You’ve heard of oops babies, right? This post is about being an oops database manager – in the field, we call them, “accidental admins.” It’s a story about how I made this my career (as early in my career as I am, I really love what I do!) and the values that guide my work.
A guiding thought
I’ve always known that I wanted to make the world a better place, but I didn’t always know how. I spent 5 summers in farming, 3 years in institutional cooking, and 8 years as a volunteer campaign organizer. I even briefly started a knitting business. For a variety of reasons, none of them yielded much career potential!
In college, I read a wonderfully influential book Wobblies and Zapatistas, an intergenerational dialogue between Balkan anarchist, Andrej Grubacic and life-long socialist, pacifist and labor organizer, Staughton Lynd. Buried among many lessons in the text was a gem about being “useful” from Lynd. (BTW – I really encourage you to read an interview here where he discusses some of these ideas). In summary, learn a skill and then use it for social movements. That’s what he did with law and that’s what I resolved to do, too. I just didn’t know which skill I wanted to develop!
My first rodeo
My first full time job was at The Common Market, a non-profit social enterprise that connects wholesale-ready, sustainable farmers with institutions, restaurants, and CSA members. I completed a two year fellowship there, where I rotated through sales, procurement, finance, development, packing, HR … and I ultimately specialized in training. Perhaps you can imagine my surprise when I took on responsibility for our new Salesforce database as a training project! OOPS! Yep – I was officially an accidental admin. PS- I wrote more about connecting food and farming to database administration here.
Early on, we decided that we needed database features that weren’t included in our first build-out (sound familiar?). The best choice I made was asking the consultants to teach me the steps rather than just do it and report back. About a year later (and, yep, a lot of setbacks), I built my first grant budget tracking system.
I think being a database manager appealed to me for 4 reasons. First of all, I love a good challenge and I LOVE problem solving. Second, I’m endlessly nosy, so of course, access to a bird’s-eye-view of data and systems piqued my interest. Thirdly, I’m a people person but I like to retreat and do my thinking on my own. In this job, I get to partner with colleagues when they need support, but then I can go back to my lair and work independently. Last but not least, I deeply care about well-run organizations and infrastructure (as part of making the world a less f*-ed up place), and this filed offers a tangible way to do that, while making a decent living.
Seeking mentorship & sprinting ahead
It was pretty clear, early on, that I was out of my comfort zone with this database project. I had never even USED a database, let alone managed one, let alone built automation and trained end users! Even the term “end user” was like speaking a different language. I benefited tremendously from early mentors, including my now-friends Dean Graham and Michael Kolodner, who roped me into attending my first Open Source Community Sprint in Baltimore (spring of 2017) – where I met Cori O’Brien Paluck and many more new friends, learned a TON and contributed (a little) to an article about how nonprofits can better understand When and How to use Leads. Little did I know, this would *lead* (#punintended) to so much more learning and magic in the future!
Those of us who are serial sprint attenders like to remember them based on the city. I’m SO lucky that the Baltimore sprint was, well, in Baltimore! Because I wouldn’t have traveled to Orlando or Denver (which I did in 2018) … or Long Beach CA and Detroit (which I plan to do in 2019) if I hadn’t first attended one in my own region. (Same thing with NPSP Day, for that matter!)
3 sprints later, I had the opportunity to co-write documentation about Campaigns (in the Why Leads? tradition)… which was later expanded into a 45-page Campaigns for Fundraising Implementation Guide (a doc that’s so awesome it makes me want to dance!). Somewhere in between two Dreamforces, Sprints (which I blogged about here and here), NPSP Days (check out a blog post here), and a full-time job where I eat, sleep, and drink Salesforce for nonprofits, I think it’s no longer an accident that I do what I do. I made the leap from accidental admin to totally-on-purpose and I couldn’t be happier.
All of this feels like a big ole mix of contradictions. Unearned opportunities (call privilege what it really is!) and old-fashioned hard work… a complete accident and yet perfect sense… working for “the man” but simultaneously building systems for the revolution … behind every success are 3 pitfalls and 6 new topics to learn. Being a database admin is a MAJOR rollercoaster! I sometimes feel tech-hopelessness and systems-euphoria in the same day – or even the same hour! But truly, I love what I do.
Nurturing my roots
You can see that I’ve learned Soooo0o0oOOOO0o0o00o much since I first logged into Salesforce in the winter of 2015. Along the way, as I honed my spreadsheet and database skills, I could see that the grassroots communities that I am most accountable to were struggling in the data department. From unruly spreadsheets to duplicate data to blood-boiling stress and frustration over bad systems, all of the amazing learning and resources that I was exposed to weren’t “trickling down” to itty-bitty social movement organizations.
I started The Data Are Alright to make a dent in righting that wrong, and put Staughton Lynd’s advice to work. Learn a skill and then use it for social movements!
But also, it’s turned into so much more! TDAA has given me an outlet to reflect on why the work I’m doing matters – and to what extent I’m aligned with my core values. Plus, since launching the blog, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate (as a volunteer or consultant) with the Working Families Party, The Women’s March, Sunrise Movement, The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, Brandworkers, and my main squeeze, The Earth Quaker Action Team. (If YOU need help with spreadsheets, I take on a few small consulting projects each year, and plenty more pro-bono support. You can visit my consulting page here to learn more).
I feel giddy and optimistic for 2019. Thank you for being along for the ride – and more importantly, for all the things YOU do that make the world a more equitable and joyful place. Rest well during this holiday season!