Island tales

For these IT executives, the South Pacific is not a holiday destination, but a place to work. MIS talks to expat and local IT directors on the highs and lows of working from one of the many Pacific Isles.

It's 29 degrees and mildly humid. I've just had an open-air lunch with my wife, while Annie the house girl looks after our two-year-old, cleans the house, does the washing and takes care of the dishes... When I knock off at 5pm this evening, I have a five-minute drive home to the other side of town. It's getting a bit cool now, but a swim in the pool may help push the hassles of the day out of mind... These are not passages from a holiday diary, but a description of a typical working day for Tony Phelps, a UK-born Australian now working as an IT executive in Vanuatu.

Phelps is back in Port Vila for a second stint, earning a "six-figure package" as senior VP of IT for the Bayer Group finance house.

After a few years running the IBM mainframe at Hampshire Country Council in the UK, he was offered a network engineer job in Vanuatu, where his parents also lived.

Phelps met his Australian wife there and after five years, they headed to Melbourne, where he became IT manager of Yarra Plenty Regional Libraries. But after three years, a chance to return to Vanuatu was an offer too good to refuse.

"This time, the contract horizon is more limited, and the focus is much more on establishing sustainability - getting the local guys to a point where they can not only maintain but continue the corporate IT, but on their own initiative," he says.

Working in Vanuatu is so much different from the Australian and British workplaces Phelps has been used to. For the former French colony, a working day means a 7.30am start, but a two-hour lunch allows time for a swim or study.

Locals expect to be told what to do and quite often, it is better to do the job yourself, especially for harder tasks. Much more can be done through personal contacts than by following "the rules", says Phelps.

But the fundamental challenge is cultural. "Although geographically remote, and with far fewer local resources to call upon than you'd expect in Australia or New Zealand, it is the simultaneously attractive and frustrating laid-back mindset that is hardest to deal with," he says. "Things really are left until tomorrow."

There is no stigma over losing your job and this makes it harder to convince staff to do more in less time and with fewer resources she says.

Thus, local staff have to be told why they must beat the competition, which means involving them more in the business, setting targets, reviewing accomplishments and reminding people "that it can be good to come to work".

Next is the big IT challenge - the cost of communications. "The monopoly telecomms company suffers the usual simplified complaints from its customers, but many are justified. Very high prices, poor service, limited reach, excessive bureaucracy, undersized infrastructure,and slow modernisation all play a part. It means you have to be a lot more careful with the volume of a network's communications activities," he says.

Europeans run many South Pacific businesses. "It's easy to detect a fairly colonial attitude," he says referring to the deference paid by the local residents to expat executives. The older workers accept this, he says, but younger ones want challenge, reward, respect and involvement as any Australasian.

Phelps is updating a 20-year-old Cobol-based financial management system, as well as the Novell network. He is also overhauling the corporate website from "brochure-ware" to include e-business capabilities. He recommends considering a stint in the South Pacific as "a short-term thing, so you end up having a good time before you return to the real world."

Diversity of experience can also be good for the CV.

Would-be expats should "keep their standards", but expect cynicism from locals who are used to expats coming in to do projects and leaving them none-the-wiser. They also need to slow down both physically and mentally, he adds.

But for expat executives, additional challenges come from outside the workplaces.

"Law and order is gradually deteriorating. Burglaries and break-ins are on the rise and the police both poorly equipped and eunnthusiastic about dealing with them. Violence, thankfully, is not a big concern - unless you mess with somebody's wife.

"In addition, the government seems to suffer from a belief that they have a right to money from foreigners, and continue to introduce new and bigger taxes that principally affect the expat or business community while at the same time closing off industries for locals-only participation. The result is they are choking-off commerce and I'm pessimistic about the long-term future," Phelps adds.

The French connection

It's a different perspective for Phill Hardstaff, senior systems engineer for the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) in New Caledonia, who has married a local and says Pacific life is best.

"There is no other place like it, some of the friendliest people on earth, some of the most amazing cultures, and the most amazing mix of peoples," he says.

The former Telecom Australia engineer joined the inter-governmental body in 1986 seeking a challenge. After a short spell back in Melbourne with Honeywell in 1992, he quickly returned for the warm weather, good salary and five-minute commutes. "It's a great place to bring up kids. It hasn't lost its innocence yet," he adds.

His boss, IT manager Sam Taufao, a Samoan who has also worked in Australia, confirms living standards are comparable to Brisbane, but with a more relaxed workplace.

The SPC has offices in Noumea and Suva (Fiji) and serves 22 Pacific countries. In June, Hardstaff was in the Marshall Islands advising on a Ministry of Health computerisation project. The SPC is also developing a digital strategy for the Pacific.

However, the SPC also faces the challenges of expensive satellite-based bandwidth, training locals, sourcing spare parts and workload expectations.

For Franck Martin, working as an expat executive in Fiji means plenty of challenges, but also shifting to a "holiday mode" after each working day. Martin is ICT specialist for the inter-government development organisation South Pacific Applied Geoscience Organisation (SOPAC) in Fiji.

The chartered engineer left France for the South Pacific as part of his military service and extended his stay. After setting up the ISP in Tuvalu, shifting the Kiribati ISP from proprietary software to open source, Martin is now installing mapping servers across various countries.

