Are We All Generalists in Association Culture?

Written by Jon Gilmore on October 1, 2018

Today, I am the Director of Data Systems and Technology for ACPA—College Student Educators International.

However, my career trajectory was not an obvious one.

A diverse career path

I became an Air Force linguist after dropping out of community college in 1997. When the language I trained in was no longer needed, I took a position in the unit working in their IT department. Back in 1999, there weren’t a lot of trained IT people with security clearances; I was hired based on the skills I had developed by troubleshooting computers at home. Over the next three years I learned the skills necessary to become a systems administrator, as well as a customer service (desktop support) person. Computer Science was the only IT related program offered in college at the time, which I wasn’t interested in, so I earned Microsoft Certifications and learned on-the-job from my colleagues who had experience in the field. I also found that building and tapping into my network was imperative in my learning and ability to get things done.

When my enlistment in the Air Force ended, I landed a role as a Systems Administrator on a major contract, where I ended up being in charge of 20-25 person teams. Our task was modernizing the IT infrastructure of an entire multi-building campus, first by upgrading the thousands of desktop computers, then through upgrading the networks themselves. My team and I were exceeding performance expectations, and meeting our SLAs - I felt like a rock star!

However, 3 years into this role, my military spouse received orders to move to New York City, where I found it challenging to find an IT role without possessing a Bachelor’s Degree. In the midst of a ‘what now?’ moment, I decided to pursue a career in linguistics. While learning a language in the military, a large part of our education was about the culture of the language, which I found fascinating. I became so passionate about the intersection of language and culture that I used my GI bill to earn my BA in Linguistic Anthropology. However, while intellectually fulfilling, I couldn’t see myself spending my entire 30s in academia as a student earning a PhD, so I explored other avenues.

I felt that marketing was a natural progression with a linguistic anthropology degree and accepted a position in the marketing department of a billion dollar law firm. It was a fast-paced, high-pressure, job that could cause people to crack under the pressure. The workload was intense, even for a low-level marketing person like me at the time. Business communication is learned very quickly in that kind of environment where I was working for some of the world’s most prestigious attorneys.

A couple of years later, another unexpected life shift brought me down to the Baltimore area, where I found my current position in the association world. I was initially hired to manage content curation, but because of my IT background, I became the IT Director within a few months, a position I still hold after seven years. I’ve learned over the years that many small-staff associations still have very antiquated IT infrastructures, and not much of a budget to modernize them.

A diverse skill set

What’s the real moral of this rollercoaster story? I believe it’s that the perspective gained from having a wealth of experiences and skill sets can truly enhance the quality of work one does, no matter where a career leads.

For example, I worked on a contract where the government employees did not like contractors disrupting their world. To get any work done, I had to essentially learn how to be a salesperson and show extreme empathy for my entering their world. When I walked into an office for the first time to announce that we’d be coming to survey the area, they would almost always be very upset. I’d have to say something like, “Hi, I’m Jon from the contract, and before you get angry, I remember what it was like to be in your shoes having contractors walk in to change it. I guarantee this process will be a positive one, and that we will support you to make sure this is a good experience for you.” Something as simple as that would ease the tension and make it easier for us to get the job done.

Everything I do now centers on the customer. I’ve always believed that the purpose of technology is to aid people and companies in productivity; I’m not going to build a new software platform because it’s shiny and cool. A person’s, group’s, or company’s needs are determined best by listening and understanding an organization from outside the IT department. This is why associations cannot thrive unless the IT director has a seat at the table. In IT, I have multiple sets of customers including the members, the governing board, the volunteers, staff and partners. The only way to make sense of all that responsibility is to provide quality support to the individual staff members who will be managing the member experience. Customers’ needs are at the core of everything and technology is there to support them.

The association world has long had a culture where volunteers drive most things and the staff supports them. Today we position staff as experts in their field who can help others accomplish their goals. We attend national conferences annually to participate in wider conversations in the association world. While we may not have unlimited resources to let boards and volunteers pursue every good idea, we tend to have more experience and knowledge in how an association should function than is typically acknowledged.

My experience in the military helped me in the association world as a project manager, where everybody has a completely unique skill set and style of communication. My team in the military was a group of people from completely different backgrounds who had security clearances, which was the only qualification at the time.

There are a lot of challenges in my particular job which are common in the association world. We have a staff of nine and a small budget, so I have to service 6,000 people with few resources. Solving a challenge of this scope provokes innovation. When I attend events, I’m not just an IT guy - I’m a marketing person who tells potential partners how it benefits both of us to work together. We source a lot of our software platforms through connections that lead to in-kind donations.

I’m in the unique position of seeing every hands-on component of the organization in action. It’s very practical to instill this in the organizational culture. Because everyone is capable of backfilling a role; no one ever has to worry about taking a vacation or dropping the ball on a project. We’re all working in partnerships across roles. In a large corporation, I would never have that opportunity. I like to hire and work with people who have an open mind when it comes to their career, because we’re all generalists in associations.