15th March 2016
Today is my last day at MTN Uganda. I joined the company on the 1st of May 2005. That means I’ve been working there for 3971 days. And boy – what a great time it’s been! As a tech nerd, it’s been a wonderful time working with and using cutting edge technologies. As a normal human being, it’s been a hugely enriching time interacting with wonderful people on a daily basis. And as a Ugandan living in these times, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity of gainful employment that I’ve enjoyed for 10+ years. Now that I’m moving on, it is time for reflection and memories… This will be LONG!
Before it all
From an early age, I knew I wanted to become an engineer. I was that kid that simply couldn’t get enough of trying to understand how things work and who simply wouldn’t stop tinkering with everything I came across. Everything that had a screw or two in them that is. My lifelong obsession with cars started very early in life and eventually expanded to nearly all complex mechanical objects. At school (O-Level), the only subject I truly loved was Physics. I used to always carry an Abbott to class for preps even when I’d intended to revise something else – just in case I got bored. For my A-Level, I elected to do PCM (Physics, Chemistry, Math) along with Art for the obligatory (then) fourth principal subject. However, I wasn’t too sure which branch of engineering I wanted to join. I was torn between Mechanical and Electrical; the former because all the things I was fascinated by were largely mechanical in nature (cars, airplanes etc) and the latter because I had by then fallen in love with electronics and I knew electrical engineering was the route to specialized knowledge in that area. At around this time though, we got introduced to computers at school and I got to see that the only way I’d get to understand these incredible machines was by opting for Electrical. There was however a small problem – my parents, especially my dad, wanted me to do either Architecture or at least Civil Engineering (as a second option). Luckily enough, they were not present when I cast my choices at school and so I defied… (Note: Defiance was not such a dirty word then).
Note – I did my A-Level exams at the end of 1998. A certain cellular network company launched their services in October – a month before we sat our exams. I didn’t really think much about this since all I was focused on was passing my exams well enough to qualify for a government scholarship. Older readers will remember that we were the first lot of candidates that did their A-Levels at the end of the calendar year so we basically did just 5 terms of study instead of the usual 6. To mess us up further, 1998 was a World Cup year :-). Who can ever forget those Zidane headers?
Luckily enough, I did qualify for my chosen course. However, everything almost got derailed when my parents, bless them, realized my grades were good enough for Architecture or Civil Engineering (my fresher year was the very first time the cutoff criteria for EE was higher than CE) and so they arranged a visit to the university to inquire about the possibility of switching. Again I was lucky – the admissions people told us that would only be possible during the first 2 weeks of the first semester. Just like the choices episode, I reported alone and happily settled in the EE programme.
Sadly for me, university turned out to be completely different from what numerous foreign university prospectuses had planted in my mind. I expected state of the art labs, advanced subject material and complex projects. Instead, the reality was labs just a grade higher than my high school (except for the mechanical engineering labs with their lathe machines which I sadly only got to interact with briefly during the vocational training period at the end of Year 1). The main library was overcrowded, stocked with mostly ancient texts and the toilets were filthy. The only guys who were truly happy were the “happeners” for whom university life was an absolute godsend… Unfortunately, I happen to be a lifelong teetotaler with a deep aversion to aimless ‘happening’. In the midst of all this, however, was one extremely bright spot – the Faculty Computer Lab. I had encountered computers for the first time in high school but my experience with them was limited to playing games (anyone remember Wolf3D in all its DOS graphics glory?) and trying out a few applications such as WordPerfect and Lotus 123. At university however, I was introduced to programming and was instantly smitten. From my very first programming lecture, I knew that this was something I was going to end up doing my whole life even if it wasn’t my primary career. Here I was studying engineering and yet I knew that opportunities to actually practice true engineering (i.e. designing and creating real things) were few and far between in this country. Programming on the other hand meant I could actually design and create something useful – for real! It was a real Eureka moment for me. What I couldn’t understand then is why there was no full undergraduate Computer Science course at Makerere. To do Computer Science, one had to opt for a Bachelor of Science in Science programme and then later take CS course units in the latter part of the course. The Faculty was established a couple of years later but to this day I still marvel at how long it took especially since the 1980s had indicated beyond doubt that the computer industry was going to be huge.
