My work with TechTown Detroit this summer has been rewarding in multiple ways. I have experienced personal and professional growth, as I have had to step out of my comfort zone and take initiative. This has been partly because my project with TechTown largely involved qualitative analysis, with certain undefined aspects that my teammate and I have had to learn and adapt as we go. I’ve learnt a lot about myself, about consulting, and about the operations of nonprofits in the social innovation space. These are some of my key takeaways:
The social process behind consulting
We were tasked with assessing TechTown’s offerings and materials, a big part of which involved interviewing staff, clients and alumni, as well as sitting in meetings. This experience put me in a position to view the organization and its operations within and across different departments as a consultant. To remain objective in order to operate effectively, our objectives needed me to learn to maneuver organizational dynamics and politics in order to make proper assessments and recommendations. It has been an intriguing experience trying to understand the perspectives we get from each person, against the backdrop of their experience at the organization and their orientation to our mission.
A big part of our information gathering process involved interviews. Conducting a couple dozen interviews with TechTown staff, clients and alumni, has greatly improved my interviewing skills. At first, our approach was to have questions ready and go through each one of them with the interviewee. As I went through the process, however, I learnt how to listen better, to let interviewees lead the direction of the interview, while at the same time making sure we covered all the topics we needed to address. This resulted in us having conversations that flowed better, as we learnt to let interviewees feel at ease as they spoke to us. We learnt so much not just about the company, but the individuals we spoke to as well, which enabled us to better understand their perspectives. This was especially crucial as some of the aspects we explored touched on equity and social justice, conversations that can be tricky to maneuver at times. My teammate and I were able to achieve this successfully, and it was a great learning experience. It also added to my understanding of the importance building and maintaining relationships, personal and professional.
The Lean Startup methodology
My teammate and I were honored with the chance to have a conversation with Ned Staebler, TechTown’s President and CEO, who had a reading suggestion for us: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. It was interesting to find that certain aspects of our proposal were in line with the principles that Ries explores in his book. Ries explores employing the Lean Startup methodology even in social enterprise. In summary, it expounds on the Build— Measure— Learn principle, which requires innovators to center their solutions around their target clients, by involving them in iterative experimentation of different solutions. This enabled us nail down our recommendation for TechTown’s plans to develop programming in other languages in future. Understanding this framework and being able to apply it was a great lesson for me.
All in all, DukeEngage Detroit has been an invaluable experience for me. I come away with improved interpersonal skills, as well as industry knowledge. I remain eternally grateful to my team, the DukeEngage program, and TechTown Detroit.