Mekonen F. Kassa is Senior Director for cloud cyber security engineering at Microsoft company where he has worked for about 22 years now. Living in Seattle, he earned his first degree in mechanical engineering and second degree in information systems management from Washington University. Prior, he worked as a consultant and taxi driver.
After witnessing the politically-led massacre of nine of his teenage friends in his birthplace of Gondar 37 years ago, he fled to Sudan traveling on foot for fifteen days. Escaping from the Amracuba refugee camp in Sudan, he worked as a daily laborer on commercial farms, as a servant, and on other jobs in Algadari and Khartoum. After four years in Sudan, he found Ethiopians who sponsored his move to Seattle 33 years ago. He recently flew back to his hometown to inaugurate the library he built for his old elementary school.Hard-working, and at times lucky, Mekonen found his way into Microsoft where he has served under various positions. He points out peculiarities that have resulted in Ethiopians’ lack of relative success in high management posts in multinational companies. His experience also lends light on the relationship of the technological sphere and Ethiopian business and policymaking. Highly critical of governmental policy and traditional business practices, he suggests a fundamental shift is required in both manners to enable Ethiopia’s successful leapfrogging into the digital industrial age.
He advocates for a deeper presence of American investment in the nation, pointing out the advantages this will have towards securing a positive American foreign policy, as these companies will do Ethiopia’s bidding in front of lawmakers. In all, he is a deep supporter of a tech-led renaissance of the Ethiopian fabric. The following are excerpts from EBR’s time with him.
How did you make it to Microsoft?
I was a taxi driver and about to graduate with a mechanical engineering degree. In a humble encounter, I got a job at a company that is today called Accenture Consulting.
My first assignment was to consult Microsoft. Our company had a contract with them for general advisement on better business practices. In three months’ time I absorbed matters to do with business consulting, but especially more regarding computers and software programing.
I stayed with that consulting company for about ten years. I traveled all over the USA, consulting Microsoft, Toyota, Honda, Godier, and all kinds of other businesses. I then became a Microsoft employee in May 2006.
What consulting services did you give the companies?
In the 1990s and 2000s, there weren’t any real technology-supported business. Few companies were using huge frame computers in the back of their office for their operations. The internet was just getting its start. We went to the businesses to assess how they operate their value chains, marketing, reporting systems, sales, and all else.
Once we got a grasp of their business processes, we point out opportunities for efficiency improvements, cost reductions, and customer experience enhancement. We persuade them to buy cutting-edge personal Microsoft computers for their employees, instead of the legacy systems they were using. Then, when the internet came along, we further advised our clients to transform and use ecommerce and online business instead of sitting in their offices and waiting for customers to come to them.
Did Bill Gates use these observations and external consultants’ inputs to remodel Microsoft?
Absolutely. Microsoft is like any other business that sells products, software products in their case. Bill Gates was a good software engineer. Yet, he is not an expert on how to run a business. Microsoft is not just full of software engineers. We have lawyers, sales and marketing people, human resource officers, and other departments just like any other company. Microsoft has also abundantly leveraged consultants and contractors to run its business.
Just because you have established a company does not mean you have all the expertise to handle the business. That is why you have to hire technocrats and skilled people.
One of the challenges I see in Ethiopian businesses is that the vast majority of them are traditional businesses. Most business owners in Ethiopia are running the operations by themselves, instead of letting the business be run by knowledge and skilled technocrats. This is why American businesses are succeeding and Ethiopian ones are not. Business owners should just be owners and not CEOs of their companies.
This is critical for Ethiopian businesses to stay competitive. Right now, Ethiopian companies are succeeding only because the environment is closed to foreign competition. Once reform policies take place and the economy opens, they will be eaten for lunch.
Is that the only reason for their lack of success?
Government policies are also detrimental to the business arena. Most of the government people who ratify policies are PhD holders and academicians, not necessarily technocrats. How many companies have the policymakers run? Which local or international company were they employed in? How many years of experience can they draw upon to draft the nation’s economic and trade policies? This is the reason policies are not working as designed and desired on the ground.
Even if government brings in technocrats into the existing system, their success is uncertain. The way policies, the civil service, and public services are designed and provisioned in Ethiopia—where manual operations and corruption are rampant—makes it suitable for a person running a business traditionally and detrimental for those operating in a modern fashion. Furthermore, the economy has been closed to protect them at the cost of arresting the economy of Ethiopians and condemning them to live in poverty.
