Thursday, June 12, 2008

Halfway home

As I sit in a cafe near the Anne Frank Museum with an espresso and crossaint, I now have a moment to reflect on the past 10 days in Uganda. What strikes me first, particularly as I spend a few hours in Amsterdam, is the global nature of it all. I've always been frustrated by the US-centric view we tend to take, both in business and politics. I was fortunate to have many opportunities while growing up to see the larger, global picture, which is why working at the IRC is so satisfying (among other reasons). But we have a tendency to forget this perspective since we live and work in the US. I want to work to find ways of maintaining this view without having to travel for 24 hours.

I'm also reflecting on the large set of challenges we have before us at the IRC. I'm just starting to understand some of the subtleties and complexities of international humanitarian work. I read an abstract of an article yesterday which said that some agencies are doing more harm than good as they try to help developing nations with their health needs. I know how hard we work at this, so it's doubly frustrating to read that we may not be as effective as we'd hoped, at least according to some. I look forward to getting back and discussing some of these issues with my colleagues.

Finally, I think about the challenges within the IT department, which are many. Besides the technical and financial issues, there are significant issues of culture, and organizational momentum. Things that we think should work in a typical US-based organization just might not work on a global scale. I think we have to rethink our approach somewhat. The problem is, I'm not sure I fully understand what the new approach should be. Maybe that's for my next 8 hour flight.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


We spent a couple of hours in the IRC compound, talking to some of the staff, and generally getting a feel for the place. It's pretty rustic, but they have consistent power and moderately decent
Internet connection. More than others can say. Came back to the hotel for dinner, which wasn't particularly appetizing, but we made do. Slept well.

This morning we had a very basic breakfast (thank god for eggs) and bought some provisions for lunch (crackers to go with my peanut butter) and headed back to the office. After some good Peet's French press coffee, we met briefly with the health team to look at their "database". It turned out to be a pretty nice Excel workbook that was out together by a local guy. The most interesting part was that we were able to see how the data is collected in the field, transmitted back to HQ, and entered into a database that we support. The other thing that struck us is that nearly everything is done on paper. It shouldn't be surprising, but it felt very archaic. I feel like if I could put a team in here for 6 months, we could create a set of very efficient systems. Clearly unrealistic, but I'll have to do some thinking about if and how my team can add value here.

At 10am we left for the field. We were embedded with the health team as they do their weekly outreach visits to the satellite camps. We visited a couple of clinics in the main camps, then drove deep into the countryside to a small camp that has no clinic, so the infirmed wait for us to come to them. We arrived to a large group of locals sitting under a tree, anxiously awaiting our arrival. Most of the cases are not severe, so they're seen by a health worker, analyzed, and passed on to the next station where they may get some medication or an immunzation. Everything is tracked in the patient's health booklet, and various logs books kept by the staff (for later data entry into Excel). It's quite primitive, but effective.

We were told about one of the little kids running around. She's about 11, but looks more like 8. She's epileptic' and was abandoned by her parents very early. Our health team have her medication, and she's much better now. She can go to school and play with other kids. Her parents have taken her back, and now that the community has seen this transformation, they're bringing other epileptic kids to the weekly clinic.

We're actually not far from the border with Sudan. This area was not safe a year ago. These people are slowly moving back towards their original lands, but they move slowly to make sure it's safe. The government and the military determine the best location for the next camps, and then people come slowly, essentially testing the waters. When they're comfortable with the security situation, and know there's water and medical care, they come. This process will happen again and again until they end up back in their original lands. This can take many years. Quite a process.

It appears to be a very peaceful place. It's hard to imagine that there was a terrible war here just a few years ago.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Bomah Hotel, Kitgum

Arrived safe and sound in Kitgum, on Martyr's Day, a national holiday. A very smooth, 1 hour flight, then a 90 minute drive through the Ugandan countryside. We were fortunate to have two IRC colleagues with us, so talked a lot about some of the global IT plans (very positive reaction), and got to hear a lot about their work in the field. It's quite a challenging environment, not surprisingly. The hotel seems fine. Very basic. We'll rest for a bit, have some lunch, then go to the office. Looking forward.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Raining in Jinja

A very relaxing day in the Ugandan drizzle. Fortunately, have my excellent book on Michelangelo, and the French Open to keep me occupied. Everyone got a very late start today, but we all convened for lunch. Managed to take a quick dip in the pool when the sun came out for a bit. May not even leave the hotel today - feels good to just relax - I think we all need it. Now hearing thunder in the distance. Think I'll take a nap.

Friday, June 6, 2008

On the road to Jinja

It's about a 2 hour drive from Entebbe to Jinja, through Kampala (another congested, overcrowded, smelly city, but somehow charming in it's own way) and the Ugandan countryside. As usual, everything is handmade, lots of small shops along the road, very lush vegetation, and crazy drivers. Everyone's tired and anxious to get there.

Chimp Island

On the slow boat to Chimp Island, a small island in Lake Victoria that's been setup as a sanctuary for chimps. Interestingly, we're going to cross the equator on the way. Everyone's in a jolly mood this morning.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Day 2 and 3

I was too exhausted to write anything last night, so I'll combine the last two days into this post. Yesterday went very well. We got a bit more into some technical details. In particular, VMWare. For the uninitiated among you, VMWare is a software product that allows you run a different operating systems (machines) on your existing computer without impacting your current setup. It actually creates a single file with the entire virtual machine inside it, so you can easily move the VM around. It's truly black magic, and most of the conference attendees had never seen it in action. They were pretty impressed. It will allow them to install new versions of things and experiment (and learn) in a protected space. It was great example of how the US-based team can help the guys in the field. Not only were they not familiar with VMWare, but they don't even have the bandwidth to download a copy (we gave them a USB drive full of free utilities). We also talked a lot about virus protection. It's a serious issue in the field, and can be very tricky to solve. It needs a combination of user training, strong, enforcable policies, and good software - none of which are easy to do in their environments. For instance, you can have all the right software, and some policies, but when someone brings in a USB drive from home that's infected, none of the protections matter. So we have to work with them on this - it's taking significant time away from more productive tasks.

