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Community IT Voices: David Dawson, Senior Engineer
Join us for our series featuring interviews with Community IT employees. In this series, we talk about nonprofit technology career paths, career resources, skills, and certifications. We also touch on mentoring opportunities as you start out on your career and ways to give back if you are further along.
Today Carolyn talks with David Dawson, Senior Engineer, who has been with Community IT for 21 years. David is a Senior Engineer working with the Help Desk escalation support team.
In this interview, he takes us back to the beginnings of Community IT in a time when “everyone did everything” and how the culture and character of Community IT as a B-corp business has grown over time. David loves solving puzzles, and as he puts it, running into a (figuratively) burning building and putting out the fires.
And listening. David believes his superpower is deep listening, to get to the heart of the IT problem. We hope you enjoy listening to his stories and experience!
I always think about Community IT existing at that intersection between IT and non-profit organizations… I’m very grateful that I found this company that’s doing that. I think that working with nonprofits, mission driven organizations, affords us a benefit that’s really intangible, to understand that there’s mission driven organizations focused on saving the world, saving the oceans, saving homeless people, saving hungry people. And, I’m so grateful that we have this opportunity to be part of that mission.David Dawson, Senior Engineer
David Dawson works as a Senior Network Engineer and serves on the Board of Directors of Community IT Innovators. He builds Windows Server and VMware ESXi networks. David’s past work experience was with restaurants and he joined the IT world in 1996 working in a Network Operations Center. He holds the Microsoft Certified System Engineer, Cisco Certified Network Administrator and VMware Certified Professional certifications. David enjoys working with clients that are making a difference in the community and internationally.
When he joined Community IT in May 2001, he felt that his faith, social and professional lives became more integrated. David studied English at Virginia Commonwealth University and continues to pursue his interest in cooking. David and his wife, Becky, have two kids and live in Washington, DC.
Carolyn Woodard has served many roles at Community IT Innovators, from client to project manager to marketing. With over twenty years of experience in the nonprofit world and marketing, including as a nonprofit technology project manager and Director of IT, Carolyn knows the frustrations and delights of working with technology professionals, accidental techies, executives, and staff to deliver your organization’s mission and keep your IT infrastructure operating.
Carolyn is excited to help manage Marketing at Community IT Innovators and is always looking for new ways to tell stories and reach people. She has a master’s degree in Nonprofit Management from Johns Hopkins University and received her undergraduate degree in English Literature from Williams College. She thinks the best thing about being with Community IT Innovators is the people.
Carolyn Woodard: Welcome everyone to Community IT innovators’ Voices interview series. My name is Carolyn Woodard and today I’m interviewing David Dawson. David, would you like to introduce yourself and your job title at Community IT?
David Dawson: Sure. I’m David Dawson. I’m a senior systems engineer here at Community IT, and I’ve been with Community IT since May of 2001, 21 years ago.
David Dawson: At Community IT here, I take escalations of all of our technical issues. One of our clients has a problem, whether that’s an individual person, maybe they’re having trouble with their computer services passwords, or the organization’s having some problems like slow internet, backups aren’t working, WiFi’s not working, then our Help Desk will take a stab at it. They’ll open up tickets and sometimes they’ll escalate things. I’m part of a team that will take escalations.
Because I’ve been with Community IT for so long and I’ve worked with so many of our products, I’ll take the escalations even from other people who are escalation technicians as well. There’s probably about six of us, I’d say. I’m one of the two or three people who have been here for a very long time.
Carolyn Woodard: I think that’s definitely one of the advantages at Community IT is that when you call our help desk, there are other more senior people that also are on the help desk. So if you have a really complicated problem, it doesn’t take a lot of running around to try and find someone who can address it. You can get to someone pretty quickly, like yourself.
David Dawson: I agree. I think we’ve scaled it very well. We have such a strong help desk team. Honestly, I’m always humbled, amazed by the help desk team. There’s so many people on that helpdesk team who learn so fast and there’s less and less that they’re escalating to me. And I feel like there are periods of time throughout the year, I just feel like I’m twiddling my thumbs. And then I find out that the reason I’m doing that is because the helpdesk team is solving some really complicated things. I’ll help them. I feel like it’s in my interest to help them help our clients sometimes instead of escalating things. They know they can just communicate with me through Teams and I’ll just give them some tips, some pointers, and they’re very eager to learn.
They’ll take a little morsel that I give them and go running with it, and then I don’t ever hear about that problem again. So that’s really amazing.
By the time that it’s escalated to me, sometimes they’ve just run at it for as long as they can. They have some metrics as well. They’re trying to solve problems in 15 or 30 minutes. There’s different metrics. And if they feel like it’s already way beyond them, they’ll send it to me. I like these little puzzles as well.
Carolyn Woodard: Yeah, the goal is to get the clients working again smoothly, as quickly as possible.