Just by virtue of policies designed to protect local bankers, the economy is suffering and not developing as much as it should. If foreign banks entered and partnered with local ones, they will bring hard currency, technology, and more importantly, large capital. It is nearly impossible to access loans now as banks themselves do not have money. They take bribes to give out whatever little cash they have, request huge collateral, charge high interest rates, and give short repayment periods. Youths with bright ideas cannot start a business with these protected banks. If foreign banks come, they would value ideas and nurture it to success. But now, people bribe banks for loans and run away with the money. Foreign banks do not just give you the money, they monitor what you are doing with it. Your success is their success. This is how billions and billions is wasted in Ethiopia and causing all this political instability.
In which areas did you serve Microsoft since joining in 2006?
Microsoft sells software to Fortune 500 companies. If a computer system or software is disrupted for even a single minute, these big companies could lose millions of dollars. To avert this, the companies purchase an enterprise support agreement from Microsoft where our employee is immediately on the case to fix any problem that arises.
My first role was to analyze all the historical configurations with the customers’ databases. We would start by correcting configuration problems in advance and thus prevent problems from happening. Through this process we improved user experience, avoided business disruption, and saved our clients’ money. We were charging USD10,000 to assess and advise. Our operations not only helped save money, but ended up making hundreds of millions of dollars for our clients. That was my first role.
My second role was managing Microsoft’s data center infrastructure. Microsoft had over 2,000 different applications to run its businesses used by 150,000 of its employees in over 100 countries. The infrastructure, networking, storage, and computing systems that supported all these applications and users were hosted across nine data centers installed in America, Europe, Singapore, and other places. As a public company, Microsoft presents quarterly financial reports and all that was run on this infrastructure. I was running this infrastructure for six years; all the servers, computers, networks and systems depended on me.
The certificate system—a highly secured structure that guarantees the genuineness of Microsoft software—was also my responsibility. Any software or application downloaded on any device or computer has a certificate that is generated by a highly secure and protected system. If a hacker could get hold of that certificate, they can distribute their software as Microsoft’s and can then do malicious things. For about two years, I was running this system.
I am currently running the cloud cyber security engineering team. The cloud is nothing but computing power provided virtually and requires thousands of computers and other infrastructure all found remotely and away from the user. Once you access the data centers online you can do whatever you want virtually.
What kind of customers use cloud computing? What is its applicability in Ethiopia?
All types of customers like banks, governments, manufacturing companies and the like. The US government signed a USD10 billion contract with Microsoft to use its cloud services. Companies operating traditionally have a server, computers, and some connectors. But when you use the cloud you get rid of the server. Globally, Microsoft has 54 data centers. This is probably the size of Addis Ababa (54,000 hectares) with millions and millions of computers, all networked. Amazon, our competitor, is similar.
Ethiopian banks could get rid of all server and software purchasing hustles if they utilized cloud infrastructure. However, network access is critical. In such case you can have gigabytes or even exabytes of storage on the cloud where you can install software and keep data.
The cloud system is highly reliable. Imagine having a data center in a bank’s basement compared to storing your data across 54 data centers around the world—if one goes down the other picks up. Cloud computing also offers artificial intelligence capabilities which Microsoft develops and markets.
Ethiopians are not taking advantage of such technologies. The Ethiopian government has been preventing banks and other institutions and businesses from using the cloud. The entire universe is using and relying on them. Why is Ethiopia different?
Ethiopian policy makers have never known what a real company does. These officials probably purchased their degrees somewhere and are sitting in their ministerial positions because they are political cadres. They are making decisions that are condemning Ethiopians for generations to come. The problem is that the government thinks their data is too valuable and fear outsiders will use it to take advantage of them. But all nations are using the cloud. If we fear Western cloud providers, there are other options like the Chinese Alibaba.
We see Microsoft, Amazon, and Google always fighting the United States government for data privacy. They are fighting to prevent the government from having open access to private data. We have strong institutions abided by international laws.
