For most tech companies, the act of developing new technologies, attracting talent, and getting clients up to speed is difficult enough, but what if a natural disaster was thrown into the mix?
Almost four months after Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean, the Puerto Rico tech sector is showing great resilience, overcoming continued operational difficulties while facing the challenges of staying relevant in today’s world.
For Wovenware, a Puerto Rican tech company with clients in the US and Canada, the challenges brought about by Maria have been vast, only adding to the difficulties of supplying artificial intelligence (AI) solutions.
“AI is still very hard to sell,” said Carlos Melendez, Co-Founder and COO at Wovenware. “It’s basically about educating the customer right now, letting them know how it can help, so we have to sell a vision of what they can accomplish with their data through predictive analytics. In fact, most of our time is spent educating clients on AI and deep learning instead of selling or working on products.”
Melendez pointed out that no customer has asked the company directly to create predictive analytics algorithms, because they simply don’t understand how it works – “to many of them, it seems like magic,” he said.
“To educate clients, we invite them to meet our data scientists who provide them with an overview of AI and what you need to make it work,” said Melendez. “The next step is to siphon through their unique data, look at the challenges of making it better and at the value that can be gained.”
Even so, it’s not just clients that need educating.
Getting Advanced Talent Up to Scratch
Although artificial intelligence algorithms have been around for decades, they are forever advancing and evolving, making it essential for data scientists to stay constantly aware of new changes in the tech. This means an abundance of training for newly hired data scientists.
“When people come in from the software development side, they have generally completed short-term courses and are ready to get to work instantly, but with data scientists you want Masters or Doctors in math, qualifications that – while essential – don’t prepare them for producing in a real-world workplace,” said Melendez. “We do work with local universities to get around this, but it’s a hard and long-winded process.”
For AI, talent is scarce anywhere in the world, but, with the largest engineering school in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is offering a couple of courses for the tech, creating enough new AI resources to go around.
“AI contracts always result in long-term projects because most clients don’t have access to the data teams or the technology,” said Melendez. “Data scientists will be in great demand for the next few years, as providers understand that enterprises find it hard to sell the necessity of in-house data scientists and advanced technologies.”
Education on all fronts is the primary concern for most tech firms, but when disaster strikes, those issues suddenly become an easier part of the journey.
Operational Ingenuity amid Disaster
For any tech ecosystem, reliable communications and infrastructure are essential commodities, so how did the Puerto Rico tech sector deal with the devastation that Hurricane Maria brought to the island?
Eliut Flores, Director of the Cloud and Information Security Business Unit at InTech, a local managed services provider, said that communications was – and still is – the biggest challenge. “To this day – almost 120 days after the hurricane – we are still running on a generator with no power in the building,” he said. “The government has been unresponsive and not provided a zone-by-zone schedule.”
Flores revealed that a contact within the national power company tipped them off that power will continue to be out until the end of March, adding another two months to the problem.
One of the key supports for InTech was Cloud services, which enabled its clients to continue operating without disruption. “Months ago, we took measures to move all monitoring systems, accounting, ticket management, and communications to the Cloud, which meant customers never lost access to our platforms when things went awry,” said Flores. “The exception was in Puerto Rico, where our customers were in the same boat and couldn’t communicate with us.”
The People Factor
On the employee front, many companies took a hit as families fled the island to retreat to the United States, reducing the workforce substantially. For those that stayed, some companies would provide cash advances to whoever needed it, as well as providing things like fresh water bottles and supplies.
“School was out, so you could bring your kids in if necessary,” said Melendez. “And the dress code was “whatever is clean”, because not everyone had easy access to laundry services.”
In this rough situation, both companies we spoke to experienced huge levels of generosity from other local companies and institutes that had seen their utilities services return, as well as a few stateside clients.
“Once we understood that power may not be coming back, we requested to send employees to client sites to work on projects until things improved, and all of them accepted,” said Melendez. “About 30% to 40% of our team worked directly from US offices for around 8 weeks, stressing one of the true differentiators of nearshore: being able to travel at a moment’s notice.”
InTech managed to secured local emergency space to continue operating, when one of the company’s largest customers – a financial institutions – lent 500 square feet of space with four different power generators and air conditioning. For Wovenware, help came from a local bank, their ISP, and Claro, a regional telecoms provider, each of which provided space for operations to continue.
Returning to Normalcy
While the island is still in a state of disrepair, the Puerto Rico tech sector is powering through and re-focusing on ways to stimulate the industry. With the help of other companies and institutes on the island, services were only affected by minor disruption, so the challenge now is to get back to developing talent and educating customers.
“Those in the Puerto Rico tech sector are part of a strong ecosystem that supports each other: if our peers are not doing great, then we all lose,” said Melendez.