Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Cheap vs. green: eco-friendly toilet paper

Several weeks ago, I had a spazz while standing in the toilet paper aisle at Whole Wallet because I was once again forced to choose between being frugal and being green. In this case, the choice was between the inexpensive regular TP (made of newly chopped-up trees) and the Seventh Generation recycled TP (which costs an arm and a leg). The "cheap vs. green" thing really gets old after a while.

I did some shopping around so I can at least get the best possible deal on eco-friendly TP. My findings are posted here: Recycled Toilet Paper Price Comparison

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

One-on-one with a nonprofit tech sector expert

A couple of weeks ago, I met with Allen Gunn (a.k.a. "Gunner"), executive director of Aspiration, to continue a conversation about nonprofit tech careers that we started at Nonprofit Boot Camp. From Aspiration's website: "Aspiration’s mission is to connect nonprofit organizations with software solutions that help them better carry out their work." After talking with Gunner, I felt a lot better, especially after the unexpected disappointing news from New Dream. How can you not feel better when someone tells you, "My passion is to help people like you succeed"? When making big, scary life changes, you definitely need someone like this on your team.

I'll summarize some of the information and advice I got from Gunner:

Ecology of the nonprofit tech sector:
  • Paid positions
    • Dedicated tech staffers at nonprofits
    • "Accidental techies": nonprofit staffers who wear the techie hat out of circumstance or neccesity
    • Nonprofit and for-profit companies that provide software or tech services and whose primary customers are nonprofits
    • Self-employed contractors/consultants whose clients are nonprofits
  • Unpaid positions
    • Tech volunteers
    • People who work on open source software for nonprofits
How to get started as a self-employed nonprofit web developer:
  • Build a portfolio of websites, on a volunteer basis if necessary.
  • As an intermediate stage, offer flat-rate projects. These are attractive to nonprofits because of the fixed cost, but note that you assume all of the risk of cost/time overruns. (Flat-rate projects are also a good option for more experienced people who are good at estimating exactly how much time the project will take.)
  • It takes years to build a reputation.
  • Experience in the nonprofit sector is important: if you have built websites in the for-profit sector, nonprofits may believe that you are capable of building websites, but they may not necessarily trust you to be able to do it in the very under-resourced nonprofit sector.
Check these out as possible collaborators/employers:
  • Radical Designs - web development shop based in SF
  • Picnet - has an office in SF; consider applying as a support/maintenance engineer for entry-level experience
  • Democracy in Action - Java house. East Coast HQ, but they have a small West Coast office in SF.
Opportunities for consulting niches:
  • Fire drill websites - Build a nonprofit website in two weeks; let them know up-front what functionality they can and cannot expect from the website.
  • Technology selection - what is the right stack for a particular nonprofit to use, given their size and characteristics?
  • "Intake" work for birthing a website - see below
Hourly rates for nonprofit tech:
  • $75-100/hr: "Activist" rate for web work; people who are not in it for the money and who want to keep it affordable for the nonprofit community
  • $100-125/hr: High-end "activist" rate for web work; Groovy development
  • $125+/hr: "Capitalist" rate; charging what the market will bear
  • $200-$400/hr: (!!!) "Capitalist" rate for Ruby on Rails development
  • This was a pleasant surprise for me. Combined with a live-below-your-means lifestyle, these rates should be sufficient for me to make a non-negligible income while also having enough time for other pursuits and volunteer projects. I do need to take the extra tax bite for ICs into account.
Dysfunction in the nonprofit world:
  • Many need organizational development
  • Know when to walk away. Identify no-win situations and relationships that have reached the end of their useful life.
  • Nonprofits can play mind games - they are masters of the passive-aggressive guilt trip and may try to guilt you into continuing a relationship as a volunteer/employee, even if it's not working out
  • Organizational politics - as in any org, there may be internal groups that wrangle, oppose each other, and want completely different outcomes
  • Not brutally efficient like the for-profit world
Volunteering tech services to nonprofits:
  • Set your own terms. Be proactive and propose a project/task, rather than waiting for them to assign you something. Make sure the scope of the project is limited and well-defined, rather than open-ended. (This advice may not necessarily apply to all volunteers, but it definitely applies to someone in my situation, who has a strategic purpose for volunteering and needs to make sure that the unpaid volunteer engagement is a fair exchange of my time for valuable experience that I need.)
  • If you leave the nonprofit, don't screw them. I.e., if you decide to part ways (because the situation is not working out, you have been offered a paid job, you need to acquire other types of experience, or any other reason), leave their website/technology in a good enough state so that they can continue to use it and so that it will be easy for someone else to pick up where you left off. Be professional, don't burn bridges, part as friends.
  • Technology audit
  • Website audit
Question: I really want to work for a particular org. If I do some work for them on a pro-bono basis, will it compromise my ability to get paid employment with them?
  • Volunteer and pro-bono work can build your reputation with the org, add to your experience/skills, and help you get to know each other and see if it's a good fit.
  • However, you don't want it to erode the possibility of future employment
  • Choose a high-value deliverable
  • Limit the time frame and scope. Don't make it open-ended, you may open yourself up for exploitation.
  • Be ready to walk. It's like dating: even if you like them a lot, you shouldn't act too desperate :)
  • If the pro-bono project ends and they ask you to continue working with them but don't offer to pay, there is code language you can use in such situations that basically tells them "I need to pay the rent"
  • Even if you like the org a lot, there is value in working with a variety of different orgs.
Why is nonprofit tech is a growth sector?
  • Most nonprofits still don't have a website! (Then again, many nonprofits don't have the funding for one! Or, they might be all-volunteer shops run by a guy or two in their spare time.)
  • Good consultants are booked 3-6 months out!
  • Technology stacks are now mature enough that nonprofits can safely adopt them (e.g. CMS)
  • If you can apply technology to facilitate fundraising, you are golden! (e.g. fundraising widgets)
Birthing a nonprofit website:
  • Facilitation. Asking questions. Gathering requirements. This requires more time and effort than in the for-profit world
  • Dealing with organizational politics
  • "Intake" work (requirements gathering, etc.) - there is a great need for people to do this, since a lot of techies shy away from it and prefer to just do implementation
Entry paths for nonprofit tech:
  • In the for-profit software world, "QA Engineer" is one entry path for eventually becoming a "Development Engineer".
  • In the nonprofit software world, "Support Engineer" and "Maintenance Engineer" are the analogous entry paths.
Occupational hazards of nonprofit tech:
  • Nonprofits that come to you and say, "We need technology X". Why?!?! Start with needs and requirements, not with technologies.
  • Overengineering; custom code. Techies who come in and create a custom code website just for experience, then leave (and leave the nonprofit screwed).
Other notes:

