Out of retirement, Greater IBM pioneers take skills to China
Editor's note: Forget the rocking chair and reruns on television, today's retirees want to stay involved and continue making contributions. Fortunately, if you're a Greater IBMer, you may just get your chance. This is the story of two Greater IBMers from Canada who are writing an exciting, demanding, new chapter in their lives.
On 20 February 2008, Oma and Barbara Sewhdat stepped off a plane in Shanghai, filled with the excitement of a new adventure.
They just didn't know quite yet how big a step they had taken as they began a year-long assignment that will help Chinese students prepare to take new-found mainframe skills into the workplace.
Oma is almost four years into retirement from IBM, where he was responsible for Websphere skills and certification programs in the last of his 30 years with IBM. His wife, Barbara ("I'm not retired"), spent 5 years as an IBMer and has been a consultant in mainframe application development and support for the past couple of decades.
About the earthquake: Less than two months after their arrival, the May 12 earthquake struck Western China. We checked with Oma and Barbara Sewhdat and confirmed that they were not affected. This link will take you to a report on the disaster response by IBMers and IBM to aid in the recovery.
So what are they doing in China?
Oma and Barbara are pioneers in a new program called "Reach Out!" that will bring an increasing number of retired IBMers with critical skills for fixed-term assignments in Asian nations.
In addition to China, the program was expanded in May to include Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
In the meantime, Barbara and Oma have their work cut out for them.
"I've heard that there will be an estimated 2.5 million mainframe jobs to be filled in the next 5 years, as China's position in the outsourcing market grows," Barbara said. "If I can pass on my knowledge to help a few hundred students hone their skills and find new jobs, that'll be quite an achievement."
The students have been eager and hard working, but sometimes surprised by their transplanted instructors.
"Everytime Oma is introduced to the student body as having worked at IBM for 30 years, a loud gasp goes up," said Barbara. "I haven't decided if they are impressed or horrified!"
If Barbara and Oma had any doubts that they were stepping into an adventure when their plane landed in Shanghai, they had no doubts left by the time they stepped off the bus in Xian Feng, an hour from Nanchang City, which is capital of Jiangxi province. Nanchang is about an hour and a half West of Shanghai, about 5 hours by fast train, they report.
When I asked how they prepared for the adventure, Oma's wry response demonstrated how fast things can happen.
"Barbara and I spoke with the IBM China ETP (Experience Training Program) manager on the phone after he had reviewed our resumes," he recalled. "He offered the job the next day and two weeks later we were here."
"We came without even a map of the area," said Barbara. "And there aren't a lot of English language maps to be found."
Fortunately, Oma said, "IBM China helped us a lot with all the documents, papers, visas and arrangements after we landed. It was hectic but went well."
They knew there would be challenges, especially locating to a rural location.
"I only knew about five words of Chinese, but I'd visited here several times before and found the people to be warm and helpful, so I was excited."
For Barbara, the shift from the conveniences of her Canadian home has been trying at times, but rewarding nonetheless.
"The first two weeks were tough, when we couldn't be sure we'd have hot water and it took awhile to get amenities, like telephone or Internet access, but my daughter said I should treat this as an adventure," Barbara said. "So, since then I've been saying that each day, it's a different adventure."
Oma said he found the actual experience of life in China quite different from the tier one cities, with their top hotels and great restaurants, that he'd visited as an IBMer. Xian Feng is far removed from anything approaching tier-one-style amenities.
"Once you look past the inconveniences and start engaging the students and see the value we can bring to their lives, everything changes," Oma said.
"I am never tired at any time during the day. Once I am out and on the campus, the sheer energy and desire to learn and do better and knowing the conditions and circumstances of the students, it makes the inconveniences take on a whole new flavor.
"I sometimes don't even notice the problems; the work is just so fulfilling."
What's been the best part just a few months into the assignment?
"I like coming to campus, interacting with as many students as I can," Oma quickly responds. "I enjoy the look of eagerness in their faces and I enjoy hearing about their personal dreams... The hope they have, and the willingness to work hard and as long as it takes — it energizes me!"
"At the risk of sounding corny, it seems that we can help make a difference in people's lives," said Barbara. "The students we have met so far are simple, unsophisticated, warm people, many from poor families. They speak of getting a good job so they can help their parents."
Not everything is centered on mainframe training.
"We are also helping with the students' oral English, which is turning out to be an important area we can help," Barbara said, of the "English Corner" chats that started spontaneously and then became a part of their routine..
"Today, a student came back from his new job in Beijing (a 12-hour train ride each way) so that he could take us and his project team members out for lunch to thank us. He said our help with his language skills helped him through the interview, which was entirely in English, and that helped him get the job."
Oma and Barbara walk from their housing to the campus in about 10 minutes.
It's the center of their social experience, getting to know the sudents and faculty, sharing sometimes surprising moments.
"I'm so impressed to be reminded that life can be simple, yet enjoyable," Barbara said. "People here don't need a lot to be happy. There's no such concept as 'shopping therapy'. Let me give you an example, we're in a car together and they ask if you like to sing and would you sing a song, so there we are singing John Denver's "Country Roads" ... there's no reason these activities have to be for children only."
Oma said, "we've only been here a few months in our year-long assignment, but I know I'll always remember the people — their warmth, hopes, enthusiasm, willingness to go the extra mile, commitment to their families, and their appreciation for even the smallest thing we do for them."
Considering the hardships, what would they like to tell others about the experience?
"Anyone who has the opportunity to do this, should seize it," Oma said, thoughtfully. "Know that it will not be easy, but that it will probably be one of the most fulfilling, rewarding and memorable times in your life.
"As IBMers, we have what many people don't have. We have worked for the best company in the Western world. Coming to China, or going to any other such country that needs us, is what we are all about .. and what better time to do it than when we are seasoned and experienced and know what we would want to share with younger people like our own children if we had a chance.
"It's not about looking back. It is about looking ahead into the world that is yet to be, and in my mind that world will have China at its center of gravity."