Tech consultancy for non-profits: an interview with EyeSeeTea

Adrian Quintana Pérez, José García Muñoz, and Ignacio Foche Pérez form EyeSeeTea, a software consultancy focussed on serving the non-profit sector. We talked to them about how non-profits use software, and whether their approach to developing it is changing.

What made you start EyeSeeTea?

The three of us were studying together on a Masters course in telecommunication for developing countries. Afterwards, we talked to see if we could do some work together, maybe publish something. Then a year ago we decided to start the company. That happened in quite an easy way – we found a client who needed us.

There are a lot of people trying to do telecommunications work in developing countries, but they are following a research approach. There aren’t many people working as professional software developers in this area. So we’re doing quite well – for a startup!

Is there a lot of demand for what you have to offer?

There are lots of people who could do what we do, but they need to get paid! There are plenty of skilled people, and people who know what’s needed in the field, and people who have access to money. But there aren’t often people who have all three, and that’s where we fit, in the junction of those worlds.

Small nonprofits don’t usually hire people like us. They are more likely to have one computer specialist who does everything. Bigger nonprofits are more likely to have the money to hire a company. Often we take public contracts to do work for a government, university, or large nonprofit. There is quite a bit of work in the research sector for implementation work.

Big nonprofits, on the other hand, are more and more hiring internal people to do this kind of job. It’s a new thing for them, they are not yet used to hiring software developers. They often think it should be a volunteer role.

So why do they hire you instead of their own developers?

At the moment, our clients know us and we have a close relationship with them. We tend to know clients in advance. It will be a key challenge to go beyond people we know. Having a few contracts with well known nonprofits will help build our reputation and make it easier to get more clients.

Is there room for more organizations like yours?

The space is increasing in size, it’s growing every year. Technology is becoming more important and people are starting to understand that sometimes you need to hire a professional. There is definitely a gap, but it’s not huge. There are only three of us, and we’re not even working full time yet.

Until this year, the usual way we’ve found to start a development project wasn’t to focus on technology first. NGOs in the past were not used to hiring a tech company. They might just hire one person or not think it’s important.

For software, nonprofits used to think that they could get a couple of volunteers for free. But now they are beginning to understand that if you want to meet a deadline and get a quality product then you need to pay.

All our work is open source, but there is a difference between open source and free of charge.

Are there other organizations doing this, like you are? What would happen if you didn’t do it?

Sometimes we create the need at the nonprofit, by showing them what they could do with our help. In other cases there is competition for a contract. We tender a bid, and they do the price comparison. For a university that has money for a project, there will usually be competition between projects as well.

Once you know the company – maybe you’ve done a small project for them already – you have a better chance. But you have to get a foot in the door.

That means it’s very important to have contacts in the field. All of us have worked in this field as volunteers before. I think to access this kind of market you really have to start as a volunteer, so that you know the people and the needs. If you can find the need, and the people, and the budget, then maybe you can start something, but that’s not easy.

What skillset do you wish you had? What skills are needed by your customers?

At the moment we say we can do anything, because we are just starting! Everything is changing, new technologies all the time, so you have to be flexible.

Data mining is everywhere, analysing metadata etc. Big data is important, lots of organizations simply have a huge amount of data.

At the ACM Dev conference there were a lot of presentations about data analysis. That is a big trend in this world. Organizations and donors want to know what is happening with funds, how to improve efficiency, etc. There is a gap in data science for this field. Not many universities work in this kind of analysis in the developing world.

Did you consider working directly for a nonprofit?

Ignacio used to work for one, a small NGO, working in Peru and Colombia. And he was a volunteer in a bigger one. But this field depends heavily on the economy. In Spain, for example, all the budget for development was cut suddenly. It can be very unstable.

Adrian came from the research world. His involvement in development was through volunteering in his free time. When he got hired by UCL he sent his CV to a couple of places. But it’s difficult to get hired by a nonprofit. There are a lot of good people applying to few positions. Nonprofits could hire more people if they would pay for it.

What kind of work have you ended up doing so far?

We’ve done a variety of things: network infrastructure, mobile apps, web, technological audits. All of our code is open-source, so you can see it on our website. It is nice that we’ve been able to see many different aspects of telecommunications. We’d like to keep doing that!

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