The social change network


Inside Track


The Social Change Network


Roya Mahboob is trying to transform Afghanistan, one IT project at a time. She graduated from college in 2009 and, just a year later, founded the Afghan Citadel Software Company. Since then, Ms. Mahboob has developed custom software and proprietary mobile applications for organizations such as the U.S. government and Afghanistan's Ministry of Education.

Yet Ms. Mahboob's portfolio of projects extends beyond tech and into social activism. She launched the Women's Annex, a blog and video site, and the Afghan Development Project, which is outfitting schools in Afghanistan with Internet-connected classrooms. Her company not only employs developers in the country's growing IT industry, but also focuses on hiring women and empowering them through technology.

How difficult was it to get into the technology industry in Afghanistan?

It was very difficult for us to break into the Afghan business environment. Most of the people working with me were friends from university. We didn't have any financial support. We couldn't get a loan from a bank, since we had no savings. To get a loan, you need to have property or a large sum as a guarantee.

Another problem was that IT jobs were a new concept in Afghanistan—not only for women, but for men as well. And to tell people that, as a woman, I worked in IT infrastructure or software development was unacceptable, especially for male customers. I remember a potential project sponsor saying to me, “Oh, you are a 25-year-old girl? You can't have money to do this project. You should get married and have children.”

But as a woman, I also have had some opportunities. Women in IT here love to share and follow up on ideas. And I have had fewer competitors, since it's risky and difficult to work on women-empowerment issues.

How did you roll out the Internet-connected classrooms?

With the help of the country's Ministry of Education, we targeted 40 schools in Afghanistan. For now, we have had to select schools located near the Afghan Telecom fiber-optic network.

Then for each school, we talked with the village about the ways they felt they were not prepared for these computer classrooms—whether it was the risk of equipment being stolen or the lack of resources and power to maintain such a space. That helped us outfit each classroom according to the community's concerns.

The final step was to build out—paint the rooms and get new doors for security—and then bring in the computers and do the installations.

What were the potential challenges of completing this project?

Most of the difficulty is not the implementation—it's after. The project wasn't as simple as a school getting an IT center. It was after the installation that the work really started, because we'd provide training for all the students. Also, if the teachers or school manager lose interest, then the project is not a success—so we have had to be involved all the time.

Another issue we faced was electricity. Most of the time here, we don't have very much power. You can only turn on two or three computers at the same time. We treated this issue on a case-by-case basis, using voltage stabilizers to help us manage the flow of power, for example.

What is the country's major IT roadblock?

Education. Educating people about how technology can help make positive changes in their lives. Most of them think the Internet is only Facebook—that it's for making friends and chatting. They don't know the power of it.

Until recently, we also haven't had many people who know about IT in a formal sense. Now, many universities offer computer science courses, and there are institutes that offer IT training. But this is happening in the big cities. Out in the provinces, they still don't have IT hubs.

What lessons have you learned from managing projects in environments of high volatility and risk?

For a project to be successful, it's not enough to simply deliver a product that's good quality. In our case, we need the political support of the government and the local community.

“Heart and soul are part of my management. I strive to create an atmosphere in which we all engage and communicate with each other in a kind and patient manner. That's what motivates people to work for and improve your organization.”

It's also very important to watch how the project environment changes, and reflect that in your work. Coming in on time and under budget is a challenge not just for IT projects here in Afghanistan, but for all projects. In the end, our greatest success is when we see new students connect to the Internet and correspond with our friends and partners around the world.

Small Talk

First project you managed?
Checking technical systems for the U.S. military. We didn't have office space yet, so we worked in coffee shops.

What do you love most about Afghanistan?
My people and my beautiful land.

What's your favorite book?
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook.

Where was the last great meal you had?
At Persepolis, a fantastic Persian restaurant in New York City.

What project management skill have you found difficult to master?

Talent management. The hardest thing is to pick and retain talent. Some don't want to work for a woman. I‘m also young, and some people don't like being older than their manager.

The thing that keeps my team going through our most difficult projects is my heart. Heart and soul are part of my management. I strive to create an atmosphere in which we all engage and communicate with each other in a kind and patient manner. That's what motivates people to work for and improve your organization. PM




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