An interview with John Fredette from CSC Team Kenya 2

One of the things I wanted to do with this blog from the start is to tell not just my story but the stories of the people I encounter.  One of the ways I’ve been doing this is by interviewing some of the people who have already completed their CSC experience.

I’d like to introduce you to John Fredette, who works in Corporate Marketing.  John worked as part of Team Kenya 2, and has a great blog which you can see here.  I’d encourage you to take the time and pay it a visit; I really enjoyed reading his insights; he does a good job conveying how he connected with his team, his clients, and with Kenya in general.

Here is our conversation.  My questions are in plain text; John’s replies are in green.

How long have you worked at IBM, and what is your role?

I have worked at IBM for 15 years, and have been fortunate to have worked in many different roles, primarily in marketing communications. Currently, I work in Corporate Marketing on the global advertising team. In this area, I manage the US media team – which is responsible for the paid media strategy and execution for all our advertising – including television, print and digital.

What made you decide to apply for CSC?

I was very interested in the CSC from the first time I heard about the program. The idea of deploying with a diverse team and work in an emerging market is alluring to me – and coupled with my love of travel, this was an opportunity I did not want to pass up.

Was it hard to win the support of your management team, given that they would lose you for a month? How did you go about convincing them that this was a good idea?

They were very supportive, as they understood the opportunity presented – and the business/skills value that would come back with me as a result. That said, I did have to come up with a coverage and backup plan, and had a lot to catch up on when I returned to the office. It was well worth it, though!

Tell us about your deployment project. What was your team asked to accomplish?

There were 12 IBM’ers assigned to our group – and we were split up into 3 groups, working with different divisions within the Government of Kenya. My group was assigned to work with the national postal corporation – who, like many other postal entities around the globe, were suffering from declining revenues and an antiquated business model. Our task was to provide recommendations for improvement – from adding government services, to creating partnerships with banks, to organizational restructuring.

Were your day-to-day job skills of any use? Did you have to learn new skills?

It was interesting – I was the one true ‘marketing’ person on the Kenya team, so the majority of marketing & communications responsibilities were mine to own. From developing market research, to planning awareness initiatives, I brought my everyday skills to the table throughout the whole project. The challenge was the setting – you could not take the same tactics from a mature market like the U.S. and immediately apply them to an emerging market like Kenya. The principles remained the same, yet you had to be flexible in the approach.

What were your team’s finished results? How were those results received?

We ended up providing some very forthright recommendations to the client team. These involved not only new services and potential restructuring, but looking at a whole new strategy for how they operate. The team recognized the situation they were in, and were very receptive – and I’m pleased to since our deployment, they have rolled out many of the initiatives we recommended. There was some press about this recently, which can be seen here.

Article in Business Daily Africa

What was the most surprising thing that you learned from your CSC project?

Not really surprising – but I was amazed with the people of Kenya – from the government leaders to people on the street. Everyone was friendly, passionate about their country and eager to help us out in any way possible.

What was the single most rewarding experience?

Working with my amazing CSC team. We were 12 people from 9 countries, representing various backgrounds and skill sets. But once deployed, we immediately became a seamless team, working around the clock and each contributing our own unique skills. I keep in touch with all my team members today, and will always have a special bond with them.

Thank you John for taking the time to share some of your adventure with us.

John runs an active Twitter stream; I have frequently found his articles to be both interesting and useful.  You can follow him here.

The world at work: Jobs, pay, and skills for 3.5 billion people

Last month McKinsey released a report entitled: “The world at work: Jobs, pay, and skills for 3.5 billion people”. It looks at both global and regional job growth by education level, and maps those against regional population growth.  The patterns that come out need to be taken seriously.

  • 38 million to 40 million fewer workers with tertiary education (college or postgraduate degrees) than employers will need, or 13 percent of the demand for such workers
  • 45 million too few workers with secondary education in developing economies, or 15 percent of the demand for such workers
  • 90 million to 95 million more low-skill workers (those without college training in advanced economies or without even secondary education in developing economies) than employers will need, or 11 percent oversupply of such workers

So in short, there will be an enormous oversupply of unskilled workers and a similarly sized undersupply of highly edcucated workers, and both of these effects will be felt most keenly in developing economies.

