How volunteering more than just coding skills can help your career
Training and Development

How volunteering more than just coding skills can help your career

While it’s perfectly common for companies to offer charities free or reduced cost software and services, or host charity hackathons, you don’t often hear about IT pro donating more than their tech know-how to non-profits.

David Webster is a Governance Services Architect at information management company Alfresco Software, and has been at the company for about 8 years. But when he’s not looking after the design, development and maintenance of the company’s records management and information governance services, he’s out trying to save lives.

In his spare time, he is a Search Technician and Team Leader for the Oxfordshire branch of Lowland Search & Rescue; a voluntary organisation in the UK which assists in searching for missing persons in lowland areas.

“I joined OxSAR almost 10 years ago, just as the team was starting out. It wasn’t long after the 2007 flooding and I wanted to find a flood rescue team to volunteer with. My wife had recently returned to Girl Guiding and was volunteering her time to set up and run a Guides group for local kids. Inspired by that, I wanted to find some way to give back to my local community.”

“I’d never heard about Lowland Rescue before, but obviously knew about Mountain Rescue and the RNLI. It just hadn’t occurred to me that there was a need for search and rescue teams in non-mountainous and non-coastal areas, so while I joined primarily for water rescue, I soon got hooked on the ‘missing person’ side of it too.”

In his role, Webster spends time deployed on the ground conducting searches and leading teams searching paths, fields, woodland, and streets. He also provides medical assistance, or will be running the planning and the operation of a search, and heads up the Water team which covers everything from searching next to a river or around a lake, to boat searches and national flooding response. His experience in white-water kayaking and water rescue skills has led to him being Subject Matter Expert for water rescue for all Lowland Rescue teams across the UK.

“Volunteering is good for everyone, regardless of their job. Volunteering can get you out of your comfort zone and into an area where you’re seeing something you otherwise wouldn’t - where you’re being personally challenged and have an opportunity to grow and learn new skills. That’s true whether you’re helping at a food bank, running a Guides group for kids, or searching for vulnerable missing people.”


Search & Rescue = Software Development

As well as Webster giving back to the community, he feels that his time in OxSAR has made him better at his day-to-day job.

“It’s a great help to me professionally. OxSAR gave me the environment in which I could develop my leadership skills, take on management roles, manage budgets, and all those non-technical skills that I think engineers don’t always get the opportunity to develop. That’s been key to me being able to progress from a senior engineer to a team lead and now to architect and tech lead for a major part of Alfresco’s Digital Business Platform.”

In a talk at this year’s Alfresco DevCon in Lisbon, Webster explained how ‘Search & Rescue is like Software Development’. During this talk, he explains how the main transferable skills are decision-making, dealing with stress, and dealing with stakeholders:

  • Decision-making: “Being in a position where you are required to quickly make decisions that might literally be the difference between life and death for a missing person really makes you think about the decision-making process. As a Search Manager at some point I’m going to have to justify decisions, I find that focuses my mind on the importance of using data to drive decisions and recording decisions so we can revisit them later and understand why they were made. That is vital in high pressured environments, and also directly applicable to my day job as we make decisions about software architecture or design product features.”
  • Dealing with stress: “Being involved in search and rescue has certainly helped me understand and react better to potentially stressful environments - I’ve been described as unflappable by a manager – but we do all get stressed and it’s important to understand why it happens and what we can do to recognize it and reduce it.”
  • Dealing with stakeholders: “Everyone has to understand stakeholders in a professional capacity – who are they and what do they want. As an example from search and rescue, it’s important that we continue to develop a close relationship with the Police, as they’re the ones who call us out. If they were to lose trust in us, then we wouldn’t be able to help the missing person.

He says there are many other examples; leadership and mentoring (“If you can mentor a new search technician in a field in the dark at 3am, then it should be possible over a cup of tea in the office”), prioritization, risk assessments, and understanding what you’re optimizing for.

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Community spirit

Alfresco is an Open Source company. And since Open Source developers already volunteer time to projects, he sees a lot of parallels.

“The innovative atmosphere within the Alfresco Engineering team has helped me take a look at how OxSAR approaches searches and try to bring in some innovation there, e.g. with the use of Strava Heatmaps or making use of the cloud with tools like AWS AppStream.”

“Because we’re open source, there’s a sense of community that contributes massively to my job satisfaction and I think that’s reflective of the open source world in general, which has a really positive attitude towards volunteering one’s time on software projects. Many developers are already volunteering their time and professional expertise, but that misses one of the key personal benefits I see in volunteering – a fresh perspective.”

Webster trains at least once a week and usually get called out about once a week, but given the unpredictable nature of the role, it can be much more; a recent Sunday saw the team called out three times in one day.

“The team of 60 spends 10,000 hours searching and training each year. I personally contribute something like 200 hours of that, which excludes the time it takes for me to prepare training courses, write and review grant applications, etc.”

Given that urgent calls can come out of the blue, volunteering can impact his day to day role.

“Alfresco couldn’t be more supportive of my involvement in search and rescue. My colleagues are completely understanding if I walk out of meetings to answer the phone or attend a call out. Alfresco has a flexible working policy and I can adjust my hours around call outs, and we even get a chunk of time each year that we’re encouraged to spend in community volunteering.”

“I’m also incredibly lucky that I have a supportive wife who understands why I volunteer and encourages me to do it.”


Also read:
#Charity: A platform for IT pros who care to donate their skills
How the Royal National Lifeboat Institution embraces innovation
Alfresco Founder: Commercial Open Source is more than Old Stuff for Free


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect. Writes about all manner of tech from driverless cars, AI, and Green IT to Cloudy stuff, security, and IoT. Dislikes autoplay ads/videos and garbage written about 'milliennials'.  

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