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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Geekcorps spread computer skills worldwide

By John Yaukey
Gannett News Service

After bailing out of the dot-com sector just before it blue-screened, Ethan Zuckerman could have followed other patients suffering the ennui of post-dramatic success syndrome. He could have sailed Micronesia's emerald atolls or cycled the Napa Valley chasing God's Merlot.

Geekcorps founder Ethan Zuckerman takes time out during a research trip in Tanzania to take a look at the local wildlife and scenery. Zuckerman went to the African nation to determine whether his organization might be able to help teach computer skills to local residents.

Gannett News Service

Instead, the 29-year-old, who supervised software development at Web giant Lycos, found himself in Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania and Armenia — hardly where the digerati gather for pink martinis. The philosophy major found the cure for his burnout not in a cliché odyssey of self-indulgence and titillation, but by plowing back into a technology startup. This one, however, was nothing like any of the caffeine cauldrons where Zuckerman cut his teeth on k-locs (programming lingo for thousand — "K" — Lines Of Code).

Indeed, the Geekcorps — founded by Zuckerman and investment banker-turned-relief worker Elisa Korentayer — never makes a cent and never will. As the name implies, this band of techies headquartered in North Adams, Mass., is bent on spreading the gospel of digital empowerment to the developing world. Rather than extolling the benefits of crop rotation, Geekcorps volunteers teach IT skills like programming in Java and Unix, database analysis and Web hosting. Picture the classic Peace Corps volunteer — khaki shorts and dusty boots — with a pocket protector, PDA and cell phone.

Now in its second year, Geekcorps has hardly grown like a dot-com startup — nor, with any luck, will it end like one — but it has fulfilled Zuckerman's desire to make a difference with the skills that made him "better off then I ever thought I'd be.

"I suppose I just got burned out on the dot-com mentality — let's start a company, go public and everybody gets rich," said Zuckerman, Geekcorp's only remaining founder. "I was interested in starting something I thought was important instead of ending up with an enterprise started for the sole purpose of starting something."

Geekcorps now maintains a permanent IT aid mission in Accra, Ghana — where the first Peace Corps volunteers ventured in 1961 — while a team of eight volunteers is preparing for a stint in Armenia.

Meanwhile, Zuckerman has been scouting other countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Central Asia for possible future missions.

"We've definitely taken a lot of our inspiration from the Peace Corps," Zuckerman said. "Only we're looking to send people to live in cities and work with businesses rather than into the fields like the Peace Corps."

Bridging the divide

As a concept, Geekcorps is not entirely unique.

Volunteers have set out to bridge the "digital divide" for several years. The United Nations, the U.S. State Department and the Peace Corps all send people with technical expertise abroad. Geekcorps, however, has attracted attention for its original bottom-up approach, customized to the needs of participating businesses, very much like consulting rather than blanket educating as aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations typically do.

In Ghana, participating businesses include art galleries, graphic-design firms and software companies.

"We look for places where we can fit in and really do something concrete," Zuckerman said. "There has to be something there you can work with so we choose where we go very carefully."

That's a fairly pragmatic philosophy for someone who wandered into Ghana almost 10 years ago on a Fulbright fellowship to study Afro-pop music fusion.

One geek's inspiration

Geekcorps volunteer Peter Beardsley, right, of New Hampshire, show Eric Oboubisa of Ghana the ins and outs of operating a laptop computer.

Gannett News Service

Don't let the philosophy degree from Williams College fool you. Zuckerman has been a geek since the days of the ARPANET (predecessor of the Internet) and the infamous Morris worm (one of the first high-profile viruses).

"I've always been a huge Net-head," he said. "I've been online since 1989 with fond memories of USENET (the Net's ancient bulletin board system) and all that primitive stuff."

It would position Zuckerman to ride the Internet from academic obscurity to the heady days of the late 1990s and the orgy of stock offerings and takeovers that created a new class of twentysomething millionaires. Zuckerman was one of the original techies at Tripod, a Web-hosting company scooped up by Lycos, leaving the young software supervisor with a modest buy-out fortune.

In 1999, he left Lycos, tired but eager for something new. He tried his hand at hedonism, but never got more exotic than visiting friends in his truck. Zuckerman needed to get back into something. It was then that the investment the State Department made in him through the Fulbright program started to pay dividends.

"My time in Africa was life-changing," he recalled. "It occurred to me that I wanted that for other people as well."

During his fellowship, Zuckerman spent a year realizing how digitally deprived Ghana was.

"I was struck by the lack of e-mail, and I realize that sounds a bit arrogant, but still, it was impressions like this that formed my mindset," he said. "Fortunately the Fulbright fellowships are fairly flexible, so I was able to examine the challenges confronting countries way off the telecom grid. That, to me, was the real beauty of the fellowship: It let me live in Ghana and study the people — make friends with them and really get to know them — and then come to some conclusion I would take through life."

In February 2000, the stillness of comfortable unemployment became unbearable for Zuckerman, and he founded Geekcorps with Korentayer, a graduate of Yale and the London School of Economics he met through mutual friends. It was a hand-in-glove fit: The geek had the expertise and the Ivy League-educated expert in international development knew how to put it to work.

Seven months after its founding, Geekcorps had its first team of volunteers in Accra.

"Our philosophy was to get moving — to try things out — screw them up and then fix them rather than plan forever," he said. "In software, it's called iterative development — get it out fast and fix the bugs in it in later releases."

And there's usually plenty of fixing to be done, because sending small tech squads into the developing world is never the same twice.

"The No. 1 asset for a Geekcorps volunteer is a good sense of humor and the ability to go with the punches," said Peter Beardsley, 26, who spent three months in Accra on leave from Appropriate Solutions, a custom software development company in Peterborough, N.H. "If you let power outages and leaky roofs and everything else get to you, you're going to have a hard time."

But worth it?

"For me, it was the experience of a lifetime."

His employer concurs.

"The Peter that left us was not the same Peter that returned," said company president Raymond Cote. "He had a sharper and broader awareness of things. We were wondering how we would get along without him, but it turned out to be a great investment."

Not for everybody

So, you're pretty handy with HTML, are you?

Know your way around Java?

Maybe you've got what it takes to load up on vaccines, tell your boss you want three months off and do IT where people call in sick with malaria.

"It's not for everybody — that's for sure," Zuckerman said in what sounds like a backhanded sales pitch. "The work is hard and the accommodations are not luxurious."

In Ghana, Geekcorps troops live in a shared house called Geekhalla "an ugly concrete building in downtown Accra."

"We want people to have a real sense of what it's like to live and work in these places," Zuckerman said. "You're there to learn as well as serve."

That said, Geekcorps has a database of 1,100 volunteers from which it chooses rotating teams of seven or so.

Candidates need a minimum of three years in IT, with experience in software development, marketing, product-testing and wireless. Screening is rigorous: Applicants must write an essay (scrutinized by a philosophy major) and have community service experience.

"We want you a little daunted," Zuckerman said.

Volunteers are given four months to prepare for their rotation. Geekcorps pays for travel, provides lodging and a small stipend, which volunteers are encouraged to spend on travel.

"I was able to visit the hometown and family of a good friend I met there — and this is where I really got to learn about life in Ghana, " Beardsley said. "It was a truly life-changing experience. This sort of thing changes you fundamentally and forever. The world isn't the same afterward."