Okey Ikpe: Leaving Microsoft to Set up Office Machines was a Leap of Faith

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It is not always easy and consistent to be active in the information technology business for more than 17 years. From Data Processing and Management Services, DPMS, where he started service in global information technology, Okey Ikpe  received technical, sales and services certification and also passed through Compaq, International Business Machines, IBM, and Microsoft Corporation West Africa where he was in charge of Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone.  As Public Sector Director, he was instrumental to the elevation of the company as a trusted information technology adviser for Nigeria. In this chat, Okey, as fondly called, tells Stanley Nkwazema how he founded Office Machines Nigeria Limited, OMNL, and why Nigerian graduates could be retrained towards meeting global IT demands and assisting the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, deploy teleconferences solution that was used for election and the training of the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Committee, RMAFC

Working for Government, Frustrating Yet Exciting                      
I had over 17 fascinating years of professional experience working for global IT companies namely IBM, Compaq and Microsoft and of course the premier IBM partner, Data Processing Maintenance and Services Limited, before stepping out as an entrepreneur to establish Office Machines Nigeria Limited, OMNL in 2009. During those periods, I had the opportunity to interact with some of the global best minds in IT, in a cross cultural, multi ethic and diverse environment. While DPMS accounted for most of the formative period in my career which transformed into a rich, resilient and spirited personality, it is worthy of note that the unique experience of the global companies gave me the opportunity to learn about the processes, systems, strategies, structures, best of breed technologies, services and most importantly people that made these companies outstanding, remarkable and competitive.
I picked up the fundamentals and advanced knowledge about computers, software, networking and communication as well as how technology helps to transform and enhance productivity of various sectors such as banking and finance, telecommunications, government, healthcare and education. This was possible because I managed across industries which helped me to learn how to move away from prescriptive to consultative engagement framework with government. The earlier resigned to telling the customer how technology can solve its problem while the later uncovered the technology requirements and needs of the client in collaborative manner. A major step in this process is to qualify the opportunity by understanding the customer strategic goals, its priorities, operational requirements, data needs, security considerations, level of internal IT skills set, personal inertia to adopt or adapt technology while incorporating potential future data growth plan and information needs.
Providing service to government, whether it is vertical structure such as federal, state and local or horizontal level such as ministries, departments and agencies; or even breaking either of these two structures into sectors such as transport, education, healthcare, energy, public safety and privacy, defense and intelligence, environment, food and agriculture, population and quality of lives, judiciary and justice system require a very deep understanding of the technological drivers. For example, it will be interesting to find out what the fundamental problems a government commission would like to solve by issuing citizens with identity. Why should such identity be unique to an individual and not anyone else? How to ensure that records captured are reliable, current, authentic and secured? Then is the question of what are the current installed bases of the customer? How is it used? What is the strategic objective and how can IT help to deliver it? The process of gathering this useful information is what I describe as consultative interaction and engagement framework modeled by OMNL. Typically, it may seem challenging because governments inadvertently hold up useful information needs which could serve as inputs in designing innovative solutions or uncovering the fundamental problems they are faced with. It is only when such information has been adequately elicited from people involved that a prescriptive robust solution can be offered. Clearly, it is not the absence of methodology, technologies and tools that create complexities in interacting with government but largely the human element. If the change mantra can instill and create a phalanx for professionalism and excellence in execution of government assignments aimed at delivering public good, I can guarantee you that in no distant time, the entity called Nigeria will begin to unleash its potentials.

