From Engineering to Grant Writing by Tom Assel, GPC

 

Life can be full of twists and turns. At the tender age of 17, I made my plan. I would finish high school (check!). I would do a year of community college to get a feel for college life and get some basics out of the way (check, kind of – “college life” is almost as unique to each person as real life). I would join the Marine Corps and get some…um…practical, real-world experience, and set somebody else up to pay for the rest of my college degree. Then I would get out of the military and get an electrical engineering degree (check!). Then I would go to work as an electrical engineer, with a respectable salary and benefits, and all the free electrons I could cram into my pockets each night on the way out the door (check, kind of – electrons don’t stay in your pocket after you put them in there). That was a reasonable plan, and I stuck to it reasonably well. I convinced an amazing woman that I was somehow a worthy partner for life, and we married before I got out of the Marines. And I ended up working as a software engineer out of college. But hey, engineering is engineering, and the job was just as good as I had hoped. But after years of smooth sailing in a more-or-less constant direction, life blissfully redirected the ship.

My amazing wife turned out to be an amazing grant professional. And not only was she great at what she did, but she also loved her job! I was a fair-to-good low-level software development drone (not my official job title at the time), but I had nowhere near the passion for that work as Julie had for hers. She was growing a thriving grant consultancy while I was writing bugs that I would later swear up and down were features. We realized we could make ends meet if I joined Julie in the company full time and we worked for ourselves. We also realized the opportunity for growth was staggering. I would actually need to start planning and writing some grants of my own, but it also turned out I was a decent word-making guy. So we set off together into the vast wilderness of entrepreneurship, and we haven’t looked back (except for all those times we wistfully looked back).

How is grantsmanship like software engineering? Attention to detail is key in both fields. In software engineering, we have to understand what the client is trying to accomplish and how we’re going to fulfill all the requirements. In grants, we must understand what a funder is trying to accomplish, and how we’re going to help them accomplish that. We also have to understand all the requirements for a particular proposal.

Communication is also key. When software developers write good code, we employ several strategies to convey what the code is (or should be) doing. We use descriptive names for variables and functions. We also liberally inject comments into the code. These comments have no purpose except to inform people trying to use (or maintain) the code what it’s doing. It is important that these comments clearly and directly convey each important step in the code. In grants, it is even more important to be clear and direct. Reviewers often have dozens of proposals to read, if not hundreds. The faster we get to the point, the faster a reviewer will understand our request and how it will help their agency accomplish their mission. In both software development and grant writing, we must be clear and direct.

Changing careers is scary. It’s a huge professional and financial risk. But it can be the best thing you do as a professional. At Assel Grant Services, we get to see directly how the agencies with whom we work are making an impact on marginalized people in need of support. It is compelling and exciting work, and I’m continually glad I’m a part of it.