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Community IT Voices: William Maxwell, 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 William Maxwell, who was hired at Community IT 22 years ago with the sentence “Have you SEEN how he uses a computer?”
William is a Senior Engineer at Community IT and the go-to guy for the trickiest problems at our largest clients, usually what we call co-managed IT where he backstops an in-house IT department with additional expertise. William loves solving those problems by finding what will work, knowing that nonprofits come to IT needing to manage scarce resources and funding, which means they always need creative solutions, patience, and good counsel. William’s calm manner and extraordinary abilities are just what our large clients need.
His advice to folks looking to combine a love of nonprofit service with an interest in IT? Don’t focus on degrees and pricy qualifications over on-the-job learning “As long as you have the heart in it, then everything else will work out.”
Community IT Innovators William Maxwell has been providing organizations with network infrastructure, planning and helpdesk support since 2000, and is now a Senior Engineer. He has a range of technical experience, and works in both Macintosh and Microsoft Windows environments. William enjoys having the opportunity to help non-profit organizations use technology towards achieving their missions. In addition to being an engineer, he researches cutting-edge technology and refines and coordinates Best Practices documentation.
Prior to Community IT Innovators William worked for a local cable company where he was initiated into the world of cable, Internet, and telephones. He is a Microsoft Certified System Engineer and Apple OS X certified. William is a Mac enthusiast, and in his spare time William studies and practices speaking Spanish.
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: Hello. My name is Carolyn and I am interviewing William Maxwell, who is at Community IT. William, would you like to introduce yourself and how long you’ve been at Community IT?
William: Well, my name is William. I’ve been at Community IT for almost 22 years. It’ll be 22 years in February.
Carolyn: What is your job title?
William: I’m a Senior Engineer. I’ve been just about everything. So it’s whatever they decide to call me now.
Carolyn: What are your responsibilities?
William: A lot of things. I’m mainly on the Advanced Support Engineering team. So that means I do a little bit of scheduled support, a little bit of escalation, which is when problems get really hard. When they’re hard, difficult, or time consuming.
Carolyn: So do you have a typical day? What happens on a typical day?
William: No, I don’t really have a typical day, but I do have clients I’m responsible for. I usually check in and work on some of their issues. I have a good number of what we call co-managed IT, where our clients have their own IT department and we’re just helping them, helping support their own staff. It’s usually escalated stuff from them as well, “Oh, I looked at this, I thought it was this, but that didn’t work. Can you take a look?” And I say, “Okay, no problem.”
Carolyn: So you’re like reinforcements. They bring in additional resources.
William: Exactly, reinforcements.
“I just love our diverse clients that we work with and to be able to support them so they don’t have to think about the technology. They can think about their mission.”
Carolyn: What’s the best thing about your job at Community IT?
William: I like working with the clients. I love working with nonprofits. It helps me sleep at night when I know that the work I’m doing is helping someone.
It’s indirectly helping the homeless get homes or law and policy being made for children’s rights. I just love our diverse clients that we work with and to be able to support them so they don’t have to think about the technology. They can think about their mission.
Carolyn: What’s something about your job that we probably don’t know about what a senior engineer does?
Or, some skill you have that a senior engineer needs that you wouldn’t have thought?
William: A lot of it is being able to learn new stuff, just learning new stuff. There’s all sorts of planning involved, but usually I’ll get something like, “Will, can you take a look at this?” And it’s something I’ve never looked at before.
And then I’ll be able to dive in and be able to figure out what the client or my coworkers or my colleagues need and just figure it out. There’s a good bit of getting the job done, technically wise anyway.
Carolyn: Well, because it sounds like if it gets escalated to you, it’s already a pretty complicated, maybe unusual problem.
William: But I also occasionally get new stuff tossed in, like, “Oh, this client was interested in this thing for their SQL database.” I’ll think, “I don’t know anything about databases, but I’ll see what I can do.” That’s when I pull out my Star Trek Scotty hat and think I don’t know if I could do it, but then I figure something out to save the day, like Scotty, Laforge, any of those great engineers from Star Trek.
Carolyn: That’s right. That’s right. I get a sense you might be a Trekkie?
William: Oh, maybe?