Unemployment around the world will continue to grow, but there will be huge unmet demand for highly educated professionals in developing economies.  At the same time, those economies — with hordes of unemployed, and presumably angry, young adults — will be hotbeds of political instability.  Presumably the world will be a far more dangerous place then than now.

This raises a lot of questions in my mind.

  • How does a company like IBM need to set its strategic objectives to survive and thrive in what promises to be a highly chaotic work environment?
  • How does the Corporate Service Corps fit into such a strategy?
  • The report presents this evolution as inevitable.  Is it?  Are there any new, disruptive approaches that could stave off this impending gap?  I’m thinking in particular of disruptive education policies and the rise of freely available primary curricula along the lines of Kahn Academy; how can we leverage this kind of approach to make the size of the gap smaller?
  • Finally, and most importantly, what does this mean to me as a parent?  How do I advise my children as they decide how they want to shape their own lives, and help them plan their future?

None of these answers are particularly easy. But quixotic as it might be, I will have a go at it in the next post.

I strongly encourage you to read the article and download the full report, which provides additional detail on the regionalization of the issue.  You can find them here:

The world at work: Jobs, pay, and skills for 3.5 billion people

orld at work: Jobs, pay, and skills for 3.5 billion people

Meet the Digital Opportunity Trust

The job of facilitating the deployment of the IBM Corporate Service Corps each year is a daunting one.  Apart from the selection process, which I’ve already described, there are other major undertakings required to pull this off, such as

  • Training.  Many of the CSC participants do not have extensive world travel experience.  And while most of us have done some volunteer work on our own, community support is quite different from global development work.  So prior to our deployment we need to be trained and briefed on what to expect, how to behave, and on what will be asked of us.
  • Logistics.  Moving hundreds of people around the globe to a precise schedule is a non-trivial task.  Securing housing and living arrangements, dealing with visas and cross-country reporting and compliance rules are likewise significant tasks.
  • Local facilitation.  Once we arrive, we will be largely reliant on local support and knowledge for our day-to-day existence, for such basics as where to eat, laundry, medical care as needed, and also cultural guidance on the best way to engage with the people we are helping.
  • Most important of all, we are dependent on local service expertise to contact and build bridges with the communities and organizations we will be helping.

To help will all of these tasks, IBM works with a small number of NGO’s (non-government organizations) who specialize in programs like this.  The Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT), is one of the main NGO’s that IBM works with, and will be the facilitator for Team China 18’s deployment in Kunming.  To help ensure that I am successful in working with them, I went and did a little research on DOT.  Here are some of the things I found out…

  • DOT is based in Canada and was launched in 2002.
  • They are a major player. In addition to working with IBM, they help a number of other major enterprises with programs very similar to the Corporate Service Corps.  Some of their other clients include Cisco, Mastercard, and USAID.  They also work with Americorps, a domestic service organization in the USA, modeled on the Peace Corps.
  • As well as China, DOT have programs running in Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, UAE, and Turkey.
  • Facilitating corporate service is only part of what DOT does.  Their main operation is working with recent university graduates and providing the same sort of training, facilitation and logistical support to enable those students to serve internships in which they teach IT, business, and entrepreneurship skills to communities around  the world.

This is a very well-thought-out business model; I’m really impressed.  By using the revenue they earn from their corporate clients to fund internships and teaching programs, they are effectively taking the investments that IBM and similar companies are making in their own employees, and leveraging those investments across a far greater community of both teachers and students.

By combining their efforts this way, both programs are able to reach and positively impact the lives of far more people than either would do on its own.  Businesses need to evolve at an ever more rapid pace to stay competitive.  In the same fashion, service organizations need to evolve as the needs of the of the communities they support change and intensify.  This kind of integrated program design is exactly what we need.

I am really looking forward to meeting Frank, Marianne, Leslie, and the rest of the DOT China team.

