Hazardous duty

Think you went beyond the call of duty when deploying your network globally? Then consider the experiences of Sara Lee's Lance Kull.

When Kull and his networking team traveled to the Dominican Republic to install equipment and cabling in a plant in Atabo, they found themselves in the midst of a riot as they drove their minivan through the streets of Santo Domingo.

The riot was the result of the local government raising the cost of public transportation from one centavo to three, making it difficult for locals to afford. Rioters quickly targeted the rented van carrying the networking team, equating it with public transportation. They pelted it with rocks, with one small boy heaving a concrete block through the windshield.

"We call it 'the day we got stoned in Santo Domingo,' " says Kull, senior LAN administrator for Chicago-based Sara Lee's IT services group in Winston-Salem, N.C. "One guy had a portable server in the van, and he held it up to the window to deflect rocks. I don't know if it was a bulletproof server, but it was rockproof."

Sara Lee's network deployment throughout Central America, Mexico and Puerto Rico has generally been less dramatic. But IT workers still struggle with tenuous situations such as maintaining connectivity in El Salvador, where the radio tower that broadcasts signals to Sara Lee's plant there sits on a volcano. Mudslides, earthquakes and volcanic activity are a geographic fact of life and have impacted network operations for Sara Lee.

Though Cisco and Novell certifications are strong differentiators for candidates seeking networking jobs, the kinds of expertise that IT workers get on a global deployment like Sara Lee's really catch a hiring manager's eye. Multilingualism, cultural sensitivity, an understanding of business objectives and the ability to adapt on the fly are hallmarks of such experience.

This career experience, and the personal growth advantages that come from these kinds of projects, have IT professionals increasingly requesting global assignments.

"Network certification credentials are very attractive in this labor market, but hiring managers are also looking closely at experience, language skills and other, softer skills," says Richard Dean, program manager for network support and integration services research at Boston-based International Data Group Inc., the parent company of Computerworld.

"You have to know the technical skills cold, because you don't have time to screw around," says Kull. "But beyond that, you have to be the best consulate ambassador your company has. We want workers that are very aware of the differences in culture and who are willing to have egg on their face if the situation calls for it. Arrogance doesn't get the job done.

"If we saw someone with the technical, training and people skills that our PC and network professionals have gained, we'd look at them very closely," Kull adds.

So would other global companies. Sara Lee recently lost an employee of 11 years whose dexterity with Spanish and foreign project work was very attractive to a food services company that was extending its operations into Latin America. Kull himself is now fluent in Spanish, thanks to Sara Lee's extensive language curriculum.

In an IT hiring climate where experiences like Sara Lee's are common, global companies will have to fight hard to retain IT specialists who have earned their stripes on global network deployments. This is particularly true if the professional understands the business's objectives and how technology delivers on those objectives, says Dean.

"Global network experience, an understanding of global e-commerce and the ability to communicate with customers and suppliers are very attractive attributes for an IT professional," says Dean. "The larger the global engagement, the better the résumé."

Speaking in Networks

As global engagements go, it doesn't get much larger than the one in progress at Emery Worldwide, a subsidiary of Palo Alto, Calif.-based CNF Inc. Airfreight services provider Emery is in the final stages of replacing an SNA architecture with a dedicated frame-relay network in 300 locations worldwide.

Hiring internally for a project the size and scope of Emery's would be impossible, says Ron Burger, director of systems. As an airfreight company, Emery was able to leverage its relationship with U.K.-based SITA, the global information and telecommunications services provider created by the air transport industry. SITA's public entity subsidiary, Equant, installs the network infrastructure, servers and PCs in Emery's offices worldwide.

This approach demands that Emery hire project managers who can become the critical liaisons between Equant and Emery employees around the world. The company hires those managers based on their ability to understand the company's global business vision and how its networking operations support that vision.

"We looked for people with strong project management backgrounds. Because we develop our own business software and maintain our own infrastructure, we were able to hire one manager who had worked on another large project internally. Another we brought in from the outside because she had a project management background," says Burger.

A project of this scale requires an incredible amount of effort and flexibility on the part of all the project managers assigned to the project, Burger says.

"When you're installing in 300 locations, you've got to have a solid plan that takes into account differences in every country," Burger says. "The lead time for getting local circuits in Shanghai may be four months, while it may take a few days in Germany."

Irene Dec, vice president of international investments at Prudential Financial in Newark, N.J., agrees that this kind of leadership is paramount for success in global networking initiatives.

Though Prudential IT executives decide whether to handle networking efforts in-house or to outsource for each country in which the company operates, great pains are taken to hire local IT leaders to oversee projects.

It's crucial, says Dec, that Prudential finds IT professionals who can serve as liaisons with U.S. counterparts. Equally important is that these professionals understand business directives and standards so they can help determine what networking equipment makes sense from a local standpoint.

Dec cites a recent effort in Japan as an example: "We had no equipment in place. So we worked under the corporate directive on standards and had the local IT person validate that work from a business perspective."

That IT team became very important in developing outsourcing and supplier relationships at the local level, "and in determining local-level needs, user and business needs, local regulatory needs, and currency and language issues," Dec says.

When staffing global networking initiatives, Dec looks for IT professionals, both domestically and abroad, who respect the differences among cultures.

"We hire people who can work collaboratively and respect the culture they're working in. It's not just about putting in boxes and hardware; business success depends on interfacing internationally to understand the whole picture and customer need," she says.

These kinds of global engagements are becoming increasingly attractive to IT employees, says Dec. "I get three to five calls a week from Prudential employees in the U.S. asking to work on a global implementation. It's absolutely a coup for an IT employee to say they've done this kind of work," she says.

(Gilhooly is a freelance writer in Falmouth, Maine.)SIDEBAR: Launching a Global Networking CareerWant to be successful in a global networking engagement? Network certifications, router and switch installation experience, and expertise with network management systems can take you a long way.

But management experts say getting foreign workers to buy in to a corporate networking vision means understanding the often subtle differences in cultures.

For global networking initiatives, IT workers should have not only a strong technical background but also a strong cross-cultural teamwork background, says Di Landau, president of Global Resources, a management consultancy in Irvine, Calif.

Beyond that, IT workers need to be proficient in the nuances of multiple forms of communication.

"When I write to someone in India, I always include an update on what's new in my world," says Landau. "Indians are talkative. Americans speak in linear format. But in India and Asian culture, it's almost a song. It's very back-and-forth and much more pleasant."

Landau cites the example of an IT executive at a Fortune 500 firm who had been charged with overseeing a networking project. The executive proceeded to send e-mails about her directives all over the world. Some of the recipients answered all her questions, some told her only that they'd received the e-mails, and at least a third didn't respond. Ultimately, the executive told her boss that she had an uncooperative global team.

"But that wasn't the case," says Landau. "In India, for example, people didn't respond well to that kind of communication and didn't answer. She was untrained in doing global business. Her entire background was technical, and she didn't realize that her success begins with people and the way she communicated with them."

Even one of the primary directives of global networking projects to create an architecture for openly sharing information causes consternation in some locations, Landau says.

"Many cultures are very uncomfortable with open information," Landau says. "In the former Soviet Union, they would have happily put more phone lines and networking equipment in, but there weren't enough tape recorders for surveillance. Workers there were used to a socialist background that included the KGB. U.S citizens are so used to operating in a democratic society, where we have a functioning legal system to protect individual rights."

Landau recommends that IT professionals begin their education through self-study immediately. "There are numerous self-study books on culture, local literature, and college courses. And if your company is ethnically diverse, never undervalue how much of this information might be gained from employees within your own company."

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