From Euphoria to Despair to Positive Realism: Almost three years into running an IT company in Liberia
Pure, unadulterated euphoria characterised the first phase of my career as an entrepreneur. I had decided to take over the business of my late boyfriend and was full of hope and commitment. The model I had inherited was structured around Liberian IT Technicians, trained by the founder of the company, and Liberian Administrative staff. After working for more than 5 years in a dysfunctional and skewed UN industry, it was liberating to work with Liberians on a more equal basis. They were not "beneficiaries" of badly-run aid projects nor "national staff" who earned 10 times a lower salary than me. In the IT company, they were persons whom I depended on to make the business work and I had finally entered a more real relationship with Liberians. We were going to make money together!
Almost three years into it, I feel some of my euphoria is melting away into dire frustration. I suppose a euphoria cannot be sustained anyway and the ideal emotional state to be in should be one of positive realism.
But meanwhile, a lot of my dissatisfaction has to do with the fact that I am now coming face to face with the limitations of my staff.
I inherited reasonably well trained staff in both IT and Admin and grown to really believe that training and a good nurturing environment will produce a stellar and loyal team. I was wrong.
A year into it, I lost 4 decent IT technicians since their egos had become bigger than mine. I think it was the first crack in my euphoric bubble but it did not really burst it. I found an experienced technician to head the team and since then, we have been handling the the clients to date.
So, where are we now?
Currently, we have 1 experienced and skilled technician heading our Tech Department supported by a junior technician who happens to be a young woman. We also have a trainee who is learning IT from scratch. Therefore, I have a 3-member team to manage my service contracts and ad hoc requests for support and repairs.
So, what is it that I am so frustrated with? Not only do I have a very small team and attempts to hire additional team members have been quite useless but I am up to my neck with technical and professional gaps of my staff.
Let me explain some of my pet peeves:
* Very weak communication skills
1) Extremely poor written and spoken language skills so much so my staff can't even spell!
Here are some classics by our head of IT at NATC:
"Printer and UPS will be chick by the end of week"
" I when online to do some research on how to solve this problem"
" So I ask Jerry to send a test print, the printer, printed well without any error massage. I was ask by
Jarry and Jacobu to chick the printer, because when I leave then the problem can start."
2) The tech team cannot explain in technical terms solutions they apply to problems. Call Logs (forms used to record what was done on site or in our workshop) sound like quack prescriptions for a diseased person and not a faulty piece of hardware.
"HP Colour Laserjet 5550dn still give 13.09.00 paper jam error. This was because of the cover that
are covering four cartridge roller, they are all weak."
I cringe to think we are getting away with these call logs.
3) When on site or away on an errand, they refuse to answer their phones because it was waaaay in their purse or it was not charged or they left it at their office.
4) You never get the full story or feedback - there's always something left out or forgotten which needs to be dug out skillfully like an archaeologist. If I am trying to figure out why I received a complaint from a disgruntled client, I will get a flimsy explanation about a particular situation, and it's only after conducting a 1-hour extraction discussion, that I would get to the bottom of it.
5) I have done the Saturday spelling classes. I have even had an experienced English teacher come in and conduct English classes. See the entry on the NATC blog. I have had lengthy 'workshop - meetings' to go over techniques on how to write concise logs and reports. What has it achieved? Not much I am afraid except for supreme frustration. I think I have just reached the limitations of my staff.
* Inability to accept criticism, improve, make progress and move on
The staff cannot handle criticism. What will happen if you point out a mistake? It will be met with anything ranging from the most fantastical excuse to wounded looks. I swear to God, it sometimes feels like one is a school teacher scolding a toddler. It is exasperating!
What seems to work right now is a bit of hot and cold, a bit of good cop/bad cop routine to keep everyone in line. No, I'm not talking about running a military camp but running an IT company in Liberia.
I know I am only meant to be talking about my staff here, but I notice that the Liberian counterparts at our international clients also suffer from some grand illusion about themselves. At least my staff try to come up with a good excuse for having goofed up or trying to negotiate their way through a mess but our clients pull out the race card! Recently, we were labelled racists for pointing out that the contract between our organisations was being disregarded. And I know all of those air-headed, self-righteous buggers are corrupt to their noses and enjoying juicy commissions left and right.