IBM Corporate Service Corps – Terms and Conditions

Today I received a pair of emails from the CSC program leadership.

The first email was a request to complete a standard format CV/resume and cover letter. These will be sent to the NGO we will be working with in Kunming so they can figure out how best to make use of each of us and our respective skills.

The second email came with an attached Participant Agreement that I was to sign and return. The tone of this email was stern, almost admonishing.  It reminded us that the CSC experience begins now, and advised us that, if we felt we could not handle the demands the program would be placing on us, we should let the leadership team know as soon as possible so they could give our slot to someone else.

The participant agreement we are asked to sign and accept is a four page MS-Word document.  Here are some of the details…

  • There will be activity both before and after the deployment we will be expected to complete, including the development and delivery of a presentation about our engagement
  • During the three months leading up to the deployment, we will be introduced to our NGO (non-government organization) partners in Kunming, and to the actual work we will be expected to perform
  • Our team will be living together in shared lodging approximating that of normal Kunming citizens, rather than in the separate rooms in high-standard hotels that is the norm for IBM business travel.  The purpose is to get us closer in mindset to the people we are working with for, and also to add to the immersive nature of the experience, facilitating the close bonds that inevitably form when a team works together in close quarters over a tight schedule
  • We are expected to eat as locals, and our per diems will be sized in accordance with this. Also, we are reminded that the variety of choice we often take for granted as business travelers may not be there for many CSC locales.  Having lived in China before, this is not news to me, but some team members will never have been outside their home country before, so this is welcome advice I think
  • Our partner NGO will provide us with cell phones, but phone charges, internet, etc. are our own responsibility, with some provision being made within the per diem allowance
  • In addition to the NGO partner, there will be a local IBM manager who will work with us and advise us
  • We should not expect the standard business support provided by the IBM infrastructure, such as printing, high speed dedicated internet, etc.

I wonder if this admonishment was developed because the program may have had people who went in expecting something much more posh, luxurious, or vacation-like. This was certainly not my expectation.  In fact, in perusing some of the blogs other people have made, I would actually say that I was expecting accommodations to be even more sparse than they actually are.

At any rate, the intent here was clearly to drive home that the Corporate Service Corps is a serious commitment, not a summer vacation, and make sure we were up to the challenge…

What a shiny gauntlet someone seems to have thrown down at my feet.  I think I’ll take it up :-)

One final note.  This email was the first that was addressed specifically to my team, referred to officially as Team China 18, and it had everyone’s email.  A couple of people from the US, along with Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Italy, Germany, India, and Slovakia.  I’ve sent out an email to the rest of the team saying hello.  Can’t wait to meet them.

Welcome @ruthilicous #teamindonesia3

A warm welcome to Ruth dela Cruz from IBM Philippines, whose delightful blog Ruthilicious is my first exchanged blog link.

Ruth recently completed her service in the IBM Corporate Service Corps as part of Team Indonesia 3, and is now part of the CSC selection committee for the Philippines.

Soon Ruth will be sharing her experience on the island of Makassar with us.  Until then, pop on over to her place and say hi!



A final thought on the application process…

In just over two weeks I will be getting the first details about my assignment in Kunming.  I’m really looking forward to being introduced to my team mates and learning about what we will be asked to accomplish in our time there.  Between now and then there are a couple things I’d like to do on this blog.  I am setting up some conversations with people who have done CSC before, so I can share with you some of their insights and observations.  Also, some good friends of ours in the US have a daughter who grew up in Kunming.  Unusually, they did not adopt her as an infant, but at age 13.  She has since grown into an amazing woman, with all the force of character she had when my wife and I first met her.  I have asked if she would be willing to contribute her reminiscences, and hope to be able to share these with you soon

There is one last post I want to make about the application process though, and it centers on the subject of timing.  When I first heard about the CSC in 2008 I wanted to join right away.  But Nigel, my manager at IBM cautioned against it.  I can’t say that I really understood his reasoning at the time, but Nigel has given me some very good advice over the years (not all of which I’ve followed :-) ), and management support is a critical part of the acceptance process, so I decided to let the matter lie.

