Big dreams are easy to conjure, but much harder to bring to full bloom. That maxim has a lot to do with the experience of Ted Barlow, an American IT entrepreneur who supplies the vision, the horsepower and the faith that sustains one of the most improbable IT services organizations anywhere in the Nearshore region. Barlow is a purpose-driven leader who dreamt up NouKod (meaning “we code” in Haitian Creole), almost five years ago when he recognized – while already in Haiti – that his leadership and technical skills where better spent in the IT business (he’s the former Chief Security Officer at McAfee among other IT roles in the last 30 years), instead of working inside the bureaucracy of humanitarian organizations.
Q: You have a made a very serious commitment to build NouKod in Haiti literally from the ground up. What got you to this point?
Barlow: I had a long career in IT Management specifically security services. When I was done with that, I was done with that – you know. And I really didn’t want to go back into the corporate life. I did a few different things. My wife and I got interested in Haiti, and after the earthquake, we moved down here with some of our older kids. And with my background, I look around and wondered why outsourcing had not taken off. And while I was here right after the earthquake for relief efforts, I quickly realized that relief is not my thing but development is and job creation was what I wanted to do. So, it took a little while but we just celebrated our fourth-year anniversary for NouKod yesterday. I am just a hard-headed person who felt like this is what the future needs to look like. We need hundreds or thousands of Haitian developers, IT people, and technical people making good wages – and that’s going to change things for the future. I really believe that.
Q: Your IT background and experience in outsourcing seems to have been very helpful. Tell us how?
I was with a company that has a thousand QA Testers in Bangalore, India, and I went there a couple of times. I know how powerful the outsourcing model is. When you look at Haiti and all the things you shouldn’t and can’t do, for example, getting involved in imports and exports of physical items. That can be very challenging. Technology and the internet bypass all of those troubles. We’ve managed extremely difficult clients with a lot of requirements. We were competing with top-end programmers in the U.S making top-dollars, they came to us because of the price differential. But then, we showed our value, and our guys’ participated in the team and got better and better, learned what they needed to learn.
We just have to do a lot of work to get more people at that level, to senior-level which is what embedded services are about. Also we introduce a 6-month boot camp. We’ve run two groups through that and we’re expanding, adding a lot more professional training including communications skills.
Q: Give us the rundown on the process and the duration it would take to find the right people, and get those people placed on your team.
Barlow: We’ve run 26 people through our boot camps and we have an eight step selection process. We are really looking for strong character, strong motivation, and it doesn’t matter whether they are graduates from universities. Two-thirds of our developers have graduated from universities. We do a little bit of skill-testing, we use an interesting technology in Silicon Valley called “Knack”, which is basically a video game that tests whether they are a good programmer, whether they are trustworthy, so we get a score for that. We like that tool. And then we interview, and do a two-week mini boot camp and then see if they are really capable, then they start the six-month program.
We had one person hired without boot camp. He was a young kid who graduated from the best university in Haiti (Université d’État d’Haïti). He has been supporting himself doing freelancing work on Upwork. He has self-discipline and we hired him directly and didn’t make him go through the boot camp.
Q: How long did it take you to figure out that you would have to build your own boot camp?
Barlow: Well, we partnered with Flatiron out of New York. We have used their boot camp for the first two programs. We have now started building our own platform and curriculum.
Q: Flexdrive has emerged as one of the bigger customers wins for your group. As we know, Flexdrive sold its tech platform to Lyft. How did that relationship come about?
Barlow: Flexdrive was having a difficult time finding local resources for anything close to affordable, and even competent for that matter. We helped refactor half of their mobile apps when our guys came in and got involved. We worked on several special integration projects as well. Anyway, they gave us a try and they liked the guys. They never actually came down, they wanted to but then things got too difficult for them to visit in Haiti, and they ended up selling a good chunk of their technology platform to Lyft. Our contract just ended last month with them after almost two years.
Q: So what was it you were actually building throughout that process?
Barlow: They had come up with an automotive subscription model. They were in that space. They are working with their own dealers and delivering their own cars in the United States but they are also working with other groups internationally (Norway, Spain, I think they also got involved in Argentina before we stopped). They were building a white-labeled platform. We built the front-end. They had an original front-end, they did a new rebuild of the mobile app using React Native. That’s what we were asked to participate in from the very beginning.
Q: How did you manage the Agile aspects of it, and all of the requirements of that approach?
Barlow: Of course, the team leadership was all on their side. We were providing the technical expertise, the developers. Our guys had to learn some of the tools that they were using of course. But they plugged-in pretty quickly. The daily stand-up call at the beginning, video conference call, and talking about they have been working on, and what they are going to work on, and roadblocks that kind of stuff. Towards the end, they started using a tool that they plugged-in to Slack where they ask the same questions online and getting a written response kind of thing.
