Blog / Tales from the Jungle

The working environment was challenging.  For some perspective, picture a large-scale mining operation in the middle of a jungle.  The company has built a town that houses about 7,000 people.  They built 2 power stations (one hydro-electric and one diesel), a water treatment plant, roads to and from the mine, a pipeline to carry the mining product, stores, maintenance buildings, houses, mess halls, a hospital, and even a country club complete with golf course. It’s an impressive undertaking.I was able to have a tour and the mine was equally impressive. Over the course of many years, they have reduced a sizable mountain to a gigantic hole-in-the-ground. It started life as a gold mine, but has now been converted to mining copper.  They expect to ship $1 billion dollars of copper this year, with plans to double production in the next 5 years.  They estimate another 10 years of copper mining is possible in this reserve, with the promise of continued operation at another near-by mountain. The trip to the bottom of the open-pit mine takes you down at least 800 meters on a road traversed by huge Caterpillar buggies that transport 240 tons of copper ore at one time.  The operation is truly 24/7 with Toys for Big Boys in abundance.

Make no mistake, this is a hostile environment. I was cautioned not to stray outside the patrolled town limits.  Looking at the dense undergrowth, I’m sure I would have been hopelessly lost after going 100 meters. Nor do you want to cross the river unless by bridge or 4 week drive.  Even though it’s shallow, about 1/2 dozen local inhabitants lose their lives each year due to being swept away in the strong currents or being eaten by crocodiles. The average annual rainfall is 10 meters; it rains a LOT just about every day.

Of course, I was keenly interested in the technology, especially the Information Technology. Naturally, I wanted to keep in touch with business colleagues, friends, and family back home. There is no WiFi anywhere in the town.  The company controls the only Internet connection to the outside world and it guards the bandwidth jealously. Even though I was granted local network access, staff and subcontractors can’t surf the Internet without special permission, which is seldom granted.

So outsiders are forced to use the newly-installed cell phone coverage. The process was convoluted; involving a new SIM card for the phone, purchasing credits, activating the credits, and dedicating them to either voice or data communications.  When you run out, you buy more credits and start the process over again. But, you never run out because the available bandwidth and reliability are abysmal. Think old-style dial-up modem that works about 50% of the time. It was technically possible to tether my phone to the laptop and use it as an Internet connection, but this proved impractical as the speeds were so slow; the Google search page wouldn’t even load.

And so for 2 weeks I was forced to use my Smartphone exclusively for outside communications, typing Emails and text messages on the tiny keyboard screen and hoping they would send; very time consuming and frustrating. Surfing the Internet was a dream that never came true.

So, besides an entertaining adventure for a prairie boy, were any lessons learned? Two obvious ones:
Our large monitors, full size keyboards and well setup work-spaces are essential for efficient productivity in just about every aspect of our corporate work.
Fast and consistent Internet access is equally important in maintaining corporate productivity.
Deficiencies in either aspect contribute to user frustration and fatigue. Admittedly, its extreme to be relegated exclusively to a cell phone as your only communication device for an extended period, but it drove the points home. A worthwhile exercise for any manager might be to try a few days of phone-only.  It’s guaranteed to generate more understanding when a staff member asks for larger monitors, a better keyboard, or a more efficient work-space.

Now, if only I could overcome the jet-lag and stop sleeping at my desk in the afternoons …

Dave White