In retrospect, it was clear that Nigel was right. I had just returned from a long overseas engagement, and for me to ask immediately to be placed abroad again would not have created a positive impression.  In many ways I have struggled to find a home within the domestic UK practice in IBM. Fortunately the sheer size and diversity of IBM has allowed me to make a positive difference and perform well anyway, but I am acutely conscious of the need to make more of an impact in the UK than I have so far in my career.  Nigel has told me this directly many times over the years, but I’m thick and it took a while to percolate.  This year I returned to a role that is purely UK-focused and directly contributing to the UK practice, and when the invite for this year’s CSC came out, I realized it was the right time, and Nigel agreed.

So for those of you thinking of doing this or something like it, I offer you the benefit of hindsight.  Be brutally honest with yourself.  Is this the right time?  What impression will your desire to do this create with your management team?  If you think they will be upset or resentful, take a year to win their support.  Put yourself in their shoes and ask some hard questions.  To lose your services for a month comes at a cost to them; what benefit to they gain in return?  When you can answer that question in a convincing manner, you will be ready.


I received the following email today…

Congratulations!!! You’ve been assigned to the China 18 Team with an expected departure date of October 12, 2012.

The in-country portion of your CSC experience will run through November 10, 2012 and you will be based in Kunming. Additional details around your assignment location and CSC client will be developed as you process through the pre work phase in the twelve weeks preceding departure. Given your departure time your team will begin pre work ~ July 20, 2012.

Please confirm your acceptance of this assignment by Monday, July 9, 2012. You will need to discuss and receive approval from your manager to be away from your regular job from October 12 – November 10, 2012.

To accept or decline this assignment pleasereply directly to me.

If you have to decline this assignment for business or personal reasons we will do our best to assign you will most likely your assignment would be in 2013. However, the team assignment process is very detailed and it is not as simple as moving you around. We balance teams based on skills, tenure, gender, geographic preference and home country.

Once we have confirmed all this team’s participants, we will communicate with the full team about next steps to get started on pre work.

I have not been to China since I did a project in Beijing for the better part of 2006.  I knew that China was one of the places that CSC worked, but could not have expected that of all the locales I would get this one.

Kunming is in the south, in Yunnan province, nestled near the borders of Vietnam and Myanmar.  Yunnan is reputed to be fantastically beautiful; the amazing Stone Forest is there.

Machiavelli wrote in The Prince that it is better to deliver bad news all at once, but good news should be delivered in small portions over time to prolong the effect.  Seems to be working on me :-)

I will start researching Kunming and share what I discover.  Talk to you soon.

What it takes to be part of the Corporate Service Corps

IBM has about 420,000 employees worldwide.  The Corporate Service Corps has spaces for a few hundred each year.  So how do they choose who gets to participate in this amazing experience?

Well, first there are eligibility rules.

  • You have to have worked at IBM for at least two years.  If you work for a company that was recently acquired by IBM and the combined tenure was for more than 2 years, that still counts.
  • You cannot be an executive level employee.  There is a similar program specifically for executives to participate in.
  • You must have had a PBC 2+ rating in two of the past three years.  This is IBM’s metric for measuring performance; it uses the same mechanism worldwide, and operates on a scale of one to four, one being the best.  The specific mechanics can vary, but broadly speaking this requirement means you need to be in the top 30% of employees.

Next, your manager has to support your application.  This support has to be both passive and active.  When you submit your application your manager gets the first copy, and must indicate their approval, or the application will not be subject to consideration.  But beyond this, managers are also invited to comment on your suitability, and those comments form a key part of the selection process.  And remember that by agreeing to let you participate in the CSC, your manager has to live without your services for a month.  So presumably this will only happen if your manager is genuinely interested in your success above and beyond the degree to which you enable your manager’s success.  The upshot of all this is that having a good relationship with your manager is a critical success factor for participation in the program.

