Even before the Arab Spring erupted last year, Microsoft executive Ali Faramawy knew he had a cool job. As corporate vice president in charge of the Middle East and Africa, Faramawy was doing business in one of the world's most dangerous and volatile regions, but also one of its largest untapped technology markets.
Then on the 25th of January last year, tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets in Faramawy's homeland of Egypt. The revolution that eventually toppled Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-long regime reiterated Faramawy's belief that a relatively small group of motivated people could accomplish large feats, and that technology could make their mission more effective and efficient.
Born in Egypt to banker parents, Faramawy, 47, moved to Abu Dhabi when he was 12 and attended private school. He turned down scholarships to Syracuse University and Georgia Tech to attend Alexandria University where he earned a degree in computer science. After college, he founded a software start-up before working for a series of companies in the Middle East, including NCR Corp. At 33, a headhunter recruited him to head Microsoft's Egypt operations as the country's general manager.
In September, Faramawy was promoted to corporate vice president. He talked with FINS about negotiating the release of a Microsoft employee kidnapped last March by the Gaddafi government in Libya, why he doesn't play favorites with employees, and the potential of technology to bring lasting revolution to the Middle East.
Jospeh Walker: You grew up in Egypt. What has the past year been like for you on a personal and professional level?
Ali Faramawy: My level of love and pride has just gone up and up and up. It was a reminder of how much I love my country and how much it means to me. And at the same time my level of pride in the Egyptian youth and Egyptian people who managed to bring down the regime through a peaceful revolution was incredible. It was also a bit of a course correction in my mind.
By nature, I always believe in the light at the end of the tunnel, and the opportunity to fix things. At the same time a lot of good people joined the previous government thinking they could reform from within. This was a reminder that sometimes reform from within does not work, you have to knock it down. It's not always about fixing things, if the basis is rotten, it has to be brought down.
JW: Let's talk about your career. You had an opportunity to study in the U.S. to get your master's degree, but decided not to. Why?
AF: I met an entrepreneur named Hamdi Atta who used to work for NCR Corp. He wanted to set up a systems integration company called Gulf Data International that could do good work through having good relationships with reputable software and hardware companies throughout the world.
He told me, 'Don't do a technical master's degree, work with me for a couple of years, then go get an M.B.A.' I was engaged at that time to my life-long partner, Shereen, who is my wife today. The question was: Do I live with her in the Middle East and work, or go to the U.S. by myself and study. I decided to get married and work, and to study later.
JW: What was it like to work for a start-up?
AF: I was a jack of all trades. There was always an international partner, a big project, and me. That was fantastic. It was the biggest learning experience of my life. I was negotiating major contracts at the age of 25, I represented the company in very tough situations and with major customers.
I remember at one point we were trying to demo a U.S.-based financial system to a major university in the Gulf, all the systems were in English, and we worked on the presentation for three months only to find out that everyone wanted to see the presentation in Arabic a few days before the actual presentation should happen. All of a sudden I had to fly to the U.K., work with the technical team on Arab-izing the system. I was working as a sales guy, and then all of a sudden I needed to go into the technical role, and then be back and present it.
I started building the confidence that you can do a lot, not that you can do everything, but you can do a lot if you have the right support and the right motivation.
JW: Why did you take a pay cut to work for NCR, the ATM machine and barcode scanner maker?
AF: I wanted to work at a multinational. I was very well paid at Gulf Data International and I took a pay cut to go to NCR and into their pre-sales department. It was mostly around software and systems, supporting the sales people. It became clear that my role was to convince people of how technology could work for them. So I moved into sales.
I actually had to go down a level to take the sales job. I took another pay cut -- I probably made it up in commissions, but instead of being a manager I became an individual contributor.
I learned a few very important lessons. I ended up working with a person who I would never want to be like and I learned to develop a thicker skin. I learned to learn from the people I admired and the people I did not admire. Because he had some unique capabilities, too.
He was my manager. I didn't like his divide and conquer approach. I didn't like, "the company doesn't like you, but I'll be the one to protect you." I didn't like that he sold himself to the customer more effectively than he sold the company. I didn't like his disrespect of people or his abuse of power. Pretty serious stuff.
But at the same time, he was very talented; he could read a situation like a book, like he saw into the future.