Carolyn: I’m going to take you back to back in time. You said it’s almost 22 years.
Carolyn: Do you remember when you applied to Community IT and what it was about Community IT that made you want to apply and made you accept the job?
William: Honestly, it was an IT job. At the time I had just graduated from Trade School and I was looking for an IT job and the first couple of jobs were phone support and cable install tech.
But then my brother’s friend said, “Hey, I work for an IT company. We’re looking for good people.” And he kept encouraging me to apply till I did.
I thought, “Oh, maybe I’ll get an actual IT job.” It’s one of those fell in love things, like, “You all do what? Really? Oh, I didn’t know these things existed.”
Carolyn: So that’s why you applied. Do you have any insight into what it was about you that made you a good fit for Community IT? From the other side, why did they hire you?
William: I have no idea. I think it was a little bit of a je ne sais quoi, or something. “I think he’ll work.” But I also feel like the technical part was there and knowing that they do certain work with nonprofits I was like, “I’ll give it a shot. I like it better than my current job.”
I can’t really say what people saw in me, but I was excited to be there. I think I liked the size of the company a little bit better. I liked that aspect of it. It felt like it was a small bunch of people doing IT.
Carolyn: Well, and it sounds like right from the start, it was clearly going to be more challenging and intellectually challenging than some of the other jobs you were looking at.
William: Oh yeah. There was less red tape. The job I had before, whoever was in charge was not interested in anything else about me other than “don’t mess up.” I felt a difference just going into the interview that it was more than just a job.
They are not just people, these are people who hangout and work closely, so they need to be actual nice people. I feel like there was some attention to that, and it was 20 years ago. It must have been Dave Deal, he saw something.
Carolyn: Must be. So my next question is: that was 22 years ago; can you talk a little bit about what it is about Community IT that has kept you here?
“Everyone’s willing to share, teach and grow because we’re trying to help our clients at the end of the day, not ourselves. “
William: Well, it’s the same reason why I like being here. We’re supporting nonprofits and it’s not just that alone. We also have a bunch of other great people that are here for the same reason. They want to support nonprofits. So to be able to support nonprofits with people that want to support nonprofits that are great people all by themselves.
We’re the geeky parts; we’re the not geeky parts. We have a whole everything, and we can just come together, support each other and have fun together while we do our work.
It’s how I would like a consulting company to be. No one’s hoarding information. Everyone’s willing to share, teach and grow because we’re trying to help our clients at the end of the day, not ourselves. So that’s why I’m still here. I get to help the people help the people.
Carolyn: I want to go back to that question of technology jobs. There’s a lot of emphasis on certification and coursework.
If you were talking to yourself back in high school or college about the kind of career you have now, where you sound very satisfied and happy with what you do, are there any things you would tell a high school person or college person today that would help them get ready for a job like Community IT? Maybe help them consider work in nonprofit technology instead of going off to a huge company that does technology at a huge scale?
William: I would like to know a little bit more about how nonprofits work. The technology will come if you have a technical mind. You can learn the methods and the steps to learn things, you can get comfortable with technology. But knowing how to talk to and communicate with nonprofits, even if it’s a minor in nonprofit management or just doing an internship at a nonprofit organization, so you know how they do things. That will help immensely in a nonprofit IT career, knowing that it’s not the same. They don’t have endless budgets. Be adaptable and flexible with your solutions.
Carolyn: So my next question is that tech support has a lot of stereotypes. Are there some stereotypes that are fair, some that are unfair? Is there something that makes someone good at providing tech support that might not be a personality trait we necessarily associate with tech support?
William: For the most part, patience is needed and being flexible, but a lot of that is tech support in general. That’s some of the stuff that’s played down in tech support. A lot of times the stereotype is more technical, less support. I think for the nonprofits, it needs to be more support, less technical.
You can be as technical as you want, but make sure the customer support part is good. Really good.
Carolyn: Yeah. That makes sense.
William: You need all that stuff. You need to be patient, being able to adapt a solution as you need, especially with nonprofits and their budget.
They may not be able to afford the most expensive fix or even the proper fix. So there’s the fix and then, the one that works. Be able to settle in yourself that it’s okay, this is what works for their budget point. Oh, one other thing, do not be too worried if they don’t listen to your recommendations.
