How to Combat the Challenges of Volunteering

Posted by Kathleen Smith

Community volunteerism is a powerful career development tool offering opportunities to develop your skillset, expand your network, and provide personal fulfillment. While volunteering in your professional community is very rewarding, it can also be demanding.

In information security and the technical community, we hear about exhaustion and burnout. But how do you recognize the signs and what impact does it have on your professional life? In a Volunteering Survey, more than 50% of participants said they volunteer up to 12 hours a month. Though 98% of the respondents found volunteering fulfilling, 55% said volunteering stressed them out. Of those that were stressed, 14% said their stress came in the form of physical pain, 52% said their stress was psychological, and 46% said both.

Many of us enter volunteering without a plan of what we want to get out of it and more importantly, how to move forward. We talked about potential volunteer challenges and how to address them with several security community volunteers:

Cindy Jones is Sr. Product Security Specialist for Thermo Fisher Scientific. From the CyberPatriot program, BSidesSATX, DEFCON, to BSidesLasVegas, Cindy has been volunteering for most of her professional career.

Magen Wu works for Urbane Security and has also been volunteering in the community most of her professional career. She has worked at BSidesLV Proving Ground for 5 years and as the Department Lead for DEFCON Workshops, including DEFCON China.

Finally, Doug Munro, Director Talent Acquisition with MAG Aerospace volunteers with BSidesDC, BSidesLV, RecruitDC, and Northern Virginia Community College.

Doug, how much do you need to volunteer to reap the benefits

Doug Munro: Many people believe they have to volunteer all the time. You may have the potential, opportunity, and drive to be very active, but you don’t have to be at that level. You are going to invariably run into highly stressful decisions. If you’re not able to make that sort of a commitment, be realistic about it.

Evaluate the opportunities thoroughly and make sure you can give the time and be professional in your volunteerism. If you can only do a couple of things a year, or if you are not ready to present, just get involved. You don’t have to be the subject matter expert or the thought leader who is running around the country telling everybody what they know.

You can just be you, doing anything, and that’s going to be a positive in your career. It’s going to be a growth opportunity for you professionally and frankly it just feels good. If I have something that I can give in terms of knowledge, it’s going to give others a better opportunity to reach their professional goals. It’s a great investment of my time and selflessly, I get a big kick out of it.

I will caution, if you are intimidated by the idea of reaching out, being a presenter, or thinking you have to do 12 events a year, you don’t. Just start with what you are comfortable with and the chances are your comfort level will evolve over time. However you do it, just do it. It’s so rewarding in a spiritual sense, but it also has tangible benefits. It will get you a better job and a better career.

Magen, what caution should volunteers take

Magen Wu: As most of us know, the security community is pretty small. A lot of us go to events where we see the same folks, or if you see someone new, you invite them to grab a beer and meet your friends. However, if you start volunteering and you’re rude throughout your shift or you’re consistently creating problems for the attendees or other organizers, it’s going to get around.

There are two people that come to mind right away that have been consistently rude to attendees, who myself and others have had negative experiences with. One of them is looking for work now and I’m not attaching my name to their reputation. They have time management problems, interpersonal issues, and behave in an unprofessional manner. I wouldn’t recommend them. So be cautious of how you treat others in the community.

It’s also important to recognize the signs of exhaustion or burn out, especially for folks who are overachievers like me. Don’t think you have to present at all of these conferences. Over time you will notice your qualities diminishing and you might start burning bridges—and bad things can happen.

The biggest thing that I’ve learned from participating in this community is empathy and compassion, not just for what other folks are going through, but also self-compassion. It’s really hard and we’re great at beating ourselves up in this community, especially when we get rejected from a conference or someone is slow to respond to us on Twitter. So be aware of that and be a little bit gentle with yourself.

Cindy, how do you plan an exit and not burn bridges

Cindy Jones: I tend to think that my volunteer spirit is trying to kill me. I get involved with way too many projects because I have a very difficult time saying no.

I spoke to the leader of the People Strategy Group when I was at Rapid7, and asked, “What got us into community involvement? I’m very involved with various aspects of the community and I find myself coming to a point where I’m really stretched way too thin.” She shared that they have many resources internally that could help manage that, and help me learn some skills to where I’m not always saying yes, but picking and choosing my volunteer experiences a little bit more precisely.

But as far as burning out, I only separate myself from the running of BSides San Antonio. I basically ran it for three years. Last year I brought on the person who ended up succeeding me. He helped with as much as I was willing to let go of—which wasn’t a lot, but he was there with me while I was struggling through everything it entailed. I had a sounding board, which I hadn’t had in previous years.

He was well aware of my exit plan about a year ahead of time. I said, ‘I’m doing this for three years and then I’m stepping back.’ And that’s what I did. I handed the reigns over to him and it was the hardest thing I think I’ve done. It was really hard, but seeing what he ended up being able to achieve with it was magical.

It was the most rewarding thing. I think, ‘Oh my babies have grown up and it looks so great.’ So it was a really positive experience. But I did plan on it. I started talking about it in my second year. By year three I was like, ‘heads-up, don’t forget. You get to do all this next year.’ Then, by the time I wasn’t involved, I could step back and be happy to be there in an advisory capacity.

You know the challenges – now make the most of them

We often say hindsight is 20/20, but with a little planning and clear career development goals you can make the most of your volunteer efforts from the start. Any additional time commitment you make in life can bring added stress, but if you set clear expectations for yourself and make considerations for the future, you stand to reap all the career benefits volunteerism entails.

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 16, 2019 4:24 pm

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