Ellie Hendrickson likens some aspects of working in information technology to bartending.
“Colleagues reach out and say, ‘My computer isn’t working,’ and often proceed to share other woes they’re currently facing. In that sense we are the bartenders, the therapists. There’s a certain amount of trauma bonding. Especially when people are taking things to heart and working long hours, they are appreciative of the work you are doing,” she said. “I like that part of my job.”
Ellie has worked in IT for the Clinton Foundation, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and for a cyber security startup. In 2019, she left that startup to come to Vital Strategies, happy to return to mission-driven work.
“What I realized working in IT early on is that you can work in any industry. All types of organizations need technology operations and support,” she said. “If I’m going to get to work in technology and do what I enjoy—figuring out puzzles, solving problems—I would prefer that my organization is doing something good rather than just making a profit.”
Ellie arrived in the IT profession because it came naturally to her, and because she was attracted to the opportunities it provided.
Both of her parents were immigrants from Trinidad. Ellie grew up in Coney Island, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, until she was 11, and then moved to New Jersey. Her father died when she was 4 years old and so Ellie largely grew up with her brother, 10 years her senior, and her mother, who worked in fashion. Ellie says she was a curious child and always loved to learn.
“When I was a kid, I watched Sesame Street religiously. I was reading constantly. I always had a book and was doing science experiments. I spent a lot of time in my own world and school came easily to me.”
Ellie would gather items like stale bread or strands from hairbrushes to examine the mold or split ends under her junior microscope. Her “Mr. Wizard” activity book helped her to see the magic of vinegar—removing the oxidized green from pennies to restore their lustrous copper and separating milk into curds and whey. She played games on VTech computers and learned to program BASIC. She often acted as tech support for her family and friends.
In high school, Ellie ran track, played soccer, performed in school plays, and made many friends and lasting relationships. She says she consistently felt the need to go beyond what was required.
“Angela, my mom, always stressed that, because I was Black, some people would have certain views about me. She said I would have to be on point—be put together, speak well, listen well. ’Don’t let people walk all over you,’ she told me. ‘You’ll have to work 10 times harder than everyone else.’ And that’s always there—on top of my mind and in the background, in the way that I set certain standards and rules for myself and others.”
As an adult, Ellie recognizes the stress that comes along with that mindset. “Yes, the world has improved in ways, but in many other ways it has not. Recognizing this, I am more judicious with my energy and effort. That said, I would be lying if I did not credit this way of thinking as a survival method, and that it has played a large part in my success and where I am in life.”
At George Washington University, Ellie majored in International Affairs. She was drawn to the program because it touched on language, history, and politics; all subjects that interested her. She landed internships at Sister City International and the Peace Corps. She was working, but struggled to figure out what she really wanted to do. “And so,” she said, “I thought back to one of my first and natural interests: technology,” She went on to earn a master’s degree in IT at the University of Greenwich in the U.K.
Even though Ellie considers earning a graduate degree a huge accomplishment, it happened at an inopportune time: during the Great Recession. Like many other recent graduates at the time, she struggled to find any type of full-time work, let alone in her chosen field. Over the course of two years, she applied to more than 500 positions, all detailed in a spreadsheet. “Once I reached 500, I stopped tracking,” she said. At the same time, still intent on earning her way, she worked as a server at an Applebee’s restaurant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, near her mother.
“It’s where I learned to hone my customer service skills. I learned how to deal with humans, have patience, and keep cool. The job also required problem-solving, including resolving minor technology issues.”
She then worked at Lincoln Center, and at the Clinton Global Initiative and Clinton Foundation, thereafter. At the Clinton Foundation she worked with Daniel Schaefer, now Vital’s Chief Technology Officer. She learned a lot about herself through the pressure of the environment. “I thrive in chaos not created by me. I let it wash around me and am confident in my abilities. Even if everything else is falling apart, I can control whether systems work, whether your computer gets fixed.”
She brought that spirit to Vital Strategies, which she joined shortly before the start of the pandemic. She calls the pandemic both the best and worst time in her life, personally and professionally.
“It knocked me off my routine. I lost momentum. It also showed me that my mode of working really wasn’t the best way for me to operate. When I wasn’t going, going, going; like I was before; I had time to pause and reevaluate. It made me think more strategically: How can we get away from putting out fires and build something sustainable? How can we set ourselves up to be in a better place in the long run?”
She moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn a year and a half ago, making her a New York resident for the first time since her childhood. She loves exploring parks and neighborhoods with her dog, an adorable hound-pit bull mix named Otis.
She also volunteers with Hudson County CASA, an organization that trains volunteers to support children who have been removed from their homes and placed in foster care. She visits the children once a month to see how they are doing, and advocates for their needs in court. Growing up in a lower-income neighborhood and raised by a single Black mother working full time, Ellie knows what it’s like to “worry about things a child shouldn’t have to worry about.” She understands the uncertainty of who may or may not be there to take care of you, to a degree. “If I can help even one kid in that position feel a little bit better, even for a short time,” she says, “I’m going to do it.”
As Vital Strategies’ Systems Manager, Ellie aims to be proactive in supporting the organization’s work. She remains well versed on the systems and software that Vital uses and works to stay up-to-date with regard to new features and opportunities. Lately, she has also been spending time connecting with colleagues to solicit feedback, to find out what they are struggling with in terms of technology and systems.
“I am asking, ‘What do you want to improve upon?’ and trying to get a more holistic view of what everyone is looking to do. I’m then looking at what we already have in place and where we need to go. I’m looking to integrate and connect things that are disjointed,” she said. “I am trying to find organization-wide, cost-effective, impactful technology solutions, instead of simply putting scotch tape on things.”