Carolyn: Yeah. Why is that?
William: Because they have a budget and they have so many things going on. As long as you are solid in your recommendations and you believe it, if they don’t listen to you, you have to be able to get over it. It may come back around later, it may not.
Sometimes it doesn’t fit and they don’t always tell you. I think that’s more of a consulting tip. But if I made a recommendation for them to replace something, they may say “Oh, we can’t afford to do it right now,” but I know they really need to do it right now.
There’s nothing I can do about it. You can’t spend what you don’t have and when the time comes and that server needs to be replaced later, it will get replaced eventually.
Carolyn: Yep. That sounds like a good life skill as well, to be able to take it when someone doesn’t take your advice!
William: Yeah, I would agree.
Carolyn: That leads to my next question which is, you sound very satisfied in your job, in your position. If someone is working in technology and maybe isn’t getting a lot of support or isn’t at a place that is a good fit for what they want to be doing, or where they want their career to go, do you have any advice on where they can go for support?
William: There’s a few resources, but I think the important thing is to know why you’re working there. Why are you working in the field? Because where you go next could be anywhere.
There’s a bunch of different commercial companies. There’s still a bunch of different nonprofit companies. Some are more family oriented as if everybody’s family and you have a more relaxing environment.
Others are more corporate. They still feel just like a for-profit company. Like, “Wait… where do I work now?” So, know why you’re in the field.
What areas of nonprofit do you like? Do you like creating law and policy? It’s more Congress adjacent, or do you like the direct service organizations that are helping people directly, or somewhere in between? There’s some community based organizations. Knowing how you like to help, or if you have your own passion to help out, look for places like that to support because technology support people are always needed.
Carolyn: In my own experience in nonprofits, and I’m sure you’ve seen this at clients, you often run into people they used to call the accidental techie.
William: Oh yeah. I had a few of those.
Carolyn: They fall into a technology role and maybe have a little aptitude or maybe don’t have any aptitude at all. They’re not really technology oriented people, but for some reason they have this role. Often, nonprofits have difficulty prioritizing budget and staff for IT. Do you have any advice for people like that, who have kind of fallen into a technology role at a nonprofit? Of course, they can always call us.
William: I think first and foremost, figure out if this is something you like or want to keep doing.
If you’re an accidental techie, but you’re like, “Oh wow! I didn’t realize I love this!” Then you can go to some of the other parts and try to find more resources to learn more and keep in touch. Maybe, depending on where you’re working, they may support you learning more to help with the technology.
If you want to do it then there’s places like TechSoup that have lots of resources for nonprofit technology people. And I know we’ve got a few resources on our website to help figure out things.
But just pursue it. In my opinion, it’s more about wanting to be in nonprofit technology than the certifications and degrees. As long as you have your heart in it, then everything else will work itself out and you can find yourself a good technology job without having to spend a lot of money to look like you can get a good technology job, if that makes sense.
Carolyn: I love that. I love that. You’ve been at Community IT for almost 22 years. When people ask you what you do, what do you say? How do you describe what your job is?
William: The quick and easy, happy hour one would be “Operational IT.” When I still get the confusing looks, I’d say, “It’s the stuff you don’t worry about until it’s broken,” and that pretty much gets an “Oh, okay.”
I find in DC, there’s still a lot of, “Who are you and what can you do for me?” And that’s not usually why I’m there. And once they figure it out, they move on. They just want to see if I can help them with their webpages.
Carolyn: Right. Right.
William: I think that’s a good one for family and other people. They’re trying to figure out what kind of IT. There’s a lot of things that get categorized as IT now, anything from app developers to web programmers and all of that.
Carolyn: Digital media, yeah.
William: Sometimes your job gets classified as technology and it’s sometimes hard for people to figure out what you do. But no matter what you do, you probably always get called to help somebody fix their computer. It’s, “Oh, you’re in computers, right?”
Carolyn: Yep. William, thank you so much for talking with me today. It was wonderful to talk to you.
William: It was fun.
We hope you enjoyed this Community IT Voices interview with William Maxwell. 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.