These requirements pare down the field of eligible candidates quite a bit, but with 420,000 employees, we are still talking about several thousand people interested in a few hundred positions.  To make these highly competitive selections, which are evaluated regionally.  Quoting from the selection FAQ:

There are 9 regional review boards comprised of leaders from Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs, Communications, Governmental Programs, HR, and various business line teams. Each review board has 4-8 core members who evaluate all the applications in their region. Reviews are blind where the individual’s name is blocked out to ensure fairness. The 9 regions are: Canada, US, Latin America, Europe, India, Japan, Asia Pacific, CEE and MEA.

So that explains who makes the selection, but how is it made?  What is the program looking for in its candidates?  Unsurprisingly, this is something a lot of people want more details on, and the CSC team put together a pdf file that explains what they are looking for. Just as the program itself is modeled on the US Peace Corps, the CSC has modeled its selection criteria on those of the Peace Corps, making adaptations for IBM’s objectives, skill set, and culture. What follows is the text from that publication:

What Makes a Successful CSC Participant?
There are many parallels between what makes a successful Corporate Service Corps participant and a successful Peace Corps Volunteer.  Below, we have taken the list of successful attributes of Peace Corps Volunteers and customized it to the CSC Program.

As a CSC participant, you will likely be placed in an environment very different than any you’ve experienced in your home country.  Letting go of expectations and being
flexible will assist you in handling whatever comes your way.  For example, participants live in cities, in hotels or apartments that are often different than traditional business accommodations.  There may be varying levels of access to electricity, internet and other resources.  Housing is safe but may be more basic than you are accustomed to.  Also, in many countries, the way you dress is seen as an expression of respect.  To be accepted, you may have to conform to the standards in your host country and community.

Having the ability to adjust to the many new and different situations you encounter as a CSC Participant allows you to be responsive to the client you serve.  You may be as exotic to your new community as your assignment environment is to you, and you will need to adapt to a much less private existence than you probably had back home.  Sometimes it may seem like you are living in a fishbowl.

As a CSC Participant, you are a vital part of a larger team assigned to your country.  Not only are you responsible for quality work, but you will be required to adhere to a structure designed to keep you safe and healthy.  For example, while a CSC Participant, you will not be able to drive a vehicle, travel or attend activities without notifying IBM security. There are reasons for the policies the CSC Leadership puts in place and following those policies is a must.
Sense of Humor:

Having the ability to laugh at yourself and at life’s little surprises goes a long way. Your service will be a continual learning process.  Keeping a lighthearted view will help you learn from your mistakes without judging yourself harshly.  Besides, laughter is universal.

You will need to work creatively to develop relationships with your clients and teammates. You will need to build trust and motivate various stakeholders. While this often takes time and not all the client assignments can be completed within the 4 weeks in country, you will come away knowing you made a difference and laid the ground work for ongoing relationships between your clients and IBM as well between you and your teammates.

Being selected as a CSC Participant means you have the technical experience and education needed by your host client.  The CSC strives to staff the teams with a diverse skill
base to include IT support, Project Management, and  Consulting skills, along with individuals with backgrounds in sales, marketing and human resources, just to name a few.  The CSC Program, through its 12 week pre-deployment modules, will additionally prepare
you by providing language, cross–cultural, and business specific training.  Continuing to hone these skills during your assignment will enable you to make a meaningful contribution to the clients you serve in country as well as back home in your regular IBM position.

So there it is then, the basics of how participants in the CSC are selected.  Next time I will share my own application with you, along with some of the thoughts and emotions that I went through in the process of applying.  In parallel, I have been reaching out to some people who have done the program before, and hope to be able to share some of their adventures with you soon.

Until then, take care.

The establishment of IBM Corporate Service Corps

So, let’s fast forward a bit to 2007.  On 25 July, IBM announced the creation of a “Global Citizens Portfolio”, a group of programs centered around enabling its employees to participate more broadly in their communities.  The Global Citizens Portfolio as initially announced had three programs:

  • Matching Accounts For Learning, a 50% match of expenses for any sort of training or education an employee decided to acquire.
  • Enhanced Transition Services, to identify job opportunities for employees within critically in-demand areas of government, non-profit, and educational organizations.
  • And of course, the IBM Corporate Service Corps itself.