What data does the Ethiopian government have that cannot be hacked into by a fifteen-year-old with a laptop? That is how insecure it is. The cloud is the most protected asset. Microsoft invests billions of dollars every year in hiring the best experts in the world to ensure the protection of its data centers from cyber risks. Microsoft can protect the government’s data much more than the Information Network Security Agency (INSA). It is just fear mongering and illogical.
INSA says it defends against cyber-attacks.
You are up against the Russians and North Koreans which couldn’t even be resisted by the Americans with their resources and skills. How INSA is going to defend itself? Who are the people at INSA? The sad thing is that they want to do everything. Now every country is becoming a hacker, including the Americans and even the Egyptians. INSA is far behind capacity to stop cyber-attacks.
A number of companies, both private and government-contracted, are currently building data centers and cloud computing systems inside Ethio ICT Park. Do you think they are viable investments?
The infrastructure is very poor. With the current connection network, you cannot even send a sizable file let alone service an online data center. Secondly, they do not have skilled labor. Thirdly, foreign currency is too scarce to bring in the necessary equipment. If they are really interested in the cloud and the policy is made conducive, they could have requested Microsoft or Amazon to come and build data centers here.
Racial discrimination seems present and prevents Africans from ascending to high management levels in multinational corporations. What challenges did you face going up the ladder in Microsoft?
Nothing is ever easy. It is even harder when you are foreigner, speaking with an accent. You do not have the cultural nuances and you might inadvertently offend colleagues. Unfortunately, black people are perceived as poor and ignorant. But one thing we Ethiopians have as a benefit, alongside the costs, of not being colonized is that our parents have instilled in us a sense of confidence. We believe we can do anything that we see others doing. This was very instrumental for me in navigating challenges. Also, not only are we expected to be experts on technical matters but to also be sound in our culture.
Growing up in Ethiopia, you see society is very hierarchal and has a command-based culture. If you are leading a team in America and act like a typical Ethiopian, you will be in trouble. Leaders in Ethiopia feel like they are God-sent and that everyone is beneath them. We do not see many Ethiopians in leadership positions in multinational firms and institutions because we lack those soft skills. But you do find Ethiopians in technical positions.
It is not common for Microsoft to hire talent from Ethiopia, as compared to South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria. What are Microsoft’s criteria in hiring Africans?
We recently hired fifteen people from Kenya and Nigeria when setting up a software development center in the two nations. The three nations you mentioned attract American companies way more than other African countries. They have the infrastructure and open policies. For the last fifteen years, we have been asking the Ethiopian government to develop friendly policies that can attract tech companies and get rid of the archaic Ethio telecom monopoly. With this kind of network that struggles even on phone calls, how do you think Microsoft would come and invest? Where everything is closed, how can Ethiopian students get the visibility to compete in the world market. Ethiopian youths mostly open the internet to check Facebook. They are not using it to learn because it is expensive and not reliable.
I hired six people in Nigeria while in the US by interviewing them online. Try that in Ethiopia. With over 300,000 Ethiopians graduating with degrees every ear, it is ridiculous Ethiopia does not have an active IT sector. Some 40 million Ethiopians are under 20—the youngest population in Africa. Ethiopia could have been competing with India, a nation synonymous with technology with nothing but reliable telecom infrastructure and good policies.
Microsoft is trying to train Ethiopians and we have recently trained 200 people. We are doing so at Wollo University and have also partnered with companies like Gebeya. But for Ethiopians to compete in the global market, the network infrastructure must first be reliable, available, and cheap.
Do you think the liberalization of the telecom industry can realize efficiency, especially given that the new operators have to rent out Ethio telecom’s infrastructure?
Why would any decent government, trying to provide the best service for its people, force telecom operators from building their own state-of-the-art infrastructure? Who is making this decision that Ethiopians do not deserve the best? This official should rather be telling foreign operators to bring the best telecom infrastructure and 5G. This is critical for Ethiopia to leapfrog into industrialization.
Why do you think government always want to keep and protect Ethio telecom?
Because if they control it, they can shut it down anytime they want. The source of all problems in Ethiopia is political control. Politics has priority over everything else. And yet, the politics has worsened. Government must prioritize economic development over politics. When economic benefits are maximized, the politics will stabilize.
In reality, if government opens up the telecom sector, it can make more money from the increased usage and economies of scale. People say Ethio telecom is the cash cow of the government. Had it been all about money, then it would have opened up the sector. But the real reason, I bet, is political.