Deriving Joy In His Vocation
I am extremely passionate and excited about the works that I do as an entrepreneur, technology social change agent and a devout parent. No one believed that I could jettison the comfort of life under the umbrella of multinational company to explore and express my skills, talent and ingenuity in a start-up that was richly funded by ideas and zero capital. The personal decision to resign from Microsoft after a significant five-year stint as public sector lead and business development manager in Ghana was borne out of innate desire and conviction that customers fundamentally make their purchase decision based on ‘people’ not ‘brand’. I built strong personal equity with clients that I interacted with. I consistently ensured honesty, transparency, infectious commitment and fanatically executed tasks with excellence. It is these values that define my work till today; the joy I derive by making positive and lasting impact in the lives of people and communities. My greatest joy is the young top talents that Office Machines have attracted, groomed and nurtured over this six years period. Not only that, we contribute in honing their skills and competencies but also we have increasingly helped in reducing unemployment, wealth creation and social transformation. The indirect impact is many lives that these young men and women touch which accounts for the technology social change agent our organisation is known for. It may interest you to note that I developed and designed the curriculum and program for reintegration of ex-militants and unemployed youths from Niger Delta under the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. I was never paid for my ideas, efforts and knowledge, which is typical of Nigeria government. However, my overwhelming joy is that I contributed in a big way to national development. My advice therefore to government is to learn to use individuals and organisations that create some of these unique social programs in the implementation to ensure that expected results are achieved.
The most important work of my life is being a devout parent by caring and providing for my wife and children. My responsibility which I take seriously is to guide them in God’s ways, ensure peace and love for one another. People, including friends, have done terrible things to me, but over the years I have developed a big heart and shoulder which is why it may be difficult, yet easy for me to forgive even when it hurts.

At OMNL, This is What We Are…
As the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Office Machines Nigeria Limited (OMNL)  I am responsible for developing and designing the strategic plan, coordination of the functional leads, supervision and orchestration of company activities, monitoring of programs, ensure compliance with corporate governance, organisational values and delivery of customer and stakeholders satisfaction. I am responsible for the achievement of the organisation profit goals and business growth objectives.
In OMNL, our greatest asset are our people, so we work very hard to ensure that we hire and retain top talents by investing in their training, coaching, mentoring and reward system that match and most times better than comparable organisations. Importantly, we instill early in employees career self-confidence and appropriate knowledge which makes it easier for them to thrive in a complex environment. Personally, I lead by example and as much as possible reflect our corporate values which include respect for life, straight talk, honesty and integrity, accountability, taking extra ordinary steps and seeing them through. These define us as an organisation.

The IT job Proper
Working for Office Machines and being an active participant in the IT sector gives me excitement. Similarly, I relish every opportunity to apply my skills, talent and experience in solving customer problems so I am enthused with how some of our projects have helped create strategic impact in transforming lives, people and communities. One of such project is the ability to track all customer complaints related to services provided by the power distribution companies in Nigeria. Our customer complaint handling application and portal when launched nation-wide will help track, monitor and measure client complaints. A known management cliché says that, if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it. The toothbrush text is for NERC therefore to measure customer complaints in order to apply right regulations to manage it and we hope that the tool will be fully utilised for the purpose. On another score working with IT advisors, I led the team that developed and designed the enterprise architecture and IT strategy of the National Population Commission; a prerequisite to conducting, successful biometric based national censors in 2016. Interestingly, I was part of the team that articulated the five year strategic plan of the National Information Technology Development Agency which should help in repositioning the agency from a ‘’self contract awarding agency’’ to a catalyst that fosters IT diffusion, internationalisation and integration in Nigeria. Let me reiterate once more that these strategic consulting services I offered were at no cost to government on the contrary most government agencies pay firms such as Accenture, Price Water House Coopers, IBM Global Services, Mckinsey and Boston Consulting millions and millions of dollars.
Besides the national assignments I am thrilled with my employees and how we have helped horn their skills and knowledge. A good number of them were hired as fresh graduates, very talented individuals and within a short period they exude great confidence and competency typical of OMNL trade mark. The truth is that our graduates need an environment that will positively challenge and tickle their minds to innovate. So what can be more exciting than knowing that one is responsible and has positively contributed to the well-being of thousands and thousands of people and families?

