News & Stories

JA Volunteer Spotlight: Shan Gu and Foci Solutions


Foci solutions provided Ottawa Network for Education with a user-friendly, custom-made solution for our complex volunteer tracking problem and it has increased our efficiency and ability to serve students and teachers in Ottawa. Throughout the process, they were always open to feedback and welcomed questions and consultation. They had patience with our level of technical skill and made sure we understood the tools they implemented.

Shan and his team value the impact non-profits have on the lives of others and the team-based approach to professional growth. We sincerely appreciate Foci’s in-kind donation of professional services and software development time.

Here’s what ONFE’s Director of JA Ottawa, Albert Wong, had to say about Shan and his team’s volunteer work:

“We’re so grateful for Shan’s generous donation of his team’s problem-solving talents, and time, to create a custom solution to help ONFE with volunteer management. The genius is through creating a positive impact in the community while also building the skills and integrating teaching, and cross-learning, within his team.”

We asked both Shan and the team at Foci questions

Question for Shan: How do the 3 main operating principles of FOCI: Be curious, be honest, be collaborative apply to the volunteer work your team did for ONFE?

Let’s take the list in reverse:

Collaborative – Building software is a social endeavour. It was amazing to work with the ONFE team to really understand what their day-to-day challenges were and at each step. We worked iteratively whereby we would build a tool or a significant piece of a tool, show it off to the ONFE team, work with them to understand whether it made their job easier, and get their ideas on how it could be better. It’s a lot easier to come up with ideas once you get to work with something real, so I think the real-time collaboration allowed us to deliver something quite helpful in a fairly short amount of time.

Honest – Things don’t always go as expected on tech projects. Our initial assumptions were blown out of the water fairly early on what could be achieved given some pretty major software limitations that we discovered. Be up front with the challenges and set realistic expectations on what can be done. The ONFE team was wonderful to work with as they were more than willing to adjust on the fly and work with us on how to work around these limitations while still giving them a great experience.

Curious – Innovation isn’t about using the latest tech or adopting the hottest trends. The goal was to provide ONFE with nearly an entirely new volunteer management platform that supplemented all the missing features of their existing platform, without the need to double-enter data, all with technologies that wouldn’t cost ONFE any ongoing licensing or hosting costs, and was extremely low maintenance. So we definitely had to get creative. And I think that’s what I love about working with non-profit organizations. Anyone can build tech solutions when there are large budgets, but it’s so much more rewarding to solve a problem when there are a lot of constraints.

Team Questions

  1. Tell us a little bit about yourselves as a team. (favourite extra curricular work events, what makes FOCI unique)

    Foci Friday is probably our favourite ritual. It started pre-covid when we were all in-office mostly as a spill-over from Friday lunches. It’s evolved into a weekly remote get-together for the team to bond. We invite (sometimes “proactively volunteer”) team members to present on whatever they want. Can be work related, can be a hobby. We’ll learn about someone’s experiments with ChatGPT one week and how to make chainmail the next. We’re a curious bunch, so all kinds of interesting topics come up. Once in a while we’ll do team trivia or some kind of a game when we need an easy week.

  2. What were some favourite things about volunteering with JA Ottawa?

    The #1 thing is definitely how collaborative and obviously passionate the JA Ottawa team was. We really felt their commitment to the mission and we were excited to give them some tools so they can focus on that mission rather than painful data entry. It gave us focus on when we had to make design decisions or come up against some tech challenges.

  3. What are the FOCI’s team favorite hidden gems in Ottawa to go? (Can be a park, restaurant, store, etc.)

    Our offices are literally above Maison Oddo on the Gatineau side so that bakery sees a lot of traffic from us. Once in a while a few of us will also do the Pink Lake climb in Gatineau Park on our bikes.

  4. Tell us about a lesson you learned by volunteering with JA Ottawa? What did it teach you as a team?

    The biggest lesson is probably to leave any preconceived notions about tech and tools at the door. What the user’s familiar with and what they feel the most comfortable with is worth more than whatever fancy digital experience we can introduce. The goal was to make the JA Ottawa team’s day-to-day work more efficient, so giving them something totally foreign and having to go through weeks of training wasn’t going to be helpful. The technology had to come to them, not the other way around.

If you are interested in volunteering with ONFE’s JA Ottawa program, please visit the JA Ottawa program page.

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