work in some kind of corporate environment that just feeds the big machine. We all know we have to pay our bills, support our families, and save some dough for our future but thanks to the opportunities of working with organisations like LAFF and MovingWorlds you can not only find but most importantly be the soul in that machine.
My goodbye party in Cusco with the LAFF Team and my cusquenan friends.
The song that inspired me to write about this:


 
 
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