Steve is a data and campaign services coordinator at a school in Los Angeles. He tells us how he got to where he is — and why finding a mentor will be a big boost to your confidence.
Name: Steve Owen
Company: Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences
Job role: Data & campaign services coordinator
Length of time in role: Nine months
University: University of Nottingham (undergraduate)/University of Leeds (postgraduate)
Degree subject: BA English Studies/MA Postcolonial Literary and Cultural Studies
A-levels: English literature, drama and theatre studies, government and politics, music.
1. What was your very first job?
My very first job was working front-of-house at a juice bar in my hometown when I was 16. I got the job from a sign-up in the window, noting that they were looking for FOH staff, and I applied with my CV – I used teachers for references.
This job was useful for finding out about the basics of working productively with other people in a busy and high-pressure environment – an environment which I’ve encountered many times throughout my career. It allowed me to develop my client-facing skills, and to appreciate the hard work that those working in the service industry undertake.
2. What did you want to do when you were at school?
When I was at school, choosing my A-levels I was torn between going for science subjects and going onto study biochemistry at university, and going for humanities and studying English. In both cases I wanted to go on to work in education and/or academia.
3. How did you find out about the industry?
I found out about the charity (called “non-profit” in the US, where I work) industry through pure luck. After finishing university I’d worked in Japan for a year on the JET Programme, had then returned and got my MA, and after that found myself either unemployed or in temporary and zero-hour contracts for the best part of a year. This was a very trying time, as it can be tricky to get someone to take you seriously for an entry-level job.
I ended up volunteering at a local museum at the weekends, plus doing some temporary work with a local maths education charity on their database which I found through a family connection. Both of these opportunities allowed me to build my work experience, in particular in IT and database use, and to gain some exposure to working in the charity sector.
4. How did you get to where you are today?
After having worked at both of these positions for about a year, I was fortunate enough to learn about a job opening at the Japan Society in London for a membership officer/database administrator. As this was a combination of professional skills gained through previous work like JET as well as my database skills and experience of working with charities, this seemed like a perfect fit.
I worked at the JS for two and a half years, which provided me with some excellent experience on working with and managing charity databases as well as communicating with external stakeholders like the society’s members and its corporate partners.
This in turn led me to working for a charity called Victim Support for just over two years, which I moved onto once I found I had outgrown the role at the Japan Society. With the help of a consultant employed by VS, here I was able to work on deepening by database administration skills. I learned the fundamentals of working in SQL and in managing a database system, whereas before I’d only been what could be called a ‘super-user’.
Working on the fundraising database at Victim Support was also fortunate for me as it meant that I was in the middle of ongoing developments around data protection and charity regulation. From 2015 to the present day, charity regulation in the UK has been changing constantly, so it made sense for me to make sure I knew exactly what the current regulations and legislation said. This in turn led to me speaking at a couple of industry conferences about Victim Support’s advances in following these new rules, as well as sitting on a couple of high-level committees at VS to provide a voice to the fundraising database and its stakeholders.
I also made sure that I kept myself busy beyond my day-to-day work at VS. This involved launching a nationwide training programme in how to use the database properly, as well as engaging with other employees at all levels of the organisation to make sure that the database was in people’s minds when they were thinking about how to implement new ideas.
My wife is American, and she recently got a job offer in the USA. Because we’re married I was able to get a visa to work here, and with my database experience I was able to find this job working in the fundraising department of a private school in Santa Monica.
5. What is a typical day like?
My current job involves a lot of data entry, as I’m responsible for processing all donations which arrive at the fundraising office. In the morning I will mostly focus on that, as well as processing event registrations and producing acknowledgement letters.
After lunch, I usually have time for more long-term project work. At the moment I’m about to start a fact-finding project, looking at the gender identity options on the various forms the school uses for students and staff, to make sure that they meet the school’s diversity aims.
6. What’s the best thing about your job?
It’s very satisfying when things go right! When you put together a query or a report and it works how you expected it to, this is very satisfying. I don’t like taking the limelight that much and try to focus most of my work on making sure other people are able to perform well, by raising lots of money or speaking to the right people based on the good data they have available. Here I have lots of opportunities for that.
7. What is the most challenging thing about your job?
Because our fundraising is based on the school year, the volume of work can vary greatly. While I write this in the middle of the summer there are hardly any donations coming in which means that while I have more time for projects there’s also less to fill my day. Conversely, just before the winter holidays suddenly everyone donates at once, and I find myself with barely enough time to get donations onto the database.
8. What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?
See you if can volunteer or get work experience at a local library. One of my jobs from when I was doing my MA was working at the University library and this gave me some great experience with working on databases in real-life situations. You can also find a variety of tools online for teaching yourself SQL, which is one of the most common programming languages used for relational databases.
Try to keep up with developments about data protection and how charities appear in the news. In interviews it’s always good to have an opinion on current events to do with the job to which you’re applying, and the landscape surrounding all of this changes so often.
9. What’s the number-one most important transferable skill needed for your job?
Despite the common stereotype of people working in IT not interacting well with colleagues, people skills are absolutely vital in my line of work. Being able to work well with my co-workers is so important, so that I can help them figure out what they might want from a form or from a report when they might not have the technical vocabulary to describe it themselves.
10. How did you develop your confidence at work?
I had the good fortune of having several supportive and outspoken managers, who helped push me towards presenting myself more confidently. If you can find someone at work or at school who can mentor you in something in which you’re interested, then go for it. It’s in their best interest for you to succeed.
11. What do you wish you’d known before starting your career?
I wish I’d paid more attention in IT class at school! While I’ve been able to lean a lot on my people skills and make my career relatively client-facing, having a strong technical base from the get-go would’ve meant a quicker uptake of the more complex side of database administration, and increased my value to potential employers.
12. Where would you like to be in 5 years?
I’d love to be in a managerial role, hopefully still working within or alongside a fundraising department at a medium to large charity. While I really enjoy being hands-on with databases and with getting stuck into a spreadsheet, my interests have changed more over time and I think I’d prefer to split my time between database administration and compliance management.