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Community IT Voices: Phil Oswald Christano, Senior Engineer
Join us for our series featuring interviews with Community IT employees. In this series, we will talk about nonprofit technology career paths, career resources, skills, and certifications. We will 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 Phil Oswald Christano, who has been with Community IT for almost 22 years.
Phil is a Senior Engineer and mentor at Community IT. He prepares and executes projects, and he ensures the documentation is complete and the project is completed successfully. In his role as Engineer, he often supervises newer employees, where he will ask, “Hey, have you ever thought about becoming an engineer?” and then start a conversation about what that looks like as well as helping them see what paths are available in the company and how to get there.
“… a thing that I really enjoy at Community IT is the teamwork. People are really willing to help each other and often go the extra mile to help. To me, that’s important not just with clients, but also internally, within the company.”
Originally from Indonesia, Phil Oswald Christano joined Community IT Innovators in January 2000. In addition to providing support to his assigned clients, as a senior engineer, he also provides escalation support for the network admins and engineers, performs project QAs, and network audits. With a passion in staff and human development, he holds the unofficial title of coach and mentor.
Prior to Community IT, Phil lived in Goshen, Indiana where he went to college and gained 4 years of Information Technology (IT) experience as an IT Consultant to small businesses, and later as a Systems Administrator in a manufacturing company. Phil holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Computer Systems with concentration in Information Systems from Goshen College. He is a VMware Certified Professional (VCP5). Outside work, Phil loves spending time with his family, cook and enjoy various kind of food, and play his musical instruments.
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, keep your IT infrastructure operating, and your website live.
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: Welcome to Community IT Innovators’ Voices of Community IT series. My name is Carolyn. I will be interviewing Phil Oswald Christano today.
I’m learning all about your role at Community IT, what brought you to this career and any advice that you would have for others who are coming after you. So, would you like to introduce yourself and tell me how many years you’ve been at Community IT?
Phil: Sure. My name is Phil Oswald Christano, I have been at Community IT for almost 22 years. It’s easy for me to remember because I started working for this company in January of 2000. So whatever the year is, that’s how long I’ve been here.
Carolyn: It does make it easy.
Carolyn: What are your responsibilities? What do you do?
Phil: Primarily I’m one of the senior engineers in the projects team. What that means is I help with looking at the technical design of the project as well as looking at some potential gotchas. I also help in preparing and completing the project itself.
At the end I update the documentation so that everybody in the company is aware of what’s going on and ready to support the client.
What I consider as my secondary responsibility, maybe less official, is I do like mentoring junior staff. Seeing them grow and helping them grow is a joy.
Along with that, I am an escalation point for other staff members.
Carolyn: Wow. That’s so interesting. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
How did you become a mentor and is it formal or informal? How do people know that they can seek you out for mentorship?
Phil: So generally, I kind of tap on people individually. As I see them with new staff, I let them adjust and be comfortable and then at some point, just like everybody else, we make it known that we’re there to help if they have any questions.
But at some point, as I see them growing and I see the potential, I would tap on them specifically. Oftentimes, I ask, “Hey, have you ever thought about becoming an engineer?” and then start a conversation about what that looks like as well as helping them see what paths are available in the company and how to get there.
As well as being in the projects team I have opportunities for people to shadow, so oftentimes I would say, “Hey, would you like to see how I set up a server, or do a cloud migration?” or, “If you want to know anything about Azure, here’s a project I’m working on, feel free to join me.”
That provides an apportunity for people to learn. As they mature even more, I often talk to their supervisor as well as my supervisor, “Can this person actually do the project with me?”
They will be driving. I will help plan the project and then they will do the work and I will be there with them to make sure that everything’s good.
Carolyn: Wow. That’s great to hear about professional development and technical learning within Community IT. There are paths to identify and help people grow in their skillset, that’s really wonderful.
Phil: I would actually say my typical day starts before bedtime which is when I check what’s going on tomorrow. I personally like to be prepared knowing what’s ahead of me. After I see what’s happening, then I sort of set in my mind what my day will be like. In the morning, typically I respond to high priority emails, things that I need to reply to right away.
I do use Microsoft Planner to help manage my projects since I usually have multiple spinning plates with different priorities. So I have to know as I start my day, “Okay, what’s the most important thing I need to take care of?” How much time to put in it and all that, and then I just get to work.
Carolyn: What’s the best part of your job? What’s a part of your job that you enjoy the most?
