Sunday, November 28, 2010

Watoto Choir

Several Fridays ago, I attended a concert by the Watoto Children's Choir. Quite an amazing experience, I must say. They come from the Watoto program in Uganda. All of the children in the choir (approximately ages 9-17) were formerly abducted to be child soldiers in the LRA. What heartbreaking stories they had to tell... However, they all had wonderful songs to share as well! Rich, tight harmonies, pounding rhythms, and joyful dancing. Talk about FUN! They did two concerts in a row, and I almost stayed for the second concert just to hear them sing again.

Instead of preaching the usual salvation message, these children presented the gospel through forgiveness. Although they had all been child soldiers and experienced horrors beyond imagination, they all stepped forward and said, "I forgive..." and then proceeded to say exactly who they forgave. For most, it was the army leaders who had ripped them from their homes, killed their family members, and forced them to commit brutalities against their will. To most of us, the thought of forgiving people like that would be almost inconceivable, and yet these children proclaim that the power of Jesus Christ and His forgiveness allows them to forgive others. I found their approach very relevant and meaningful - much better than some other touring choirs or shows that I've seen.

For more on the Watoto project and all that they do for former child soldiers, desolate women, abandoned children, and others needing rehabilitation, check out their website here. I would really encourage you to look around - there is a much bigger world out there than we realize sometimes...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

New Product Introduction

One of the modules I am in is called Management of Technology. This module focuses on bringing a new technology to market and includes all aspects of the process: manufacturing the product,  gaining the most benefit from the product, protecting the technology from competitors, and everything in between. The lecturer is superb, and his class is my most well-spent two academic hours in the entire week.

Last week, we had a guest lecturer speak on New Product Introduction, and this week we had a workshop to drive the point home. Hoo boy. Ever since I went through the entrepreneurship section of Intro to Engineering at my undergraduate uni, I have had a revulsion to activities such as making airplanes out of  a random assortment of materials (i.e. post-it notes, tootsie rolls, toothpicks, mentos, paper clips, etc). In fact, I generally dislike any activity that bears any resemblance to "here, be creative with materials from an overturned kitchen drawer and build something in a limited amount of time!!" However, hands-on activities tend to teach valuable lessons, so I have been learning to put aside my fear and jump in.

Tonight's project was to design, build, cost, market, and sell a self-parking car. In 2 hours. One main director, one project manager, three R&D people, two marketers, two finance people, and a manufacturer on a team. I chose to be on the marketing team (don't ask me why - I still don't really know). Information became a premium very quickly, with comments and questions flying every which way:

"Okay, so what kind of a car are we going to build?"

"Um, I'm not sure. What kind of market are we targeting?"
"I guess we can go either sporty, rich or cheap, lower-class. But I don't know which one is better."

"Okay, well maybe we should set how much is the car going to cost first."

"We don't know that until we know what kind of car we have the technology to build, which depends on R&D. How much can we afford to have the car cost?"

"I don't know until I know how many cars we are planning sell. Do we know that?"

" No clue."

Round and round the questions went, until it became pretty clear that some market research was needed to point us in the right direction. So we shoveled out some cash and were rewarded with a yellow, laminated piece of paper with buyer preferences. Ha ha! NOW we can get somewhere!!! Onward!

The company name we came up with was Urbana Inc, with the slogan Move Smarter. Also, the car name was Moveo (pronounced Mo-VAY-o), with the catchphrase Perfect Positioning. Our main team lead did an awesome job keeping us all on track and gave a wonderful sales presentation at the end. He also acted very professionally, interfacing quickly and efficiently between his subgroups like the project was the real deal. At one point he had a question for the R&D people who were furiously adding and removing legos from the car and jiggling wires, and I heard him say in a very commanding yet respectful way, "gentlemen, please, just a moment of your time." I would work with him any day.

In the end, the other marketing person and I decided not to buy the final piece of market research that actually had a critical piece of information in it: what market would buy the majority of cars in the first year. In order for distributors to buy your car at the Geneva Convention, you have to market to what they need right now. We accidentally did the opposite because we didn't think we needed the information even though our finance team had budgeted for it. Our car would have been good for the long term market, but we didn't make many immediate sales. Oops...

In the end, many valuable lessons learned. Communication is key - I loved having everyone working in the same room. What features you need depends on what your market is, and how much things are going to cost depends on what features you put on it. Also, if you're targeting to sell at a low price, you have to make sure that your design team is not putting on extra frills, and you have to know what your costs are to set a selling price. You also need to know projected sales to calculate the best manufacturing plan, which then dictates cost, and so on and so forth. Very complicated, but having immediate access to everyone involved in the project was extremely helpful.

Once again, hours well spent. My time is never wasted in that class, and I look forward to hearing feedback from the professors and my classmates next week.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Nigerian Oil

My apologies for the lapse in updates. Much has gone on since I last wrote, so I won't even try to summarize but will instead pick up where life is at the moment. Past details will probably fill themselves over time.

