Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Ah, paradise! On Guam, the living is easy

When I was in the Navy, I spent nearly 3 years on Guam, most it working at the U.S. Naval Pacific Meteorology and Oceanography Center West Joint Typhoon Warning Center. When I left in the mid-1970s, I wasn't able to return again until 1998. Computerworld, my current employer, sent me out there to do a story about Guam and computing.

Guam, for all its tropical wonder, is a very difficult environment for electronics. Its wet, humid weather, coupled with the electric supply issues, typhoons and earthquakes make it a harsh environment. I'm sure things have gotten easier for information technology workers since I traveled to Guam, nearly 10 years ago now. I have to believe that Internet services have improved significantly, and companies have better backup systems then they did when I visited.

I had a great time on the island. I so loved it and someday hope to return, perhaps to live. Sometimes a place just feels right, and that's what Guam has meant to me. I realize I have spent relatively little time there, compared to so many others but sometimes a feeling can persist a lifetime and that's how it has been for me.

I couldn't find the story I did for Computerworld online but I did have a copy. It's what I wrote after my visit in 1998:

Ah, paradise! On Guam, the living is easy. Except for the typhoons. And the earthquakes. Oh, and the bird-eating snakes. Island IS workers develop self-reliance and a good backup system News Story by Patrick Thibodeau

MARCH 30, 1998 - A few days after Wolf Hofer arrived with his family in Guam in August 1993, the island suffered the largest earthquake on the planet that year. The quake measured 8.1 on the Richter scale, close to the magnitude of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Hofer wasn't shaken.

In the past four years, Hofer, manager of information technology at Deloitte & Touche's island office, has experienced less severe shakes, near brushes with major typhoons, power outages, power surges and mysterious communications breakdowns that occasionally plague his off-island network connections.

But as he sits at the outdoor bar of the rebuilt Guam Hilton, which was severely damaged in the big quake, and watches hotel workers tie down palm trees and remove deck chairs in anticipation of a typhoon that soon will pack 150-mph winds, Hofer has nothing bad to say about working on the island: "It's a user-friendly environment," he says.

It isn't, however, systems-friendly.

Guam, a U.S. territory, isn't an easy place for information systems professionals to work. Yet the obstacles that threaten hardware and networks and make disaster recovery a top concern also have helped IS workers thrive.

Guam's isolation and time zone difference -- it's a seven-hour flight from Hawaii and a 14-hour difference from the East Coast -- encourage self-reliance. And many IS workers on the island say that has given them a chance to make a real impact. It's a frontier attitude.

"If it has anything to do with automation, I'm the person who has to solve it," says Dan Sanders, IS manager at Mid Pacific Liquor Distributing Corp., which distributes beer, liquor and cigarettes to islands throughout the Pacific -- an area roughly the size of the continental U.S.

Protecting his systems from calamities, both man-made and natural, is high on Sanders' priority list. "We feel pampered nowadays because we only have one or two power outages a week," he says.

Protection from power outages, often caused by brown tree snakes that climb onto power lines and have eaten most of the island's native birds, can be accomplished with generators, line conditioners and uninterruptible power supplies. Most information systems have backups for the backups and the software to make sure they're working. Even grounding power supplies is tricky; builders have to drill through 100 feet of coral to get to solid rock.

Systems backups are mandatory. "Nobody wants to do the backup often, because you have to shut down systems, synchronize everything. But the trade-off is you have a reliable system," says Luan P. Nguyen, director of the University of Guam's computer center.

Systems protection begins with the building. With the exception of the hotel high-rises and some downtown office buildings, most structures are no more than two or three stories tall. They are also flat-roofed and made of concrete. Wood structures are hard to find. Typhoons such as Omar, which hit the island in 1992 with wind gusts of 220 mph, weed out weak structures.

Kmart Corp. took the island's tough conditions to heart when it opened a Guam store in 1995. Constructed with thick, reinforced concrete that is capable of surviving an earthquake registering 8.5 on the Richter scale and winds of more than 200 mph, the store also has its own water reservoir and sewage-pumping facility so it can reopen quickly after a storm.

"It's been built to withstand just about everything known to man," says Charlie Overmire, co-manager of the store.

Ron Schnabel, IS director of DFS Group LP's Pacific region, has turned disaster protection into a competitive advantage for his company. He keeps his stores open during a disaster.