* Lack of attention to details, severe lack of logic, stories of terminating cables with teeth instead of tools, and serious errors in judgement
I am at this juncture where I am always second guessing the service that is rendered on site by our IT team. It is not a nice position to be in. Is it the right solution? Did we do it efficiently and effectively? Was the client satisfied? Were we able to communicate what we did? Why are our clients complaining all the time? Why did we have to go back 3-4 times to rectify a job after it was completed and handed over?
Since I am not a trained IT engineer, you can imagine how frustrated, on-the-edge I am usually am. Three years down the line, I imagined I'd be in a much stronger and confident position.
It seems my staff do not follow a plan but try to do everything at the same time. I have to yell over and over again: write things down, make a list of ongoing jobs, and do follow ups.
I sometimes analyse the Call Logs my staff have written and, know that the problem was only half solved and they forgot an important, glaring step in the analysis.
What have I learned?
Well, the experience with the defection of 4 IT Technicians - all of them personally trained by Wesley, including open source which is rare to find in Liberia or anywhere for that matter - taught me a pricey and painful lesson. The head of the team's head had grown bigger than Ducor Hotel. I had lavished him with a surprise birthday party in his honour, even inviting a few of our clients and openly praising him in front of them. I increased his and his colleagues' salaries at least three times over. I would bring them gifts if I returned from a trip. Haresh gave him a $ 400.00 phone as a gift - that is even before Haresh joined NATC. It all went into his head and bloated his ego to a point where he disobeyed instructions and then walked out of the company, dragging everyone with him and sabotaged our business.
I have since learned to have a very professional relationship with my staff including even the administration folks. I keep my distance and stop myself from going out of the way.
I have decided to increase salaries only once a year. Even recently, I made a dire mistake of increasing the salary of the head of the IT team to a very handsome level but only to see him making one goof up after another, and in the process almost messing up one of our most important contracts.
It is good to make rules very clear and enforce them! Haresh my business partner and who heads all the operations loves to give everyone fourth, fifth and sixth chances but that only creates a sub standard operating environment.
Always be on one's toes and keep an eye on what kind of work is being produced on site and at the office. I usually get a good idea of it by checking the files and attendance records, the daily cash book, the call logs, and e-mails from clients. If you don't like what you see, do something about it!
Being nice does not get you anywhere. I am here to develop and nurture a world-class IT company in the most challenging of places. For me to achieve that, I need to really think long term and build a great team. I don't have time for people who are here to waste my time. I don't have the patience for incompetent fools. And, I am kind of tired of teaching my staff how to spell.
Our supplies side of the business is doing well thanks to Haresh. He is even back stopping the IT staff. He has even picked up a lot of IT himself. There is more than enough business to go around and it is good we are sourcing and supplying quality goods. It makes us good money. But I have learned that I am still very bent on creating an excellent company that provides IT services.
During my spare time, I day dream about creating a West African IT Empire. I see myself as a tycoon lady in the next ten years. In the next couple of years, I would like to establish an NATC branch in the next upcoming city in Liberia, maybe Buchanan. In the next five years, I'd like to have an office next door in Sierra Leone.
How will I achieve these dreams?
Great companies create a niche for themselves. Great companies manufacture and brand. Similarly, a great services company needs to invent a service that is unique and tailored to the environment it operates in. That is what I need to focus on. How do I create a unique, rapid-response and tailored IT service for my clients in West Africa? What kind of a business model do I need to work on?
A good business model needs to rely on local resources, especially human ones. Sure, I can't give up on my Liberian staff. In fact, I need to hire a bigger team. But, with the kind of dire educational and professional vacuum we have in this country, I need to get outside help to help me build that team and to streamline procedures and introduce new technologies.
I'm on the look out for good local and international staff. It has been a very challenging process and I am still nowhere with it. But I keep trying and let's hope I crack this challenging part of running an IT company in Liberia.