David Dawson: That’s right. That’s right.
Carolyn Woodard: Did you start on the Help Desk? Is that where your career began?
David Dawson: Well, Community IT, as you could imagine, has shifted so much in 20 years. When I started, I’d like to say that it felt more like we were a loose band of independent consultants. We had one HR and payroll department, which was great.
Before coming to Community IT, I thought, well, here are some things that I could do. I could be an independent consultant. I could work for a large firm, like Best Buy, Geek Squad, whatever, something like that. I could go work for a small firm. We’ll talk a little bit more about how I came to Community IT later. But one thing I never wanted to do was be an HR person. I didn’t want to do any sales. I didn’t want to do any bringing on clients.
And so I came to Community IT, and it really felt like we were a loose band of independent consultants because we were doing everything. We were writing proposals. We did all the escalations ourselves. If we needed help, we would send an email to our team of colleagues and they’d say, try this or try that, or this is the server you should buy, or this is what you should do.
If the internet connection was down, it was tough. The story of the last 20 years really has been about, as the company has matured, we’ve built those structures.
We didn’t have a help desk team back then, so we WERE the help desk and we were the escalation person. So I love doing all that, but it was really exhausting.
Now, we have a very, very strong Help Desk.
Carolyn Woodard: I feel like it reflects that the nonprofit community around technology has also matured in 20 years.
I know when I started out, there were a lot of accidental techies doing this or that, or just not prioritizing IT as a business need and a business requirement. Basically, you could just throw it onto someone at your organization who could try and figure out what you should do, and we’ve seen that become a lot more professionalized. And, you’ve seen that as well in your job.
David Dawson: Yes, I think so. I think about the clients that we used to have, IT was a sort of a black hole where costs went. They wanted to put all their money into programs.
And this is the typical idea I think a lot of people think about nonprofits, that they are people who are mission driven. They just want to put all their money into saving the world. But I’ve learned a lot about nonprofits, as well. And I think nonprofits are like a lot of businesses. They have to have departments that are handling all the different parts, including governance and finance and also marketing, but also running their campaigns and saving people and saving the world, as well.
Community IT has changed as well. We still have organizations that are five, 10 people. I think that used to be much more of our bulk. We would have these much smaller organizations, but as we’ve scaled, we’ve also been able to take on organizations that are up to 200 people. And this has presented a lot of opportunity for us to scale our own business and to learn and to professionalize in these things.
So I do wonder sometimes, about whether nonprofits have changed and sometimes I think it’s really us that has changed a lot, as well.
Carolyn Woodard: I think that’s true. I think technology, as well. Twenty years ago you didn’t have all of the online tools and low cost or no cost startup tools, IT tools that you could manage yourself if you were starting a nonprofit.
Now, we see a little bit more of nonprofits that have started out being kind of tech savvy and doing their own thing.
But then they get to a size and an age and a maturity where they realize that they can’t manage 200 staff members, as you said, internally. Then they can turn to an MSP, outsourced IT.
David Dawson: Here’s what I tell people: I love puzzles, I love puzzles.
I love when people bring me things that are very confusing, these puzzles that we have to take apart, figure out what’s going on and then figure out how to put them back together.
That’s one way that I characterize or define or describe what I really love about my job. And I also love rushing into burning buildings. I hate to say it. By the time escalations come to me, then there’s a problem. I’m not rushing in to build a new network, or bring in new servers or something like that. We do have a projects team that’s dedicated to that.
But by the time escalations are brought to me, there is a fire and I love rushing in there and not knowing if things are just about to fall apart. And I love being able to solve them. I have to be able to bring my experience and stay level headed about it. I have to very, very quickly be able to assess where the problem is. And I love that.
And, so we, in my horrible metaphor here, just aim the fire hose at this problem. We’re trying to separate all the symptoms and the cacophony of phone calls or people and then determine exactly where the problem is. That’s what I really enjoy, being able to put that fire out.
Carolyn Woodard: Do you want to talk a little bit more about your origin story? Do you remember when you applied to Community IT and what it was about Community IT that drew you in?
David Dawson: Sure. I’d love that. It’s a long time, 21 years, and I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was working for a large corporation and I’d started there around about ’97, ’98, something like that, before Y2K. I had a long commute. I lived in Washington, DC. I had to drive out to Reston. I had a long commute, but the job was working for a large corporation. There’s tons of resources. I had a good steady paycheck that I knew would grow at a certain rate and I could get lots of training.
But I had a friend who had a habit of starting nonprofits.
She had a very magnetic personality and she was good at starting nonprofits because she would just say, here’s something that I’m really interested in. And lots of people would just flock to her and say, I’d love to help. How can I help?