You may have skills you didn't realize you had. For example, as a developer I have gone through several release cycles for a large-scale enterprise product - this translates to project management experience! Be on the lookout for transferable skills that I already have, and chances to acquire new ones.

Most nonprofits don't need the full-blown "scalable robust" solution. Most nonprofits can't even afford the solution that actually addresses their needs. So, there is an art to choosing and delivering a solution that 1) meets a few of their most pressing needs, 2) is maintainable by non-tech-savvy staffers (or future consultants), and 3) leaves them a path for growth.

Nonprofits make decisions at a glacial pace - including hiring decisions. Be patient and be prepared to wait.

"M*A*S*H" model - stabilize the patient. When you start with a nonprofit to do their IT work, first attend to the places where they're bleeding. E.g. are they doing backups?!?! Cheap/easy/kludgy backups are better than no backups at all.

If you are weak in graphic design, you can partner with someone with strong design skills.

I should go look at the resumes of other nonprofit techies.

Get some skin in the game! Gunner has connections with a lot of nonprofit web consulting groups and can hook me up with shops where I can get experience.

I need to consult my internal compass and decide what I'm passionate about: nonprofit engagement ("intake" work may be the best fit), nonprofit impact (there's a high-impact opportunity at a Drupal shop), or technology (there are opportunities for Ruby on Rails developers to create all sorts of custom bells and whistles for nonprofit websites).

If I go the Drupal route, Gunner knows C. from Floatleft on the East Coast who could be a great mentor for work/life balance issues in the nonprofit web development.

Next steps:

Gunner put me in touch with someone who's doing Drupal/CiviCRM websites for nonprofits who needs some extra help and is willing to work with someone with my experience (or lack thereof). I need to set up a meeting with him to see if we can work out a mutually agreeable arrangement. I also need to think about what I want to get out of this experience so that I can bring it to our discussion.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Sharing tomatoes with strangers

I was walking home today from the Cupertino farmer's market today when I spotted a sign in someone's front yard that said: "Pick some tomatoes for yourself." Next to it was a sprawling cherry tomato plant. So I picked a handful and ate them, standing on the sidewalk. Delicious! How good of these people to be so generous with strangers.

Speaking of neighborhood sharing, I signed up for a website called Neighborrow that makes it easier to borrow and lend books, videos, music, games, tools, and everything else with your neighbors, friends, and colleagues. Check it out - they have many local sharing groups, and even if there's not one in your area yet, it's very easy to create one and invite your friends to join!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Repertoire List

This post will be my vocal repertoire list. I will use it to keep track of pieces that I've worked on and ones that I plan to work on. I'll update it as I go along.

In progress:
"Una donna a quindici anni" from Così fan Tutte - W. A. Mozart


"In uomini, in soldati" from Così fan Tutte - W. A. Mozart
"Deh vieni, non tardar" from Le nozze di Figaro - W. A. Mozart
"Ganymed" - F. Schubert
"Leise flehen meine Lieder (Ständchen)" - F. Schubert
"Sure on this shining night" - Samuel Barber
"Oh, had I Jubal's lyre" from Joshua - G. F. Handel
"Frère! voyez!...Du gai soleil" from Werther - Jules Massenet
"Go, lovely Rose" - Ned Rorem
"Little Elegy" - Ned Rorem


