The harsh reality of charitable IT work


Like many in the IT industry, I enjoy spending a proportion of my time doing IT work for charities and not-for-profit societies. It is educational, illuminating but it can get quite rough. Anyone who has set up an unknown projector and unseen laptop for a presentation will know all about the tensions and dramas involved. I once got fired from my unpaid role in running a website for being useless. I was quite indignant about it. In IT, it always seems very ruthless to fire someone just for being useless; I was once reprimanded for doing it.

It is a very salutary experience, after years working in the industry, to be told that you are useless at IT. After the initial shock, however, it sinks in. At work, we can strut around, look good in stand-ups, give ace PowerPoint presentations, prepare dignified strategy documents, and yet have no real technical skills at all, beyond perhaps a narrow specialism. In real life, this just bewilders people. We're IT people: we are supposed to know about pivot table rotations, and the quirks of WordPress, the mysteries of routers, and the chaos caused by injudiciously inserting an image into a Word document.

It is a strange quirk of the IT industry that technical skills seem unimportant, especially in IT Management. I once spent several years working with a data expert who looked so dignified, like an old-testament prophet, that meetings fell into a reverend silence whenever he spoke. When he retired, however, nothing went wrong. Although I cringed under the imagined weight of the workload he once carried, and which now would be my lot, nothing ever arrived.

Outside the bubble of the industry, things look different. When things go wrong, we are expected to share some of the blame.

"Why isn't the members database working properly? Nobody's been told about the President's Dinner in the Club House next week!"

"Erm…I'm the User Experience Expert"

This sort of response will illicit strange looks, and certainly won't do you much good. After all, a consultant surgeon is still capable of wading in with the scalpel in an emergency. They don't just attend meetings and write positioning papers. They would never have just one specialized skill.

Architects are expected to be able to design building. Accountants don't forget how to account, and no solicitor would dare to call himself one without some knowledge of the law. In IT, reality is often somehow suspended. I can recall an IT company once that once required their workforce to do a proportion of charitable work for local people in need. Eventually they gave up because the charities concerned could detect no useful skills that they could bring to the demanding and wide-ranging IT work that many voluntary organisations must undertake. Sometimes reality hurts.