Africa has missed the first, second, third, and fourth industrial revolutions. Do you think we can leapfrog now?
Absolutely. As a matter of fact, all these African countries can leapfrog ahead of everybody else because they have not invested capital in existing infrastructure. For instance, electric cars are struggling to get hold of the American market because so many companies have invested trillions of dollars in combustible engine manufacturing. That is why they had been buying and killing all these electric car manufacturing companies until Tesla came. African countries are not shackled in this manner. All that African governments need to do is to create conducive policies and let loose. Ethiopia now has abundant electricity. Why would we continue building or importing petroleum- powered vehicles?
We can go directly to the 5G network. We can go directly to artificial intelligence and robotics. The only thing is to understand your data.
Google said it will launch a cheap and universal satellite-based network. Could that spell the end of the standard telecom company in the near future?
It all comes down to protective policies by governments. Do you think governments want American companies like Google to control the entirety of their communication systems?
Ethiopians should stop looking for free things. They have the resource and capital that can be marketed to help them earn money. All you need is good policy.
As I fly from Gondar to Addis Ababa, I cry. There lies the naturally provided water reservoir that is Lake Tana—90 by 60 kilometers wide—with flat land surrounding it. But you can hardly see a single plot of irrigated farmland. All that water and land, just wasted. Farmers are ploughing and praying for rain. Rich countries started by farming and then went on to industrialization. Why are Ethiopians starving while sitting on land and water? Ethiopia has the largest cattle population in Africa and seventh largest in the world. Why is meat so expensive, why is there no milk? It all comes down to stupid government policy.
The world knows us as poor people and beggars. There is no freedom without self-sufficiency.
You have a foundation. What does it do?
We publish children’s books by partnering with an American NGO. We have published about 80 different titles based on Ethiopian folklore tales. We take good stories and publish them in local Ethiopian languages, as well as in English. We have published and distributed over 100,000 copies.
How do you see the ongoing reform in Ethiopia?
When Abiy Ahmed came along, I was enthusiastic and hoped he would effect reforms looked over by the EPRDF. Unfortunately, these reforms are not happening. The financial and telecom sectors and all other policies remain fundamentally unchanged. Little changes at a time could have worked. But these guys are trying to make it like a big bang. The reform is more like feet dragging instead of incremental. It has perhaps exacerbated the economic situation. Unemployment has increased.
Ethiopians are at a tipping point today because we are not empathetic. We are not understanding the position and feeling of others. We are too self-righteous and egotistic. We are not sitting down and dialoguing. We should choose words and sit down for discussions. This is the only way to get out of the current situation. It is not ‘my Ethiopia and go to hell’ or ‘my Oromia and go to hell’. We can all have it together.
Even America, with the biggest military in the world, could not defeat Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no problem in the world that cannot be solved through discussion.
Ethiopians have to stick to their guns and complete their project. It is their natural right to use their natural water. The only power Ethiopia should have is economic power.
Are China and America fighting over Africa?
China used Ethiopia as a gateway to Africa as it is the seat of the continental body. America is doing whatever it can to drive them out. It is not personal nor political. It is about economy.
America has resources it needs from Africa, and so does China. Of course, Africans are not using the resources because they are too busy killing each other. America makes up 5Pct of the world’s population but consumes 40Pct of global production and service. China has to feed 1.4 billion people.
Yet, 60Pct of global arable land is in Africa. With climate change, population growth, and loss of farmland, everyone is trying to control Africa. Africa needs to wake up.
It is not even about democracy. Africans cannot eat democracy. We have seen it in Libya and Iraq: give democracy to poor people and they will burn it down. The fundamental requirement for democracy is economic stability and development. America is supporting the most dictatorial regimes for their economic interests and to the detriment of democracy.
Will American companies invest in the Ethiopian telecom sector? Alibaba is already setting foot.
Had American companies invested in Ethiopia, they would have also protected Ethiopia. As America has minimal investments and vested interest in the nation, they do not protect Ethiopia as much as they do other countries. If the government puts the right policies in place, Americans will invest here. They will then advocate and lobby for Ethiopia in front of American lawmakers. EBR
9th Year • May 16 – Jun 15 2021 • No. 98