Such maps, using open source CMS software, direct users to web-based content and allow the creation of online communities. Governments that fund maps also benefit, as better information helps them make better decisions.

Martin warns working in the Pacific could mean lower wages, unless you are employed in an international organisation. Fiji also has poorer health services and you also must understand how locals work. "Ensure they're agreeing and not just saying yes. There is a tradition not to challenge, not to discuss decisions. But this is changing and you need to make the locals feel more confident," he adds.

Fellow French citizen Laurent Annonier is information systems director of Air Tahiti Nui. After graduating in IT and aeronautics, he worked for the French aerospace agency (CNES) before moving to Tahiti to become a database administrator for its Civil Aviation Authority.

After 18 months, the 29-year-old moved to the Air Tahiti domestic carrier as IT project manager before joining the Air Tahiti Nui international carrier as a consultant and then becoming its information systems director one year ago.

His main projects include achieving 100 per cent e-ticketing and reshaping the company intranet to save on paper and cut costs. His challenges include factoring in the isolation of Tahiti during project implementations, and the airline's growing telecommunication needs.

Annonier finds French Polynesian life "enriching" both professionally and personally. He notes, though, "IT management salaries are higher than in Australia or New Zealand, but the cost of living is also higher."

Local perspectives

Samoan-born Gisa Fuatai Purcell has held business analyst and consulting roles with Wellington City Council, ANZ and the National Bank.

Now, as ICT advisor and secretary of the National ICT committee, Purcell leads the development of Samoa's national ICT policy and national ICT plan, working with government ministers, private sector groups and NGOs. "The difference between my job and other IT jobs is at the decision-making level, focusing on IT policies and strategies at the national level," she says.

Purcell took up her posts in 2003 after gaining a masters in commerce and administration from Victoria University Wellington. She wanted to "give something back" to her home country and she dislikes Kiwi winters.

Samoa's main IT projects include "building the country gateway" for Samoa and establishing "multipurpose ICT centres" in the rural villages.

Purcell enjoys research and is passionate about how ICT can help developing countries.

Opportunities exist for expats in Samoa but only if they share knowledge and want to make a difference. "There is no room for gold-digging but there is lots of enjoying the tropical climate and the lovely Samoan beaches as well as the culture," Purcell adds.

Tonga is also busy on ICT strategy. As deputy secretary for finance, Auckland University graduate Siaosi Sovaleni has the most senior ICT job in government. He manages administration and finance, the technical aspects of the ICT services delivery; plus developing and managing ICT projects for government.

Government projects include GOTNET - a wide area network for government, linking ministries and departments with fibre in the main city and leased lines further away, to share government data and applications.

Internet costs are a major challenge, costing NZ$750 a month for a 128K leased line, plus $150 a month for a modem.

Tongan salaries are low and so are living costs, but the local culture offers expats a "break from the hectic pace" of the traditional Australasian working holiday, he says.

The Oxford University graduate says the local staff are capable, even if they often rely on expats for advice. He hopes GOTNET will overcome such dependency.

"I think all Pacific Islands stand to benefit from the experience of New Zealand and Australia. We should learn from their successes and failures (and hopefully avoid them)," Sovaleni adds.

Rajneesh Charan is manager information systems at the Fiji Sugar Corporation in Lautoka. She manages 20 staff and provides a range of IT services to the FSC's four mills, a Sydney corporate office, plus the Lautoka City Council.

Charan says FSC technologies are modern and her development team has designed specialist systems for weighbridges, cane accounting, field information, farm assistance, truck tracking, mill engineering; plus traditional finance and administrative packages.

Her role includes managing all the corporation's, information-related activities including related planning and coordination, plus maintaining the centralised applications and databases.

Her challenges include retraining and building expertise due to staff turnover, the high cost of limited bandwidth and a limited operated budget. While Fiji wages are low, she adds: "If you're prepared to take up the challenges and prepared to work within the means, then Fiji is the place."

Telco tribulations

Robert McFadzien, IT manager of Cook Islands Telecom, says working in the Pacific offers hands-on experience and very good working relationships with workmates.

The Cook Islander has also worked for Telecom Nuie and the Voyager ISP in Auckland, but prefers the Pacific life, particularly for scuba diving. The lifestyle is relaxed and friendly although sometimes visiting consultants are surprised at how "hectic it can get".

Costs can be astronomical, with a 2MB ADSL connection from his Oyster Net ISP costing $35,000 a month. Broadband at 115 kbs service is available in the main island of Rarotonga, plus Aututaki. A wi-fi 'hotspot' network is also being installed at island hotels.

Telecom Cook Islands is also working on EDUNET and TELEHEALTH projects with the island government, connecting schools and hospitals, and installing ADSL2+ infrastructure in the capital Avarua.

For McFadzien, isolation is the main challenge, making it harder to access new products, and raising the costs of spare parts and support. Therefore, it is also important to possess all-around, rather than specialist skills.

The issue of obtaining spare parts and support is also raised by the executive manager IT of Telecom Services Kiribati Ltd (TSKL), which is currently installing a pre-paid wireless internet system. Pinto Katia contributes to business planning and strategy and heads a team of eight. Katia says his job is challenging, as people expect him to know all the technologies.

A major issue for all IT leaders in the South Pacific is software standardisation and open source. "I am not against Microsoft, but since open source is free, move to it," he states.