Yesterday, we had a presentation from a local IT entrepreneur who's a representative of Inveneo, a very interesting company that makes open source-based hardware for remote locations (like our field sites). People got very excited about that.

We also had some very interesting talks about the role of IT. They clearly understand the value of being more strategic, and all of them very much want to step up. It's tricky, though, given all they have to do, but it was great to see the passion and enthusiasm. My challenge, now, is to support them, both technically, and "managerially" from a significant distance. It'll be a challenge, but if I can create a sense of community with these folks, we'll be able to accomplish much together.

The timing of all this, coming on my one year anniversary at the IRC, is auspicious. As I look back, I feel like I've made some significant progress in terms of understanding the IRC, and this conference is a major milestone. I feel like all the pieces are in place, and now it's about flawless execution. Not small task, for sure, but the potential is huge. Looking forward to some R&R this weekend, then back to work.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Conference Day 1

After all the planning, all the anticipation, the conference is finally underway. I gave a slightly modified version of my Global IT presentation that I’ve given a number of times, but for the first time, I gave it to the people that will help implement the vision. I think it went over well – saw lots of nodding heads, and even had a few questions. The goals are large, but the benefits are even larger – I think that came across well. The best moment of the day, perhaps was the presentation by the Uganda country director and his senior team. He gave a good overvie
w of our efforts in Uganda – some very tricky stuff. Then the Finance, Logistics, and Operations directors spoke briefly, and it was as if they had read my presentation. They asked for standardization (check), better overall support (check), improved communications (check), and even support for a custom-build logistics management system (check). The most gratifying part was when they were done, I was about to answer their concerns with an explanation of our plans, but a few of the field guys asked if they could respond. And respond, they did. One person explained that if they had been here a few hours earlier, they would have seen that the goals of this conference matched their concerns exactly. Another one explained our efforts towards standardization, and how that will help with support. It was a truly magical moment – I think we all felt it.

We also got into a brief discussion of “measurement and evaluation” – the very difficult challenge of tracking program effectiveness. The country director explained some of the challenges relating to different donors wanting to track different indicators, then I explained some of the efforts underway in the NGO community to develop a standard for M&E so we can make this difficult process more efficient, and also start to change the conversation with the donors. This gave me an opportunity to make the point that if we can remove some of the burden around managing commodity infrastructure, we can start to help the business with this critical task – that’s what IT is really about. I swear I saw some light bulbs go off in people’s heads. Again, very satisfying.

After this, I went back to my room and fell asleep in about 2 minutes – nearly missed dinner. Can’t wait for more of this tomorrow.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Morning 1

Arrived last night and crashed hard. I was awoken at around 8:30 by the front desk, asking where the conference materials were (I was supposed to give them to the front desk to hand to each attendee). Good sign that they’re on top of this…

The morning is raining and grey. My room looks over Lake Victoria, but there’s not much to see due to the weather. Hopefully it will clear up at some point because I think I have a nice view. I posted a picture of what I could see.

Off to dinner now...

P.S. I was in the elevator when the power went off - fortunately, only for about a minute. Not fun, though.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Half Way There!

Sitting comfortably in the Amsterdam airport trying to decide if I want to get coffee, or try to sleep some more. I think coffee will win out. Had an uneventful flight, and looking forward to the next leg. I was able to work on my presentations, and generally organize myself for the conference. One thing that will be interesting, I suspect, will be the international quality of the attendees. There will be 13 countries represented, most of them African. While I will endeavor to speak slowly and clearly, I wonder whether there will end up being general comcepts, or at least jargon, that isn't going to translate well. Clearly, I've been in a western business environment for a long time, and am used to interacting with people who have been in similar environments. This will likely be quite different. Will terms like ROI, needs analysis, and governance mean anything? They're not hard to explain, but I think we'll all have to be conscious of our audience in new ways.

The focused time on the plane also helped me to crystallize some of the goals of the conference. Here's what I came up with:

1. To get to know each other, and to establish strong and long-lasting working relationships
2. To come to a mutual understanding about where IT at the IRC is going, and generally how to get there
3. To update each other on what projects we’re working on, and to gain an understanding of how these projects fit into the larger goals
4. To share specific technical knowledge
5. To have fun!

I think this should set a good tone, and if we come close to these, it'll be a huge success. Now, off to coffee.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

On My Way!

I'm airport bound for the 16 hour flight to Uganda. This trip has been a long time in planning, and it's hard to believe it's upon me already. My plan is basically this:

1 week in Entebbe for the 1st Global IT Conference. I'm bringing together all (or nearly all) the field-based IT staff so we can begin to develop working relationships, share best practices, and work together to create a truly global IT operation. I'm incredibly excited about this.

Then, my NY-based team and I will spend the weekend at a hotel at the head of the Nile doing some relaxing.

On Monday, June 9, we'll head up to Kitgum for a brief field visit. Back to Entebbe on Wed to catch our flight back home.

This will be somewhat different from my last trip as the field portion will be only a small component. But, as like last time. I'm sure that this trip will be "perspective-changing" in one way or another.