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6/28/2012
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IT Pro's Travel Guide To Volunteering Abroad

Volunteering overseas can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. But you'll need more than a passport to bring IT projects to life in developing countries.

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Not all tech workers view stock options and annual bonuses as the pinnacle of a career. In fact, many are finding that lending their skills and expertise to projects in developing countries is the secret to a fulfilling career in IT.

Luckily, options for tech-savvy volunteers are plentiful. The International Executive Service Corps' Geekcorps division, for example, is a non-profit that sends highly skilled IT professionals to developing countries to assist in computer infrastructure development projects. Engineers Without Borders and ACDI/VOCA also are agencies that deploy teams of IT professionals around the world.

Even corporate tech giants are helping to match skilled engineers and software developers with overseas projects on a pro bono basis. Since the launch of its Corporate Service Corps (CSC) in 2008, IBM has dispatched more than 1,600 of its employees to more than 30 countries, including South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, and Morocco, to participate in community-driven economic development projects involving technology.

[ Read 4 IT Career Mistakes Can Hold You Back. ]

Edward G. Happ is no stranger to IT volunteerism. Global CIO of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva, Happ also is the chairman of NetHope, a U.S.-based consortium of 31 non-profits focused on collaboration and information technology. "The data show that poverty and disasters continue to grow," said Happ. "So, on the one hand, the need [for IT volunteers] is rising. On the other, the opportunity to help with technology has never been greater."

Using your IT skills for good takes more than a sturdy backpack and bottled water, though. Here are four things every IT professional should know about volunteering overseas.

1) Some skills count for more. The ability to write SMS or smartphone applications is the most sought-after skill in developing countries, according to Happ. Driving this demand is the explosion of smartphones in emerging countries. "The fastest growth is in smartphones, and below $100 price points are being seen in countries like Kenya and China," he said. "So there's a huge opportunity for mobile apps that can be used by field workers."

2) What works in one country might be a bad idea for another. When Marie Schonholtz, a project manager for IBM's microelectronics supply chain division, arrived in Brazil as part of the company's CSC program, she was eager to help GAIA, a small non-profit environmental group, develop a knowledge management system for its transient consultants. But Schonholtz fast discovered that the perfect technical solution for a North American enterprise isn't always appropriate for a foreign agency.

"From a systems perspective, we looked hard at using some formal knowledge management systems," she says. "But we actually recommended that they not use a complicated knowledge management system--it just wasn't practical." Instead, Schonholtz opted to deploy Microsoft Suite which could be better supported by the agency's limited IT resources. After all, she says, "Once we left, they needed to be able to continue to use what we put in place."

3) Prepare for technical challenges. No matter how good you are at putting out fires, nothing can prepare you for the technical obstacles you are likely to face while on overseas assignment. "The basics, like electricity, an Internet connection, an office, and security may often be a challenge, and cannot be taken for granted in the emerging world," warned Happ. "It's getting better, but plan on working in a sometimes-connected world for the foreseeable future."

Schonholtz also faced her fair share of technical challenges. "We're very used to having networked IT working all the time but that simply wasn't the case [in Brazil]," she says. "If your server went down, it's just not available. That's the reality."

4) You'll change in ways you least expected. Volunteering overseas is an excellent way to refine your IT skills. Learning "how to make things work in significantly under-resourced IT groups and how to get things done in the midst of chaos" are just two examples of how IT volunteers can hone their craft, noted Happ. But working in a foreign country is also an opportunity to enhance your management style. "I see and hear things differently now," said Schonholtz. "I'm more likely to listen to suggestions that are different than I was before. When you have the opportunity to talk to people from 15 different countries every day at breakfast about a problem in the workplace, people will come up with solutions that are completely different. So now I'm more likely to go out and look for different answers."

InformationWeek is conducting a survey on the state of IT outsourcing. Take our InformationWeek 2012 State Of IT Outsourcing Survey now. Survey ends July 6.

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