Saturday, 29 June 2013

Maintenance and Repairs

We replaced a rotten plank today. It had been deterioating since last year's rainy season which produced a mini flood in our office. The water had seeped in through our back wall and, was under the wooden floor. It messed with our electric wiring as well. We finally replaced it during this year's rainy season, whichas been fairly mild to date. Since we reinforced the back wall, we have not had more water issues in our floors. 

Next target will be to repaint the ceiling which is sporting some ugly water stains thanks to a leaking bathroom upstairs. 

As you can appreciate, the cost of maintenance and repairs have to be borne by tenants and not landlords in Liberia. 

Friday, 28 June 2013

Migrating to QuickBooks

Contributed by Farzana Rasheed

The Liberia Expats Group can be a useful resource. 

I posted a message to announce we were looking for a Quick Books trainer on 18 June:

NATC is looking for a short-term consultant to train our administration/finance staff (1 person) in the use of QuickBooks and to help us to migrate to QuickBooks. The duration of this training and migration should be 1 month. 

I got a few random responses, including a couple from some local companies: International Institute of Computer Studies and 3B PROMOTION GROUP. I asked both of them to send proposals but to this day, I haven't heard back. 

Feeling frustrated yet again with this Group's irrelevance, I got a call from a fellow who explained that his wife was a QuickBooks expert. We set up a meeting with the wife who turns out to be a smart young girl, an MBA in Finance from Pune University, India. The discussion went well and, we have already started the training.

The trainer was a bit surprised that we were investing time and resources in training our local staff but, I explained to her that we do things slightly differently than the majority of Indian and Lebanese businesses here. In other words, our local staff have key positions and responsibilities at our company. 

I am quite excited about switching to QuickBooks. The objective is to migrate 3 years of data so we can a have solid record, to start using the new software for accounting, to use the software to create documents such as invoices and receipts (we are now doing it manually), and to start analysing our books, so to speak! 

Why are doing manual accounting, you might ask? Well, the software that was originally being used by NLTC, our predecessor, crashed and, we could not find an original copy. 

We also initiated an in kind relationship (a swap for IT support with Accounting services) with an accounting firm but it never materialised. It was quite frustrating since we thought we were dealing with a professional entity. 

Six months into the year, I am glad I am finally able to attack this target of migrating to an accounting software. I am also looking forward to seeing our staff benefiting from this training. 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

A chat with Tauseef

Contributed by Farzana Rasheed/Tauseef Ahmad

Tauseef, our new Hardware Expert, has completed 2 months with us. We asked him a few questions: 

Q. How is Pakistan different from Liberia? Weather? Day to day living? Were you pleasantly surprised or shocked?

The biggest challenge for me thus far has been language. I am still trying to understand Liberian English. It seems people 'shorten' the words which confuses me. 

I feel lucky to have come to work in  Liberia when there are electricity problems back home. In the summertime, it gets very hot and unbearable. 

I was shocked to experience petty bribing when I landed at the Roberts International Airport. I had no idea that it also exist outside of Pakistan! 

Q. How is IT different from Pakistan here in Liberia?

IT is definitely more advanced in Pakistan. Since I mainly deal in hardware, I have noticed that more Multi Function printers are used in Liberia than in Pakistan. 

Q. What were you doing in Pakistan? Were you working for a similar company or a different job? How is your everyday work different?

I was doing a day job as well as managing my own workshop in my city of Rabwah. In the mornings, I used to work as a hardware engineer in a community office from 8 AM to 2 PM. From 5 to 9 PM I used to work from my own workshop where I was repairing motherboards, doing toner re-fills, and repairing laptops. 

I like to learn every day and sort out different kind of hardware issues.  

Q. Are you able to diagnose and repair hardware like back in Pakistan? Is it easy to find parts? Is it easy to diagnose problems?

We do not have an extensive parts market as we do back home. I was always able to get parts from bigger cities such as Lahore or Faisalabad for repairs but in Liberia, the options are limited. We often end up importing parts from the USA which consumes times. In my 2 months' experience, I see that the main chips are damaged/faulty which cannot be resolved without an automatic heat station. 

