Letter to a Young Turk

I’ve been arguing for the last few weeks that what’s needed most for Vanuatu is to invest significant time and effort into the creation of a new crop of technically savvy individuals who can help Vanuatu bridge the growing gap between life in the information age and life as we’ve always known it in the islands.

There’s a pressing need for people to assist with this transition. The barriers have begun to fall that once allowed life in the village to remain consistent, with change seeping in slowly and in tiny doses. Very soon, most everyone in Vanuatu will have access to mobile telephony. We’re already hearing stories about Tannese in Middle Bush bringing their mobile to the garden with them, just in case someone wants to reach them.

Only weeks ago, nobody really got fussed about waiting days or even weeks to hear a bit of news. But now that we can actually get it, we want information immediately. It’s a universal human trait to want to keep caught up on the latest. In the past people here have been content to let information and gossip arrive at its own pace, confident at least that nobody was getting the jump on anyone else. But now, someone who owns a mobile phone holds a distinct advantage over those without. In this culture – and most others – knowledge is power, and in Vanuatu, a new arms race has begun.

The benefits of this rapid and fundamental transformation are undeniable. Health, education, literacy and business development are all areas where the potential improvements are obvious. Governance and civil society should improve as well, if only because people in the village will at last be able to keep track of their MPs, even to the point of calling and reminding them of their promises periodically.

But what about the other side? What will happen when a young man, ripe with ideas he’s acquired on the Internet, begins to question the words of his chief? The ideas may be good, and the chief may even be wrong, but what will the villagers do when they see his guidance being second-guessed?

Rest assured that local beliefs will be assailed. Kastom will be affected, for better and for worse. We need a few people to play a guiding, reconciling role in this process in order to ensure that we don’t become a nation adrift. They would serve – not supplant – kastom, helping it to remain relevant and useful in an age when Vanuatu’s villages take on a global dimension.

There is a strongly technical aspect to this task. I’ve written elsewhere that one of the biggest problems in IT management is the disconnect between the Geek and the Manager: “… the problem, again and again, is that … managers don’t think they need to know the details. And IT consists of nothing but details.”

We don’t (or shouldn’t) hire finance managers who don’t know accounting. We expect the manager of a legal practice to know the theory, practice and details of law better than her staff. IT requires the same detailed knowledge, over a broader scope and in greater depth than most other disciplines. Happily, information is the IT person’s stock in trade. The best geeks aren’t those who know a lot (though it doesn’t hurt). The best geeks are the ones who know how to find anything, and more importantly, who know what to do with the information once they find it.

Without making any claims to wisdom or even usefulness, the following advice is offered to this new generation of young turks whose role it will be to assist in this historic transition that Vanuatu is undergoing….

1) Learn Your History.

Go back and study in detail the how the Internet came to be. Pay special attention to the open, cooperative spirit that was instilled right from the beginning.

Talk to those who were there. Most of its inventors are still alive, and many of them are genuinely interested in what’s happening here in the Pacific. Vinton Cerf, widely known as the Father of the Internet, is an honorary member of the Pacific Islands Chapter of the Internet Society. He’s taken time from his schedule to join us in Apia at the PACINET conference, so it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that he’d be happy to spend an hour to two talking with someone helping to plot our national IT strategy.


Read The Fine Manual, as geeks often say. Most importantly, read the Requests for Comment (RFCs), the documents that define every important technical aspect of the Internet. They’re readily available online, and while some of them are a tough slog, they are not optional. IT consists of nothing but details, and this is where the details are.

3) Keep Asking: Why?

One of the fun parts of being a geek is that we get to indulge that very trait that makes every three year old insufferable: We can be – no, we have to be – insatiably curious. Just like the toddler who never stops asking why, we are expected to challenge every assumption, all the time.

The most interesting area of IT is where it comes into contact with society. Ask yourself why IT planning models are built the way they are, in spite of the systemic and often colossal failure that results. Study software licensing through the last three decades. Watch how it changes, consider what that means in terms of code quality, in terms of product management and sales, and most importantly, what its effect is on people.

Keep asking yourself, “If I can copy something for free, why should I pay for it?” The answers, you’ll find, are not nearly as simple as you think, and they will keep changing.

4) Learn the Business Side

No matter what you actually do day to day, you need to understand the business of technology. Most important are pricing models. What does a per-usage fee structure for Internet services tell you about the service itself? About the organisations offering the service? How is technical support factored into a company’s offering? If it’s seen as an expense, what impact will that have on the quality of the support? What if it’s seen as a revenue stream?

What is the cost of IT? How is it factored? Despite years of focus and billions spent and earned, most people cannot satisfactorily answer that question. You need to answer it, if only for yourself, if only for today.

5) Technology is a Process, not a Product

If Ecclesiastes were written today, and David were a geek, he would no doubt say: Process of processes, all is processes. Ultimately, technology consists of layers upon layers of processes. Generations of software come and go, licenses change, products change, and so do capabilities. The only thing we can rely on, then, is the process. The process of learning, applying, then learning some more.

Vanuatu’s young turks have their work cut out for them. The information is all there. The insight, too. What we need to do now is to make sure the two occupy the same space.