Phil: Well, I would say it’s the realization that I am contributing to society and humanity, there’s a strong sense of purpose that it’s not just migrating a server or whatever the project is.
Working with nonprofit organizations, I get to really see what they’re doing, not just on a website. For example, the recent COP26 [climate crisis conference] in Glasgow. Knowing that there are clients that we’re representing there and involved in that.
Seeing clients that work around elections to make sure people are voting, clients that serve refugees, the homeless population, education sector, or working in food insecurity. It feels good to be a part of that, even if you’re in the background.
The other thing I like about my job is there’s a respect for personal life. There’s a certain amount of flexibility and boundaries. I’m not working 24/7 and the boundary that I set is respected. Of course, I’m here for any emergency; give me a call and I will respond.
Carolyn: I think it makes it easier to respond in an emergency when everything isn’t an emergency. When you have good systems in place, the team can handle what they can handle and they escalate what really needs to be escalated. You can respond to the client in a way that’s helpful, that doesn’t take all of your energy all of the time.
I’ve heard that from other Community IT employees as well. That life/work balance helps you be a better employee, and also of course helps you have a better personal life, because you’re not available 24 hours a day.
Phil: Yeah. And by having a better and less stressful life, the more you can give as well, right?
Carolyn: That’s great.
Phil: And the other thing that I really enjoy is the teamwork. People are really willing to help each other and often go the extra mile to help. To me, that’s important not just with clients, but also internally, within the company.
Carolyn: Is there something about your job that we probably don’t know? What about what a senior engineer does would you like to tell us?
Phil: Within the context of a senior engineer in the projects team, one thing that I really like is that my work is all project-based, and what that means is there’s a clear beginning, there’s a clear end.
And I have the chance to work with different clients because it’s not just one client for a long time. I get to move and get to know different clients and get glimpses of what they actually do.
Again, because what I do are all projects, I ended up working with what I consider cutting edge technology. It’s interesting as I talk to friends in the IT world, outside the nonprofit circle, I even discover that our clients are more on the cutting edge than the rest of the world. Partly it’s because they tend to be smaller and easier to manage. So that’s really great.
And being in a position of mentor also means I get to see people grow, and like I mentioned earlier, that is just a joy for me.
Carolyn: That’s great. That’s great.
I want to take you back 22 years and ask you a little bit about why you applied to Community IT. How did you come to Community IT? And, maybe you wouldn’t mind talking a little bit about your background and your story, because I know that’s very interesting as well.
Phil: When I was looking at Community IT back then, I was really attracted by what the company does and also who the company was at the time, and still is. I’m the kind of person that doesn’t work solely for the money. The income is important, but the non-monetary benefits are very important to me as well.
So things that I looked: at company culture; who the clients are; relationships, internally as well as with the clients; sense of purpose; and things like that.
And it’s really interesting to hear the founder of the company, hearing how he talks about the company. At one point – and this story has been passed around over and over – at one point, he said to Johan: “You know, you’re not working for an IT company, you’re working for a people company.”
That really made me feel like I found my home. Sure, you can work for a company that pays you twice as much, but if you do not have that sense of purpose and don’t really enjoy and love what you’re doing, what’s the point? It’s not sustainable.
Carolyn: I think I’ve heard that from other employees as well, that it feels like coming home or joining a family that you probably should have always been part of.
I know that for a lot of people who are pursuing a technology career, nonprofit technology would not be the first thing that they would think of. Was there anything you learned in high school, or when you were considering the skills and talents you would need to have a job that was about more than just having a job?
Is there any advice you would give your former self or someone in high school or college now who’s thinking about a technology career that could be fulfilling?
Phil: Yeah, the biggest thing for me is really knowing yourself, because when you know yourself, you know what you want, and then you know what to look for.
That is a journey that may not come easily for everyone, but it’s an important one to have.
As for my background, I graduated from a small liberal arts college, Goshen College. While there I learned and they put a lot of emphasis on things like service and social justice and people. That sort of shaped who I am and helps me understand what I want and what I’m looking for in life.
So sure, IT is something that I’m doing, but there is a bigger thing. IT is just the tool, right? For a lot of our clients, IT is what lets them do what they need to do. In the same way, this job is also a small component in my life that lets me do what I want to do.
So that’s probably an unusual answer to your question, “to study life…!”
Carolyn: Or, “know yourself!”