I am working on equipping the NATC lab with better diagnostics and repair tools. I am also planning on stocking chips. 

Q. Are electricity issues the same?

We also have electricity shortages in Pakistan but do not have power surges like we do here in Liberia which can damage electronics. 

Q. Is your trouble shooting the same? Do you go through the same diagnostics steps to analyses problems or do you now have to add some other issues?

Yes the diagnosing and repair procedures are the same. I did add some new ideas and diagnostic methods because in Liberia we have big printers troubleshooting. 

Q. Do you enjoy working with your Liberian colleagues?

Yes I am enjoy working with my colleagues. They all are friendly and very good people I met with here in NATC. I am struggling with language issues but am trying to learn Liberian English as quickly as I can!

Q. What do you hope for in your new job at NATC?

To learn as much as I can. 

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

How we got LEC back

Contributed by Patience and Farzana

NATC had its LEC connection restored after nearly 2 months. I asked Patience, our Admin/Finance officer to summarise what she went through to get our connection back on. 

The following is a record of the bureaucracy we faced in our efforts to resolve our electricity problems:

1) Our meter got burnt/faulty.
2) Patience went to the LEC and verbally complained at the New Service Department who referred her to the Customer Service Department.
3) Patience was asked to write a letter of complaint. Patience wrote a "3-in-1 letter" to inform LEC about the damaged meter, to request a 3-phase meter, and to retrieve the credit that was lost in the damaged meter. The letter was submitted and filed. 
4) Patience was explained that the letter had to be taken to the Customer Services Manager for approval as well as the New Services Department for filing and approval. 
5) After this, she had to fill out for a form in the Commerce Department to describe the problem. 
6) It was back to the New Services Department after that for another signature. 

Patience says the departments were extremely difficult to deal with  and, if one did not follow up, documents would be "lost." Also, she had to go back to the LEC almost every day to inquire on the status of our application. She would be told the approval had not come or technicians were on the "field." Or, the relevant person she had to meet would not be in the office, out for lunch, or busy with our customers. 

The matter was further compounded because our meter was actually not in our name. When we moved to this office about a year ago, the LEC was not giving out new connections. We bought a meter from someone in Sinkor. The fellow who did it for us was an LEC technician but it was done under the table. Since the meter was burnt and the LEC office realised that this meter was not in NATC's name, they took even longer to process our complaint. 

Patience says, "If you want your work to be done faster and quicker you will have to do the other way around to get your done on time." 

It was a relief to get the connection back. We were spending US $ 50.00 every day on re-fueling the generator. Not to mention that it was a strain on the generator to be on 6 days a week with some days running for 14 hours or more. We also had to regularly maintain and service the generator which cost us US $ 100.00 every month. In total we were spending about $ 1,300.00 on electricity. 

With the LEC pre-paid meter we get 180 units per US $ 100.00. We are consuming  roughly 50 units a day, that works out to 0.55c per unit x 50 units = $27.77 per day x 30 days = $833.00 per month. It is definitely cheaper than the generator. 

Patience is still working on retrieving the credit that was in the burnt meter and getting it transferred to the new one. She has been making rounds between the Finance and Technical Departments. She even went to the Bushrod Island office to make a follow up with the department that repairs faulty meters. 

It has been a nerve racking experience. 

Friday, 14 June 2013

New product: a VOIP Box

By Haresh Karamchandani

NATC is introducing a new product to its clients: a VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) box. 

We recently entered into a contract with our ISP, Skyvision UK for VOIP Telephone systems. They sent us the VOIP boxes free of charge and we had to connect the box to our Internet LAN and connect an ordinary Panasonic Phone to the Box. The configuration was done by our technician and voila! For a flat fee per month, we can make and receive calls free. 

Now we can make and receive free calls to the USA and UK. Receiving is also free because we have a US and a UK telephone number dedicated to  the box. We can also add these numbers to our Visiting Cards! Cool!