With $5 billion in annual sales, San Francisco-based DFS Group operates the world's largest chain of duty-free shops. The company is Guam's largest private employer, with shops in all the major hotels.

Sales to the more than 1 million Japanese tourists who visit the island annually can be brisk during typhoons. "We don't miss a beat, basically," Schnabel says.

Kyle Davie found more than natural disasters on Guam: He discovered opportunity that was missing in many mainland companies. The Texas native arrived in Guam a year ago as IS manager at airline Continental Micronesia.

Instead of being confined to a niche role, Davie took responsibility at Continental for everything from installing voice mail to upgrading a legacy environment. "If a person has initiative and the desire, you can really make a difference a lot quicker here than you can in the U.S.," he says.

Davie says the biggest problem he deals with, one often cited by other IS managers, is finding qualified help. Working on Guam's mere 212 square miles can be a difficult adjustment, and it's common for mainland workers to get "rock fever" and a ticket back home.

The IS labor shortage is compounded by the decision by many Guam natives to leave for college and IS careers and never return to the island.

Vince Munoz's career path exemplified that pattern at first, but he came back after working for several years on the West Coast.

Munoz is now automating Guam's paper-based criminal justice system. A year was spent entering data from 15,000 records into a Windows NT-based system that included document imaging and photographs of suspects. The imaging gave police officers immediate access to restraining orders.

Munoz says he misses the access to people and technologies he had on the West Coast, but the problems he's had working in a remote location have improved his skills in other ways. "I've learned not to be intimidated and increased my ability to discover things on my own," he says.

The Internet has helped Munoz and others working on the island stay in touch.

In Guam, people speak of the Internet in almost reverential terms. It has made a huge difference in everything from helping people feel connected to the larger world to improving their ability to get technical help.

But the Internet can't solve all problems. Ordering supplies from new and even old vendors can be difficult; salespeople often treat Guam as a foreign country and cite shipping restrictions.

That's frustrating to people such as Robert Leonard, a network designer at New World Information Systems.

"Make it easy for us to give you our money -- that's how we run our business," he says. The business of Guam is shifting to tourism from defense-related jobs, and the role of private-sector IS professionals seems to be expanding.

Guam, with its never-ending summer, clear ocean waters and lush vegetation, has become the permanent home for people such as Hofer, who worked for 10 years in the Arctic Circle before coming here.

The 150-mph typhoon that was spinning toward Guam when Hofer told his story from the Hilton's outdoor bar missed the island. So did the 220-mph storm that whipped by less than a week later. But in December, Typhoon Paka hit Guam with what may have been the strongest winds ever recorded -- up to 236 mph before the monitoring equipment blew away. It uprooted trees, demolished businesses and snapped cement power poles built to withstand 220-mph winds.

At Hofer's office, the emergency generators kicked in. As soon as the storm ended, "it was back to work as normal," he says. "Except, of course, for the dress. Without power and water, people rapidly ran out of clothes and came to work in shorts and T-shirts."

Hofer, like many on the island, says he can handle whatever catastrophe nature delivers. The trade-offs are worth it. "I like living on Guam," Hofer says.


"I really like living on Guam."


Weather watching

Two-thirds of the world's cyclones -- storms with winds of 25 knots or more that frequently develop into typhoons -- occur in the western Pacific. And they frequently form just east of Guam. Eighty-eight cyclones were recorded in 1996 alone.

The U.S. Naval Pacific Meteorology and Oceanography Center West Joint Typhoon Warning Center on Guam keeps naval ships out of harm's way and warns everyone else about a typhoon's storm track.

Improved computer forecasting models and access to the Internet have increased the accuracy of storm tracking, which potentially saves the military and area government and businesses millions in unnecessary storm-preparation costs.

A few years ago, the average error in a 72-hour forecast for a storm track was about 325 miles. It's now down to about 250 miles. "This Internet technology has played a role in that," says Air Force Lt. Col. Mark J. Andrews, director of the warning center.

The U.S. Navy weather forecasting system uses wireless connections to transmit weather data via World Wide Web protocols to ships at sea. Maps, storm tracks and weather data can be viewed through Web browsers by ship crews, and weather officers at sea can surf the 'net to compare forecasts made by other agencies and governments. That can sometimes lead to quick electronic mail from an inquiring weather officer or captain.