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.

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Because Macau is so small and its IT talent pool even smaller, he had to bring in IT professionals from 12 countries, including Australia, Malaysia and the Philippines, to get the right expertise for his team of 150, Seshadri says. But that involved getting work permits, and "vendors need a local company to act as their partner," he explains.

Work permits are easier to get in nearby Hong Kong, where Melco Crown has a corporate office. But because the two cities are still separate "special administrative regions" as defined by China, Seshadri can't move his 25 Hong Kong-based IT employees to Macau. His workaround: "We bring them over by ferry for meetings and then they go back. But even then they still have to go through immigration, which has long lines. It's only a one-hour ferry ride, but it can take them three hours to get here. It is not that easy to deal with, but we manage."

Sometimes laws relate not to people, but to technology. Gustavo Roxo, a Booz & Co. partner for IT and operations in Sao Paulo, cites taxes as an issue there and elsewhere in South America. In a developed country, he says, hardware and telecommunications usually represent 40% of the total cost of a project. In Brazil, they account for 80% of the total.

That's because, thanks to taxes, a server costs twice as much in Brazil as it does in the U.S. "After companies invest in hardware, they have less to invest in getting innovation through new software. It's an innate challenge here," he says. CIOs need to be aware of tax laws, if only to explain to counterparts in other countries why costs are so much higher. Fluctuating exchange rates and inflation wreak havoc with budgets as well.

How to Make IT Work From Anywhere

Simplify. "It's tempting to try new stuff," says Reilley, "but you have to think about who's going to support it. Define and enforce standards, and then choose your policy exceptions carefully." For instance, the Pediatric AIDS Foundation has standardized on Windows PCs and doesn't use Macs, not because Macs are harder to support, but because it's simpler to support just one platform.

A policy of keeping things simple works with staffing, too. "My experience in India taught me to think in terms of living with scarcity but still delivering results," says Jetly. "I'm always thinking about how I can do the same thing with fewer resources. If I think I need a team of 10 people for an optimal solution, can I deliver something that might be less perfect with fewer people?"

Mitigate. Think about what can go wrong and plan for it. That outlook could take into account anything from floods and civil unrest to customs regulations. "When you're venturing into unknown territory, you have to mitigate risk," says Seshadri. That's why system redundancy comes up so many times in conversations with emerging-market CIOs. Reilley, for example, issues satellite phones in Africa as a backup in case the network goes down.

IT leaders likewise agreed that another simple way to mitigate infrastructure risk is to build browser-based systems that let employees work offline while inputting data into an application and then uploading it when a connection is available.

Collaborate. If you need help, ask for it. Increasingly, CIOs in emerging markets are working with local vendors and outsourcers to fill gaps in their teams. That means relying on third parties to bring in staff resources when the CIO's company might not be able to. A benefit of using third-party personnel is that they can help you deal with cultural issues.

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