Navigating obstacles on the information highway

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An Accenture IT specialist in Seattle returns to Ethiopia to help get a fledgling university online.

 

 

When Yared Ayele emigrated with his father from hot, dry Ethiopia to cool, wet Washington State, he didn’t think he’d ever fit in with his Grade 7 classmates. Tall and thin, Ayele was an awkward, Amharic-speaking adolescent and, in his own words, utterly uncool.

It took only a few months for Ayele to get an exemption from English-language training and start excelling in school, igniting a feedback loop of perseverance and reward that continued throughout high school, university – and beyond.

In 2010, fourteen years after leaving Ethiopia, the 26-year-old Seattle-based Accenture employee returned to his homeland as a sought-after computer science graduate. He spent a year installing a high-speed, wireless network from scratch along with myriad other tasks at a fledgling university in Dire Dawa. And he did it all as a volunteer with Cuso International.

University administrators regarded his unending progress within Ethiopia’s notoriously leaden bureaucracy as bordering on alchemy; his colleagues and students, whom he trained and mentored, were full of awe and admiration. If only teenagers only knew how fleeting “uncool” can be.

“I was doing interesting, challenging work at Accenture but to this day, I have a bigger dream, to work in international development, to go back to Ethiopia and contribute there,” he says.

Yared Ayele is one of the Cuso International corporate volunteers who take unpaid leave to share skills and knowledge in developing countries. They are human resources managers, bankers, accountants, business consultants and other experts. Cuso currently has partnerships with Scotiabank, Randstad, Deloitte Canada and Accenture, Ayele’s employer, all of whom allow staff to volunteer without having to forfeit their jobs.

During his tenure at the University of Washington’s Informatics Department, Ayele interned with the likes of Microsoft, Intel and even the Pentagon. He had many job offers in Information Technology after graduation, but chose Accenture specifically because of its Cuso International partnership, knowing he would be eligible to volunteer overseas after two years on the job.

Accenture is a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company with nearly 250,000 employees worldwide. They have been freeing up employees to volunteer with Cuso International and VSO (Cuso’s strategic alliance partner, based in the U.K.) for 10 years.

“With Accenture, we share similar values in our commitment to making a sustainable, measurable difference to local communities around the world,” says Nefertiti Saleh, the Cuso International staff advisor on corporate and institutional partnerships.

“The benefits of corporate partnerships are widespread – overseas communities receive skilled, hands-on expertise, employers enhance staff skills, and volunteers gain an incredibly rewarding professional development experience while making a difference abroad.”

Joon Yoon, an Accenture business consultant, is the company’s ambassador for the Cuso and VSO volunteer experience. He went to Namibia in 2009 as a business development advisor for the Namibia Network of AIDS Service Organizations and helped to write the country’s influential National Strategic Framework for HIV and AIDS Response in Namibia 2010-2016. Namibians – one in five of whom are living with AIDS – have benefited from Yoon’s international business acumen. Accenture also reaped rewards.

“When we provide our employees with the right environment to succeed and give them opportunities to challenge themselves, that all comes back to us,” Yoon says. “They’re better able to cope with challenging situations, they’re better leaders, they can understand how to work in cross-functional and cross-cultural environments.”

You can go home again

Ayele is what you might call a slayer of challenges. He overcame shyness, language and cultural barriers in Seattle to become an IT whiz kid and later taught computer science to impoverished high school kids in the townships of Cape Town, South Africa, at age 22, as part of a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative History of Ideas.

But nothing comes close to what he faced at Dire Dawa University. Installing a sophisticated, integrated computer system and wireless network at a university still under construction, in a developing country, with scarce parts, little knowledge support and cumbersome red tape seemed, at the outset, unfeasible.

Photo: Yared Ayele, seated at centre, with his IT team.

Forewarned about the hassles of doing business in Ethiopia, he simply treated the university as he would any other Accenture client with acute needs: he’d figure out solutions. That was his job. His knowledge of Amharic helped but his American passport also got him through doors that might have remained shut.

Dire Dawa University is one of 13 new universities built as part of a sweeping government investment in post-secondary education. When Ayele arrived at the six-year-old school, with its 300 staff and 7,000 or so students, it had only one computer lab with about a dozen working computers and dial-up Internet.

In anticipation of his arrival, Ayele’s bosses had ordered wireless equipment and hardware from Germany which arrived a week after Ayele did. He hit the ground with a sprint and within six months, the network was up and running.

Long-term thinking

But there was no point in building a system no one would understand or be able to maintain so he chose four young men who were operating the computer lab to become the university’s official IT department.

“I wanted to make sure it’s not just me doing the stuff and leaving,” he says. “I speak the language, I understand the challenges of the students. I really wanted to train them as part of the process. Knowledge transfer is a big part of our jobs as Cuso volunteers.”

As part of that transfer, he organized a road trip to a pair of more established universities, Jimma and Arba Minch, to show his colleagues how their IT departments functioned. He also organized an IT conference at Dire Dawa to further expose them to local innovators and leaders in the field. Both initiatives were funded through Cuso and VSO grants and what little money he could squeeze out of Dire Dawa administrators.

Ayele has a way of getting what he wants. He once cajoled a campus construction contractor into relocating an empty shipping container so he could use it for equipment storage. A phone call from the president, a conversation here and there, a little give and take, and presto, mission accomplished. University President Wagayehu Bekele told Ayele, “I just have to give you something to start with and you’ll never stop!”

While Ayele enjoyed his tenure at Dire Dawa, nurturing the budding IT team and watching the men develop pride and professionalism in their work was the most satisfying aspect of his placement.

“Those were the days I really enjoyed working, having these individuals I could connect with, having discussions about the challenges we were facing and how to overcome them,” he says. “Being a role model, with people my own age looking up to me…that was very rewarding.”

After returning to Accenture last fall, he says it was odd not having to charm his way through each day to expedite paperwork or scrape together a few thousand Ethiopian birr to buy cables. And he misses the courage and determination of his African colleagues. They miss him too. He sent a survey to the people he worked with in Ethiopia soliciting comments and their responses overflowed with praise.

“He is not like a person who stops doing something where facilities and inputs are not available,” said one commentator. “He uses his creativity where he found there are constraints… I can say he is a person who strives for the betterment of Dire Dawa University.”

Ayele accepted the responses with humility, a quality that served him well in Ethiopia. He could have gone back as a big shot from America, he says, but truly, he couldn’t have done it alone. Teamwork was key to his success there and that legacy of teamwork, he hopes, will carry the university forward in future.

Story by Lisa Gregoire