Thursday, September 22, 2011

Commonalities Among Computing Professionals Who Work for Good

I am performing a final review of the the production text of my book on socially beneficial uses of computing (officially: Computers and Society: Computing For Good).  The computing topics range all across the discipline of computer science (high performance computing to social media) and the non-computing topics are as diverse as saving endangered sea turtles, medical informatics and educational software for children with disabilities.  Several years in the writing, I met on this journey either virtually or in person, dozens and dozens of people. Looking back on all these wonderful encounters I am struck once again by the commonalities among them. 

1. Passion. More than anything else, the people who shared their stories (and those of their organizations) with me felt that their work was more than a job. Again and again I heard about how the cause they worked towards (earthquake prediction, identifying best practices recommendations for infant care, poverty alleviation) gave a sense of purpose above and beyond a paycheck. When things got tough, their passion for helping people or the environment supported them.

2. Risk Takers. As many books on innovation in business have documented, a willingness to take risks, experience setbacks or even failures, is absolutely necessary. Some people I met had abandoned secure positions to follow their dreams, or within their current careers they strategically stuck their necks out to convince others that their ideas were sound and worthy of support. Again and again. Technically and non-technically. Risk taking, dealing with the inevitable setbacks by getting up and moving forward are an ingrained trait in many of the people who are doing the greatest good with computing.

3. Curious and Open Minded. A common reaction to being a risk taker (whether in the world of computing innovation or elsewhere) is to face and go beyond those who say "it can't be done" or "this is not the time". In fact, as the interdisciplinary computing pioneers I met demonstrated, you need to let these critiques roll off. Instead, keep asking questions, gathering information and recognize there is rarely only one way to solve a problem. In fact, the more that conventional wisdom says this is so, the less likely it is to be true.

4. Keep Technically Current and Constantly Learn. Just as I had the privilege and necessity of diving deep into the world of mobile devices, computer security and other areas of computing, the people who are highly effective and innovative with their socially beneficial projects are continuously studying. Not necessarily (or usually) through formal education, but through reading, experimenting, sharing, and just plain digging into material further than they "had to".

Perhaps more than anything else, the computing and non-computing professionals knew themselves well, and knew what their dreams were. They made a personal commitment to pursue those dreams.

If you are reading this, it is likely you have a desire to "do good" with computing. Do you know what your dreams are and are you pursuing them?

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