Phil: Exactly. That’s honestly really what it is for me.
Carolyn: I think it actually makes sense.
My next question is about technology, techs and admin support. There are a lot of stereotypes, some of them fair, some of them unfair. What I’m hearing you say, about your background and advice you would give, the type of technology person where you’re thinking, “I’m going to get this certificate, I’m going to get this skill, and then I’m going to do this thing,” that’s maybe an unfair stereotype of people who are interested in technology being very sequential – one thing, one thing, the next thing.
And maybe if you’re interested in technology, that isn’t an extreme fit for you – being sequential like that. I’m hearing you also say, with the mentoring and the technology professional development at Community IT, if you have the right personality or mindset, you know who you are, and you want to have this role helping nonprofits, you can develop the technology skills as well. So you don’t necessarily have to have taken every technology class in high school to be able to make a career of it, does that sound fair?
Phil: Yeah, it’s interesting you bring that up, because if you look through the history of this company, especially in the beginning, most of the people did not come from an IT background.
I was one of the few that actually had prior IT experience. I was working at a manufacturing company basically running the IT there, but a lot of the people working at Community IT started as an engineer or social worker.
But the key here is, even though we are a people company, IT is what we do. So having the aptitude, having the ability to learn and having the ability to troubleshoot, analytical thinking, that’s all important. So if you have that, but do not have the experience or the certifications, I think you can do it.
But, some people also think, “Okay, so if I get all the certifications, I will be successful.” Not always. That’s not always the case. I think certifications are important, but there’s a lot more beyond that to be successful.
Carolyn: That makes sense. I’m going to ask the next question about mentoring, because I can hear that mentoring is really important to you and that’s a skill that you enjoy.
If you knew of someone at another company who was maybe not feeling as fulfilled or supported in a technology role, do you have advice for them if they can’t come up and ask you to be their mentor?
Where else do you go for support and for professional advancement and development?
Phil: I think that will depend a lot on where they are and their community.
I would invite that person to analyze first. What is it that really makes you unhappy? Is it because of the company policy, company culture? It’s not necessarily the IT, or the IT job, but the bigger thing around the job. Do you know what you want?
Those are all very, very important. The first thing you need to understand is what it is that you’re dealing with. Once you know what you need, there are different things you can plug into. For example, there are plenty of user groups online. In cities, especially pre-pandemic, there were some meetup groups for networking.
If you are in the nonprofit scene, going to conferences like the NTEN Conference is a great way to network and connect with people that will help a lot. Networking is very important.
Carolyn: Yeah, that makes sense.
You said that you are one of the people who came to Community IT from another IT job. I’m wondering for other people who might be making that jump, did you have any doubts about joining a company like Community IT? You’d be serving nonprofits and you have this work life balance. Did you have any doubts about the wisdom of doing that for your career? How would you answer if other people have doubts about applying?
Phil: For me, because of my background and who I am, there was little doubt. Well, to some degree, starting a new job, there’s always doubt about starting a new life in a different city.
I moved from a small town in Indiana to DC. There’s always a doubt, and working for a company that serves nonprofits also means financially there’s some doubt. But in terms of how long I would last in a company, there’s no way of knowing, whatsoever.
I’m the kind of person who would tend to take it a day at a time. So as far as I can sense that this is home and all my basic needs are satisfied, I will just continue on.
Carolyn: Right, right. No more doubts.
Phil: Right, right.
Carolyn: I guess that’s a good segue to my last question. You know very well and have been with Community IT for quite a long time. When you meet someone new and they ask you, what does Community IT do? What do you tell them?
Phil: So, I used to plan this and try to come up with a catchy answer. But these days, honestly, I just give the most practical answer: we do IT and we serve nonprofit organizations.
Part of the reason is because, as you talk to people, sometimes you realize that they’re not really interested in digging deep. So I give that a short answer as a way to sense if they want to talk more or just want a short answer.
But if people I talk to are interested in having a deeper conversation, then I definitely will and talk about how we are different. Sure, we’re an MSP, but we’re not just any MSP. We’re in IT, but it’s not just IT, and hopefully they will understand better what that means.
Carolyn: That sounds good. Thank you so much for doing this interview with me today. I really appreciate your answers and just being able to talk about being at Community IT for 22 years.
Phil: Sure. Yeah. You’re welcome.
We hope you enjoyed this Community IT Voices interview with Phil Oswald Christano. 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.