The End of the Accidental Techie

man-with-a-mac-broken-macbook-airJessica was working at a small and mighty nonprofit when the board made the decision to embark on a substantial new direction for the organization. Jessica was pretty darn good at running all direct service programs so when it was clear the org needed someone to run this new initiative the board named her the (Accidental) Executive Director.

She went to conferences where consultants and nonprofit leaders talked about the challenges of being an Accidental Executive Director. And when Jessica met with key funders, she made it clear that she had been named the Accidental Executive Director – which needless to say didn’t inspire much confidence.

Does this (made-up) story sound absurd?

If we would never call someone an Accidental Executive Director, no matter how they landed in that role, why would we ever call someone an Accidental Techie?

Yet the habit in the nonprofit technology world is just that – sessions and trainings geared to help “accidental techies”.

In the CRM ecosystem, well-meaning Salesforce customer success teams deemed a whole group of people (and the majority of nonprofit system administrators) as “accidental admins” in what was supposed to be a (helpful) classification for targeted training and resources.

The word accident holds power – and fundamentally undermines that person’s ability to effect real change in our organizations (not to mention cutting away that person’s own confidence).

Non-profit organizations are, by definition, filled with purpose. Which means that everything we do must be purposeful – especially the ownership of our systems, data and technology.

As nonprofit directors, we can start by recognizing that, without an owner, the new system or tool we use will be doomed to fail. We often don’t have the luxury to designate someone full-time in this capacity (see my post Your Agile Nonprofit Doesn’t Need a System Admin) but we must designate an owner – and empower that person with agency and resources (time, and money for training and support).

As leaders in the nonprofit technology space, we must stop calling our talented cousins Accidental Techies. Our brethren who have come to own data, systems, and technical tools through the vector of program management or fundraising deserve our support. Their real technical skills – often acquired on the job – must not be undermined by a well-meaning label.

And as nonprofit staffers? Refuse to be labeled. Question anyone (your boss, your consultant, your conference) who deems any part of your work accidental. Step up into the knowledge that you ARE a technical asset, who has real skills to contribute to your organization. Press your organizational leaders to apply as much purpose to its systems, data and tools as it does to its program outcomes. And find support! There’s a cohort of people just like you.

It’s no accident.

Megan Himan has over fifteen years experience in the nonprofit sector and over ten years working on the force.com platform. She has a unique combination of deep technical skills paired with an ability to strategically convene groups, coach executives and leadership through transitions, and execute on project deliverables. She is Founder & Principal of BrightStep Partners - solutions with strategy for nonprofit success. In September 2017, she was named a Salesforce MVP.

Posted in Implementation Success
10 comments on “The End of the Accidental Techie
  1. So I really want to debate you on this one, even though I agree with many of your points. I’ll easily agree that, in terms of marketing, calling yourself an “accidental” anything is a bad move, particularly in a sector that’s notorious for underpaying people. Let’s not give them more reasons to keep the paycheck small. But the “accidental ED” comparison ignores the fact that becoming an “accidental ED” is pretty rare – there always is an ED, and when the spot becomes vacant, the Board replaces them, and they hire for that, not just look at the existing staff and add ED duties to, say, the Program Analysts job.

    We have “accidental techies” because there so often is a gap between the technology needs and the actual technology staffing, so the needs get met by people who were hired to do other things. Accordingly, the term is much more of a commentary on how nonprofits are managed than it is on the people who fill those gaps. In that light, the core attributes of an “accidental techie” are that they have expertise in something else, a knack for technology; a strategic mind that recognizes how technology can help; the initiative to dive into something that they’ll have to learn as they go; and the commitment to go above and beyond their job description for the organization. “Accidental” and “techie” aren’t the most significant qualities of the people who become accidental techies.

    In the sector, this has long been a term of endearment, and many of us recognize that these are the people who can really make a difference in an organization, because they get what Frank Zappa told us: Necessity is the mother of invention (well, maybe not Frank…). And they are the mothers (and fathers) of invention. So, personally, I’m only for giving up the term if we find a suitable one to replace it. And it’s not “Sysadmin” or “IT Director”, again, because it’s not just their technical acumen that distinguishes them. Maybe it’s something like “Organizational Enabler” or “Genie”.

    Our sector lives and dies by the existence of such people, who know how to make the most of our tight budgets and staffing challenges, using tech – or whatever else is convenient – to increase our effectiveness. But, regardless, the pattern that I see constantly – these people being hired, doing their magic, and never getting a raise or promotion for it – has to stop. Or continue, because those are the people that I regularly raid to come work for me, and get paid well, and get recognized for their brilliance.

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    • Megan Himan says:

      Peter – thanks so much for taking the time for this really thoughtful reply.

      “the core attributes of an “accidental techie” are that they have expertise in something else, a knack for technology; a strategic mind that recognizes how technology can help; the initiative to dive into something that they’ll have to learn as they go” – brilliant.

      I think the reality is that we’ll (hopefully) always have this group of people in our nonprofit space – part-time tech wranglers. Nonprofit Tech Hackers. Intentional Techies.

      The word Accidental implies that it’s something to be mitigated against, instead of empowered by. I don’t want to go to a training session geared for “accidental” anything. But a training for the part-time tech warrior? Sign me up.

