No holiday in Cambodia

Michael Johnston is the expatriate group IT services manager of CamGSM, a mobile telco in Cambodia. When he's not coping with the traffic and the country's unruly weather he's working on a business case for providing dial-up internet over GSM to rural Cambodia.

Michael Johnston is the expatriate group IT services manager of CamGSM, a mobile telco in Cambodia. When he's not coping with the traffic and the country's unruly weather -- regular sweltering temperatures and eight months of drought followed by four months of deluge, making it a good thing that the company supplies Land Rovers -- he's working on a business case for providing dial-up internet over GSM to rural Cambodia. He took time out to answer a few questions.

Hands-on or hands-off management style?

This is Asia; in New Zealand you have a very black and white approach to things, it is either right or wrong. Here it can be right or kinda right, and rarely wrong. Something can be kind of working for months and then fall apart because it is not correct. So I guess hands-on. (Though this is changing -- like any developing country, logic is improving)

Best project you ever worked on?

The current one I am working on. We are working with EMC/Dell/Oracle to implement a storage area network, with a new call data record database. We are building the entire process from a blank piece of paper to a finished solution -- very hard work but most rewarding.

Best IT lesson you ever learnt?

Never assume anything. I remember Benny Hill say to assume makes an ass out of you and me.

One piece of advice for future employees?

In Cambodia, to try things that have never done before. Get out of your comfort zone.

One piece of advice for your CEO?

My CEO is great; a real visionary. I like a piece of advice that he gave me: do not let the tail wag the dog -- IT solutions should be a support for the business case, not the other way around. We are a very marketing-driven company. We hold around 70% market share of all the telco space, so getting to market quickly and effectively is important.

Proudest achievement?

Taking a Cambodian wireless ISP from $US100,000 per month to $US340,000 per month within 18 months, and expanding access from three cities to 11 -- including providing dial-up access to about 60% of the population.

Most embarrassing IT experience?

Pass. I am always stuffing up. Being ready to make mistakes and learning from them is important, only in Cambodia they end up being more obvious.

What was the most interesting event in the IT industry in the past year?

Intel Unwired Asia Conference: being able to talk on wireless access in a developing country.

Java or .Net?

It depends on which staff member I am dealing with. Personally I like Java as we are moving more toward a non-Windows environment, but Cambodians are taking to Microsoft a lot more -- especially since you can buy a full version of .Net development tools for $US2 at the market.

Thin clients or thick?

We are starting trials shortly on thin clients for our helpdesk and customer service department within the next month or so, so on this one the jury is still out.

Sweetest hack?

With two of my engineers, the competition's VoIP gateway, when we had a configuration issue with ours.

Coffee or Coke?

Both. Used to be Coke, but nothing can beat good Vietnamese coffee.

How many hours typically do you work a week?

Eight- or nine-hour days, five or six days per week. The best thing about Cambodia is that everyone goes home for a sleep at lunch time, so two-hour lunch breaks are the norm. This has been the best thing for my fitness, as the gym for two hours a day is a welcome relief.

Do you consider yourself reasonably paid?

Reasonably well paid. You have to take into account that the cost of living in Cambodia is low. We would have nothing like it in New Zealand. We have a large villa, a couple of cars, a housekeeper.

Would you prefer to work for public or private sector?

Private. Corporate can be a pain sometimes, but we have a lot of autonomy here, so it is great.

Ideal job, inside or outside of IT?

Retirement on the beach at Penang, Koh Samui or Kampong Som. No, in reality I am enjoying where I am at the moment.

What do you regularly read for work?

As many computer-based websites and reports as I can get hold of. We cannot go down the road a buy the latest copy of PC World, because in Cambodia it is hard to get or to expensive. Especially suppliers' websites, like EMC, Borderware, Microsoft.

What do you read for pleasure?

First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. Best book to read about dealing with Asian culture -- work, pleasure, staff, family are so interconnected.

Other interests?

In Cambodia, going to the beach or travelling. We have been to Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore in the last year. Treadmill running watching BBC World. In New Zealand, sailing, skiing, hiking, being outdoors. The only problem in Asia it is a little to hot to be outside, and I am still to find snow in SE Asia.

Would you encourage your children to go into IT?

With one daughter interested in Barbie dolls and the other in NeoPets on the internet ... living in Asia I want my kids to grow up with a well-rounded view on life, not the typical view that the world revolves around Kiwi culture and the planet falls apart at the end of the Bombay Hills. I will encourage them to do whatever they want.

What you have you learned from your local staff?


What have they learned from you?

Patience. My Khmer language sucks. To be challenged: to do things that they thought they could not do.

What's different about your current environment compared to your last job in New Zealand?

More scope for development; a larger project and in some ways great risk -- there is no backstop here. We are still in a country which it costs $US200 to have someone shot, so there is no room to stuff up.

What do you enjoy most about your job? Least?

Most: the challenge. I enjoy being pushed. Less: the challenge. You have to be incredibly creative to get round problems that are not typical. I think that typical Kiwi pioneering nature kicks in; duct tape and number 8 wireless can fix anything.

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