The best thing is that we had a choice to allocate a number from any country in the world. (A few restrictions apply, as usual).

This means a serious reduction in our Lonestar telephone bill.

Monday, 10 June 2013

A Note from the CEO's Desk

By Farzana Rasheed

The past few weeks have been quite challenging and stressful but also exciting and promising. Is that possible? Yes it is when you are trying to run a business and, a business in Liberia no less! 

Strengthening our team

We recently hired two expatriates in a burst of enthusiasm in a single month and unfortunately, only one hire was successful. It was a set back back since we spent a considerable sum of funds to hire the person and, even more importantly, had introduced this new staff to all our clients. We had to send the fellow back to the country of origin and, inform all our clients of our decision. It was a bit embarrassing since it all happened within a month's time. One minute, we were excitedly introducing our new guy as the Head of IT services and the next, telling everyone, he failed his probation! Luckily, our clients were understanding and, no sarcastic remarks were made! At least not to my knowledge. 

Nevertheless, the other hire, a hardware expert, has proved to be a success. Our on-site maintenance services have improved significantly. We are conducting much more professional and comprehensive maintenance of our clients' hardware. Also, faulty equipments are being diagnosed and repaired in our workshop. We are now able to repair damaged motherboards instead of having to replace them entirely. 

My own Macbook Pro's power cable got damaged and, Tauseef repaired it in a jiffy. I sighed in relief since otherwise I would have to pay double the price to replace it in Monrovia. 

Our workshop has been re-organised, re-ordered and is finally looking like one! 

Our junior staff is also seemingly flourishing under the tutelage of a qualified and experience hardware expert. In fact, Tauseef is drafting a training plan for our trainees which will introduce the boys to all the major topics. This will give them a firm theoretical foundation and, boost their confidence on site. 

So, even though I have been unsuccessful in hiring an expatriate network engineer to improve my network/internet/connectivity/security services on site and, to manage the whole show, I somehow feel the team as a whole is coming together. Staff is often working late at night without us asking them to. They want to get pending jobs done! No more leaving it to tomorrow. And, it feels like there's finally a system in place and, things get done as they should. 

My senior IT staff, Jonathan, who still remains the head of IT and our network engineer has also come a long way. Jonathan is producing more accurate and technical reports, shares his plans, and is much more pro-active. I think he finally gets what I really want from him. 

I peeked at his desk and was happy to see he was preparing some training materials for our staff. 

During a recent weekly staff meeting, I felt that our team was focused, enthusiastic and optimistic. We were all on the same page. I have not felt so good about my team as a whole in quite a long time. That made my day!

So, I will still keep my eye out for an expatriate network engineer so I can take NATC to the next level but meanwhile, will continue to lead the team and, try to get the best out of them. 

Are we making money?

This critical question has really been put to the test in the past few weeks. Our expenses have shot up with the hiring of an expatriate staff and there are much higher operating costs. We are spending more than $ 500.00 per week on electricity alone! 

We are also providing round the clock services to our clients and, in turn, we have not been able to negotiate higher fees. It is going to be my target to reverse this! 

Our supply side of the business - chasing public bids, fulfilling complex supply orders and so on - is expanding and, our hands are literally full! However, in order to execute the supply orders, we have had to seek finance from our bank at a stiff interest rate. We are getting better and better in improving our delivery time but certain factors such as delays in air shipments and/or the client taking forever to pay us has choked our cash flow situation. 

Putting all this together, it has seriously been a challenging few weeks!

End Note

It is perfectly normal to feel a little stressed out at this critical phase of our company history. We are growing, seeking more business, borrowing money, and hiring more people! It is this critical hurdle we must jump and, land on our feet.  

Lastly, I enjoy bringing my daughter to work every day and, feel grateful that I can. Our staff help me out by holding her, playing with her and baby sitting her if I am in a meeting. I am able to pretty much work at the same level as before and, feel content and productive.