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How to ask for (tech) help when you’re helping others

What you say:

“I have a great idea, and it’s going to help so many people. However, I’m not very technical and need some help getting it off the ground.”
What developers hear:
“I want you to do all the work”

What you say:

“I have a great idea, and it’s going to help so many people. I have a technical background, but it’s completely unrelated to what I want to accomplish.”
What developers hear:
“I want you to do all the work and I haven’t put time into building my own skillset”

What you say:
“I have this great idea, it’ll be like X [famous internet site] except for Y [some population or cause]”
What developers hear:
“I want you to do all the work and I didn’t think my problem through”

See the general trend here?

I pondered how problem-havers can better reach people with technical skills as I listened to lots of people talk about lots of ideas at the Developers for Good meetup. I heard some people who shared their ideas well, but many who shared variations on the theme above.

So you want to help people, with a technical solution, but you aren’t technical yourself. “Well, what DO developers want to hear? I keep trying and I’m getting no where!” I hear you. Definitely. So let’s share.

  1. Have a well-formed problem.
    It might help you to download the Social Hacking Canvas and work through it. Have you really thought about who you’re trying to reach? Talked to people in that space already? Saying things like those above suggest that you haven’t.
  2. Express yourself concisely.
    That is, be brief. If you’re planning to go to an event, practice. Do NOT talk for more than one minute, at most.
  3. Share your dream
    You’re gunning for someone’s precious and limited free time. Don’t waste your limited time being too down on what the problem is, instead focus on how the world will look like once you’re successful. Ex. This app could* help the 10,000 7th graders in the Smallville school system get on the track to college, getting better jobs and helping Smallville maintain a vibrant economy in changing times. (* could is a great word. use it, don’t abuse it.)
  4. Be cool and mention the specs
    Again, briefly, do mention the technical needs you have, if you’ve already started (ex. Drupal, Node.js, etc.). If you’re using any ‘bleeding edge’ technologies, be sure to mention them here. If nothing else, some developers in the room will be interested in talking to you to learn just how you’re using them. And that’s your goal — not to win them now, but to get them to talk to you so you can win them later.
  5. Be nice, be humble
    Kindness is key. If you brag too much about what you’ve already accomplished, you look less like someone with a plan and a well-formed idea (good) and more like someone who is doing just fine and doesn’t need any assistance (not your goal). Before anyone starts pitching or going around the circle, introduce yourself to multiple people you don’t know. Make it your goal to learn about them. It helps to pretend they have something superbly fascinating about themselves, you just need to ask the right questions. Listen and relate.
I hope this advice helps people who attend social good hacks or events like Developers for Good. If you don’t have an event like Developers for Good near you, the DfG chapter members have office hours that could be of use. Use the tips above to make the most of your time, and keep doing good!

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