The Tale of Accidental Techies


Rusty Fence–stevepb at Pixabay

Find something that will touch us, move us, improve us or change us. Then ship.

So said Seth Godin this morning in his blog read by millions of subscribers like me. He recognized that most of us don’t invent anything from scratch (his example: Instagram came many decades after daguerreotypes), “Mostly, we find new ways to do old things, better,…”  

My first reaction (as a former social worker) was it’s easier said than done to touch someone, move someone, improve them, or change them. But as an entrepreneur … I took a couple of deep breaths and wondered.

It reminded me of the accidental techies. You might know them. They came into being around 15 years ago in the nonprofit sector. Because they knew a little bit more than other staff about desktop computers (first action was always to reboot a computer—turn it off, then back on—if something went haywire and crawl under the desk to secure electrical connections), they were conscripted into becoming the first line of defense for keeping technology working for nonprofits that could not afford to hire a ‘real’ IT specialist.

They might have been ahead of the rest of us by a few pages in the book … but there was no book! A few lucky accidental techies worked directly with circuit riders–nonprofit technology assistance providers – that traveled among grantee organizations to help them build secure computer networks, create databases (from Excel to Access) and think strategically to acquire and make the best use of new IT.  Other accidental techies started going to annual NTEN (Nonprofit Technology Network) conferences or taking the free route to knowledge and contacts by participating in hosted discussion groups online. They spent a lot of time coalescing with peers online to figure out what they needed to do.

What happened for many of the willing workers was that they indeed became experts in the course of their work. Their work titles changed from program specialist to IT Coordinator, Director, COO, ED, CEO and so on. One of them who crawled from circuit rider-dom to fly as a leader worldwide is Beth Kanter. Yes, THE Beth Kanter that many of us in the nonprofit/IT/independent adult learning/professional development/OD networks learn from and adore.

For those who don’t know, Beth Kanter is the go-to source on social media and nonprofits. She has co-authored several books (The Networked Nonprofit and Measuring the Networked Nonprofit), writes a much appreciated blog on How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media, and publishes a mind-boggling number of valuable SlideShare presentations. She is also a splendid human being who with Beth_Kanterher husband raises her children and money for orphanages in Thailand AND still sports a red cowboy hat.

I like to think that Beth chose her path to crawl, walk, run, and fly on her journey to expert practitioner status. But how many people do you respect as leaders in your field who might have been pushed into their current work by employers or volunteer managers who needed them to do more, be more, than their job titles conveyed?  I suspect most of us working for organizations, especially in the under-resourced nonprofit and public sectors, have been asked to take on more than we were comfortable doing.  But we did it because we wanted to show we could and earn their respect, or were curious and in search of something to work toward, or maybe just had to in order to stay employed. The original reason for attempting to do something new is not so important.  What is critical is to start the journey and keep going forward, one foot after another, until you’re flying!

I started writing this blog post a few days ago. When I started, I hoped to introduce a model for online leadership. The concepts are still fuzzy.  Lisa and I need to talk a good bit more before we’ll have something to share with you. And that will be our first thinking documented in this blog that will undergo many refinements as we seek feedback from you, the readers, and others to improve it.

In the meantime, I hope this blog post prompts readers to think about and live the WLS tagline: learn, lead, and connect online. Don’t get rusty. Keep unfurling new possibilities in the manner of the  Maori-esteemed koru. My best wishes for your new beginnings!


Credit for koru photo to kewl@pixabay

2 replies
  1. Doris Reeves-Lipscomb
    Doris Reeves-Lipscomb says:

    Appreciate your assessment, Lyn, especially the conclusion “leadership starts with a feeling that things can be better.” I agree. People are not commonly motivated to change or grow unless they are naturally curious or dissatisfied enough with the status quo to want to change themselves and/or their circumstances. Thanks so much for coming by–we miss you!

  2. Lyn Boyer
    Lyn Boyer says:

    Doris, I like your description of accidental techies. I think many more people came to the party that way than consciously decided they wanted to pursue a techie path. I believe leadership is a similar journey, whether online or offline. Many leaders do not set out to build a dream or start an organization. They see something that needs to be improved or developed or eliminated, and they find others who share their vision for a better future. They may have started with the skills to influence people and to organize a group, but over the course of making their dreams happen, they learn or hone those skills. Sometimes, these leaders are already in organizations or groups; sometimes they pull people together. Either way, leadership starts with a feeling that things can be better.

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