I updated my LinkedIn profile this morning, to reflect some of the “other stuff” I’ve been involved in recently.

It’s all the recent volunteer stuff I give time up for for nowt: mentoring at the Bradford CoderDojo and Young Rewired State in Leeds, steering Leeds Data Mill with the rest of the committee.

Attending those commitments there’s two half (weekend) days for the mentoring, the Mill takes out an evening. They all take a couple of hours extra during the month to sort stuff. It’s nothing massive, but does add up to a couple of “working days” every month, if that’s your preferred math unit.

Off the back of my update this morning I was asked how long I spend on these activities, and then “Why do you give up so much of your own time, and for free?”. Another linked question: “Why do you promote these activities?”

I regularly get asked to “do things for free”, “attend things for free”. To be fair, most of them are interesting. I have just become very weary of committing to much.

Firstly, I work for myself, which affords me freedom and equally affords me restraint - depending on workflow and cashflow.

Secondly, some of the things I get asked to do I believe are - and I am politely wording this - better suited to someone to being paid to do them.

Thirdly, tied into the above, I actually think there’s a lot of “attend for free” events at the moment, whether that’s an extension of the “big society” mentality or access flow in the other direction, organisations reaching outwards.

Finally, if I am going to do stuff “for free” I am giving my (rare evenings and weekend usually spent with my family) time up I want to do things that can make a change.

In each of the three cases I added onto my LinkedIn profile this morning I was asked if I would be able to help out (and quite politely in every case). There was no presumption I would say yes, just a “it’d be great if you could spare some time and get involved”. Each request also emphasised it’d be good to have me on board with my experience.

I could have said no. I could have easily said no. I do say no to giving time up for free a bit these days. I sometimes say “yes, no problemo!” And rarely I say yes but say it’ll have wait a little bit until my plate is less full. (And sometimes the offerer says no in return, usually because of their own time pressures.) But I never say no or yes straight away. I like to consider these things.

But I did say yes to those three offers. Here’s why I said yes, here’s why I volunteered.

Helping at the CoderDojo was an easy enough decision. My kids take me anyway (note: they wanted to go; I didn’t coerce them, I am a willing passenger here), and I am a big fan of the Curriculum Innovation Centre - to the point I am sponsoring their upcoming film and animation festival through the studio.

Paul Scott, who works at the centre for his day job, has use of the centre for the dojos on Saturdays. Paul himself volunteers his time at the dojos, not just to be a mentor but also take on the extra work of organising the dojos. He’s a man who deserves support, the help.

I like spending time with kids, especially when it comes to creating stuff. Teaching kids usually means you get schooled yourself - something that is incredibly rewarding and occasionally humbling. And the kids who come to the dojos are amazing. And, for me, another level is the parents, who are also well into what’s going on.

(I was one of those amazed parents at the weekend when Shi and Kriss promised a session on pixel art and animated GIFs for their session! Shame I had my session to run!)

It all added up to an easy decision: I was more than happy to become a mentor.

Young Rewired State was a different case. I’ve written before about my experience of March’s event.

There’s a focus, a sense of purpose in trying to take young people’s perspectives and use that to solve problems relevant to them: highly compelling. Again, a chance to mentor young people, to learn as much as I might teach them is incredibly satisfying. YRS’s approach emphasises first steps of “thinking about the why and the design of what you doing” which taps into the way I approach work. I like that Young Rewired State advocates the use of open data in those solutions.

So, a step change, a side step from CoderDojo, but again a compelling one.

The Data Mill? I still struggle with my living-in-Bradford/working-in-Leeds but the Mill has great potential for not just the people of Leeds, but the wider area. As a data platform the Mill itself seems to have slowed down, stalled even as a widening platform over the past year. It needs, like Jonny Five, more input.

Also, can the Mill’s data be utilised more by the wider public, not just the “techies”? That’s one of the reasons I have run Leeds Data School for the Mill: to try to open up the minds of the public. Should the Mill just be about data storage? Can it go further?

The opportunity here is to understand and be involved with the Mill in a way that could enable… stuff - if it is possible. And alongside the strong and curious other members of the steering committee it’s something that could garner some intriguing chats. So, again, a yes to the offer.

But I think that’s my “volunteer limit” at the moment. And I see the need for experience, energy, and enthusiasm constantly.

While I sceptically think the scale of volunteer-need may be more-widely prevalent by the advancement of the Conservatives’ big society driven policies, there has always been the need and deployment of volunteers socially. I remember the Scouts in my youth. We visit National Trust locations. Both require and need volunteers to exist. Volunteering just exists at some scale.

The biggest compliment I can pay to this culture is my son’s own experiences with CoderDojo. In one of the first sessions my son attended Paul Scott got the kids to log on to Tinkercad. My kids see a lot of techie stuff all around, at home in their play, at home when they see some of the work I do, at school, on YouTube, etc etc.

Paul managed to expose my son to something new - and Paul taught Nate enough of the basics in about 25 minutes that have set Nate up for so much of his spare time in the past month. (With the added lure of being able to 3D print his Tinkercad efforts.)

I don’t think I’ve actually been on that side of the fence before - someone else teaching my kid something I wanted a go on/with. I’ve always been on the other side, and usually not knowing how it affected the child and/or the parent. Nate learning something with me there was incredibly rewarding, not in anyway fuelled by my own inability to do anything decent in 3D Construction Kit!

So, why do I plaster those things everywhere, put my name against these things on places like LinkedIn and Twitter? It’s not rampant egotism. These things I am involved with, I believe they should be supported, at least in attendance as participants and mentors. And I have a lot of “followers” on digital social media, which has its advantages. Put it out there, see who it draws. Last Saturday two people came to the CoderDojo because they’d seen me advertise it on Twitter and LinkedIn.

I push the events so I can have moments like those, and a moment like this post. I am hoping one, maybe two people reading this will think “I also want to get involved” and/or “I want my kid(s) to be involved”. That’s why I do this sort of thing. Like I do with the Leeds Digital Lunch, like I did when I was involved with Leeds Digital Festival. Getting people to get together, to inspire them to do stuff, maybe even stuff they’ve not really done before, is the best feeling.

(As a side note I remember the chats about kicking off Leeds Data Thing when I was at Bloom, and it was, genuinely, a great idea along these lines but no-one was just finding the space and the time for it happen. So I headed out for a short walk to the Cross Keys, booked an evening, came back, told the guys, and off it rolled. Turning up to that first event with a sense of booked the space but not knowing what was happening was very exciting!)

At the mo there’s a lot of the things happening in Leeds that ask for people’s free time (or even time off, work or homelife) - the hacks, the workshops. There’s an abundance of people who want to be involved with those and go. Those things seem well served. Those things don’t need my time.

But the stuff aimed at the younger people? (And maybe even the elderly people?) Less well served. To me if there’s already talent involved with that other stuff, I’ll happily put any time I have for free into the more roots stuff, the “kids stuff”.

So, here’s an ask: If you can spare your Saturday morning - not even every month, but every few months - think about giving time up to use your experience and skills and pass them on, to inspire the kids with technology in a way most of us never had the chance to when we were younger. And if tech and design isn’t your thing, look for something else. There’s loads of chances out there!

Anyone who tells you not to work with kids? They’re wrong. It’s one of the best things you can try. And if you read that and are still fearful of kids, find someone older you can inspire.


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