At the end of Year 1, I utilized the opportunity afforded by our Vocational Training to spend a lot of time in the Computer Lab mastering programming in mainly C and a bit of QBasic. (Vocational Training was/is basically a period during which all Faculty Year 1 students do all sorts of cross-cutting practical work – basics of road construction, surveying, welding and metal work fabrication, wiring etc. Of all this, learning to use the lathe machine was definitely the most fascinating for me). To make matters even better, my newfound skills came in handy when some nice B. Stat ladies needed help with their programming assignments during the same period. This would later prove to be hugely significant at a personal level 🙂
At the end of Year 2, we had to venture into the field to do actual work as part of our Industrial Training. Industrial Training was compulsory but getting placements in firms was the student’s responsibility. By this time, MTN was already a household name as a result of its rapidly expanding network, affordable services (compared to the incumbent cellular network Celtel) and brilliant, brilliant marketing. Basically, it was The Place to be and nearly every EE student wanted to do their training there. But there was a problem. A big one. The then Head of EE didn’t think training in a telecom company was a good idea for his precious Year 2 wards and so explicitly forbade us from attempting to get placement in MTN or indeed any cellular network company. Only Year 3s were supposed to apply for training there whereas we second years were supposed to try places like UEB :-). To me and many of my friends, this was completely unacceptable. How do you stop us from even attempting to get into the place that everyone suspected was basically ‘heaven’? We reasoned that it would be far better to try to get in and be denied by the company itself than just give up without a fight. Inquiries about the procedure revealed that there was a secret shortlist of Year 3 students that had been submitted to MTN and the company would be sending over representatives to conduct interviews. Knowing that we had no chance whatsoever to get onto the shortlist, we resolved to crash the interview and plead our case directly. However, in the meantime, we prudently arranged Plan B’s and C’s. In my case, I applied to UTV and was granted a place. The MTN interview was scheduled for the first week of the training period and so I actually reported to UTV and started. I won’t talk about my experience there save to say it was ‘interesting’. That’s a story for another day.
On the day of the interview, I and the rest of the rebels didn’t report to our Plan B places. Instead, dressed very smartly indeed, we were the first to get to the Faculty and we waited. As it turned out, MTN was dead serious about Industrial Training and so it was the then CTO – Paul Meredith – himself who showed up at the Faculty together with a representative from the company’s HR department. Wow! At this point, those of us who weren’t on the official shortlist were basically all a bundle of nerves but we somehow maintained enough composure despite the presence of the HoD to petition the CTO. Miraculously, he made sense of our mumbling about being unfairly disqualified, registered us and told us to wait for our turn to be interviewed. To cut the story short, we all got a chance to impress and they later selected 12 Year 3s and 8 Year 2s (if I recall or was it 10/10?). I was one of the second years. Even now, it is very hard to explain the wave of joy that swept over me when the interview results came out. Equally hard to explain is the feeling of terror that went down my spine the next time I met the departmental Head…
Act I: Industrial Training
When I reported to MTN, the excitement and anticipation was almost unbearable. See – I and my fellow trainees had a pretty good but basic understanding of GSM technology thanks to the preparations for the interview. One of the objections from the HoD was that we hadn’t done any telecom/telephony course units yet. But we actually understood electromagnetic waves and electric circuitry. Yet, none of us could really visualize how these abstract concepts are implemented in real-life network building blocks. In addition, we had no idea how such technology is deployed and subsequently managed. For a person as inquisitive as me, the few days between the interview results release and the reporting date were absolute pure torture. On our first day, we reported to MTN Towers and were received by the CTO, HR and a few other senior figures. The initial briefing confirmed our ‘suspicions’ – MTN indeed, for all intents and purposes, was The Promised Land for any student. See – the good MTN folks told us that as trainees, we’d be entitled to mobile handsets, a certain amount of airtime each week and a monthly stipend of UGX. 200K. Yes – we were going to learn a lot of cool stuff AND get paid for the pleasure! How insane was that? It must be remembered at this point that I had spent a week at UTV – with nary a cup of porridge offered to me. Looking back, I think this this was the exact moment I promised myself I would do whatever it took to end up as an MTN’er. After the briefing, we were taken to our respective duty stations. The CTO explained the allocation as being based on what he’d inferred our strengths to be from our interviews. That level of attention to detail is impressive to say the least. I had been assigned to the Operations & Maintenance Center – otherwise known as the Switch. Upon arrival at the Switch in Mbuya (the story of the restoration of that building from a hopelessly derelict shambles under UP&TC to a state-of-the-art MTN switching center deserves a documentary), two things struck me: First, the place was indescribably cold. I grew up in Kabale and Kisoro and I can authoritatively tell you what cold means. This place was exactly that. Second, I was completely unprepared for the techfest that greeted my eyes. Row upon row of alien looking gleaming and humming cabinets featuring numerous blinking red and green LEDs and sat on a false floor under which lay dense bundles of cabling. The absurdly cold temperature was a result of the need to keep all this cool thus the powerful air conditioning. All this wizardry was being manned in some sort of space mission control center with two levels of PC terminals lined up against each wall, an alarm board over the door and a TV at one end of the room. A TV!?!? With a full DSTV subscription (Later that year, at the end of the training period, we would silently watch the events of 911 unfold on CNN on this very TV aghast at the scale of the destruction, the audacity of the perpetrators and quite anxious about the sure-to-ensue mayhem). I instantly knew that, to use local slang, I had arrived…
The three months of training elapsed pretty quickly. The company lived up to all its promises in as far as our welfare was concerned. The handset I got as part of the package was my very first mobile phone (a Nokia 5110) and I regret giving it away a few years later. It really should be in a glass box as a memento in our living room given its significance.