Q: Haiti is currently positioned more as a BPO services destination that an IT hub. What needs to happen to re-shape that perception?
Barlow: At the end of the day, it needs to be about quality. You’re going to get jobs with stories and interest but you’ll keep them with quality. We are already getting situations where we are being asked to rebuild and refactor. Work that is coming from India. Work that is coming from other locations. We have to show that we are capable of doing that and more.
Q: About pricing, what should people use as a guideline?
Barlow: I mean, we are still early in the game so we are still building our reputation and pulling out our portfolios. We are offering aggressive pricing – let’s just put it that way. But I think we compare favorably to places like Vietnam and other countries like that.
Q: Where would Haiti rank against India?
Barlow: Of course, India has grown horizontally as well as deep. You can find very inexpensive shops in the middle of nowhere in India. It is obviously a huge country and a huge population. You can find a micro-economic environment, it is just like Haiti in India. You can find low-cost providers in India. I mean the big cities of course are not low-cost providers, but you can find low-cost providers in India. But the quality has gone fair. We are finding people who have gone there and not been very happy. I hear much better outcomes coming out of Vietnam for $20-25 an hour, that is where we want to sit. I want to compete against Vietnam. We are not Eastern Europe yet but that is a way down the road.
Q: On our previous visits to Haiti, we have been really struck by the artistic sensibility and design strengths. Is that part of your vision, including UI/UX offerings?
Barlow: We wanted to get our development services up and running and that is where we are focusing on. Within a very short time, I want to open up design services. I also feel like we could crack into the game development area which is a combination of the two. Design and artistic talent like you said with the development aspect. I think in the future, we will have a team dedicated to game design or game development.
Q: Sooner or later somebody is going come in to Haiti and say “Wow this is some really rich territory”. You are the one who has been putting a lot of commitment behind the boot camps and doing a lot of heavy lifting to nurture talent. Do you see that to be a vulnerability?
Barlow: It is a good question and to tell you the truth, my original goal and is still my goal is that this is an industry and not just a successful company. Obviously, I want NouKod to be most successful, have the best talent, best developers, best designers, and all of that. But for me, success is 10,000 people working in an industry and not just people working in a company.
That said, we don’t have a problem with that right now since there’s no competition. I just had a conversation yesterday where somebody was worried about turnover and let them know that we have zero turnover. But we are careful. First of all we don’t train somebody that we don’t give a job to. I don’t do training to do training. If I’m not going to hire them, give them a job when they finish – I’m not going to do a boot camp.
So we do one for one and we offer the training for free. It is really sort of a pre-internship situation. We ask them for a commitment, an honor commitment. What’s interesting about the Haitian society is that it’s almost a reverse commitment. To them, they see it as “I’m going to give them a job for the next three years” and they are excited about that. So that’s how we handle it.
Q: In general, what is the working style you are trying to shape?
Barlow: We are trying to create a culture that is a combination of Silicon Valley and Haiti. The start-up culture with the Haitian culture. And we are still defining that, still building that. To be honest, I had to tell people how to have a work-life balance because the tendency is they work, work, work. When you ask people who really love programming on what they do in their spare time- it’s programming. It’s not plain music or painting, watching movies, or playing video games- it’s programming. Often I am having to tell people “Look, I expect this, I expect you to work hard on this many hours a day, this many hours a week then if you still want to program, do your own projects” and they are. They are all mini entrepreneurs, they are all doing great things, and we want to encourage that. I think it’s more of having to help them understand what work culture is and what the expectations are, more than having to push them really hard.
Q: It is really remarkable what you’ve been able to build alone but in order for this industry to really emerge. For this industry to grow into a community there need to be other actors and a lot of things going on to build that momentum.
Barlow: I hope we are laying the grounds for other companies like us. I talked to some people who had the reaction of “Well, I wanted to start that once and never did” or who thought that it was a good idea or the ones that started but didn’t fully commit. It becomes sort of a freelancing situation and in my opinion, freelancing isn’t going to be successful here for quite a long time. Just because of the infrastructure challenges, the need for tools like credit accounts, or being able to take payments. Simple things. Difficult things. That kind of a loose relationship doesn’t work as well and is kind of a set-up for failure.
For me, we need to be like a regular company. We need a building, we have a great space, we need a cellular internet, good infrastructure, air conditioning, good equipment and then people can just do what they like to do. I think there will be some other companies like that. As well as I do, what I read on your pages is the consolidation of the industry, big players, small players, moving into new locations so I fully expect that to happen in years. to come. But it is a challenging place and there are risks that will remain.