Saturday, June 14, 2008

Where am I going?

I had a funny encounter at work the other day. My boss took me aside and asked if he could speak with me for a few minutes. He introduced the topic by saying something along the lines of, "I would have assumed you'd have told me already if it were true, and I assume it's not, but there's a rumor going around that you'll be quitting your job on June 30th."

I thought it was pretty funny as this was the first I had heard of the subject myself, yet my boss said he heard the rumor from several people, including the VP of Engineering at our corporate headquarters about 1000 miles away! Wow, I know I'm usually out of the gossip loop at work, but this was crazy - and the rumor was about me!

I assured my boss I had no immediate plans of quitting and I'd definitely let him know if/when I did have such plans. I had already told him of my whole Peace Corps application and my search for a more nonprofit-focused career, and he's been quite understanding and supportive in the matter.

So, this brings up the general subject of where am I in this whole process of looking for more meaningful work? What happened with the Peace Corps? Well, I've come to the conclusion that the Peace Corps isn't the best option for me at this time. The financial burden of coming up with enough money to cover my mortgage for 27 months was going to be difficult. And I got to thinking, why intentionally put myself in a difficult situation when there may be other opportunities to also help that wouldn't require such a drastic sacrifice. That, combined with finally talking about the whole Peace Corps thing with my not-so-young parents helped me decide against it. While both my parents are healthy right now, a lot can change in two years and I'd hate to be away should something bad happen.

Since deciding against the Peace Corps, I've been applying to nonprofit opportunities that seem to fit my skill set. There's a handy web site that is a great resource for looking for nonprofit opportunities: So far, I've not had much luck. Most places looking for software engineers are looking for someone with 5 years of experience or thereabouts. I have 20. I try to stress in my cover letter that I'm interested in making a career change to the nonprofit sector and I do not expect to make the same salary I make now, but most places don't even bother replying to my application.

I did have a phone interview with one organization that I was very excited about back on May 1st. It was with Partners in Health. Coincidentally, this past winter I read Mountains Beyond Mountains a biography about one of the founders of Partners in Health and his work in Haiti. It's a great book - actually it's one of the things that motivated me to finally apply to the Peace Corps. Anyhow, the job they are hiring for is computer programming mentors to work in Rwanda to help with training programmers who will be maintaining an open-source medical record management system, called OpenMRS. The position would be for 6 months to a year. The time span is definitely financially doable for me. I already have more than enough money saved.

The one strike against me is the fact that the OpenMRS system is written in Java. I have no professional Java experience - only C and C++. Sure, it's easy enough for a skilled programmer to make a transition from C++ to Java, but still, I can definitely understand if they are looking for someone with specific Java experience. (The job requirements didn't list Java, so I'm hopeful.) I felt the phone interview went well, but I avoided trying to make a hard sell for myself. I have the utmost respect for Partners in Health and based on what I've read they've done some great work in the world. While it is good interview advice in the commercial world to try to portray yourself in the best light possible, I would rather take an understated approach when interviewing for this position. If they can find better skilled mentors suited for the job, I would not want to interfere with the that process just so I can get the job instead. If someone else will be helping PIH better than I would be able, then it's a good thing if that someone else gets hired.

The last I heard, PIH hasn't made any final decisions regarding the mentor positions. The fact that they're still interviewing for the person who will be managing the project leads me to believe things are running a bit behind schedule. I would imagine the person hired as the project manager would also be conducting the final interviews for the mentor applicants. So, I have no idea what the timeframe might be before I hear back on whether I might get another interview. (I did recently confirm I at least haven't been rejected yet.)

Since I was so excited about the potential for the PIH position, I have put on hold applying to any other positions. I'm still looking, but nothing has interested me more than this opportunity. I figure I should just wait it out. I wouldn't want to find an opportunity I don't like as much, switch jobs, and then hear from PIH a week later.

While waiting, I've been doing some more thinking about the whole idea of a career change. A friend had mentioned to me the potential benefit I have right know of having a decent paying job without a family to support. This means I could afford to donate a substantial amount of money to worthwhile causes and might be able to have more of an impact than personally doing the ground-work. For example, the pay for the PIH job in Rwanda would mainly cover living expenses. Since costs are relatively low in Rawanda - the pay might come out to something like $12,000 annually. (I'm making up this figure as an example - I don't know the exact salary, but I don't think this is far off the mark.) Now suppose instead of quitting my job, I donate $24,000 to PIH. That would fund the salary for two mentors. Would that be better than me personally being in Rawanda doing the actual mentoring?

I might have the details off a bit, and I don't have the book handy to verify, but I think it was in Mountains Beyond Mountains where one of the significant financial supporters of PIH mentioned he would like to quit what he is doing and instead do the hands-on work in Haiti. The response he received was that if it weren't for his financial support, the hands-on work of many people wouldn't be able to be funded and it would actually be a very bad thing for him to do such a thing. Granted, my current salary does not give me the means to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but I could definitely donate enough to fund a couple mentors in Rwanda, or several volunteers in the Peace Corps.

So, this is where I am right now. I'm waiting to hear back from PIH, while at the same time reevaluating what would be the most beneficial thing for me to do.