      Love this! I was hoping to start the conversation. Keep it coming.

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  2. I’m digging the accidental ED concept because it is instructive.

    There are accidental EDs. For example, if you sit in an all volunteer nonprofit (my wife’s Education Foundation, for example) and start taking responsibility for stuff (tax returns, program communications, etc.) and then you look around and the rest of board is not contributing equally, YOU are the accidental executive director.

    No money, no recognition, no title and you are still technically equal to everyone that is making a “lesser” contribution. Sound Accidental Techie like?

    At some point the organization decides to mature. The first role is almost invariably a paid executive director.

    This is the inflection point that is too slow coming in the general nonprofit community around accidental techies.

    Virtually every all volunteer organizations recognizes the next step is an executive director.

    Too many small nonprofits (and an amazing number of large ones) do not recognize that a technology position comes after development and program (which are naturally the initial formal roles). They think they can scale development and program without a back office technology & administrative capability.

    Cue the “nonprofit starvation cycle” (http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_nonprofit_starvation_cycle)

    Words have power and there are good reasons for not using accidental. But if we want to tackle the root cause behind where this accidental word comes from, we have to show a return on investment for infrastructure investment (like technology).

    Stop using the word accidental.

    Don’t train “accidental salesforce admins”. Teach them to make the investment case for them to become “technology professionals”.

    We’re making some baby steps in this at NTEN with our new certification programs. http://www.nten.org/nonprofit-technology-professional-certificate/ (disclosure: I’m on the board).

    At NetSuite.org we don’t train our 600 grantees on the technology… we just give them free access to all our training. What we do invest in is offer them a series of interventions to build their capacity to use technology – even if that technology has nothing to do with NetSuite. That’s why we fund sector resources like idealware content (http://www.idealware.org/reports/do-you-need-new-website) (disclosure: I run NetSuite.org)

    And I’m sure there are many other far better ideas out there on how we convert accidental techies into professional techies.

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    • Megan Himan says:

      Thanks David for taking the time for such a thoughtful reply.

      I think the first step is for those of us in these roles to “claim” the real tech skills we have – and the tech certification program is amazing way to do and foster that.

      Then – orgs like NetSuite to offer capacity building (and like you said, interventions!) to grantees. Fantastic.

      Language does hold power – and I think we need to train ourselves and our orgs to start calling it “Purposeful Tech”

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  3. Vered says:

    Megan, thank you for writing this! For me, the salient point in this piece is the importance of recognizing professional skills as such. Even in the smallest nonprofits, there should be a process in place to review talent across the board. In my time as an office administrative support person in the 2000s, there was a gradual transition in this role from being centered on non-technical tasks (answering phones, organizing the supply closet, etc.) to more tech-centered tasks (e.g. data entry/light administration in Salesforce, updates to the website, researching new technologies to meet emerging needs and serving as liaison to the vendor once one was chosen) and there was no process, formal or informal, to review my day to day tasks and give them proper attention when it came to professional development or compensation. Obviously this should have happened during an annual review but I can tell you that not all small nonprofits do these! Oftentimes these tech tasks fall on the office support person, who ends up with the work no one else wants to do or has time to do. And these people are often the most overlooked and mostly likely to be assumed “unskilled”! Nonprofits need to make sure they are doing reviews of their talent, and as professionals, we need to make sure we are advocating for ourselves and not calling ourselves “accidental” anything, as others have said.

    As a woman in my early 20s, I was not amazing at advocating for myself, this was a skill I developed as I gained professional experience. I would love to see more organizations meeting their employees halfway when it comes to this kind of professional skill-building. Meaning, organizations taking steps to make sure all of the talent in their organization is accounted for, recognized (financially and otherwise), and cultivated (through professional development), and for more individuals to be strategically and proudly owning the skills they possess and advocating for what they deserve. Organizations that recognize talent and prioritize professional development have better staff retention rates across the board, so it’s kind of a no brainer!

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    • Megan Himan says:

      Thanks for taking the time to write thoughtfully about this, particularly how we as women can recognize and own our evolving talents – and how we as leaders need to recognize and promote and account for internal talent and professional development.

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  4. I think what Vered says is right on the money here – the root cause of the “accidental techie” phenomenon is the complete and utter lack of career planning, professional development, or training provided to employees at most nonprofit organizations. Megan, I hear you that language is powerful, and owning your role as technical expert/system administrator/word-to-be-defined is crucial, but until we can fix the underlying system, I’m not hopeful that removing the word “accidental” from techie is going to change a whole lot. Sorry to be the Debbie Downer, I just get so frustrated with the system.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Megan Himan says:

      Marc – “lack of career planning and professional development at nonprofit organizations” – so true. Do we as industry leaders and software developers validate that inattention by naming and directing training to people who are called accidental? Or is it a necessary evil this frustrating reality? Thanks for taking the time to chime in here. This conversation is really important.

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  5. […] and diversity/inclusion efforts by contributing to the advancement of careers, knowledge, and turning the “accidental” techies into fully Intentional Techies with transferrable skills across the nonprofit industry.  It’s incredibly myopic to assume that […]

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  6. […] Nonprofit Tech Hacking replace the word “Accidental Admin” in our […]

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