This announcement was backed by a pledge of $60 million over the first three years; you can find a copy of the original announcement here.  As should be the case in any shareholder-owned enterprise, these programs were intelligently designed to ensure that they benefited not only IBM employees and the communities those employees chose to support, but IBM itself through the skills, passion, and empowerment those employees gain through the process.  So the energizing value of working to support a community may have been a revelation to me in 2002, but it clearly was not a secret to the IBM’ers who designed this program and rolled it out in 2007.

The key thing that differentiated CSC from other programs at the time was that the support being delivered was not generic infrastructure and development work, but IBM’s core expertise.  We would be advising people on the best ways to apply technology to solve real-world problems, which is exactly what most of us do in our professional lives.

In December of 2007, the Financial Times published a great article on the CSC’s pilot year.  Their website requests that I link to their site rather than paste their copyrighted material and cite the source, so I invite you to follow this link to learn more.

Next, I hope to be able to tell you the stories of some of the people who participated in CSC’s pilot year, and share how it has impacted their lives.  Until then, take care.


A rude awakening

I had intended to start this narrative with an account of how I came to apply for the Corporate Service Corps.  The application process was fascinating in and of itself, and the accounts of people who have been through the program already are inspiring; I shall certainly be sharing some of those stories with you as we go. But in thinking about how to start the tale of this adventure, I am discovering that it started long ago, well before I moved to the UK or joined IBM…

The right place to start, I think, is in early 2002. I was living in Singapore with my family when my employer laid off about 20% of their workforce, and I was amongst those let go.

It might surprise you to learn that once the initial shock wore off, I was not actually that worried. In fact I was fairly blasé about the whole thing. To those of us who started our career in Silicon Valley during the heady days of the dotcom bubble, a feeling of invincibility was hard to avoid.  The excesses of the time we took for granted, having known nothing else. I remember when I got the offer to join Siebel, somebody gave me a spreadsheet that illustrated how the stock options I received upon joining would be worth over $1.5M in just under five years.

It seemed to good to be true, which of course it was; those options eventually expired under water.  Yet my natural skepticism fought a losing battle with a  pervasive shared delusion of inevitable success — throughout the 1990’s in Silicon Valley, the only difficulty one encountered in job hunting was choosing between competing offers.  It was only several months after the layoff, when it became all too clear that spare jobs were not lying around like pebbles on the road waiting to be picked up, that it really started to sink in how much the world had changed.  Being a long time fan of history, I knew all along that the only thing truly inevitable about such booms is that they come to an end, and those endings are never pretty. But knowing it and experiencing it are entirely different.

Over the next few months, the denial wore off and the canonical stages of grief made their grand progress through the halls of my psyche.  Somewhere between bargaining and depression I started realizing that, job or no job, I needed to start doing something useful or things were only going to get worse. And ironically, it was only then, when my own personal fortunes were at their ebb, that the notion of doing something for others whose personal fortunes were far worse, first occurred to me.

With the proper impetus it didn’t take me long at all to find something useful to do. Within two weeks I had found a position; teaching computer skills at a center for the physically handicapped in northern Thailand.  Within four weeks, I was there.

It is perhaps trite to say that volunteer work is emotionally and spiritually enriching.  Certainly I expected that I would feel good about doing it.  But while I was fully prepared for it to be fulfilling, I was completely caught off guard by how transformational it was.  I’ll talk more about my experience there another time, but those four all-too-short weeks helped spark in me a sense of understanding and compassion that had somehow managed to elude me for the first 39 years of my life.

So it was that, when IBM first announced the Corporate Service Corps in 2007, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it.  In my next post I will talk about how and why it was established.

One final note. While I cannot draw any connection more direct than general karma between the two events, it is nevertheless true that less than a month after my return from Thailand, I found a job :-)

Talk to you soon.  Take care.

Hello world!

The first step in learning any programming or scripting language is to write a routine that outputs “Hello world!”.

Learning to be an interesting blogger is, I expect, going to be a far greater challenge.  Best to start with the basics.  I guess I am a traditionalist at heart.