Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Conversations with a non-profit technology co-op member

I just spoke to T., a developer and project manager at a tech co-op that serves non-profit organizations. He was kind enough to chat with me on the phone and share a lot of helpful info about his own experiences and career path as an NP techie. They are a small org that does websites and web apps for NP's and do a lot with Drupal and CivicSpace. I have a fair amount interest in working in a similar setting and with those technologies, so I listened eagerly to his perspectives.

Background of T. and of co-op

Recent college grad; active in campus activism/volunteerism; changed tracks from for-profit to non-profit in final semester

Career path: NP web guy -> Americorps IT consulting -> met members of the co-op

Spent 1.5 years as freelancer/loosely affiliated w/co-op

Co-op decided to specialize in web apps/web presence (rather than any tech-related project under the sun)

Currently has 7 full-time employees, with insurance! W-2 instead of 1099 forms!

Only a few similarly-structured co-ops nationally. Hillsborough something on East Coast?

Work environment

Tight-knit team - like a web start-up - friends outside of work, too

True co-op style - they try to keep the organizational structure as horizontal as possible

Totally virtual - most are generally in the same area of the country, but a couple of them are far afield

However, this can make management and HR decisions difficult, esp. w.r.t. performance evaluation

Also can be tough to get decisions made, get things done w/this kind of structure

Members fall into different philosophical camps: 1) business-focused: emphasize the sustainability of the business when choosing clients/projects and making decisions, 2) Idealists/idealogues (two flavors: the open-source/tech idealists, and the cause/mission idealists)

The art of client selection: evaluate them for their mission (do you want to support it), organizational readiness

Resist the urge not to bill hours (in the heat of enthusiasm about a cause or project!)

Quality vs. price - ugly reality is that there's not always the time or budget to follow software best practices. Have to be strategic about designing and testing the software. More often than not, can't build the elegant/reusable software solution, and can't do a lot of testing.

Co-op bills at $75/hour

It's an unusual niche that has its challenges. They want to be able to continue serving small orgs; however, they also want to be competitive for larger projects, especially when they're bidding against for-profit firms that charge 3x but also have 3x the resources (and can thus do 3x the work, or do the same work 3x as fast)

Co-op is transitioning into more of a sustainable business venture rather than a network of loose affiliates. Has been evolving in this direction for the past couple years. Have hired full-time staff and seem to be at the take-off point.


Non-profit sector mythbusters:

Myth: "People in NP will all be working for good, all the time. People in the corporate are all about the money."
Reality: There are people in NP for whom it's just a job they do for $$$. Conversely there do exist corporate folks who care (as my own experience bears out).

Myth: "NP budgets may be smaller, but their timelines are more flexible, so I will have more opportunity to write good software."
Reality: Budgets are definitely smaller, but timelines are not very flexible!

Put foot down for including testing as part of the dev cycle for large projects (well above & beyond a McWebsite). Been burned before.

McWebsites: Basic web presence for $1500-$5000. Includes informal/free support (fortunately this is not abused because they have a good, informal, open relationship w/clients and can turn around and say "hey, that's more support than we can offer w/o doing a new engagement".)

Advice on freelancing, work-life balance

Have a contract! This is a no-brainer, but T. has been burned before!

Beware of having too little or too much motivation. Need to bill enough hours to eat! But, since your home IS your office, it's also possible to be "at work" 24/7! E.g. T. sometimes bills 60-80 hours on busiest weeks, translates to 80-100 hours actually in front of the computer!

On a related note, myth of billable hours: if you are billing 40-50 hours/week, you are actually working more hours than that! Maintaining your business and dealing w/the business side of things, finding new clients, etc.

Many freelancers/co-op members also still volunteer for their causes of choice. This can keep you very busy!

Toggl.com - good tool for tracking hours

Desirable skills for NP techies

If you already have tech skills, look to building project management skills. There are a lot of code jockeys out there for the NP sector to draw on. What's in short supply is people with management/PM skills who can serve the NP sector. Problem is the pay and also the career advancement (you top out in a couple years). People with these skills are desperately needed.

Soft skills

Ability to work on the NP's organization processes

T.'s co-op looks for these skills when evaluating candidates for hire.

Project management

Kitchen-sink RFPs for <$5K "champagne on a beer budget" - these are common!

Response: Do a needs assessment engagement. Deliverables are a project spec and a brief. Client is under no obligation to engage the co-op for the development stage - they are invited to shop it around. The brief is written with a target audience of grantmakers - often, the briefs are dropped straight into the grant proposal. This is valuable because often the RFP authors are not that tech-savvy and benefit from having someone with technical knowledge write the brief for their grant proposal. The client may receive the grant and often they come back to the co-op work for the dev work too.

Walk the client through the website process. Use mock-ups (easy w/Drupal). Repeat back to them what they just said.

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