Whether that’s evenings, weekends, in my case, I’d just come evenings, weekends. I remember that she was opening up this office and I said, well, I can help with the IT. This is what I’m good at. And so I helped her wire that office and set up the internet, set up her email, all this stuff. And I just remember how much fun that was anyway.
So I thought I could either stay with this company and just donate a lot of money to nonprofits and participate that way, or I could stop my job at this large corporation and work in the nonprofit space and see what happens. It was right about this time that a lot of things came together at the same time.
My girlfriend at the time was a Mennonite and subscribed to this magazine and David Deal was on the cover with his wife, Janessa. He had just moved to Washington DC a couple years prior. He was doing some volunteer work, and this article was talking about this organization that he wanted to start to serve nonprofits. And I thought, well, that’s interesting. And then I found out that some people that I went to church with were customers of this brand new company.
And I realized all these things were coming together, my values and these news stories and these social connections.
And I thought, well, I could do this. I was unmarried at the time and my only responsibilities were to my cat and to my school loans. And so if this thing blows up, what’s the worst that could happen? I’ll just have to go back and see if I can get the job at this large corporation again.
I was really nervous about it, so I thought about it for a long time, and I thought there’s never going to be another opportunity like this. So, that’s why I came to work at Community IT. I could work serving nonprofits full-time. I would have to take a very big pay cut, although we can go back to that. Since the company has done so well, we’ve been able to pay competitive salaries. I have to say I am very proud of that.
So anyway, I made that jump. I took two weeks off between my corporate job and starting at Community IT. I had always had a job since I was about 13, some part-time job, even through college. This was a really scary thing for me taking a couple of weeks off. It was kind of a sabbatical for me, and I learned how to sail, and I was really excited about that. I haven’t done much sailing since then, but I really had a great time doing that.
But I was also very nervous about coming to work at this startup, thinking it may not be here in a couple of weeks. What am I doing? This is such a stupid thing to do.
And the first day I started all my anxiousness was allayed. I met some really fantastic people. I think there were probably about 20 staff, or so. I made the point of going around and introducing myself to each person and seeing some of the tools that we had and some of my first responsibilities. That was really, really exciting right from the very beginning.
Carolyn Woodard: What a great story of back in the day.
So you talked a little bit about having a corporate career and working at a place like Community IT, and I think a lot of young people in high school or college who are thinking about an IT career are thinking of the corporate jobs.
Would you talk a little bit about the payoffs and how you thought about it? Also, are there any ways to help younger people think about the different options in IT careers and what would you say to keep that open?
David Dawson: Yeah, that’s such a tough thing. I’d say, there’s two main things that you really need to think about as a young person, or giving myself advice if I was like 15 years old.
There’s two questions. One is, who are you? What are you good at? What are the things that you really like? This is a question that, as you know, Carolyn, as anybody knows, it’s a question that you’re continuing to ask yourself throughout your whole life.
When the career counselors or the guidance counselors ask you this in high school, they make it sound like it’s a one and done kind of a thing. This is who I am. This is what I’m good at. This is the kind of thing I’m looking for. It’s not. It changes throughout your whole life and you never really define it.
So, that is a very important thing, right? At the very beginning, a career in IT is like a career in medicine, a career in plumbing, or lots of other things, you can find yourself in that.
I think technology, right now, makes a lot of sense because it’s just so flexible and it’s continuing to mature all the time. I’m baffled that 15 years ago we were saying that there’s going to be an urgent need for IT security professionals. And today that alarm is still ringing. We’re still clamoring for this stuff. So I think that a career in IT is really a good pursuit and it’s a very safe one.
It’s going to be around for a long time and you can find your way to a career in IT, whatever skill you want to bring.
It’s not just large corporations, whatever everybody’s thinking about: Google, Microsoft, Apple These are probably great employers. It’s possible that the golden years are over and you’re not going to have these fun workplaces with the foosball table behind you and catered meals and high end gym memberships; probably that’s going to change.
But rather than thinking about the large organizations, there’s so many small organizations also; thinking about Community IT.
The second thing to think about, whether you work for large corporations or small corporations, and I’m going to trumpet, of course, Community IT. One of the great things about Community IT that I think would be good to look at in whatever place you look at is, how does the organization really want to present itself?
Things like equity, things like values. A couple things that Community IT does is we are overtly a B Corp. B Corps are not recognized by a lot of municipalities, but there’s a value statement that’s made when we say we’re a B Corp.
And another one is, I can’t emphasize how important this is for our values, is that we’re an employee owned company. I think that’s why there’s so much success at Community IT. It’s certainly one of the large things that’s keeping me at Community IT. Matching what I’m good at with what the company needs, of course that’s the main thing, but a very big part of that also is that it’s an employee owned company.
It says so much. It requires so much of the company to the employees and it also requires so much from the employees, as well.
