In this article, I wanted to talk about volunteering and different ways for Web Developers, Designers, Programmers, and Software Engineers to give back to their community using their skill-set.
There’s a great line in the book “Tuesdays with Morrie” when the main character was talking about giving back to your community. He talks about not giving back with money, but with your skill-set. Here’s the line from that book:
I don’t mean money. I mean your time… It’s not so hard. There’s a senior center that opened near here. Dozens of elderly people come there every day. If you’re a young man or young woman and you have a skill, you are asked to come and teach it. Say you know computers. You come there and teach them computers. You are very welcome there. And they are very grateful. This is how you start to get respect, by offering something that you have.
I couldn’t agree with this more. Sharing a skill you have not only helps others, but it will help you hone your own skills as well.
This got me thinking, what are different ways in which our tech community can volunteer their skills, give back, and have a positive impact on the world?
First, you can take the advice directly from the book and volunteer at a senior center or assisted living home. I took this approach a few years ago. I volunteered at an assisted living home for one night a week for 2 or 3 hours depending on the number of people who needed help. I’m not mentioning this to get a pat on the back or for any other self-righteous reasons… I only mention this because there is a common misconception that elderly people aren’t interested in technology. From doing this work, I know firsthand that this simply isn’t true. They want to be connected as much as anyone else but sometimes they simply don’t have the means or the knowledge to get up and running themselves. Not only that, but the staff and other volunteers might not have the ability to help them either. On a typical night doing this type of volunteer work, you might help perform tasks as simple as creating a Google email account so that someone can receive pictures of their grandchildren and stay in closer contact with family. When they start receiving those family pictures and staying in closer contact, it truly makes their day. The great thing about a volunteer opportunity such as this is that you don’t have to be a software engineer or expert programmer to help with these issues. There are young kids who can get in there and set up email accounts, connect computers to the internet, and other simple tasks.
If you’re looking for something that involves a more in-depth skill-set, you may want to look into making a website for a local business free of charge (local farmers-markets, pet shelters, etc). It’s easy to get the impression that every business in your town or city has a website, but there are a lot of businesses that don’t. Also, I see a lot of developers and designers online who are asking for advice and trying to come up with projects they can use to build their portfolio. If you’re wanting to learn to build a website or how to get started with WordPress development, maybe you could use an opportunity like this to build your portfolio and help someone at the same time. Out of courtesy, if it’s one of your first websites, you should let people know it may not be top quality. But most likely if these businesses don’t already have a website or their current website is very bad quality, then they will most likely enjoy whatever additional exposure you can provide… even if it’s just a quick and easy website that displays their business address, business hours, and contact information.
Another excellent way to volunteer is through tutoring. There are always opportunities to tutor people at just about any age that you’re comfortable with. As engineers and programmers, most of you have had a lot of training in Math, Problem Solving, Coding, among other things. To checkout what tutoring opportunities are available in your area, I’d recommend doing a quick Google search. If that doesn’t turn up anything, you can usually ask people at your local public library if they have anything like that available. Every town that I’ve lived in has had tutoring opportunities through their public libraries, so I would definitely give that a try.
Speaking of being a tutor, you could also check with local schools and see if there is a youth FIRST Robotics Program. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”. It’s a terrific program that gets kids of all ages involved in science and technology. If check the FIRST Robotics volunteer website, you can find information on getting involved, what to expect, and how to become a mentor or coach. They have over 27,000 teams worldwide, so chances are pretty high that you can find a program near you.
If you’re a female, one organization you might want to get involved with is Girls who code. Software, Programming, and Coding is an industry that has unfortunately been male dominated throughout the years. “Girls Who Code” is a great organization that is getting more females interested in the field of Computer Science. On their website here that they have a link titled “Getting Involved”. From there you can view their volunteering section. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities listed, as well as an option to become an instructor for a “Girls Who Code” Club. So definitely check that one out.
Everything I’ve mentioned so far has involved personal interaction in order to volunteer. If tutoring or helping in person isn’t something you’re comfortable with, then perhaps you could try answering questions online at StackOverflow, Reddit, or some other online forums. I’m sure this wouldn’t be considered official public service in any court of law, but I personally consider it a great form of volunteering. This is something I have been wanting to do more of myself. For anyone who answers questions on those sites who may be reading this article, I’d like to give a big “thank you”, because, at this point, I definitely receive a much larger benefit from those sites than the amount that I contribute to them. Some people put in a ton of time answering questions on those sites. Some of those detailed answers could be entire articles themselves, and the people who answer those questions don’t get anything from the time they put in other than a “thank you” and maybe some reputation points. Also, an added bonus to being active in those communities is being able to point potential future employers to the answers you have given and prove how well you know your stuff. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with putting your volunteer efforts on a resume.
Similar to answering questions online, you can also start a blog or YouTube channel. Start writing and making videos about problems that you’ve run into and how you solved them. Share your knowledge that way. This is kind of cheating because it’s not necessarily volunteer work. You can always puts ads on your blog articles and on your videos, and if those become popular enough, you’ll get a little bit of money kicked back your way for that. But I would still recommend people do this if they can and if they have the time. Not only will it help you learn more about the topics you write about, but you never know how many other people will run into those exact same problems that you’d be walking them through.
You can also contribute to open source projects. There are a lot of open source projects out there that help people in need. I’d recommend checking out Github’s showcases page and see if there is something there that interests you.
You may also want to check out Mozilla’s Volunteer page. I’ve personally never volunteered through this site, so I have no first hand experience with this. I saw it was recommended online as a way for tech people to volunteer while doing research for this article. If you look at the site, they say exactly the same things we’ve been talking about: “It’s about learning, collaborating and sharing your skills with a global community of Mozillians — coders, organizers, activists and more — who help shape the Web every day.” You can volunteer as much as you like, or as little… it’s totally up to you. If you click on “Get Involved”, it takes you to a page where you can be matched up with skills and interests that are most suitable for you. Perhaps I’ll give this a try in the future, and if it looks interesting to you then definitely give it a shot.
Lastly, I want to talk about ways in which you can help that requires very little to zero effort. As Software Engineers, Programmers, and Developers, a lot of us are fortunate to work for great companies that pay well and sometimes allows us to earn more money than we need for our personal needs. If this includes you, then try to find a charity that is involved with causes that are close to your heart and commit to donating portions of your salary those charities. On top of your donations, a lot of tech companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft will match donations made by their employees. So if you’re currently donating to charities in your personal life then definitely check with your employer and see if they offer a match, because you could potentially be doubling those donations. You should definitely take advantage of that if possible.
There’s one last thing I want to talk about before wrapping this up. And this goes for anyone, not just those is the tech industry… It’s great to get excited about volunteering and doing good things in the world, but try not to overdo yourself. You’ll have the greatest impact when this becomes part of your routine and part of your daily life. You don’t want volunteering to be just a one time thing. If you overexert yourself, if you put in more time than what you have available, or if what you’re doing becomes more of a chore than something that fulfills your life, then you’re less likely to keep it up and less likely to try it again in the future. Start slow. Find your comfort zone. Once you get started, I promise you it’s something you’ll enjoy tremendously.