In this post I’m going to talk about how I became a software engineer in the non-profit/social change world, and share some advice for others who might be interested in making this change.
My last corporate software job was with a well-known product company in 2009. It was a well-paying job. A good brand. But I wasn’t happy. The reasons may be familiar — the joy of technology wasn’t enough any more and I felt a nagging sense of irrelevance and dissatisfaction because I wasn’t contributing anything meaningful to society.
One day, I bumped into an ex-colleague at a bakery near my house. We exchanged pleasantries and it turned out that he was working at a non-profit technology company just down the road! And that’s how my journey started in this new sector. I worked there for four great years. After that, there was no going back to the corporate world.
In 2014, I started working as a freelance engineer, purely in the social change space. I had been thinking of doing this for a while. I wanted to remain in this space while also having the flexibility and freedom of working on my own. I had heard of Rang De (a not-for-profit peer-to-peer lending platform that helps low-income households get affordable credit) through a friend and done a few Social Investments as well, so I decided to get in touch with them. I sent them an email that essentially said, “Hey, I want to work for you!” and they called me over for a meeting.
The meeting with Ram and the team was terrific and I was hooked! That same week, I started working for Rang De. At first, it was on a voluntary basis and later with a formal contract. I have enjoyed every minute and my job satisfaction today is far, far greater than before.
I’m doing what I want to be doing: working neck-deep in software to build something useful for society.
Are you wondering whether this space is for you?
Here, in no particular order, are some learnings and suggestions which might help you:
- Think hard about what is important to you in your job. What makes you happy? (see NYT’s The Incalculable Value of Finding a Job You Love for more on the topic) What would make you happier? There are many things to consider: money, colleagues, location, flexibility, work culture, social responsibility, meaning. In my case, contribution to society was the overriding factor. It’s what keeps me going
- The social change space is not soft when it comes to technology. We use much of the same technology as any corporate company does
Everyone in Rang De technology likes to code — even the CTO! Your technical interviews will be similar to what you’ve experienced elsewhere. On the job, you will be challenged and you will keep learning. You will be expected to deliver on your responsibilities, just like in any job
- Having a variety of skills (both technical and non-technical) comes in handy. Non-Profits tend to have smaller tech teams so being able to contribute in more than one area is a valuable trait
- You are unlikely to make the same amount of money as you did in your corporate job. There’s no getting around this. So figure out your financial requirements to see if you can make it work
- If you’re used to fancy IT park style offices, you are unlikely to find that in a non-profit. Do adjust your expectations accordingly. Be prepared to wash your own mugs and plates!
- Be humble. Resist the temptation to think that you’re doing a non-profit a favour by offering your services, or that being hired is a certainty
- Be willing to work with ambiguity and uncertainty. Although this goes without saying for software engineering in these agile times, it is worth repeating
- The contribution to society feeling that I mentioned before? It’s really amazing what a difference it makes. Every job has its ups and downs but when you have a mission you can hold on to — “eyes on the prize” — it makes those rough times that much easier to navigate. The mission becomes the fuel you can reach towards to keep you going.
If I have one regret today, it’s not making this jump sooner. But then as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20!
I hope this post encourages you to consider a tech career in the non-profit world or at least shows you that such a career is possible.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if you’ve decided to take the plunge, apply directly at email@example.com!
Sunil D’Monte is the Chief Technical Advisor at Rang De and has worked for Yahoo!, Sapient and Goldman Sachs. Candidates interested in applying for tech positions at Rang De can check out our Tech Careers page.