On our part, we hungrily absorbed all we could and by the end of the 3 months, we could as well have been hired there and then. I also got introduced to a programming language called Delphi that completely blew me away. It would later be my language of choice for a number of projects. In addition to the learning, we fully participated in all the extra-curricular activities the company was famous for. In particular, every now and then, we’d have a barbecue in the gardens and people would party like crazy. Even now, 15 years later, those 3 intense months definitely rank as one of the best times in my life.
I returned to MTN for Industrial Training in my 3rd year (2002). This time, I was placed in the Operations Implementation section and I spent the 3 months travelling all over the country configuring new base stations and upgrading existing ones. One incident that I’ll never forget is how we once travelled to Mutukula to do some work but our hitherto perfect laptop completely refused to boot despite our desperate persuasions to do so. So we hit the road and came back. When we got to Masaka, we tried to switch it on again and hey presto – it booted up like nothing had ever happened. It was also during this time that I started to seriously study the Delphi programming language I had been introduced to the previous year. Unfortunately, the three months elapsed in a flash and we headed back to campus for our final year.
Act II: 3971 Days
I completed university in July 2003 and graduated in October of that year. Naturally, my final year project had something to do with MTN and so I was pretty confident that an opportunity to join the company as a real employee would come along soon. Sure enough, an opportunity did arise – an ad for a Fixed Lines Engineer vacancy ran at the end of the year. I was shortlisted for the interview but I unfortunately didn’t get the role. This was a pretty new experience for me – rarely had I ever failed at anything in life – ever. After some soul-searching, I concluded that I would only try again if the advertised job was directly related to the areas I had trained in. But I also decided that I’d not bother trying anywhere else in the immediate near future. Instead, I’d utilize the opportunity to try and build a small IT business and so I teamed up with several former classmates and we tried our hand at becoming job-creators as opposed to job-seekers. The only problem is that we didn’t really have enough relevant knowledge (technical, business & regulatory) to pull it off. Still, we plodded on for a whole year, registering many small victories and amassing a lot of knowledge along the way.
At the end of 2004, MTN needed 2 switch engineers – exactly the same stuff that I’d been exposed to as a student. I applied and clinched the job along with, coincidence of coincidences, my former university roommate/classmate. The onboarding process was a bit torturous – we basically waited for 4 months but finally it happened – 1st May 2005. Of course we reported on the 2nd since 1st was/is a holiday. The MTN I joined was the same wonderful, fun-filled, hard-working place I’d fallen in love with 4 years prior. However, it was clear that it was changing rapidly as a result of tremendous growth; you could sense that the company was at the beginning of a huge growth trajectory. Still, the tech team was a close-knit community of extremely bright brains most of whom were young men/women who had only left university a few years ago. There were also a few UP&TC and Celtel veterans in the senior positions and their experience/knowledge complemented our youthful energy and impetuousness. I settled down and immediately started plotting the next big thing in my life… See, one of the beautiful B. Stat ladies that had become my friends during our Year 1 computer lab days had become very close. So close in fact that I had recently proposed 🙂. And so it came to pass that we wedded in April 2006.
