Overseas Jobs Bring Challenge, Adventure

Overseas Jobs Bring Challenge, Adventure

Dili, East Timor

By Gail Repsher Emery, Staff Writer



After a 22-hour flight that took him across the international date line, Stephen Coaker arrived Sept. 22 in Dili, East Timor, a shell of a city on the other side of the world. About 80 percent of Dili, and much of the island territory, was destroyed in a multiyear conflict over East Timor's independence from Indonesia.

In Dili, Coaker lives on a 'boatel,' a barge parked near the harbor, while he puts into place his company's financial management system for East Timor's Central Fiscal Authority, an assignment expected to take about two months.

Coaker is director of professional systems for FreeBalance Inc., an Ottawa developer of e-government products and administrative systems. In Dili, he works with United Nations staff and contractors engaged by the United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund to help rebuild East Timor.

FreeBalance has also implemented its system in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which are also trying to rebuild after years of conflict.

There's great potential in emerging markets, according to a study of the world's information and communication technology spending published in September by the World Information Technology and Services Alliance, a consortium of 41 IT industry associations based in Arlington, Va.

Spending on information and communication technology surged to more than $2.1 trillion in 1999, and is expected to rise above $3 trillion in 2003, according to the study. The alliance and Framingham, Mass., research firm International Data Corp. found that growth in information and communication technology spending in Eastern Europe and Latin America rose 42 percent between 1997 and 1999, far exceeding the more mature markets of Western Europe and North America. Western Europe and North America saw growth of 13 percent and 15 percent, respectively, during the same period.

FreeBalance, a 16-year-old private developer of e-government products and administrative systems for the public sector, had revenue of $5.8 million and earnings of more than $1 million in 1998. The company projects revenue of $5 million in 2000, according to spokesman Matthew Olivier.

FreeBalance's customers include numerous U.S. and Canadian government agencies, such as the U.S. department of Transportation and Defense, and the Senate of Canada and the Federal Court of Canada. The company recently won a $1 million contract with the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec, for which it will deliver a grants and contribution management system that will enable online grant applications, assessments and awards.

About 18 months ago, FreeBalance began pursuing work in emerging markets. It wasn't alone. DynCorp of Reston, Va., Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Plano, Texas, and KPMG International of New York are but a few of the consulting and information technology firms active in overseas markets.

Coaker found more than a new assignment in Dili. He found satisfaction in helping the war-torn nation rebuild.

"There is a lot of effort on all fronts, including technology, to put the government on its feet," Coaker said via
e-mail from Dili. "It is a very rewarding experience to be a part of all this."

He also found a quite different life. He works every day, communicates with his family and FreeBalance staff only via cell phone and e-mail, runs on the beach on Sundays and can take classes in Portuguese, Indonesian and Tetum, the native language, that are offered by the United Nations.

The boatel is "really very comfortable: cabins with two beds and shower and a good dining facility. No pool, though," Coaker said.

For FreeBalance, accepting jobs in emerging markets such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and East Timor presents unfamiliar concerns ? about safety, travel arrangements, accommodations, weather, time zone differences and employees who may not be comfortable traveling to unstable parts of the world.

Right before Grice Mulligan, the company's senior director of public-sector solutions, boarded a plane to Pristina, Kosovo, in May, he read on the CNN Web site that a building right across from his hotel had been hit by a rocket grenade. When he arrived, he found a city unlike any he had experienced.

The city's infrastructure was nearly gone. Most industry had been destroyed in the 10-year conflict with Serbia. Garbage was burned in the street, and power outages were frequent. People parked their cars on the sidewalks for lack of space elsewhere. Some days, just washing up was impossible.

"If you got up early, you'd be up too early for the water to be on, so you could not bathe. When you got in at night, you'd try to put some water in the tub so you could bathe in cold water in the morning. If you got back too late, the water would already be off," said Mulligan, who stayed about a month in the Grand Hotel Pristina, formerly a five-star property.

Mulligan wasn't afraid, though. "There are so many armed military personnel that a person would have to be absolutely crazy to do something," he said.

Bruce Nicol saw a different Kosovo a few months later. Nicol, project manager for professional services, returned to Ottawa last month after spending six weeks in Pristina. There he trained treasury, budget and information technology workers to use FreeBalance's financial management system.

At the Grand Hotel, Nicol had a refrigerator that worked, hot and cold water and electricity all day, and a working TV with cable channels.

"My standards were North American when I landed, so obviously I was a little disappointed, but by the time I left I appreciated what I had," he said. "Things we take for granted they don't have any more."

Being away from family and colleagues was difficult, the FreeBalance travelers said. Nicol, for example, was only able to phone home twice in five weeks.

"Not only on a personal level but also on a professional level, you need to be able to phone home. There were a few times that I felt very isolated," said Nicol, whose wife and children stayed in Ottawa.

Despite the myriad challenges, Mulligan said the company is looking to expand its work in emerging markets, such as the Yugoslav province of Montenegro, and is looking for employees who want to undertake such international assignments. Currently, four of FreeBalance's 45 employees work on projects in emerging markets.

Coaker said the Dili assignment has been one of the best in his career.

"We are assisting in building a country from scratch," he said. "We have an opportunity to build some really good systems. ... This makes it both rewarding and interesting."

Nicol and Mulligan agreed. "Going into the project, I was excited, but I was hesitant. ... You don't really know what you're getting yourself into," Mulligan said. "[But] at the end of the day, you know you're not dealing with a bunch of people who really don't care; they're building a nation. It's very gratifying."

The people of Kosovo "have to rebuild an infrastructure and get back to where they were 10 years ago," Nicol said. "In a very self-centered way, I feel like I'm helping them get back on their feet. In a very small way, FreeBalance is a step toward getting Kosovo the aid that it needs and the financial control that it needs so it won't have to depend on financial aid anymore from other countries. That's an experience I wouldn't have gotten in any other job."

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