feeling the pressure to migrate your IT to the cloud? It’s pretty hard to make
sense of what cloud services your charity or library actually need. Tech Impact’s
Sam Chenkin is someone who has advised many people on what to do – in an
understandable non-jargony way. Sam’s philosophy is that there shouldn’t be an
expectation for busy nonprofit people to be experts in technology, but it is
important that they be self-sufficient. It’s good to get some basic no nonsense
information so organizations can worry less about their technology. You’ll have
a chance to meet Sam at our Office 365 For
Nonprofits: a DYI Overview webinar on March 20th.
Sam Chenkin is Philadelphia-based Tech Impact’s Director of Solution Development.
He’s the guy you get on the phone when you call about cloud services like Office
365 assessments, or migrating
your IT to Office 365, or the NPVault
managed back-up service. He also maintains Tech Impact’s internal database.
They themselves are a nonprofit organization and are almost entirely in the
cloud. Three years ago, Tech Impact began migrating to the cloud when they started working with organizations remotely across the country.
Of his day-to-day work, Sam says, “I get calls from people
who don’t know exactly what their technology is. They’re handed technology that
they have to use, either they inherited it, or it was a requirement by a
grantor. We walk organizations through their IT issues to sort everything out
and recommend a solution either from us or from other good consultants if it’s
a better fit. We do lots of Office 365 work because so many organizations have
Microsoft Exchange and want to reduce their management overhead.”
you tell us a bit about your background? Things like how long you've been with
Tech Impact, what work you do, what you enjoy most about this type of work, etc.
Sam Chenkin: I’ve
been with Tech Impact a long time – a little over 6 years. I have a master's
degree from Drexel University in Information Systems and saw most of my
classmates go to major corporations. My own small exposure to the corporate
world through an internship showed me how little I wanted to work in industries
focused on profit.
I love working with technology – it is a quickly changing
field that provides challenging problems and opportunities for real-world
application. I wanted to bring my interest in technology and my desire to challenge
inequalities together. Technology has an unrealized promise – to foster
“little-d” democracy and disrupt power imbalances in the world – and I want to
be a part of making that happen. At Tech Impact, I do this by helping nonprofit
organizations get the technology they need – everything from basic
infrastructure to work more efficiently to mission-focused applications that
fundamentally change how nonprofits work with their constituents.
I have a long-term goal when it comes to nonprofit
technology. Right now, my goal at Tech Impact is to work towards getting
nonprofit organizations’ basic IT needs well taken care of. I’d like to see
email, file sharing, accounting, and other standard collaboration tools in the
cloud and well supported. That is truly important work for two reasons. First,
it allows organizations to focus on their core work, on the work that actually
impacts the world. Secondly, it allows organizations to look at
technology as a tool that can actually transform the work they do.
are your particular areas of expertise?
Sam Chenkin: I
have a technical background – networking, servers, application development,
etc. Over the past few years, I’ve also become an expert in small to medium
scale cloud technologies, the kind of technologies that nonprofit organizations
can actually use. Really, though, I’d say that my particular expertise is
education. In the end I am so far removed from the critical work my nonprofit
clients do day-to-day that I cannot possibly know exactly what will work for
their mission. Instead, I focus on making my knowledge accessible and helping
nonprofit organizations make their own decisions and remain self-sufficient.
are a few questions you hear most often from nonprofits about the
cloud and/or Office 365? And what are your answers to them?
Sam Chenkin: I
find that the terminology is what is most confusing. The technology marketplace
is crowded and vendors (including Microsoft) come up with a lot of language to
help differentiate themselves. As a result, it can be hard to understand
exactly what any of these technologies actually look like to an average
end-user. So, I would tell organizations that the “cloud” just means that the
server hosting the solution is kept in a different physical location than you.
I would tell organizations that anytime they are using the Internet they are
accessing the “cloud.” And I would tell organizations that if they ignore the
marketing and skip straight to a demo they’ll typically have the information
they need to understand the technology.
one (or more) favorite nonprofit tech resource you like (blogs, forum,
website)? You could opt to choose an interesting tech trend or favorite
piece of technology if you prefer.
Sam Chenkin: I’m
not sure I have a favorite nonprofit technology resource but I’d recommend that
anyone with a tiny bit of interest in the technical underpinnings of the Internet
check out the ArsTechnica. It has a wonderful mix of
down-to-earth descriptions of complicated Internet trends (like Bitcoin),
public service announcements, and barefaced dreaming about a science-fiction
future. I also believe that making technology work for social change requires
staying up on changes in the activist and social scientist landscape. As part
of this I also read The Society Pages along with a number
of sector-specific blogs written by friends and colleagues.
many nonprofits does Tech Impact serve with cloud and/or Office
Sam Chenkin: I’m
afraid it is not so easy to answer that question. We have over a hundred
nonprofit organizations that we interact with weekly as support clients. For
these organizations we are a primary IT support provider. We have also provided
project-based work to more than 300 additional clients over the past 12 months
(including Office 365 implementations). We serve thousands more through
webinars, our blog, articles, and just one-off conversations with organizations
who call in, don’t need our services, but do need a little direction.
you cite a couple examples of some improvements your customers experienced by
using NPCloud or Office 365 or your DIY courses?
Sam Chenkin: The
services we offer around cloud technology are all provided with a single goal:
get organizations off of on-premise physical servers. On-premise physical
servers are a tremendous waste of time and money. They fail frequently and with
terrible consequences, they require an expert to maintain, and they need to be
upgraded at significant cost every few years. More than that, on-premise
servers get in the way of how most nonprofits work today. They are difficult to
access from outside of the office and they fail to adapt to organizational
Moving to the cloud (including and specifically Office
365) allows organizations to greatly reduce their spending on IT and in many
cases get rid of their on-premise server entirely. I can tell you that since we
finished moving our Managed Services support clients to Office 365 we have seen
a dramatic reduction in the number of critical support cases – even for
organizations that still needed an on-premise server.
