This blog post was written by MVP Keith Whatling as part of the Humans of IT Guest Blogger series. Keith describes how giving back will help put a smile on your face.
If you're already living the dream... how do we help people in tech poverty, the tech have nots?
When anyone thinks of donations or charity, our perceptions of what charity is kicks in. Wherever we look in the western world, people are after our help. The faces of starving children in far-flung war-torn countries stare down at us from the advertising boards on public transport, sandwiched in between the advert for the latest miracle hair remedy or a start-up offering to make our money go further. We walk through our towns to be confronted by gangs of clipboard wielding youngsters trying to grab our bank details for a poultry direct debit for one charity or another. They will even send you photos of the Goat you sponsored as a way of thinking that your £3.00 a month actually made a difference. No matter how hard a person I try to be, there is always something in me that feels bad that I did not sign up for every last clipboard offering! This is one of my constant first world problems.
This is what I know
I do, however, have another first world problem and that is learning technology. I’ve had a computer in some form since the tender age of 7, which seems like such a long time ago. Back then it was easy to master the beige box, tinted by the glow of the green screen, all sat on a special table in the spare room, soon to be called the “Computer Room”! That was then. Now, I work in the cloud, on someone else’s computer, and what was once for making 4 voice polyphonic music, 8-bit art or painstakingly typing in a game from the bi-monthly editions of BBC Micro magazines, it has now become my career. My weekends are spent in the garden, trying to distance myself from technology. That said, something was missing in my life. That something was giving back.
I’ve been so lucky to have been able to dip in and out of technology over the years, I’ve sold door to door, I’ve driven a bus, cleaned gardens and delivered appliances. Yet in other jobs, I have done graphic design, data analysis, run machine learning projects and lately I’ve been on the Low Code – No Code bandwagon with Microsoft Power Apps and the Power Platform and yet not a developer. I first learnt about charities needing tech way back in the late ’90s when charities needed a web presence. They wanted a look and feel on par with their printed material. Having a website made them feel included in the then .com boom and helped them expand their reach.
Where is my app?
Fast forward 20 years and the need for a website is now replaced with “I need an app”. In my mind, I see CEOs at some posh restaurant all sitting down for dinner and comparing apps - well, at least half the table is, while the other half have not been able to justify the development cost of their app. Yet now even as I speak there are businesses with thousands of PowerApps! This democratization of tech has given us an incredible opportunity and a considerable problem of the Tech Haves and Have-Nots at the same time.
In 2019 Satya Nadella stood at the Microsoft Build conference and said “500 million apps will be built between now and 2023”, which is no small number. Yet it was only 8 months prior at Microsoft Ignite that Satya’s keynote included “AI for Good”. I was blown away, yet at the same time there was one image from the presentation that stuck with me: the person handing out aid as part of this AI revolution stood there in a crowd of people with a clipboard and paper. I was confused. How can we get it so right and yet so wrong? How can we be providing modern AI tech and still be dependent on old-school paper processes? It just did not make sense to me.
Hacking For Good
I did not realize that a blog on my confusion and subsequent changes would lead to getting involved in the Hack4Good movement. In a nutshell, Hack4Good are hackathons with a charitable theme and using your tech superpowers to do some good. These are just as much learning days for all involved, from novice to expert, as they are a way to connect charities with people who want to help. The first one I took part in was in 2019 in London. It was epic but there was a problem of continuity. Just like any good superhero, it's only when our powers combine like a giant Gundam that we start to smash the crux of the problem. You can read more about Hack4Good examples at https://techcommunity.microsoft.com/t5/humans-of-it-blog/guest-blog-hacking-the-power-platform-for-g...
My biggest problem
I’m dyslexic. I hate reading instructions because I always miss something. I learn by doing and watching videos. But the "doing" is always a problem. I need a use case to practice on. I’ve come to learn over the years that a use case that I come up with is biased towards what I can do, rather than what I cannot! I need a real-world use case, with a client who is going to use the “And” operator to ask me to do a bit more over and over.
Our current global predicament has spawned thousands of Power Apps worldwide! Businesses are using apps to communicate with their staff, manage knowledge, book desks for a socially distanced office and track contacts. Hospitals are using them to capture stats and, in some cases, have built bespoke extensions to Microsoft’s amazing Emergency Response tool kit. In fact, a friend of mine is calling Coronavirus his Chief Digital Transformation Officer as they have managed to get done in 2 months what they could never have done in years. To quote John Cleese in The Day the Earth Stood Still, “It's only at the brink that people find the will to change, only at the precipice to we evolve”. I think about the quote a lot these days.
A puppy is not just for Christmas.
Every technologist knows that EVERY TIME they return to their family home or see that Auntie, there are going to be those standard tech support questions, like “Can you fix Mum's phone, fix the Wi-Fi, my computer is slow etc.” - you need to be there long term.
The issues with helping for just one day is just like going to see a relative. We help with a small part of the problem. It’s a bit of a “teach a man to fish” issue. What might be needed is true adoption. I don’t mean the tech adoption that we see where the IT department roll out Microsoft 365 to staff who will just continue to save their Excel workbooks to their USB drive. No, I mean if we the makers and masters of tech were to adopt a charity, a local business or just to take a “Tech-have-not” and spend time with them, accept them, have the patience to take them on a learning journey, then we can really help drive sustainable change and ensure they can continue in the new normal.
Up the wizard's sleeve
A thousand years ago people who knew the secrets of something were wizards, wise women or witchdoctors - we have some fanciful notion of them travelling from place to place doing good for free. Is this us giving away our skills for free? Nothing could be further from the truth!
No amount of Microsoft certifications will be as impressive to a prospective employer or client than an actual portfolio of work. If you have worked in one sector then your portfolio might be limited. Adoption of a business or a charity, partnering with your local nonprofit a few hours a month to build an app or sit on a call to guide and advice others will give you another page in your portfolio that you can be proud of. It will make the world a better place and enable you to peacefully walk past the sea of clipboards in the Highstreet knowing that you are giving way more than a faceless 3 quid.
So what am I asking for? Reach out and teach one person tech, take a Tech-Nobody and teach them without limits.
Adopt a local business. It could be the local shop, a tree surgeon, a small supplier. Take them on the journey and make it a project. A lot of small businesses are hurting right now, and need tech to help to transform their businesses in the new normal.
Group together - become the unstoppable giant team robot and for a collective of awesome that offers to help others!
No matter what you choose to do, what ultimately matters is that you do something. You'll feel better for it! And hell you might even get a better job at the end of it!