Making a Difference (and Building a Network)

“If our hopes of building a better and safer world are to become more than wishful thinking, we will need the engagement of volunteers more than ever.”

Kofi Annan

When friends and relatives ask, given my travel schedule and the strange interactions I have with technology and people, what it is I do for a living, their first response is “So, you’re an international spy?” (No, but it’s a good guess.) Their second is “How on earth does someone get into that field of work?” By volunteering and building credibility.

I am an independent contractor that helps large-scale collaborations make the Internet better. What that means in practice varies: for one contract, I’ll be a program manager, whereas for another I’ll be a group facilitator. I might act as the publisher and editor, or I might hold the pen to turn the ideas of the group into a coherent document. At the end of the day, I do whatever the IT engineers and architects need to make the Internet as a whole, and the digital identity aspects of in particular, better.

As far as I know, there is no college degree that leads to this kind of work. I personally have a liberal arts BA and majored in Medieval English history, and a master’s degree in Library Science. And yet, here I am with not a Computer Science degree in sight, helping collaborations that span the world do good things.

By volunteering with groups and organizations that were working in the space I was interested in, I built a network of people who knew what I could do and were motivated to find small bits of money to have me keep doing it. In my case, that meant the Internet2 Middleware working groups, when the MACE program was still in place. If I were to do this again today, I would join the community interest groups of the W3C, or perhaps become a non-voting (but active) volunteer in the Kantara Initiative. These groups (and many more) are always looking for smart, willing people to think, write, review, or otherwise get engaged in the work coming out of those organizations.

By being engaged in this kind of effort, individuals do more than learn about the material. They suddenly have access mentors who know the space well, and people who are willing to offer constructive feedback. The volunteers get to demonstrate their capabilities with regards to clear communication (written and spoken), and learn about cutting edge technology. Even better, they get to help DEFINE cutting edge technology. And in return, they gain experience that can go on a resume, an artifact to share with potential clients, and a network of people who will work to help you find contracts in order to keep you around to do more work.

The transformation from studying the Tudor monarchy and the Dewey Decimal system to working in the wonderful world of technical collaborations had a few more steps, of course, but the transition to independent contractor could not have been done as well or as easily without the time I spent volunteering with interesting groups. If you’re thinking about how to make a big jump from one style of work to another, volunteering your time to build your street cred is a great way to go.

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