I started writing this post as a short guide to start a dialogue on volunteering culture and encourage people to explore and volunteer more. Eventually, it grew to become a long article depicting my life in the past ten years. It’s a bit too personal for me and what I intended my blog to be about, but I do trust you 🙂
I have been involved in volunteering activities since 2007 and I feel now is the time to share some experiences on why I did it and why it was so important to me that I’m still doing it till now.
Originally, volunteering was never my first choice. I can now say that It started by mistake. As a university student, I had a lot of free time (and I mean A LOT). But I didn’t find joy in fun/social activities, partly because I was a shy kid and –more importantly– because I couldn’t sleep at night thinking that our way of education is irrelevant to the market. I couldn’t imagine not finding a job after graduation, I refused to be one of these unemployed people. This refusal was my motive to do something with all the time I have.
My first intuition was to seek a job, as a student in Irbid with no technical nor personal skills, making any significant money doing anything was almost impossible. Next best thing? Get experience without pay, I looked for internship opportunities, but again, I’m studying computer engineering in Irbid, no company in Irbid nor Amman accepted to have me (even without payment). So I was left again to my sleepless nights and fears of all this time passing me by, wasted.
I stumbled upon a booth for a voluntary activity and I thought “Well, anything is better than nothing, I’ll try this out, fill my time, and who knows I maybe able to make some friends, too” (which was also a struggle for a shy kid). So I did it, I joined AIESEC (a student-run organization that facilitates an international exchange program focusing on entrepreneurship). I remember ticking the box (entrepreneurship), without even knowing what it was, I couldn’t even spell the damn thing, but again, anything was better than nothing for me. And then it all began…
The first realizations
I was turning all my anxiety and worry into energy and putting it all into my voluntary work. The more time and effort I put into it, I learn more and become more comfortable and confident, volunteering started to feel like a second home. With time, I started breaking the shyness, learning organizational skills, speaking publicly, setting my personal goals and even supporting others set their own goals and seek out to fulfill them. Hell, I’ve even became familiar with fancy business jargon.
Around a year into volunteering, I started forming my recipe for success. It included three simple areas:
- Master your domain: by being technically capable in whatever your speciality is.
- Develop soft skills: An isolated genius is useful to no one. Be able to communicate your ideas with clarity and confidence.
- Build a network: When you’re involved in any real-life situation, you realize the importance of a good network. This applies everywhere (not only in a wasta-plagued society like ours).
I decided that –since I can’t grow proper mastery in my domain– I’ll dedicate my free time to develop soft skills and getting to know interesting people. I did both through volunteering. I took each and every opportunity to learn more, work more and engage more with others. I even took on leadership positions in the organization. The effect of the soft skills was clear. The network part, however, wasn’t really that big or useful in university (just yet). At that point, whenever a family member asks me “Why are you wasting your time” or “Are you insane to do this for free?” I had enough courage to answer: “I’m taking great experience, for free, before even graduating! When I graduate I’ll have business skill of someone with two-to-three years experience, and I’ll be employed in no time.”
And guess what, I was right!
Reaping the benefits
As a student, besides the social skills, volunteering forced me to get out of my comfort zone, it challenged my world view and allowed me to explore more ideas and cultures. The experience was too intense that it shaped me to have purpose and be able to plan it out in actual goals. On top of that all, it gave me lifetime friendships that stood the test of time. (And I’m not talking argeeleh friendships, I’m talking real people challenging your ideas and pushing you to become a better person in everything you do in life).
The network part finally paid off as my first boss was a co-volunteer whom I met in a gathering for our group. He lived in Amman and agreed to give me some work that I can do over weekends. This later turned into a university internship, then a part-time job, and later on a full-time job. It didn’t last long, but I learned a lot of technical skills there. And I owe it to one dinner for the volunteers.
All of this happened before graduation. By the time I graduated, I had more than one year of technical experience, a good set of leadership and soft skills and a not-so-bad professional network.