JW: Why did you leave NCR?
AF: In order for me to go up further in the ranks, I needed a godfather in the company. I realized this wasn't the place for me. And I decided that if I ever made it to the senior management ranks, I would either be no one's godfather, or everyone's godfather.
I like environments where your work speaks for itself. I like for the system to take you up. The people I work with are my friends. I love them. But at the same time, you want to really be fair. You want to go home at night and think people did not get harmed because they don't know you. You want a system where people can really prosper and grow.
JW: One of the criticisms of Middle Eastern societies is that there isn't enough of a meritocracy. Do you think your attitudes are in any way a reaction to that?
AF: Your remark is quite interesting because so often in emerging markets it seems that working hard and getting a good education is not enough for you to prosper. That's a common feeling in high population, low GDP countries. I don't think it's limited to the Middle East.
You look at what happens in places like India or Egypt or Pakistan; the students are amazing, and the results are unbelievable. The exams are brutal, and the learning conditions are not the best. But the students work so hard to distinguish themselves, but even that doesn't directly translate into prosperity. That's changing, of course, in recent years we've seen more and more economic development.
JW: You've said that Microsoft was your dream job. How did you land there?
AF: I was recruited for Microsoft through an executive headhunter. I was 33 at the time. They said are you interested in going back to Egypt? [He had been working in Abu Dhabi at the time]. I said, "I'm not sure." They said are you interested in going to Microsoft? I said, "Aha! Now I can smile."
I was interviewed in London at the Radisson Hotel in July 1997. They gave me a small meeting room and I had eight come people come in, one after the other, to interview me. I started the job on October 1, 1997. I was greeted by Steve Ballmer in the first three weeks of joining the company.
October 1, 1997, is a very big day for me, it comes just a little after the days I met my wife and had my two sons.
JW: One of your Microsoft employees, Khalid Elhasumi, was detained by the Gaddafi government in Libya and later released. What happened and how did you deal with it?
AF: The first part was absolute shock. We had done evacuations for most of our employees in Libya except the ones who wanted to stay. He opted to stay. We wanted to make the case very public, but his family was very worried about his safety. We had to be more quiet than we would have liked, so we provided support to his family. We tried as individuals, and with the help of other governments that were maintaining communication with the Libyan government, to help his case.
After a very long time, he was released. We don't know what the exact movement was that led to his release, but he made his way out of the country. We helped him settle in to a different job because the Libya job kind of disappeared. We're just so happy and glad to have him back. It was a very difficult time. There are some details about people who contacted us and who we contacted to secure his release that I can't talk about. But let me put it this way, I'm very happy that Khalid is out, and he will be the first person to go back to run Microsoft Libya.
JW: What do you enjoy about working in the Middle East?
AF: Two words can describe this region: diversity and potential. This is an area where you've got some of the richest countries in the world, and some of the poorest countries in the world. We've got countries where technology is top notch, but we've also got countries that are still finding their way into using technology.
We've got all the religions in the world, over 400 official languages, and only God knows how many unofficial languages in the area. We've got the famous, peaceful touristic havens, and unfortunately we've got also the world's big conflict areas.
JW: What is it like working as a technologist in the region?
AF: If you work in Microsoft or IBM in the U.K. or the U.S., you've got hundreds of specialists right beside you who can help you. Here it's different. We need people who can be generalists and specialists at the same time, people who can wear multiple hats, who can work very long hours. Weekends are not things that people think about easily, even though we encourage people to take care of themselves, their health and so on.
JW: What are the business opportunities in the Middle East?
AF: Look around you. Is there room to use information technology to improve the quality, accuracy and timeliness of information flow within governmental organizations? Are there other ways to use technology to actually offer better services to the citizens, to give more assurances to investors and foreign players? There's room to use technology in education to almost change the nature of our youth.
In this region, the youth are something like 60% of the population. So, to use technology to change the nature of the students from passive recipients of curriculum to active pursuers of knowledge. Or use technology to encourage pro-activity and teamwork without having to leave your home, and use technology to bring the best of education and educators to the homes of more students. To make them appreciate what happens in other parts of the world, but also make them ambassadors for their countries.
Write to Joseph Walker at Joseph.Walker@dowjones.com