Cambridge University (CU) prides itself on being very knowledgeable. As a student, I reap the benefits of the fact that CU likes to share that knowledge...a lot. Everywhere I turn, there is another seminar series. Departments, societies, and colleges bring in experts, professors, and industry professionals from all over to speak on every topic under the sun. I regularly attend the weekly seminar series in the Department of Chemical Engineering, partly for the outstanding snacks held beforehand (with tea, of course). I'm telling you, these people know how to make sweets - ahem - "confectioneries," as they are called over here.

Last Friday night, I bumped into my housemate Teresa and ended up at a panel discussion revolving around Shell's oil activities in the Nigeria Delta. I heard "Shell," and "drilling," and thought it would be a technical discussion. Think again! Instead, I got a crash course in Nigerian politics, society, and community behavior, all relating to oil. Talk about an eye-opener...

Apparently, the Niger Delta is very rich in oil. Currently, there a few energy companies producing oil, including Shell. The Nigerian government takes 95% of Shell's profits, which makes the government officials very, very rich and gives them quite a bit of control over what Shell can and cannot do in that area. In fact, the output pipe from a Shell refinery is sometimes diverted to another tanker for a while "off the books," so that someone in government can pay off a loan or return a favor. Also, people will steal oil straight from transportation pipes that run above ground by simply breaking into them. This is a problem.

Also, if an energy company wishes to build new pipes or use land where people are living, they used to approach one community (the "host community") and make a contract. The community let the energy company use the land or whatever, and the community got money for a new school or something. However, neighboring communities would get jealous and then go burn the host community to the ground. So that was also a problem. In addition, the new school would sometimes get contracted to someone's brother or uncle, and the money would walk off. This is still a problem.

There were four people on the panel: a Shell employee (hereafter referred to as Jack), a moderator, someone obviously community-development oriented (hereafter referred to as Joe), and one other participant. Jack stood up and spoke for about 10 minutes about the complex nature of the situation in Nigeria, several lessons that Shell had learned over the years (including the lesson that Shell is not very good at learning), and ended by admitting that the situation was far from fixed but progress was happening. Joe stood up and proclaimed that the culture of corruption in Nigeria was very, very bad, that Shell's efforts thus far were not sufficient and that Shell could do more in spite of their "excuses." Jack would then point out the steps Shell had been taking in an attempt to improve the situation, and Joe would call it insufficient, direct his criticisms of Shell as a whole at Jack, treat Jack somewhat like a child who needed reprimanding, and propose that real change was only possible if the whole political system was broken and rebuilt. Oh yes, and occasionally mention that since Shell has tons and tons of money, why wasn't it spending more on this effort? And so it proceeded for the entire night. Notably, never once did Jack take a swipe at Joe.

What did I learn from all this? Well, a couple things jumped out.

1) The world is very, very complex. Particularly when you add people into the equation. At one point, Jack said, "Shell hires mainly engineers. We are very good at what we do, we have amazing technical expertise, and we know how to drill for and produce oil. We expect that when we do A, we will get B. That every time we do A, we will get the same result. However, that is not true in social situations and Nigerian communities."

His point was that Shell employees are sometimes ill-equipped to manage political relations in Nigeria because of their mindset about actions and consequences. I spoke to him afterwards about this particular quote of his, and he and I agreed that being an engineer and being a liaison or company representative in political relations require two completely different mindsets. In engineering, if you cannot trust that doing A will produce B, you're screwed. Reliable technology is built on the assumption that things will happen the same way every time. Take that trust away, and you have no foundation to stand on. That is why it is sometimes so difficult for engineers to understand how people work.

However, the talk reminded me how important social relations are, because they dictate the use of technology long after the technology is on the ground.

2) Having a Nigerian or two on the panel is a good idea. There were at least three native Nigerians in the audience, all with respectable positions and vocations. The third panelist spoke for about 10 minutes after Jack and Joe, painting a very grim picture of future Nigeria if current political currents cause an explosion and fracture the country (particularly if the North and South become at odds). In the Q&A session, all three Nigerians actively refused this hypothesis and demonstrated that the supposed North/South divide was not as important as the panelist thought. One of them said, "I am sitting here next to my friend, and he is from the South and I am from the North. We are getting along fine - Nigeria will not split as you say." Another stood up on his soap box for a good five minutes, proclaiming what he thought very vehemently, saying, "Shell needs to earn the trust of the people. If the people trust that Shell is working for their good, they will stand up and FIGHT to protect Shell's assets in Nigeria!"

Look out, the Nigerians are in the house!!!

3) Working in developing countries is very different than working in developed countries. People don't always behave decently and people are motivated differently. Also, working in a system where a small group of elites rule the majority of the population and own all the wealth is extremely difficult when you're used to an American or UK system.

4) Don't criticize unless you have a solution, or will admit that you don't have a solution. Criticizing just for the sake of pointing out how awful the other person's efforts or ideas are is not helpful unless you can offer a better alternative.

5) Money does not solve all the world's problems. Just because Shell has quite a bit of money does not mean that they can magically solve problems, nor even that they should be required to solve problems. They are a business, just like Apple or UPS is. They (or their shareholders) should be able to decide what they do with their own money.

So there you go: my synopsis of the evening (albeit a rather skewed one I'm sure). I am very glad I joined Teresa and expanded my horizons, and hope to continue doing so.