Going to the cloud (again including and specifically
Office 365) also allows organizations greater flexibility in how they work.
Users can work from anywhere – even if there is no power in the main office.
Moreover, the tools are automatically upgraded (for free) at regular intervals
giving organizations access to technology that used to only be available to major
corporations. These changes and the universal accessibility gives nonprofit
organizations the chance to fundamentally change how technology can support
their work. There are tremendous opportunities for increased efficiency and
better outcomes through improved information tracking.
None of this is going to solve the world’s problems, but
it will allow nonprofit organizations to better focus and stay focused on their
are a couple big challenges your customers try to tackle?
What would say to folks who are a little optimistic about how the cloud is the
answer to everything?
Sam Chenkin: This
question is exactly why we built the Office 365 DIY workshop
series. Moving to the cloud is not a panacea. The cloud is not the right
solution for everyone and Office 365 isn’t the right cloud solution for
everyone that is ready to move to the cloud. Understanding the realities of the
technologies you are moving to – cutting through the marketing speak – is
critical in ensuring good outcomes for nonprofit organizations implementing new
In particular, I see a lot of organizations expecting
moving to the cloud to be painless and to be fast. It is neither. Moving to the
cloud is a technical process – just like moving to a new on-premise system.
Organizations need to prioritize their technology investments and move slowly
to ensure users feel empowered and there is time to react.
are some tech symptoms nonprofits might have that indicate that they’d be good
candidates for NPCloud or Office 365 or your DIY courses?
Sam Chenkin: Any
organization that is willing to make some adjustments to work process and has a
need for increased reliability and increased accessibility should consider
moving to Office 365 or our other cloud technologies. Organizations that are
doing just fine where they are do not necessarily need to change – technology
for the sake of technology is rarely a good plan.
When helping an organization decide if moving to the cloud
is the right choice I would look at the following:
If your organization is a good fit for the cloud, Tech
Impact has a solution that can be helpful. We work with everyone – from
entirely volunteer organizations to international nonprofits with staff in
dozens of countries.
often hear that having cloud based IT is something that is appropriate for new
or small organizations that haven’t already made big investments in on
premises IT. Is that true in your experience?
Sam Chenkin: This
kind of statement frustrates me. The fact of the matter is, the term IT
Investment does not do a good job capturing relative time scales. Investing in
IT is not like investing in an office building. IT investments depreciate very,
very quickly – typically 3-5 years. Chances are, you should already be planning
for your next big change, and moving to the cloud is as good an idea for large
organizations as it is for small. The savings scale with the size of the
With that said, it is going to be difficult for a larger
or simply older organization to move entirely to the cloud. These organizations
will have legacy systems that do not have a good cloud-based alternative –
typically a mission critical database. Moving these technologies to the cloud
forces organizations to make investments they probably should have made long
you have any suggestions on why a more established organization should be
considering moving to the cloud, and what part of their IT it’d be easiest and
most effective to move?
Sam Chenkin: Absolutely.
Established organizations will need to be more selective in which portions of
their technology they move to the cloud and in what order. As I said before,
legacy systems – particularly databases – often do not have good cloud-based
alternatives. Organizations should focus on implementation cost and cost
savings when moving to the cloud. I’d typically recommend the following
these environments are very difficult to maintain, expensive to back up
off-site, mission critical, and slow to receive updates. What’s more, your
users won’t be able to tell the difference between Office 365 and an on-premise
exchange server. Google Apps has a steeper learning curve, but the cost savings
and increased reliability are still there.
moving your files to Office 365 or another cloud-based file solution gives
everyone access to the same files from anywhere. This can dramatically change
how organizations work and can lead to tremendous time saving for staff working
in the field.
moving databases to the cloud often means re-creating them from scratch. You
can save money in the long run and end up with a much better and much more
sustainable system in the long run, but it is going to be expensive and it is
going to drive your users crazy. This should typically be the last step unless
you need to move to something new anyway.
You’re a talented IT guy and would be snapped up in a heartbeat by commercial
IT company. What keeps you going in nonprofit technology consulting?
I said before, technology has an unrealized promise. I grew up being told that
the Internet would destroy barriers of space, income, language, socio-economic
status, race, gender, that it would make the world a better place. In some ways
I think this may be true, but in other ways technology has just become another
tool for the privileged to amass more wealth and power. I would like to help
nonprofit organizations take back technology and apply it to their deep
understandings of system-perpetuated injustices.
Many nonprofit organizations have tremendous first-hand
experience of what isn’t working about the world we live in. I’d like to give
these organizations the tools to build technologies that might actually address
the problems. I’d like every nonprofit organization who has an idea to have the
resources and support needed to bring that technology into the world.
do you like to do for fun?
Sam Chenkin: I
really like to be outside. Walking, biking, and rock climbing are some of my
favorite activities. This winter (I live on the east coast) has not been
helpful in that regard! I’m also learning to play the guitar. I grew up in a
home full of folk music and it’s been a real kick finding a new connection to
my parents' activist past.
is your favorite soup?
Sam Chenkin: I’m
a vegetarian and I love hearty stews (not quite a soup, I know). I recently
made Mushroom Bourguignon and was just blown away. It’s a little more work than
the one-pot meals I normally make, but totally worth it. http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2009/01/mushroom-bourguignon/
(I added browned seitan and it was delicious).
Image: Sam Chenkin
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