By Alnisa Allgood, as told to Violet Jinqi Wang
No decision is forever. That’s the number one piece of advice I give people when they come to me for career advice.
You can change your mind, shift your focus, and make new decisions with new information. Life isn’t delicate.
But people treat it as if one false touch could result in catastrophe.
People force themselves into thinking they’re making these “life decisions.” I tell them, “Yeah — that’s not a life decision. That’s maybe a decision about your next three-to-five years. Ten if you really want it and you’re lucky.”
I’m good at assessing what is falling apart and what isn’t. I don’t tend to be overly dramatic about those things. That’s how I’ve lived the 50 years of my life.
I’ve been homeless twice. I’d prefer not to be homeless again, because it sucked.
The first time was at college. I was on a military full-ride. I dropped the scholarship because I came out. I could have stayed in the closet for a few more years. But I made the decision not to do that. Coming from a low-income family, most of my earnings were going home to mom for mortgage and food. I wasn’t going to stop that and have her be homeless instead of me.
But I wasn’t concerned that I was going to be homeless for long.
I am one of those people who believe that life is a journey. I never thought that I had to get married, have a kid, and get a good paying job. None of those “requirements” really interest me.
Instead, I am interested in so many things, and I can’t settle for one. I want to learn new skills, work in different fields, and live in various environments.
So that is what I have done. I’ve been in Madison for almost 10 years now, but the 20 years prior to that I have lived in a new city, state, or country every three-to-five years.
Moving to different cities has allowed me to experience new environments and learn more about myself.
It can be intimidating at first, but it comes with unexpected side-effects. For many people, the most challenging part of moving is losing their connections and having to start over building a reputation.
But for me, that has been a benefit. Your reputation can open up opportunities, but it can also be a burden. As I first started adding technology skills to my repertoire, I added new skills with each move. Graphic design in Pennsylvania, databases in San Francisco, network and system admin in Den Haag, etc. The new skills frequently complimented my shifts in work focus, moving from issues of women’s safety, to LGB services, to HIV/AIDS education, to youth/young adult empowerment. With each new job, I put to use new skills and grew a new reputation.
It gave me more opportunities to get my hands dirty.
That’s what I love about the technology industry. It changes so fast. Someone might speculate “What do you really know? A year ago you didn’t know anything about this.” And I would reply, “It didn’t even exist a year ago!!”
If you work in technology, you need to update your knowledge-base regularly. That’s why I created the MadTech Education Series, to provide free, accessible technology and tools training for nonprofits and the general public.
I’m self-taught in almost everything tech-related. There are trainings that I continue to offer through MadTech because they’re always needed, and then there’s new technology. I love the challenge of the new technology. I’ll learn how to use it in a week and a half, and then I’ll train the people who need it. It doesn’t scale for learning a new programming language in a week and a half, but it’s been great for learning new software and hardware.
I see a recurring problem for people who are trying to learn new technology. Like young people making “life-changing” decisions, they think they are going to break something or make some terrible, irreversible mistakes by pressing a single button. In reality, it’s fixable most of the time, and people should feel free to experiment — because that’s the best way to learn.
I also love the tech industry because it allows me to be career agnostic. I enjoy problem-solving, process automation, and being of service to a community.
Most of my career focus is community service — generally working for or with nonprofits. I started work when I was 14. I’ve worked to keep women safe, build safe places and resources for the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community, mobilize college campuses, to get homeless and throw-away youth off the streets, provide HIV/AIDS training, to re-integrate the elderly back into society, provide youth empowerment services, and more.
I believe that everyone has a responsibility to the communities they live in — individuals and organizations. I run two nonprofits, Nonprofit Tech and Collaboration for Good. Nonprofit Tech is a 20 year-old tech consultancy for nonprofits in the U.S. and a few other countries. We help nonprofits use technology to enhance their mission’s work. Collaboration for Good is a community capacity-building organization that focuses more on people, policies, and ecosystems, but also grows ‘good.’ We’re currently volunteer-driven, self-funded (earned-income and sponsorship) and have some broadly known projects such as Madison Nonprofit Day, the MadTech Ed Series and the Social Good Summit.
Looking back, life is full of surprises and new adventures. But I am guided by three core values that have never changed: Treat people the way you’d like to be treated regardless of reciprocity; give back to the community you live in; and always keep learning.
And everything else is changeable. One decision may be suitable for right now but may become a trap for later. Never be afraid to make, change or drop those so-called “life decisions.” Instead of worrying about the decisions you made five years ago, experiment and live right now.