Before this though, there had been a significant workplace change. A vacancy had arisen in the Technical Department’s Software Support team. This team was responsible for maintaining the software tools and databases that the rest of the department, notably the Planning and Operations teams, used on a daily basis. In addition, there was a plan was to gradually expand the role of the team to start extending those platforms as well as developing new tools from scratch aimed at solving particular needs. In short, this was an opportunity that was almost too good to be true – it would allow me to combine both engineering and programming – the two things I was super passionate about. I jumped at the opportunity and luckily enough, clinched it. It proved to be such a comfortable role that I basically spent the next 10 years in it. Of course there were changes over the years in terms of career growth and expansion of the team but the terms of reference didn’t change much. Last year though, I finally moved on a temporary basis to Marketing. Again, it’s been an amazing time working with the team that basically defines what the MTN brand is all about to the public. And love or hate the company, everyone acknowledges that MTN has over the years repeatedly raised the bar as far as corporate marketing is concerned. As any sane person can see, I’ve been extraordinarily blessed. Not many people in this world let alone this country get jobs that involve them doing work that they truly love and cherish. It’s a well-worn cliché that everyone should do what they love. Unfortunately, the reality is that this seldom happens especially in a society like ours where parents impose their own career wishes on their children from an early age. For this, I will eternally be grateful to God.
Amazingly, despite my stay spanning close to 11 years, it all feels more like 11 weeks. I remember my orientation as though it were yesterday as well as other seminal events such as the inaugural MTN Marathon, the UB40 show, the introduction of GPRS, EDGE, 3G & WiMAX technologies, the launch of Mobile Money, the World Cup 2010 mania and so on. Apart from these huge public events/milestones, I also very fondly recall a lot of internal happenings – the personal workplace victories, the interactions with cool workmates and ensuing relationships that I’m sure will last a lifetime, the team-build events etc.
Of course, I also remember the not-so-nice times. Who can ever forget that croc? Personally, I’ll never forget the night I was on nightshift just a few weeks after I’d joined and somehow missed the entire Western Region going off around 4am. Reason? The monitoring screen was listing the alarms in chronological order and so the critical ones I missed were at the bottom of the list. Somehow, I completely missed the fact that there was a scrollbar, thus my thinking that the only alarms were the minor ones at the top of the list…
Parting Thoughts on MTN
If you spend some time on various social media platforms, you’ll come across posts every now and then castigating MTN. Every large company, especially utilities and others in the services sector, endures its fair share of such (I myself have thrown a few barbs). It is only natural for people to express themselves when a service doesn’t live up to their expectation and social media enables us to voice our frustrations in a way that wasn’t possible till recently. However, sometimes I do wonder whether some of those people and indeed the wider public understand exactly how complex a business this is. Unfortunately, the sheer magic of making a call using a mobile phone of the late 90s has given way to the massive expectations required of mature technologies. We therefore expect everything to basically be perfect and we forget that all the complexity involved still exists. In a way, this is pretty much the way of the world these days – I’ve seen/heard people complain about new mobile phones, cars, planes, software etc and they’re often complaining about features that took a fearsome amount of brainpower and money to implement. People will even complain bitterly about a free service like Gmail…
Running a mobile network is no walk in the park. Every call one makes has to be ‘picked’ up by a base station located close to the caller. So you have to build as many base stations as possible. Each of them contains equipment that costs a small fortune and there are other expensive constraints as well – getting the location\space to use is a hassle, the available radio frequencies for use from UCC are severely limited, each (and I mean each) site must have multiple backup power sources since the mains electricity supply is erratic at best and pretty pathetic at worst. In addition to this distributed infrastructure, you need to set up the switching equipment, the transmission links from all the multiple remote locations and gateways to international destinations. Unfortunately, despite operating in a poor country, the equipment manufacturer prices aren’t different from what Verizon & O2 pay. If anything, shipping costs and our tax regime often mean certain inputs end up costing relatively more. So far, all this involves just the technical side. Things get even more complicated when it comes to running the business. You have to ensure your supply chain and distribution network are as efficient as possible. This means making sure airtime vouchers are available in every corner of the country, that fuel gets delivered to every far-flung site to ensure the generators keep running 24/7. You have to ensure stocks of spares for the equipment and ensure that faulty parts are handled as per the established arrangement with the vendor. All the fancy new network features that customers clamor for often involve lengthy vendor lead times and budgets. All these are things MTN has executed on almost flawlessly over the years. I recall an experience some 7 or 8 years back when I travelled to Mbarara to do some tests that required benchmarking against a competitor. I assumed I’d easily get the competitors SIM cards so I traveled without any but to my surprise, I couldn’t get any when I arrived in the test area – less than 5 km out of town. Neither was there any airtime… Meanwhile, nearly every shop had stocked MTN cards and airtime. I could go on and on about the complexity. There are other issues that present gigantic headaches as well. For instance, the propensity of humans to commit fraud. Or the numerous cases of external factors affecting service delivery e.g. physical transmission links being damaged by third parties.