ICT Could Drive National Regeneration
Information and Communication Technology can be broadly viewed under two sectors: Information Technology and Communication. In Nigeria, the growth of both these sectors is very significant in the past two decades. While the Communication industry has built up an enormous confidence for itself in the global markets, IT has remained at very rudimentary stage especially in governments and governance. Let’s be honest, the challenge with government is not lack of enough revenue to meet its obligations, neither is it the absence of laws or institutions to enforce policies and regulate. It is clearly the abuse of regulatory and use of powers. Take a look at the global statistics on productivity levels, you will notice that Nigeria ranked 124in the 2015/2016 results of the World Economic Forum annual global competitiveness.  The picture is mixed where a less competitive domestic environment outweighs improvements to encourage foreign competition; the financial market, where banks are rated as relatively sound but access to finance remains problematic; and the labour market, which is one of the region’s most flexible but is dragged down by an inefficient use of talent and a comparatively low female participation rate. Priorities include investment in infrastructure which is singled out as the most problematic factor for doing business coupled with human capital, where poor health in the workforce and inefficient higher education holds the country back from fulfilling its potential. ICT, however, can help to reverse the situation if only a conscious effort is made to focus on renewable energy, solar technology, retraining of our workforce, introduction of technology in government and sincerity of purpose by leadership to use accurate data in planning, managing, sharing and allocation of resources in Nigeria. This is self-explanatory and unambiguous: let’s just use technology and for once stop living in land as the Americans would say.
Again bear in mind that three countries namely: Ireland, Israel and India have something in common: they are all non-oil producing countries but their GDPs have remained significantly higher than average, comparable to First World countries. This is because they led in information technology and have developed intermediate to advance skilled workforce. IT industry in India comprises of software industry and information technology enabled services, ITES, which also includes business process outsourcing, BPO, industry. India is considered as a pioneer in software development and a favorite destination for IT-enabled services. The Indian software and services exports were estimated at $49.7 billion in 2009 to 2010, as compared to $47.1 billion in 2008 and 2009; an increase of 5.5 per cent. ICT can therefore solve some of revenue gap. Clearly, ICT is a medium through which most of current challenges can be solved. Two things come to mind: how can ICT help government generate revenue aptly explained earlier and how can ICT reduce cost? When you automate government processes, issues of ghost workers, unaccounted revenue, duplication of projects, contract splitting and monitoring of on-going projects will reduce. Money saved from these drain pipes can then be applied to other teething national problems.

Challenges Can be Relative…
Most of the projects we have done in the past have fundamental challenges ranging from managing clients lack of commitment, long period of absence from the office due to official travels, bureaucracy, unwillingness to pay even when contract has been satisfactorily completed, departmental rivalry, ethnic sentiments and pure greed. As a work around, we develop an implementation framework that captures the MDA’s culture, tinges and nuances. Really and truly, the country has a very long way to go, and the way you can tell a broken system is when a civil servant irrespective of the level ‘kidnaps’ your file, challenging you to go to the Minister or President to complain and nothing will happen. This clearly demonstrates not just impunity by the public servant, but a confirmation that there are no more rules and regulations guiding the conduct of public officers. These are some of the unpleasant and sad events we have faced in providing services to government.                   

Monitoring  jobs and Implementation of Agreements
I presume that you want to know what we do to ensure that projects are delivered within scope and budget and also that customers derive satisfaction from the projects we have executed. If that’s what you meant, then I would say that on acceptance of an offer from a client, the first thing we do is to internally assign programme or project managers to deliver on the assignment. At the project initiation meeting, we agree on milestones, deliverables, resources, scope and time lines. It is at this point that we set up periodic reviews to ensure smooth execution of the project. By applying OMNL Compound Comprehensive Methodology in project management which includes the people, process, technology, organisation culture and nuances, we create a systematic, predictable process to ensure effective execution and customer satisfaction. However, while this methodology reflects the ideal situation we have witnessed atypical, extraneous variables infused with human inordinate desires that have impacted on some projects. To mitigate this, we apply executive support to ensure that the compass to a satisfactory project execution is not entangled.
In the same vein, we provide after sales support by signing service level agreements which guarantees the client on premise problem resolution or quick-fix technical support. The support type is based on how critical the situation is and information required by the client.
We build this into the contract based on customer acceptance. Though, there are cases where the customer has opted out from signing a service level agreement which could be due to lack of budget or understanding of the benefits. In some other cases, the customer may limit the after sales support to the warranty provided by the manufacturer for specific system.