So I would say for any young person looking for employment, that’s really what you want to pursue: who you are and putting companies on the short list that show values that match your values as well.
Carolyn Woodard: A lot of employees I’ve talked to talk about the ability to combine an interest and an affinity for nonprofits and the work that they do with the ability to support them through IT. So it’s like you get the best of both of those worlds. It helps you feel fulfilled while you’re doing your job because you’re helping the clients that are saving the world, as you said earlier.
David Dawson: Yeah, Steve Jobs said something that reminds me of Community IT a lot. Apple really exists at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. The first time I heard it and every time I hear it, I always think about Community IT existing at that intersection between IT and non-profit organizations.
If somebody wants a one sentence description of what Community IT is, that’s what I say. We exist at that intersection. So I’m very grateful that I found this company that’s doing that. I think that working with nonprofits, mission driven organizations, affords us a benefit that’s really intangible, to understand that there’s mission driven organizations focused on saving the world, saving the oceans, saving homeless people, saving hungry people. And, I’m so grateful that we have this opportunity to be part of that mission.
Carolyn Woodard: I think in the modern world, if your IT doesn’t work, you can’t do those things. Your office just can’t function if the IT isn’t working. So that helps us help them, for sure.
Is there something about your job that you thought you knew going into it that turned out to be totally different from what you expected?
David Dawson: When you’re working with a large corporation, there are kind of silos. It’s like, this is your job description; this is what you do. If you are doing something else, then go back and look at your job description again.
Especially at Community IT, there’s opportunities to specialize. Maybe that was one thing that I was not really expecting. I was expecting that it would be very well defined. Now that I think about it, when I worked for a large corporation, that’s what was expected of us. That we would just stay in our lane. Coming into Community IT, at the very beginning, it made me very uncomfortable that we could just hop over a couple of lanes whenever, or I would see other people doing it and I thought, why is that person not staying in their lane?
Maybe that’s kind of a benefit that’s sort of built into small organizations, certainly at Community IT. People who want to think about planning over the whole year, that’s what they gravitated to. And then we developed this project team, or this IT business management team and it wasn’t just ad hoc and accidental; I’m not saying that whatsoever.
I love doing the nitty gritty of solving one problem at a time and I’ve been able to really make a career out of that. I could probably talk a lot about technology and how that’s evolved, but I think it’s probably more interesting to think about how at Community IT our roles and our structures and our relationships have evolved as well.
Carolyn Woodard: I think that’s something that I’ve heard from other people I’ve talked to and it’s a strength of Community IT that there is not a rigid job description. You’re (not) stuck doing that and have to do something extraordinary to be able to move teams.
Where there’s a need or an interest, there’s a lot of creativity involved, which I didn’t really think of when I first started out in IT. But I think another strength of Community IT’s is having people with a lot of experience and the ability to take initiative and, as you said, follow the problem.
If it’s a problem that’s gotten as far as you, it’s going to be complicated. And so being able to take initiative and be entrepreneurial and creative about coming up with a solution, I think is important and Community IT really rewards people who are able to think creatively.
David Dawson: I think so. I think so.
Carolyn Woodard: So you were saying that one thing you wanted to say about your job and about what you bring to the job?
David Dawson: Yes. Doing escalations, one of the things I have to do is figure out where the problem is. When somebody has a problem: Outlook’s not working or WiFi’s not working or whatever, I have to listen for not just what they’re saying about the problem, but what they’re not saying.
Then I have to guide them to help me narrow it down. Aha. Here we go. This is where the problem is because without my hands on the keyboard, I can solve a lot of the problem just by saying, tell me more about it.
Carolyn Woodard: I like what you said about almost being in a partnership with that person who’s having the problem who’s not an IT specialist. I know when I’ve been on a call with other helpdesk support, talking to someone about it, it’s like I’m the person who knows what the problem is, but I don’t know the IT. And then on the other end, you’ve got the person who knows the IT and if they don’t partner with you on understanding what the problem is, what it’s doing that it’s not supposed to be doing or should be doing, then you’re losing that resource, that person who has the firsthand experience of what is not working. So I love the way you put it of just really listening.
David Dawson: If I can partner with them and really let them know that I’m hearing them, and I’m looking at the problem with them, not in a confrontational way, this really helps you in your professional life, as well. Just listen to people.
Carolyn Woodard: Thank you so much, David, for your time today. I really appreciate talking to you.
David Dawson: Yeah. You’re welcome. Thank you very much for this time.
We hope you enjoyed this Community IT Voices interview with David Dawson. Community IT is the right place for you if you find fulfillment in helping others succeed and love mastering new technologies.
Our employees stay and grow with us, and over half of our staff have been with us for over a decade. Community IT is an employee-owned company with a positive, sustainable workplace that promotes professional development and a healthy work/life balance. We have been 100% employee-owned since 2012. Check out careers with us here.