Feature

Leaving the rat race

In 1999, software developer John Grady joined the VSO and followed his conscience to Ethiopia. Here he tells Roisin Woolnough why he swapped a £50,000 IT job for the heat of Africa.

A couple of years ago, John Grady was developing software for a Swiss financial company and earning good money for it. "I lived in Zurich for two and a half years, working as a C++ computer programmer, programming software to do automated trading of stocks, options and futures on the German and Swiss stock markets. It was very cutting-edge work," he says, "writing algorithms to price options, designing the front-end software and setting up and administering the systems."

The only problem was that Grady couldn't reconcile himself to the £50,000 salary he was earning, or the industry that was paying him. "Although from an intellectual point of view the work was very challenging and dynamic, I wasn't really happy working in finance," he explains.

"I was earning bucket-loads for myself and for the investors in the company, but wasn't producing anything worthwhile, just oiling the wheels of capitalism. I suppose that because my job was so extreme, in terms of remuneration and its pure capitalist nature, I really felt I should move to the other extreme and try to balance things out.

"So, one morning I handed in my resignation and applied to VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas)."

In September 1999, Grady flew out to Ethiopia to work for the Oromia Regional Education Bureau, in the capital Addis Ababa. During his two-year placement, Grady's official task is to improve structurally the organisation and provision of IT facilities.

Grady says the database used by the bureau to monitor the education programme needs particular attention. "A major part of my work is a redesign of the databases and then to design a course to train the staff in the bureau to use them effectively. At the moment, we use a database provided by the Ministry of Education, written around an Access database. But we need to expand that and create our own database to store all the information we need."

Whatever he does, Grady invariably finds that there are several elements to the work and that the responsibility to find a solution rests with him. Like most VSO volunteers, he has found that the scope of his work goes far beyond his official duties. "Although it is not specifically part of my job description, I am doing a lot of installation and configuration of the hardware. There is no-one else to do it, except by bringing in external contractors, which is very expensive.

"They are also keen to set up a network to share the data in the central office where I work and also with the zonal offices. There are 12 zones in Oromia, so this would involve purchasing and installing modems in each of the offices and configuring the system. Basically, the skills I need are wide ranging: programming, hardware configuration, network installation and administration and so on."

This is all part of the challenge of VSO: finding out what needs to be done and how to achieve it and then making sure other people understand the system so that it can still be used once the placement is over. Training local people to use IT equipment is of extreme importance and Grady has had to devise all sorts of training programs to pass on his skills and knowledge.

The skills he thinks are most necessary are basic computer maintenance and troubleshooting, for example, how to install computers and printers, how to install and update software, how to isolate and solve problems and the importance of anti-virus software. He wants to train a couple of people to manage all the computers in the bureau and someone else to administer and maintain the network once it has been installed.

Finding people who want to learn about IT is easy. "People here are enormously keen to learn IT," says Grady. "When I tell anyone that I'm a computer specialist, their eyes inevitably light up and they grill me to see if I can help them to learn how to use computers.

"There are quite a few computer training centres here - I've seen 10 or 20 at least - but it's only the richer part of the population that can afford to train there."

Once people have learned some IT skills, their earning capacity increases dramatically, which is why so many individuals are keen to train. "Compared to most professions, computer professionals can earn several times a normal salary," continues Grady. "In large towns, and here in Addis Ababa particularly, you can earn a relative fortune if you have good IT skills, which very few people here possess."

Grady himself, is now on a salary of 950 birr (£76) a month, paid by the VSO. That amounts to about £900 a year. That may be a pittance compared to earnings in the West - and to Grady's previous salary - but he is not complaining. "Although the financial remuneration is little more than insignificant, the job satisfaction is immense. Having skills that people value is quite a reward in itself."

When his two years is up, Grady is unsure what he will do next. "I find it hard to imagine going back to Europe and settling into a career. I might go into the teaching profession, maybe at home, maybe here or maybe somewhere else far away. One of the reasons I came to do VSO was that I was uninterested in working in the commercial IT sector at home and that hasn't changed."

Whatever he chooses to do, Grady says he has gained a lot from his experiences in Oromia.

"I have learned to be resourceful, finding ways around problems that could be solved with a bit of cash at home. The job has also taught me a lot in terms of being assertive and having faith in my own opinions.

"One of the big problems here is working with bureaucracy; it is an institution and everyone seems to revel in it. For the first three months or so, I kept very quiet, not wanting to stick my oar in and appear an interfering, arrogant Westerner. Now that I've earned the trust of most my colleagues, I'm actually surprising myself with my self-confidence."

www.vso.org.uk


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This was first published in February 2001

 

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