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Global CIO: Would You Move To China? This CIO Did

Mar 27, 2010 (04:03 AM EDT)

Read the Original Article at http://www.informationweek.com/news/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=224200426


What if.

What if you took that recruiter call.

What if the job sounded like a good fit, that right next move in your career.

What if ... well, of course your spouse would say "no way," right? Your spouse would explain how you're insane to uproot the kids, including a teenager with special needs who sometimes requires a wheelchair, and toss the family into a foreign country where you don't know the language, culture, or one single person.

"She said 'Oh, that would be fantastic. You should really try to get that job,'" says George McKinnon, who was VP of engineering at Expedia at the time.

Gulp.

Now it's up to you. Good business opportunity, the family on board -- what would you do? Would you pack up and go to China, the world's biggest growth economy?

McKinnon did, and for the past 11 months he has been CIO of Bleum, an IT outsourcing firm that focuses on providing outsourcing in China to U.S. and European companies. He's living in Shanghai with his wife, Liz, their 11-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son.

It was a big change personally and professionally for McKinnon, who also spent six years as CIO of Nationwide Insurance, more than two years as CIO of Wausau Insurance, and a stint at Microsoft. Understanding McKinnon's choice dares you to consider what career choices you would make. Our 2010 IT Salary Survey shows U.S. IT pros feeling risk averse amid frozen pay and hiring, but taking a chance--an overseas move, a shift to a new IT area, or a move into a business unit role--might be what it takes to rev a career. (Download our Salary Survey free here.)

Unique Opportunity

Bleum is unusual among China-based IT outsourcers because it's focused on serving companies in the West, rather than on the booming Chinese domestic market. Bleum's typical client is experienced with IT offshore outsourcing, probably in India, and is looking to diversify its outsourcing into new geographies.

In China, language and culture tend to be the biggest barriers for Western companies outsourcing there, so Bleum tries to remove those by running an English-only office, and using what it describes as Western management practices. Founded by Eric Rongley, who had run a Chinese development organization for CapitalOne, Bleum has clients including banks, hedge funds, and what McKinnon describes as one of the U.S.'s largest e-commerce sites. To get hired, applicants must take an IQ test and an English language test.

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Employee retention's tough in Shanghai. One way Bleum competes is its Western focus-- hiring people who consider exposure to Western companies and their management, and working in an English-language environment, a career advantage. It has kept turnover under 10%, which is good in the high-growth Chinese economy.

"The Chinese professional is very hungry, very aggressive, wants to work very hard," McKinnon says. "... You have a very motivated workforce. So unless you're going to pay more than everyone else, how are you going to recruit and retain?"




For McKinnon, the huge professional shift was moving from being a buyer of IT services for his whole career. "Now you're on the other side of the table," he says. He's finding it surprisingly fun, with the opportunity to sit with a wide variety of CIOs to solve problems.

One thing that always bugged him as a buyer was an IT outsourcer telling him that every single thing about a big project was on track. "If you have a big shop, you know all projects don't go as planned," he says. "When your provider comes back and says 'Everything's green,' you think 'How is that possible?'" McKinnon says Bleum has a proprietary quality management system that gives client execs real-time reports on the Bleum team working on their project. It's used with a dashboard to give clients red-yellow-green performance measures of the team on 15 dimensions.

Bleum's relatively small, with almost 800 people, but growing, expecting about 1,000 people by year-end. And it's adding some large, multinational clients, both key reasons McKinnon was brought in. It's adding a second development center in Shanghai, and it's contemplating centers in other countries, to give it staff in the same time zone as U.S. customers. It's also hiring in the U.S. this year, recruiting 20 U.S. college grads to spend a year training in Shanghai, before working on client sites in the U.S.

The Personal Challenge

McKinnon says his family doesn't travel incognito in China. While it's not uncommon to see Westerners, they still stick out in this city of around 20 million people. Kids have asked to take pictures with his blonde-haired 11-year-old daughter, Savannah, like she's Hannah Montana. His son has a tremendously rare hereditary condition called Tyrosine Hydroxylase Deficiency, which leads to a dopamine deficiency in his body. That means, without medication every three hours, he can't move a muscle. McKinnon says that through therapy his son, Tyler, has learned to walk, but also uses a wheelchair regularly. All that, plus the service dog who can accompany Tyler everywhere, even on planes, means they are used to be noticed.

At the office, Bleum's English-only work environment allowed McKinnon a unique chance to work effectively in China, despite not knowing the language. But "once I walk out the door, I know 37 words of Mandarin," McKinnon says. "Pretty regularly, you're in a situation where there's no English whatsoever."

Any ex-patriot life offers a mix of immersing in a culture and feeling like a perpetual tourist. The McKinnons' daughter goes to an international school with other ex-pats, while Liz McKinnon home schools their son. The family has a driver as many ex-pats do, in part because the streets signs can be baffling to read, though they also use electric scooters and Shanghai's ultra-modern public commuter rail. They almost always eat local food, but keep a stash of peanut butter and mac and cheese comfort foods.

And the family travels regularly to see the rest of China. "It's still very much an adventure, and it's really fun," he says.

McKinnon found himself looking at a unique professional and personal situation, the kind that can't help but make you wonder whether you would embrace the adventure, and take the risks, that he has.

I like to think that, gulp, I would. Would you?

Global CIO small globe Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek.

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