IT on the edge: CIOs who (literally) keep the lights on

First-world tech leaders can learn a thing or two from the way CIOs in developing countries keep connectivity up and services flowing.

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

Mendi, formerly CIO and now general manager of the firm, 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 confirm what might have been underground first. It tore through Nobel's Internet cables, leaving hundreds of employees offline all day.

Arguably, such events happen in Indianapolis as well as Istanbul, but with a few key differences: In Turkey there tends to be little regulation of excavation protocol beforehand and few options for restitution after. "That's part of the culture here," Mendi says. "If something happens, they'll say oops, sorry, and move on."

The event neatly encapsulates many of the issues CIOs in emerging markets have to deal with every day: an unreliable infrastructure, the twin devils of too much or too little oversight, and the need to understand local culture, whether they're on-site or managing from a continental distance. And yet, like Mendi, tech leaders overseas persevere and sometimes even find joy in conquering the seemingly endless challenges, little and big, that crop up day in, day out in emerging economies.

Computerworld talked with CIOs and IT experts in places as far-flung as Pune, India; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Macau, China; and sub-Saharan Africa -- all of whom demonstrated a remarkable amount of resilience and brilliance in keeping the lights on, the Internet up and employees productive under less-than-ideal conditions. As business becomes more global, they're lessons that even IT leaders in established markets can learn from.

"A completely different ballgame"

Business practices that are commonplace in large and mature locations can be "a completely different ballgame" in developing geographies, says German Valencia, CIO of shared services for DHL, the Bonn, Germany-based logistics company whose 500,000 employees do business in almost every country around the world.

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

"When you're in the U.S., you assume abundance. The mindset shifts completely in a developing country," agrees 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 all that and more when his CEO charged him with building a factory from the ground up. In Chakan, India, a former agricultural hub some 20 miles from Pune, the nearest city, "from the ground up" means something a little different than it does in the U.S. or Europe, Krishnan relates.

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