Names, networks count when working overseas

If, as a New Zealand consultant or developer, you hanker after work in exotic locations, you'd better at least have a good personal network behind you, if not a small company, says Nelson-based consultant Andrew Mason.

If, as a New Zealand consultant or developer, you hanker after work in exotic locations, you’d better at least have a good personal network behind you, if not a small company, says Nelson-based consultant Andrew Mason.

“A one-person band would have a battle to get themselves noticed.”

Mason, as part of small company BSA Consultants, is finishing up a project devising an IT and communications infrastructure for the Bank of Albania, and letting tender requests for a real-time gross settlement system (RTGS), which the bank will use to handle large payments to and receipts from other banks.

The linchpin in such contracts is the foreign aid being poured into countries like Albania that are coming out of political turmoil and being encouraged to move toward a democratic system. An IT specialist does not usually “just book into a hotel and pick up the Yellow Pages” in search of a contract directly with the people of the country concerned, Mason says. He admits to doing exactly that himself in Dubai many years ago, but he was working for well-known computer company ICL at the time.

Dealing through the World Bank or Asian Development Bank means you will be evaluated on your merits by someone with an international outlook, Mason says. The company or government of the country concerned, by contrast, is likely to say: “Why should we use you, from a country we’ve barely heard of, when we’ve got someone just down the road who says they’ll do it for us?”

In a banking context, BSA has the advantage of having as one of its partners Lachlan Fleming. Formerly with Databank, New Zealand’s groundbreaking multibank data services company (subsequently acquired by EDS), Fleming played a role in the redesign of New Zealand banks’ payment systems. He has also worked on a number of other significant banking projects around the world.

The international bodies tend not to go for the big consultancies, but they attach importance to the individuals who will do the job — they value a name they know. Mason tells the story of a deal in Vietnam gained provisionally and then lost because contract negotiations went on for so long that a valued member of the team became unavailable.

So the impact of Fleming’s reputation and his contacts help give an entrée. “But he had to work to get himself established [in overseas markets]. There’s a lot of opportunity out there, but you have to work hard for it.”

Through the reach of the internet, there are facilities for even a solo operator to promote his or her availability. Mason uses ProConsul, an online promotion service designed in New Zealand (and mentioned in Computerworld last year, see: Not everyone is anti-consultant). “I get a steady trickle of emails saying ‘we saw your name on ProConsul; would you be interested in this job?’”

Despite the impression of New Zealand among most potential customers as a small country a long way away, it does have a certain reputation as a pioneer for deregulation and government reform, he says. For example, we’re one of comparatively few countries with experience of accrual accounting in the public service. Our e-government efforts, whatever official surveys may say about them, are respected overseas, Mason says.

He hasn’t met any other New Zealand IT people in Albania, he says, but there is a network of Kiwis with IT skills around the world who like to travel, and will be available to bring specialist expertise to a contract in some out-of-the-way place.

Mason discounts the myth of being able to do business IT development from New Zealand online. Perhaps if you’re a narrowly-focused technical developer you might make it work, he says, but even Indian firms with hordes of code-cutters working from India consider it necessary to have someone in the client’s country who can talk face to face. It’s also an advantage to be able to view the physical layout of the system and tell the client that a network control console is not ideally placed in the computer room or on a random staffer’s desk.

Other than that, preparations include “the usual overseas things like health precautions and health insurance, and being secure in your own financial situation, so you can get out of the country quickly if necessary”. Professional indemnity insurance is a must, “so you don’t lose out through legal action if you really mess things up”.

Mason, immediate past-president of the NZ Computer Society, spent the longest period of his career working in several parts of the world for ICL, subsequently taken over by Fujitsu. He admits he has been used to travelling the world since childhood, following his father’s work. “I suppose that helps,” he says.

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