When Randal Carr and his wife moved from the Washington, D.C. area to Maine in 2002, they did so to slow down and escape the rat race. But Carr didn't want his IT skills, honed as a network administrator, to languish, so he began looking for volunteer opportunities that would let him use his skills and help his new community.
Carr and his wife were members of the Annapolis Coast Guard Auxiliary, and transferred their membership to the Bangor, Maine, chapter when they moved. The organization was looking for help to develop a website, and Carr volunteered his skills.
"Back in 2002, the technology was a bit more primitive; websites were just beginning to take hold as a necessity for these kinds of organizations," Carr says. "Since I was in IT, I knew a little bit about building a site, and it was a great way to practice my Web development skills, even though it was a fairly static page and no longer exists in that form," he says.
Now in a graduate-level IT program at Harvard University's extension school, Carr continues to hone his skills by consulting, and also is currently building a website for Carefree College in Carefree, Ariz., while he pursues his degree.
"When you're not working full-time or buried in contract work, there's no reason to sit around and be idle," Carr says. "You have to take initiative and show that you're willing to work hard and contribute, even if you're not going to be paid to do so," he says.
Attitude Is (Almost) Everything
That attitude can serve candidates well, and set them apart from other job seekers in an increasingly competitive job market, although it's best if your volunteer work is directly related to the type of job you're trying to land, says Rona Borre, CEO, President and Founder of Chicago, Ill.-based Instant Technology, an HR consulting and IT recruiting firm.
"Replacing your full-time job experiences with volunteer work can be helpful in general," Borre says. "If you're going above and beyond the usual to help your community in ways that aren't related to your job search, that shows something about your character."
"But you have to be able to tie that experience to your on-the-job skills: Did you work with a team? Did you come away with an actual 'work product' that you can showcase for a potential employee, whether that's a Web site, a piece of code, a written article," Borre says.
In addition, being able to highlight any acquired "soft skills" can be an advantage, she says. Depending on the type of volunteer work, there are opportunities to build leadership and management skills, or enhance your public speaking ability.
These intangible skills can help hone your business acumen and prove to a potential employer that you can take a 'big picture' view of their company and their business model, Borre says.
"Technology isn't as much about just sitting at a desk and coding for hours," Borre says. "You have to prove that you understand the larger business implications of whatever company you're looking to join."
Gain an IT Edge With Open Source
Sometimes, that 'big picture' view includes gaining experience with open source software tools that solutions companies are already using, says Bill Cava, Chief Technology Evangelist with Web content management solutions company Ektron.
When a friend approached Cava for advice on how to successfully transition to a career in IT, Cava suggested he bone up on his open source skills to gain an edge.
"A friend of mine was looking to change careers from finance to IT, after the 2008 economic crash, and he wanted to get into software quality assurance testing, for Web-based companies, specifically," Cava says. While he'd taken courses and acquired an enviable list of certifications, Cava says his friend still found it tough to land a job without any hands-on experience.
"I told him to check out some open source projects and tools, especially those that his 'dream employers' were already using," Cava says. I told him to focus on the area he wanted to be in, and that there are many open source projects out there that would benefit from someone with his expertise," he says.
While Cava's friend hasn't yet landed that dream job, he's moving more quickly in the right direction and gaining valuable experience, as well as a tangible product he can point to in job interviews, Cava says. And, as someone who's involved in interviewing and hiring decisions for his own firm, Cava says these kinds of skills are something he'd look for on a job-seeker's resume.
"I told him what I'd want to see on an applicant's resume-someone who's continuing to expand their skills and gain experience while also helping the greater IT community. I wish I could say that he's happily landed a job, but so far, he's still looking," Cava says. "But he's making lots of connections through this work, and networking, and he's much more hopeful about the job search process," Cava says.
Matt Brosseau, Instant Technology's director of recruiting, agrees with Cava that working on open source projects can be a differentiator for candidates.
"The benefit to working on these platforms is exposure. Products like OpenOffice [and] FileZilla, for instance; these aren't just novelty projects, these are stand-alone, standardized projects that are used every day in the corporate and IT world," Brosseau says.
"You're not just gaining real-world experience, you also gain a tangible product that you can showcase for employers," he says. "Your name will appear on the working group list for the most recent iterations of open source technology, for products that any IT professional will instantly recognize."
Not only that, Brosseau says, but working on open source projects demonstrates a candidate's ability to collaborate, work well with a team, and highlight their leadership skills and ability to work independently.
"If a candidate came to me and said, 'I was let go six months ago, but I've thrown myself into these kinds of projects, built up my skills and helped the community in the process,' I'd have a sense that they were motivated, driven and altruistic," Cava says. "And that's the kind of person I'd want to hire."
Sharon Florentine covers IT careers and data center topics for CIO.com. Follow Sharon on Twitter @MyShar0na. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook.