Monday, March 23, 2009

Accidental Tech and Ada Lovelace

Image of Ada Lovelace via IEEE Global History Network

There are a number of unsung heroes of the nonprofit world and many of them are what are often called “accidental techies.” 

Usually they are Administrative Assistants or Exec Admins or even Office Managers whose job descriptions are a catch-all for the tasks not assigned to someone else in the agency, including most of IT support and website management.

Before coming into a nonprofit, many – most often women – may not have had much (or any) experience installing software, assigning passwords, maintaining seat licenses, upgrading computer equipment, troubleshooting email outages or updating websites. 

Until being asked to do computer-related work, it might never have occurred to most of them that they could do it. And for sure they little thought they might grow to to enjoy it or be known for it. In this, they may be a little similar to Ada Byron King – Countess Lovelace – whose name has become associated with an international day of blogging to highlight women in technology. 

A teenage Ada made the acquaintance of Charles Babbage, inventor of an elaborate calculator called the “Difference Engine," and began a correspondence with him about mathematics, logic, and other subjects. Eventually he asked her to translate a book written about the machine from Italian to English and in her notes, this self-described “analyst and metaphysician” foresaw many uses for the computer, including music composition. Whether or not she was the first computer programmer is debated. That she was the first woman in computer science is not.

Despite her foresight, I don't think Ada Lovelace imagined that future women might see her as something of a role model - a prototype female geek. Just as today's accidental techie probably considers her work more a necessity than an inspiration. And it's true that for some of you, that's the way it will stay.

But for a few of you admin/techs, the world has become a different place. One in which you can gain satisfaction from figuring out why the internet connection is down for the whole agency, where you enjoy talking about an anticipated software release and where you are scheming for ways to improve your budget so you can afford a memory upgrade.

But either way, it doesn't matter. You do tech support because you love it, or do it because you have to. But you do it. Because there isn't anyone else.

Unlike Ada, you accidental techies will probably never have your biography in the history of computing. Most of you have probably never heard of her, will never hear of her, and couldn't care less. You do what you have to do to keep things running and then you do something else that needs doing. You might hope for some thanks for what you do; you don't expect to be remembered for it.

But I'll remember you - even if I've never heard your name. I know how much your small nonprofit depends on you. On top of all the other things you do - the ordering, the letter writing, the guest intake, the reports and the coffee making. On top of that, you're the one they come to when their printers don't work or the site is down or they lost a file and don't know where it disappeared to. You're the one who waits and waits and waits on the phone for your ISP to answer your question, resets the router, deals with a cranky E.D. who can't get his email.

You make it possible for your colleagues to do the work they do, which serves the nonprofit, which serves the community. And because of that - even if you never know it - you're my hero.

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