How I became a Digital Change Consultant

Melanie Uhlen's picture

To be honest, as a development practitioner, I care more about people than I care for tech. I did not study IT or Engineering, but Social Sciences with a focus on International Relations and Development. Somehow, though, I ended up setting up web platforms for Monitoring and Knowledge Management and explaining in webinars and consulting assignments what Big Data, the Cloud and Open Source mean. How?

It all started with an Excel tool for Monitoring. It was my first month of an internship at the GIZ (German Development Agency) unit "Monitoring and Evaluation" in 2012, when my then-colleague now-boss Robert asked me "How good are you with Excel?" and I replied "Uhm, I don't hate it." "That's good enough", he said and entrusted me with a rather complex Excel tool for standardized results monitoring. I worked on this tool for a while, wrote the manual for it and eventually took over its further development. Why? Frankly, because everybody else had left who wanted to deal with the tool. After that, Robert hired me for his company energypedia consult that develops web-based tools for the international development sector. In short, my career tunred toward IT by accident.

Though... not completely. There is a reason I ended up in IT and energypedia consult continues to get contracts both for tools and consultancy from German and international development organizations: There is a huge demand for digital solutions in the development sector like in any other. Besides, knowing about and being able to set up software is definitely a good skill to have now and even more so in the future.

I would consider myself and my colleagues as "experts by experience": Although only one of us has an academic background in software development, we know the process of planning and implementing IT projects for non-profit organization. Altough I can "only" write syntax for the one software that we work with (MediaWiki) and some html for design, after eight years of professional experience in this field:

  • I know the IT language: backend, frontend, widgets, migration, "issues" and all that
  • I know the way IT people work and concepts like agile development, code sprints, and tools like Github
  • I have gone through the phases of IT project development design, implementation, feedback, launch and support many times to know the main challenges and bottlenecks
  • I know that one of the most relevant question in IT project design is not "Is this technically possible?" (usually the answer is "Sure, if you have the money."), but "Does it make sense?" and "Do the benefits outweigh the costs?".

But this said, I feel that it definitely helps that I myself am first and foremost a user rather than a developer. And having grown up as the last generation with a analogue childhood, I am not impressed by tools that really are nothing but expensive toys. Unless a digital tool is truly superior to the analogue alternative and offers real added value, I would never use it just for the sake of appearing modern. Digitals tools must solve problems and make our lives easier, not give us another headache. When planning for digital change, we must keep the orgaizational culture in mind at all times. Digital change really is a lot more about people than about technology!

On a similar note, I recently read in a study by McKinsey that two thirds of IT projects fail to reach the intended goal. This is pretty shocking and of course makes me very humble in realizing how hard it is to consult organizations in that field. But oftentimes, consulting mostly means explaining concepts, simplifying, listening and filtering, because in the end many fancy tools and trends end up being irrelevant for most organizations. Nonetheless, technological progress is happening extremely fast and I believe all organizations should take an active role, build the skills to use, select and develop tools. Not including NGOs, but especially NGOs. The needs of the social sector differ from that of businesses and they might have concerns and needs that need to be heard so that the right tools are being developed.

And I believe I can help with that. I have been setting up workshops to assess non-profit's digital change readiness, status quo and vision. Feel free to join our free webinars on digital change!