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The Year Ahead: Volunteering your IT skills

Volunteers with IT skills are in demand around the globe - ZDNet UK takes a look at some of the opportunities available, and their benefits
Written by Matt Loney, Contributor

In the Maldives, they want a systems analyst; in the Philippines, a multimedia specialist adviser; and in Nepal, an IT adviser. Across Africa, countries from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe are looking to recruit IT specialists in every field.

And in the UK, IT workers are increasingly looking abroad for opportunities that may put a different slant on commonly held notions of job satisfaction and professional development. Volunteer organisations are reporting an increased number of applicants from the IT sector as the failing dot-com economy has hit. And rather than offering stock options, the voluntary sector offers the chance to develop 'soft skills', say the agencies.

All the examples mentioned above come from the Web site of VSO, the UK's best-known volunteer agency. "We have seen a increase over the past year of people with IT backgrounds applying," says Mark Crosby, placement adviser in the science and IT recruitment team at VSO. The fallout from the communications sector has been a particularly rich source of prospective volunteers, he adds.

But the job doesn't suit everyone. "Dot-commers" as Crosby calls, them, are unlikely to find placements unless they have specific skills that can be usefully shared. Programmers will rarely get jobs as programmers. VSO's ethos is to share skills and create sustainable development, and the last thing most organisations want is a programmer coming in to develop a system and then leave, even if they document it, says Crosby. Programmers are more likely to find themselves teaching others to program.

So what does VSO look for in IT professionals? For a system administrator, the local employer will typically ask for a relevant degree with four to five years' experience. Computer trainers can get away with slightly less experience -- two to three years. "We get a lot of help desk people saying 'I've been doing support'," says Crosby. "But although they may know how to troubleshoot, they may not necessarily have the right skills to train people." Experience of developing a manual or a training course can help here.

Many IT opportunities are developed around an education basis or local NGOs (non-government organisations). "In education, we might send people into a teacher training college or a computer centre in a regular college, training staff how to use computers and acquire the skills to use the computers for exams, for instance. They might also end up teaching the students too."

A volunteer might also be expected to get involved in maintenance and setting up networks, for example. "The level of contract support will not be the same there as it is here," Crosby adds. For such jobs, support experience is more important than a degree. IT professionals who end up working in NGOs can expect to find themselves in training posts, or very occasionally working as systems analysts or developers.

Before applying to VSO, Andrew Schofield worked for six years as a programmer and project manager, involved in the design and construction of games, tools and systems. In September 1999 he left the UK to work as a computer trainer at Gondar College of Medical Sciences in Ethiopia. "What is my life like? Wonderful, full, vibrant and stimulated!" he says. He has to boil a kettle to wash in hot water in the mornings, but doesn't seem to mind. The 15-minute walk to work takes him through scenery that he says still fills him with wonder, before he settles down to his day. This can consist of fixing, installing and upgrading systems and chasing suppliers. "I also try to investigate the potential of any ideas that have been inspired by discussions with colleagues," says Schofield. One such idea was the filming of a surgical operation with a view to turning it into computer-based training material.

A large selection of jobs is listed on VSO's Web site, but these are rarely positions that need filling. "Many of those have been filled," says Crosby. "So people should not apply with a specific post in mind. We advertise the opportunity and hope that we find someone with the right soft and hard skills -- very often people will not see details of individual jobs before they have been through the selection process."

Former VSO volunteer Ian Patten ended up working as an MIS/IT coordinator with children's charity PLAN International in Harare. Prior to that he had spent 13 years with Logica UK as a computer consultant. Like many volunteers, Patten applied to VSO for a number of reasons, foremost among them that he wanted to give something back and share his skills. But also like many volunteers, he wanted to experience a different culture and learn from that culture too.

In his job at PLAN International, Patten was responsible for ensuring good IT practices across six offices in Zimbabwe. This involved everything from planning and managing the installation of LANs in each office along with an email system, to sharing his knowledge with a local counterpart who would carry on the work after his departure, and producing an IT manual for the organisation.

Patten says the technology was relatively up to date, and although "it was rather challenging actually getting the stuff through Zimbabwe Customs, I was always successful in the end." In short, he says, there was no difference in the desktop technology I was using in Zimbabwe to that I had been using in the UK."

What was different and rather trying at times, according to Patten, was the poor state of Zimbabwe's telephone network and electrical supply. "These were particularly troublesome in the wet season. The unreliable electrical supply was mitigated by the use of surge protectors and uninterruptible power supplies. When the telephone lines failed users were unable to exchange email across country. I was actually very pleased when people moaned about this, because it meant that they were beginning to rely on email to do their jobs effectively."

Equipment broke down more often than Patten was used to in the UK. Although there were a few companies who could reliably repair equipment in Zimbabwe, obtaining spare parts could be rather time consuming as it frequently had to be imported.

Patten says he gained a great deal personally from the experience, including valuable experience of running an IT operation in a different culture over a fragile infrastructure and with little support.

Indeed, prospective volunteers should expect very different issues when working in developing countries. "In the IT sector in particular you face problems that people are just not used to in the UK," says VSO's Crosby. "Heat, dust and humidity can pose particular problems." In humid climates floppy discs have to be kept in airtight containers with a sachet of silica gel to arrest the growth of mould, which will quickly destroy disc drives. Volunteers in the tropics report instances of gecko lizards blowing up laser printers, and spiders nesting inside PCs.

Among all volunteers, IT professionals are most likely to end up working in urban areas, and so are unlikely to have to deal on a daily basis with the hardships faced by volunteers in rural areas. "In Eritrea, we have a posting at a teacher training school in Asmara, where the electricity can be intermittent," says Crosby. Another computer trainer, working at a school for deaf people in Ghana, has to deal with a less than reliable generator to power the network. "But if you go to somewhere like Sri Lanka, it's all likely to be set up for you," says Crosby.

Highest among the concerns of potential volunteers is the effect that two years 'out of the loop' can have on their careers. "IT volunteers feel they may be dumbing down their skills and working with basic packages, but I don't think that's the case," says Crosby. "The standard of materials can surprise people, and volunteering an ideal way to develop soft skills -- learning to work with different people."

VSO does not believe that employers look on returned volunteers less favourably. The organisation now runs programmes with blue chip companies such as Shell, Accenture, American Express and Hewlett-Packard to send employees on short-term placements. "They see the experience favourably, and if these companies do, then others should too."

Experiences of returned volunteers seem to back up Crosby's comments, and say that two years is really not as long as it seems in the technology industry. When Ian Patten returned from Zimbabwe, he says, he was not too worried about being out of touch technically: "In my experience most IT advances tend to be fairly easy to grasp once you've navigated through the jargon. Indeed I was reasonably confident that my 13 years of experience in the IT industry would stand me in good stead as far as getting a job was concerned." Patten was offered a job soon after his return from Zimbabwe at a London-based management consultant.

VSO has recruitment bases in the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Kenya and the Philippines. In addition to taking volunteers from these countries, VSO also recruits from the whole of the European Union. Its recruitment Web site can be found here.

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