The bottom line is running this kind of business is a huge balancing act in a hostile environment and no matter what anyone thinks, MTN has excelled in getting things mostly right year after year. Put the company in the wrong hands and it will collapse quickly. I have seen the company confront challenge after challenge with a steely, awe-inspiring determination that I only wish certain other service providers would emulate. From re-architecting transmission links into rings with multiple redundancy and laying hundreds of kilometers of optical fiber to swapping out a mobile money platform in a hugely intricate operation and arresting declining radio network availability to the extent it rarely dips below 99% nowadays. Of course it will always be impossible to keep every single one of millions of customers happy and there have been times things went wrong. But on the balance of things, the company has done a great job and the results in terms of subscriber numbers and revenue over the years prove this more than anything else. It may not have been the pioneer in the sector but for sure it has done more than any other Telecom to make the mobile phone an essential part of the Ugandan socio-economic fabric. In addition, it is a lesser known fact that MTN actually powers a much larger ecosystem comprising a multitude of third party businesses that in turn provide a livelihood to thousands of Ugandans. From various contractors to VAS partners to mobile money agents, so many are inextricably linked to this single entity and many more keep coming onboard.
I am immensely proud to have been a simple cog in this awesome well-oiled machine and I leave justifiably proud of that. Naturally, I will miss the company a great deal.
Did you know MTN Towers affords one this view of 4 mega-hotels in one shot
So – everyone’s been asking – what next? Well, I’m going back to where I stopped at the end of 2004 – trying to be a job creator. A friend at work yesterday joked that by leaving, I was already doing that i.e. freeing up a vacancy for someone else out there :-). But I definitely hope I’ll be able to create a lot more than just one job. Primarily, my new team will be seeking to work with both small and large organisations on optimizing their internal processes through the use of IT. I don’t think there’s ever been a better time for local businesses to start integrating IT systems than now with the proliferation of affordable hardware, high-speed Internet and cloud services. Initially, our focus will be on the education sector where we already have some pretty deep knowledge of the areas that can benefit from well thought out process optimization. So if you own or run a school or know someone that does, please do get in touch [0772212767, firstname.lastname@example.org]. We do hope that we’ll be able to get many more businesses on board from other diverse sectors ranging from retail outlets to manufacturing concerns.
Further, I hope I’ll be able to blog a lot more. Not lengthy boring pieces like this one though. To the surprise of some, especially those who’ve visited this blog before or who’ve interacted with me on Twitter, I will rarely blog about politics :-). Instead, it will be about the things that I’m truly passionate and highly opinionated about – science, technology and a bit of sports. I also have a long list of books on my To-Read list that I’ve not really been able to attack and I’m hoping (against hope) that I do get the time to at least read a few.
Lastly, I’m not sure how I’ll approach this but I will definitely do it: I intend to start advocating for a complete paradigm shift in the education system. Fellow parents will surely agree with me that there’s something fundamentally broken when the sole KPI for schools is how many perfect grades they get (PLE – 4, UCE – 8, UACE – AAA) and yet we end up with so many graduates who hate reading and can barely demonstrate an acceptable level of comprehension about the subject matter they majored in. I hope to supplement this social advocacy with actual visits to schools and tertiary institutions to engage and encourage students especially those intending to pursue or who are already pursuing scientific areas of study.
Like most of you, it has been utterly fascinating to watch the progress in the field of mobile phone technologies over the past 15 years. My first phone (the 5110 mentioned earlier) had a screen resolution measured in lines of text and could only store up to 5 missed calls. As a measure of this super rapid progress, I typed most of this post on my phone (a Nexus 5) using the WordPress app. I suspect we’ll probably not see this kind of advancement in any field in our generation…
If you’ve read this up to the end (in one take), you deserve a medal. My intention was to write exactly 3971 words. I failed miserably and ended up with 4867…