Shuffling the pack

Ali Faramawy, vice president, Microsoft Middle East and Africa is responsible for one of Microsoft's fastest-growing and dynamic markets. The region comprises 10 Microsoft subsidiaries, 29 Microsoft offices and covers more than 70 countries. He talks to Peter Branton about what Microsoft is doing in the region.

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By  Peter Branton Published  March 12, 2006

|~|faramaway200.jpg|~|Faramawy: What we have right now is a country structure across the Gulf area with a very thin management level.|~|Ali Faramawy, vice president, Microsoft Middle East and Africa is responsible for one of Microsoft's fastest-growing and dynamic markets. The region comprises 10 Microsoft subsidiaries, 29 Microsoft offices and covers more than 70 countries. He talks to Peter Branton about what Microsoft is doing in the region.

Arabian Computer News: Let's start with Microsoft's regional strategy. You announced a reshuffle in August last year and said you were going to strengthen resources in the region even further. What are we going to see from that in terms of resources?

Ali Faramawy: If you look at the Gulf, then reshuffle is probably a good word, I've heard worse! There are some clear design principles that we were trying to do. I think the first thing - the most important thing - is what does our customer and our partner want to see in front of him? He wants to see a very capable Microsoft representative and he wants to see a very well empowered Microsoft representative.

The rest of the changes are attempts from us to see what kinds of synergies can we have between the different countries; are there similarities in business models, in languages and so on; and what is the most sensible geographical distribution? That is mainly what led us to combine the Gulf operations, add more and more people in customer and partner facing time and add more specialist resources.

When they created the new structure they added more than 10% (headcount) and added new roles. Now, with the recent budget review, we've added 20% more people in the region

ACN: What is your total headcount in the region?

AF: Let me try and give you the best and latest numbers. In the Gulf only, they have gone up from 114 to 145. And with that there are at least another 60-70 people on contracts and special assignments. We've added more people to the regional support centres in the Gulf and we've added more people to the Microsoft Technology Centre in Dubai.

Within the Gulf alone I think we are more than 200 people. This figure excludes Saudi Arabia. We have about 80 people in the Kingdom.

ACN: You say it made sense to combine the Gulf operations, but you have repeatedly split the organisation in the past? Why have there been these various changes in policy?

AF: I don't think that is very accurate, although it may seem like this. Usually when you start up in a new region, you start from a central point and you start adding people from that central point. Then after that, you start having very very light representation in the different locations. Then you start growing those representations. As those countries start to become much more self-sufficient, you try to minimise central resources. The ultimate idea is to have customer and partner facing people, then the systems and procedures and processes to encourage decision-making as much as you can. So what we have right now is country structures across the Gulf area with a very thin management level.

ACN: But you have done a lot of restructures over the past few years. You have had more than the likes of IBM, which did one major one last year. Why the difference?

AF: I think ours have been more, I don't doubt that. I think ours may have been more visible because we talk about them more, but all of them have been going in the same direction: to add more and more people to the field, give more and more empowerment to the field and reduce regional resources as much as you can. Right now, I'm doing the same thing in Africa.

ACN: Microsoft is also looking to do more consulting work, I understand. How will that fit in working with your solution provider partners?

AF: I was talking to the services manager in the Gulf, who is new to the role. He was asking me about best practices and so on. My advice to him is that he has four roles: one is around showcasing how the latest technology is really put in action. The second one is an enabler role around our partners. So, any project we do is a combination of Microsoft and partners. In an ideal world, we should be involved in the architecture and the design and a bit in the project management and quality side.

The third element is around delivery, customer and partner satisfaction, and the fourth is that ensuring the services organisation is one quarter of the people in a subsidiary. As an example, in the government portal in Egypt, which is one of the largest projects that we have undertaken, there are six Microsoft consultants and more than 100 partners. ||**|||~|faramaway200a.jpg|~|Ali Faramawy: In an ideal world, we should be involved in the architecture and the design and a bit in the project management and quality side.|~|ACN: On the product side, Vista and Office 12 still look some way off. If they come out in November that is going to be a success for you at the current rate of progress?

AF: I'm very confident that we will get them out before Christmas.

ACN: But you're not going to get them out any earlier though?

AF: We haven't gone out with a formal launch date yet, I have some indications from what we have done internally, but I would have to wait before giving any indication.

ACN When are we likely to see Arabic versions then?

AF: We do the Arabic, because of the usage of Unicode right now. Arabic is a tier one language; the Arabic enablement will be available out of the box. If people want to get the Arabic menus and Arabic help screens that will take a slightly longer time but it will be available one month or two after the first release.

ACN: So the Arabic versions may not be available until 2007?

AF: I'll still stick to 2006, Arabic is a tier one language. [But] if you look at the majority of products, then the majority of people use English version of the products with Arabic enablement. We were looking at usage in Arabic countries and we found that people preferred the English product, because for them it is an opportunity to improve and enhance their English.

ACN: What about XP Starter Edition? Steve Ballmer said last year when he visited Dubai that you would look at Starter Edition for the region. What is happening with that now?

AF: We launched it in Egypt and Turkey in January. In Egypt it is an extension to the home PC initiative. We've been working very hard to try and get a real low-cost PC into those markets. It's interesting because in Egypt and Turkey we found that people were going for the highest configuration, especially if the payments were around instalments, but we still wanted to create one that would cater for a new level of user. So, the Arab version is ready. They're out in the market and we're going to learn from those and maybe start doing this for other Arab countries as well.

ACN: So when and where else will we see Starter Edition here?

AF: It depends again on the demand and the market dynamics. It's not difficult to launch it in any country, but we need a strong system builder community. People need to be able to build PCs at a low price. We also need to be sure that people really want it. In the Gulf, the shift to multi-national PCs is going up, and the shift to notebooks is going up. So we need to think a bit more about what would be the right step to do here. For example, do we put a lot of effort in and get the channel trained and so on?

Right now it’s Egypt,possibly Jordan, and maybe Tunisia. We spoke about it in Saudi, but we're not 100% sure that they want the product. From our viewpoint, it's a market decision. It's not a Microsoft decision.

ACN: Finally, turning to distribution - what about the frequent references to grey product in the Middle East? What is happening here?

AF: What is happening is that as a company we are learning, in a very open world and a very transparent world, traders have the right to try and find products at the lowest price possible. At the same time, as a company, we try as much as we can to price the market. That has encouraged some people in different parts of the world to keep on looking at areas where we are more flexible in pricing and to source products from that market.

Of course, the last thing we want to do is lose that pricing flexibility. For instance, there was a period of incredible currency fluctuations in Egypt. It became clear that for the Egyptian consumer, putting those prices up and up in Egyptian pounds was not the right thing to do. As a company, we have to be sensitive to these things. But of course, other people are looking for opportunities in this - looking at moving that product around.

I think this is something that will always be there, but we try as much as possible to put in place mechanisms to prevent it happening a lot. We're trying as much as possible in licensing and reporting models to limit this issue.||**||

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