"Per la gloria d'adorarvi" - Giovanni Battista Bononcini
"Lachen und Weinen" - Franz Schubert
"Vittoria, mio core" - Giacomo Carissimi
"How beautiful are the feet" from Messiah - G. F. Handel
"Suscepit Israel" from Magnificat - J. S. Bach
"Virga Jesse floruit" from Magnificat - J. S. Bach
"Quia respexit humilitatem" from Magnificat - J. S. Bach
"Et exultavit spiritus meus" from Magnificat - J. S. Bach
"O del mio dolce ardor" - C. W. von Gluck
"Sento nel core" - Alessandro Scarlatti
"Come raggio di sol" - Antonio Caldara
"Lasciatemi morire" - Claudio Monteverdi
"Vedrai, carino" from Don Giovanni - W. A. Mozart

Friday, September 14, 2007

Podcast on transitioning into non-profit sector

This podcast rocks. The presenter really knows her stuff. She discusses a ton of topics, including résumé writing, whether degrees/certificates are worthwhile, volunteering as an entry path, compensation, and mistakes to avoid.

Breakfast with P.; bootcamp debriefing and more green careers

Just met P. for breakfast and more green career talk. Topics discussed:

Nonprofit Boot Camp debriefing. We both met helpful and inspiring people. I got some useful info from the sessions; less so for P., she felt that the target audience was not what she expected. There was an awesome podcast from last year's bootcamp; will post the link later.

Living in a cultural locus. The city has a higher density of population and cultural events (and social change orgs, for that matter), but we do have a number of resources available to us in the South Bay and Peninsula. Moving to Palo Alto or Mountain View might help in terms of getting closer to local cultural stuff, as well as just being closer to the city.

Job listings. I've started assembling feeds of job listings: non-profit tech jobs from Craigslist,, and NTEN; non-profit general jobs from Craigslist and; and corporate part-time/contract tech jobs at Craigslist and Monster. I should also look at The NonProfit Times, both for job listings and for general info about the sector. It's educational to look both at job listings as well as the résumés of non-profit workers (which you can find at Craigslist or LinkedIn).

LinkedIn - good for professional contacts/networking and keeping in touch with former colleagues. Facebook and MySpace are more social and skew younger.

Speaking gigs as a way to promote a good cause and gain exposure for ourselves, especially career-changers like us who need to network and make connections! We tend to undervalue our knowledge and experience if we're not "expert talking heads"; we should learn to value this knowledge and share it with others.

Volunteer work; Hands On Bay Area and OneBrick. Both great organizations, I've been a Project Leader with Hands On for many years now. However, I think Hands On may be less suitable for P.'s goals because the projects don't afford frequent exposure and interaction with the staff and because they don't do much in the advocacy area of the environmental sector; they're really more about service. Finding an enviro org and volunteering for it directly on a regular basis might be a better way to go.

P. is looking for a book that describes the non-profit employment sector; what kinds of jobs are there? From what I've seen, every corporate job has a non-profit analog, but it's not clear to me yet what are all the categories of jobs that are unique to non-profits.

C6 - a group that meets in Cupertino at the Chinese restaurant near Blaney and Stevens Creek, they have interesting speakers and take a deliberate approach to job networking.

Women's Environmental Network - Bay Area networking and career development org for women in the environmental field.

Green Drinks - an environmental happy hour. Groups worldwide; local groups are in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley.

To do:

See if I can hook P. up with B. and J. from YMOYL. P. would like to talk to people who are financially independent, or very close, and learn what their investment strategy and portfolio is like. (B. if you're reading this, would you be game? I know you're really busy at work right now, but perhaps in a few weeks?)

Pass along any job listings that I think might be a good fit for P.

Help P. find connections if she identifies an enviro group to volunteer/work for

Check in with P. about résumés next time we meet

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Grieg is finally approaching vivace

The simplified Grieg piece I posted about earlier might actually be approaching “vivace”.

Light at the end of the tunnel.

Likewise, in my piano exercises, my fingers are starting to play dominant seventh chords in different keys and inversions with a greater degree of ease. That’s a first for me.

It’s nice to feel like I’m making some progress.

Working at New Dream: the good(?) news and the bad news

Well, fall is here and I finally got in touch again with the IT guy at Center for a New American Dream about working for them.

The good news is that, since I last spoke with them, they got together the budget to create a new position on their technology staff.

The bad news is…they hired someone else for it. On top of that, this more or less wipes out any remaining budget they have for compensating contractors…like myself.

Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! That hurts! I’d be lying if I said it didn’t.

That said, it’s still early in the game. I need some time to react and get my new game plan together, but I think I still have a Plan B, C, D, ... up my sleeve. Good thing I’m currently on hiatus from work life and its attendant stresses, and am living a relaxed and happy life at present. Otherwise, I do not think I would be handling this news so well, I’d be probably feeling a lot more rage and heartbreak. Who knows, maybe it will hit me later. But I do find that stress makes me more likely to blow situations out of proportion.

But for now, I will indulge myself just a little bit and jump up and down in anguish for a couple of hours this afternoon. This may also call for Ben and Jerry’s, or Haagen-Daaz. But I think by tomorrow I’ll be ready to move on and plan my next move.