Soon after as a proper employee, the effect of my voluntary experience was even more visible. I was more confident. I was more empathetic with my co-workers and my managers, so I could see a conflict from different angles and resolve it. I was able to build a great relation with my colleagues and to manage my managers by understanding their leadership styles and adapting to them. Technically-speaking, I was a good employee too, because I already decided that I wanted to master my domain, and I was hungry to learn and gain more experience. Again, all of these skills I got from spending a couple of years volunteering.
Later on as a manager, I had a rather unusual management style. I was implementing leadership ideas from voluntary work to the business world, things like Servant Leadership which prevents you from using your own authority and gives the power to your subordinated to make the actual decisions. It was indeed unusual and was a challenge in itself. Another challenge was that when running a volunteer-driven organization, you keep asking yourself: “These people aren’t being paid, so I have the responsibility to keep their experience engaging, challenging and fun“. So I took this to my data science team and kept asking myself everyday: “What would keep them motivated an engaged?”, listening to them, and finding creative was to answer this question everyday was an amazing experience and a blessing!
Doing it again
Since my two-year voluntary term in 2007-2009, I did a lot of small volunteering activities on and off. Now I’m re-committing as a Vice President for Jordan Open Source Association. Why am I doing it again, you ask? What’s in it for me now? Absolutely nothing. I never intended to take anything from it the first time, and I don’t expect to gain anything this time. Reasons I’m volunteering now are:
- I am frustrated by the state of our technology industry. And I do believe I can do something about it.
- I’m sick of everyone looking for good engineers without investing in creating them. So I want to fix that. I want to create a long-term investment in people here, it worked for me, and I know it will work again.
- Volunteering has given me a lot and I feel obligated to show my gratitude by sharing my knowledge and experience with others.
I want to get back to the networking part to clarify one thing. When I mention network, I don’t mean it in the voice of a greedy sales person, I actually rarely say the word in real life. Instead I refer to it as “the community”, because that’s what it is: A community of really amazing people that I invest time in knowing on a personal level. Not motivated by any personal gains, but because I deeply respect and admire them, and I genuinely look up to them and want to learn from them. As a side effect, some of them do send me job offers and point me to great opportunities. Most of the time, I have to pass on their offers with an aching heart, hoping that I can help them grow their businesses one way or another. Why do I care? because they are amazing, hard-working people and they deserve great teams to live up to their ambitions, but also because I want to see more good people taking good opportunities and making Jordan the Tech Hub it should’ve been.
We live in a cynic society that –for a myriad of reasons– has lost faith in its own ability to fix itself, change and evolve. We wait for change to happen, but we don’t believe we can drive it anymore. If one of us is afraid of public speaking, they want to be the best speakers instantly instead of investing long days and months (and maybe even years) to become good enough speakers. After ten years of public speaking, my hands still sweat and my head still turns slightly red, but guess what? people don’t notice it anymore, and more importantly, I don’t notice it anymore. How long did it take? ten whole years. One embarrassing experience after the other. One slideshow after the other. One event after the other.
Cynics also say that whatever we do is insignificant “What can one person do!”, “You can never fix things here”. Well, AIESEC’s exchange program gives great experiences to tens of students every year, the whole program is run by a handful of students. In 2016, JOSA organized a six-week JOSA Data Science Bootcamp by twelve speakers, attended by 25 students. How many people organized the whole thing? only two. JOSA TechTalks is an event praised by many geeks in Amman for being their only real techie event, the idea for this event was created by one geek, carried over by another, and now a third one is planning more than fifteen TechTalks in the next twelve months. One person at a time, one event at a time.
My volunteering journey started by a shy boy being bored and wanting to utilize his time. However it impacted my life in countless ways and I can say that it was a reason for almost every good thing that happened in my life. An important thing to know here is that I haven’t planned for this. I didn’t come with an agenda. I didn’t know any of this would happen. I only expected to try something new and kill some time, maybe learn a skill or two. But… as Steve Jobs once said:
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
And I couldn’t agree more!
My point is: you don’t need a million people to change the world, you need only one, one a time, on a part-time basis: Someone who cares enough about a cause, someone who’s bothered by a problem and wants to fix it. someone who spares a couple of hours a week to think about himself/herself, thinks about others, thinks about the future of the country, and decides to do something about it. One giver, one geek, one hacker, one volunteer!