From corporate work to pro bono: An IT exec’s experience

From corporate work to pro bono: An IT exec’s experience

Why IT exec Stephen Lawrence is working for a small charity in Ecuador with staff who don’t speak English and have no money to spend on technology.

You have got to be able to hit the ground running, and effectively be productive from day one

Stephen Lawrence, IBM

In February this year, Stephen Lawrence flew to Ecuador, where his new workplace awaited him. The destination was Cuenca, the country’s third largest city, where he started work at SENDAS, a small non-government organisation (NGO) that runs health and human rights programmes for women.

SENDAS, he explains, is an entirely paper-based organisation. Its funding comes from overseas benefactors, mostly from European communities that provide grants to do gender-related human rights and environmental work.

It was a stark departure from IBM New Zealand, where Lawrence runs the business operations for global technology services, as well as work on special projects at IBM and with its corporate clients as the need arises.

Lawrence finds Cuenca fascinating, the historic city centre, founded in 1577, has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO.

“It’s a very different world to be operating in a small NGO with no budget or IT skills,” he says.

But Lawrence arrived in Cuenca by choice, having volunteered to be part of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps.

The programme, now running for 10 years, sees IBM staff join, small multi-disciplinary teams to work pro bono on community projects in emerging markets.

But they have to meet certain criteria, like performance rating, tenure, and previous experience of voluntary work. Lawrence’s volunteer work experience was in sports, where he served on the local tennis club committee and ran junior soccer teams.

It is a long process, he explains. “You don’t choose the country, you state your preference.” Volunteers can choose between Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Lawrence chose Latin America as he is interested in its history and culture.

Lawrence has also been learning to speak Spanish after reading research which suggests that after age 50, learning a new language or instrument could keep his brain active.

Lawrence applied for the programme and found out about the project in Ecuador last September before travelling to the country in February this year. He joined a group of 16 IBM staff from 11 countries. The group was split in four teams comprising four members each.

Prior to leaving for Ecuador, the team had weekly video calls, conducted between 1:00am and 2:00am due to the New Zealand time zone, which were focused on building high performance teams as well as cultural awareness.

“Not only were we going to a culture that was foreign to us, as individuals we are working with IBMers from different countries. You have got to be able to hit the ground running, and effectively be productive from day one,” he says.

“We were assigned to one of four projects. The teams were designed for a mix of skill sets, gender and culture background. There has to be one person with an engineering background and at least one person who spoke English as a first language. A translator also worked with us.”

Lawrence’s team members included a lawyer from India and two technical staff from Brazil and China.

Stephen Lawrence with the other IBM’er team members in Ecuador:  Vania Doria of Brazil,  Vikram Tiwari of India; and Lilian Wu of  China. On the background is an artwork they bought for their client SENDAS, featuring the national bird of Ecuador, the hummingbird (photo taken from Stephen's blog)
Stephen Lawrence with the other IBM’er team members in Ecuador: Vania Doria of Brazil, Vikram Tiwari of India; and Lilian Wu of China. On the background is an artwork they bought for their client SENDAS, featuring the national bird of Ecuador, the hummingbird (photo taken from Stephen's blog)

“We had no influence on which client we were going to be assigned to,” he says.

Before arriving in Ecuador, the team received a statement of the work they will be doing. It was prepared by Digital Opportunities Trust, a Canadian organisation that works in developing countries.

“As a team, we had to decide how to go about achieving their objectives for the NGO,” he says.

He says there were two specific business related issues SENDAS faced.

Firstly, with the organisation being paper-based, if a building burns down, they will lose their records. Secondly, is that they are competing with other NGOs for funding. These organisations are under increasing pressure to prove the value they are delivering to society with the funding that they receive.

Lawrence says the project ran over four weeks. The first week was allocated to validating the scope of the project and the fourth to finalising the presentation for the client.

“We only had the middle of two weeks to really do the work,” he says. “We have to be agile, make decisions quickly, get buy in and engagement with our client, and keep them engaged along the way, and very quickly.”

The NGO needed a database and recording system to digitise its data. Having advanced reporting capabilities would enable the organisation to demonstrate the value it delivers so it can better compete for funding, says Lawrence.

This will create a virtuous cycle, he says. “If they can report better and get more funding, then they do more projects to deliver value to society.”

The cityscape of Cuenca, Ecuador
The cityscape of Cuenca, Ecuador

The organisation is also small, with only six employees and no budget to spend on IT. One of its first assignments, the team had to find free open source solutions for the organisation. They found a database tool that was being used by several United Nations agencies, as well as a reporting tool.

One thing missing in the organisation was process documentation.

“Their business processes were stored in their heads and had to be documented,” says Lawrence.

To uncover this information, the team facilitated business process workshops and researched tools that could be used to better document work that was being undertaken at the organisation. They engaged software companies to provide continuous training and support as required for no cost.

He sees more long-term benefits from the digitisation of SENDAS’ data.

“SENDAS has many years of paper-based files that they ideally should put into the database and archived digitally,” he says. “They could then look at certain indicators in their business objectives such as how many women they have trained in human rights in the region over a certain period of time. This is the kind of thing they would be able to analyse.”

More than a month after his arrival in New Zealand, Lawrence says the experience has helped him in leading, building or being part of multicultural teams. “It has certainly evolved my agile skills, in working in a very fast-paced agile environment.”

Lawrence says the biggest highlight for him was when the team was presenting its recommendations to SENDAS and the feedback from the staff was: “This is a dream come true. You have solved a problem we had for so many years.”

Stephen Lawrence in Ecuador
Stephen Lawrence in Ecuador

That is the best professional feedback one can get, he says.

Lawrence suggests organisations that are wanting to undertake similar programmes need to research the culture and environment that they are getting into. This way, he says, organisations can build a proper relationship with the client.

“Don’t go away, do your work, then come at the end,” he says. “Make the client part of the solution, part of the outcome.”

He says these insights are not unique to the pro bono world; they also work in profit-driven enterprises.

Lawrence is now running a special interest group in IBM New Zealand and one of its focus is on developing initiatives to attract women to the company to increase the female proportion of staff over time.

“My experience in Ecuador broadened my mind around gender related topics, and made me far more aware and therefore far more supportive and an advocate for gender-related issues.”

A street vendor in Cuenca, Ecuador
A street vendor in Cuenca, Ecuador

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Tags strategychange managementcorporate social responsibilityCulturevolunteernot for profit cioEcuadorIBM New ZEalandGinni Romettylifelong learningnew collar jobscontinuous learningStephen Lawrencemulticultural teamsIBM Corporate Service Corpscross cultural teams

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