There's been a ton of talk over at the NTEN Blog this month about Accidental Techies. I had a few thoughts on the phenomenon.
If you don't know, Accidental Techie is an endearing and/or self effacing term for someone who signed up for a clerical, administrative or other general purpose position and wound up doing technical work. Many full-blown techies start their careers accidentally like this.
The NTEN discussion has wonderfully run the gamut. Robert Weiner, a well-known NPTech consultant, started things rolling with "Going From Accidental Techie To Technology Leader", a piece that wonderfully explores the gaps between those who do the tech because nobody else is and those who have the seat at the planning table, providing good advice on how you get to that table.
David Geilhufe then jumped in from an entirely different perspective with "Professionalism in Nonprofit Technology: Should My Techies be Accidental?" -- that of a software grant provider who has seen how difficult it is to deal with organizations that don't have seasoned technology practitioners in place. While his piece wasn't a screed against accidental techies (ATs), it threw a bit of cold water on any org that thinks that technology can be successful without professional input and planning.
Fellow Idealware blogger and nptech consultant Johanna Bates posted "A Rant About Accidental Techies". Her post, based in part on her own AT origins, is full of insight on how the 'accidental" appellation can be a crutch, She also shines light on the sexual politics of accidental techieism (reflected, unsurprisingly, in NTEN's bloggers, two of whom are male, non-ATs, and two are female former ATs).
I am not, and never was an Accidental Techie, although my career path was very similar. I started doing tech work in a small law firm where my title was "Mailroom Supervisor" and my duties included everything from database maintenance to filing to reception. We had a part-time tech who had installed a five node, token-ring IBM LAN that the legal secretaries, one attorney and I shared. When he quit, I was offered the Network Admin promotion and a hefty pay raise. The difference here is that, like a lot of ATs, I was in a clerical position and I had an aptitude for technology. But, unlike an AT -- and this is my big point -- I worked for people that anticipated the needs for technology management and support.
There is nothing wrong with Accidental Techies; quite the contrary: they tend to be people who are sharp, versatille, sensitive both to organizational needs and the opportunities to create organizational efficiencies. Most of all, they're generous with their knowledge and time. But there's something wrong if the technical work they do is unheralded and unpaid. It's wrong if it isn't in their title and job descriptions. The circumstances that create accidental techies, instead of promoting people with those traits to tech positions, are routinely those where management doesn't have a clue as to how dependent on technology they actually are, or what resources they need to support it.
And you can bet that, in a business environment that creates the conditions for Accidental Techies to flourish, there's no technology plan. There's no CIO, IT Director, or person who sits on the planning and budget committee whose job is to properly fund and deploy computer and software systems. They're winging it with infrastructure that can make or break an organization. And they're extremely lucky to have proactive people on staff who do see the gap and are breaking their backs to fill it.
So the NTEN blog quartet is required reading for anyone who even suspects that they might be an Accidental Techie. Read Johanna's first, because she cuts to some core assessments about who you are and why you might be in this role. Read David's next, because it's harsh but true, and it illustrates well the dangers that your org is facing if they don't have proper IT oversight baked into their system. Read Judy's third, because she'll remind you that, despite the last two reads, it's still cool -- and you're cool for being someone with heart and talent. And read Robert's last, because he'll tell you how to get from where you are to where you and your organization should be.