IT leaders who (literally) keep the lights on

First-world tech executives can learn from the way CIOs in developing countries maintain connectivity and keep services flowing.

Any IT leader in the mood to complain about excessive regulation should first have a cocktail with Murat Mendi of Nobel Ilac, an Istanbul-based manufacturer of generic pharmaceuticals.

Mendi, formerly CIO and now general manager of the company, which operates in 25 countries around the world, can talk about the time an overzealous bulldozer operator started excavating the foundation for a new structure next to his company's building without bothering to first confirm what might have been underground. It tore through Nobel's Internet cables, leaving hundreds of employees offline all day.

Arguably, something like that could happen in Indianapolis too, but there would still be key differences: In Turkey, there aren't many rules or regulations regarding the protocol that should be followed before excavation begins and there are few options for restitution if something goes wrong. "That's part of the culture here," Mendi says. "If something happens, they'll say, 'Oops, sorry,' and move on."

The bulldozer incident encapsulates many of the issues CIOs in emerging markets have to deal with: an unreliable infrastructure, the twin devils of too much or too little oversight, and the need for managers to understand local culture, whether they're on-site or halfway around the world. And yet, like Mendi, tech leaders in emerging economies persevere and sometimes even find joy in conquering the seemingly endless challenges, little and big, that crop up day in and day out.

Computerworld talked with CIOs and IT experts in Pune, India; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Macau, China; and sub-Saharan Africa -- and two traits they all seem to share are resilience and ingenuity in keeping the lights on, the Internet up and employees productive under less-than-ideal conditions. As business becomes more global, their stories offer lessons that IT leaders in developed countries can learn from.

'A Completely Different Ballgame'

Business practices that are common in countries with established economies and stable governments can be "a completely different ballgame" in developing regions of the world, says German Valencia, CIO of shared services at DHL, a Bonn, Germany-based logistics company whose 500,000 employees do business in almost every country.

"We cannot assume everything is the same everywhere," Valencia says, citing varying costs of technology, connectivity issues, the skill sets of the local populace and aging equipment as just some of the challenges. Telecommunications may be "unreliable, outdated or even government-controlled," he warns. "Something as simple as Internet access can be exponentially more expensive than what you'd pay in the U.S., Europe or Asia."

"When you're in the U.S., you assume abundance. The mindset shifts completely in a developing country," says Niraj Jetly, CIO of Edenred USA, who previously served as CEO of a healthcare startup with offshore operations in Delhi, India. "You have a mentality of scarcity. You think about how you can be frugal while still meeting business needs."

Venkat A. Krishnan discovered that when he was CTO at Indian automaker Mahindra & Mahindra and his CEO charged him with building a factory from the ground up in Chakan, India. A former agricultural hub, Chakan is about 20 miles from Pune, the nearest city. There, "from the ground up" means something a little different from what it does in the U.S. or Europe.

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