Trading a Management Job at a Telecom for a Career in Development at the UN

Trading a Management Job at a Telecom for a Career in Development at the UN


Amadou Sow earned a Masters in Computer Science at Gamal Abdel Nasser University in Guinea. After working as a software engineer and as a manager at a telecommunications startup, he made a major career shift in 2008 when he joined the United Nations Development Programme. The Bocconi alumnus talks to ViaSarfatti25 about why he made the choice, and how international organizations can be more effective in recruiting highly-skilled people. 

What do you do in your current job at the United Nations?
I’m an Accelerator Lab Specialist at the UNDP, the Regional Advisor for Africa. We aim to accelerate learning through a network of 91 labs in 115 countries around the world. We build portfolios of innovative solutions to test and address development challenges; we try to learn quickly what works and what doesn't.

You left a telecommunications company in 2008 to take a job at the UNDP. What led you to this decision?
I joined a telecom company in 2006, which we created from scratch. It was rewarding, both to be a pioneer in the effort to liberalize telecoms, and access to the internet. But it required a lot of sacrifice on the personal level with endless working hours, and no vacation in 2 years. That made me start to think about what I wanted to do, and exploring a career in development. I wanted to help people, and not just make a profit. So then I started to develop and provide free statistics courses to refugees. One day during a discussion, a colleague suggested that I volunteer for the United Nations. That's how I started at UNDP.

 What are the challenges in attracting highly-skilled people in public or government sector?
The international public sector and governments are facing competition from the private sector in the field of technology, and digital in particular, in the case of data sciences, cybersecurity, and innovation in general .... There is a need for political will and leadership to invest in these areas, to mobilize skills and expertise outside the country, and to create an environment and an ecosystem conducive to the emergence of talent, while giving them a sense of purpose on their role in development .... It is this similar approach that we use to create three profiles in each of our labs.
What sort of suggestion would you make to non-profits, governments or international organizations looking to recruit people like yourself? 
Last year, UNDP launched an innovative campaign to recruit new talent to build its network of labs, seeking skills in entrepreneurship, social innovators, data scientists, ethnographers, or sociologists that we didn't have before. We devised new, unconventional job titles, such as "head of experimentation", "head of exploration" . Then we went beyond social networks, with context and country specific game plans, we also organized interactive and active "Ask Me Anything" sessions in real time. Attracting people and getting them to join a cause is important beyond the issues of benefits and compensation.
What are the benefits for a governmental or NGO to having highly skilled IT talents?
The future of work is being designed. Governments and international organizations need plans that take into account the opportunities offered by the Industrial Revolution 4.0 by developing quality curricula. The work of governments and organizations could be extended through automation, and digital, through skills in areas such as artificial intelligence, digital, cybersecurity. Thanks to these skills, they will be able to work faster, improve quality and create value.
In the work I do, and through the labs, we have seen the role of quality and targeted recruitment that encompasses functions such as experimentation, exploration including the use of time-based data, or ethnography to expand our understanding of the issues and the human dimension, serve as a lever in the response to the crisis of COVID; We have seen, for example, in Uganda the use of existing e-commerce platform to connect the informal sector (about 70% of jobs in Africa) with consumers.
What would you tell people who are mulling going into the public sector from private like you did?
You have to be prepared for it. Technical skills are important, but you also need managerial and emotional skills: so be curious, learn continuously, be able to listen.  It is a multicultural environment where you have to adapt, be ready to make sacrifices, to work where there are socio-economic, political, security needs and challenges .... I have traveled a lot to places where there was no electricity, no water, no place to sleep.

Amadou Sow received an Executive Master of Management in International Organization (EMMIO) from Bocconi in 2015, and went on to earn a Doctorate in Business Administration from Bocconi in 2020. “From the very start of the interview process, I had the feeling there was a strong human side. There was always someone to help out and get it sorted. The message was: there is space for you, whoever you are. You have your place. So that’s the start.” What sticks in his mind looking back? “The quality of the faculty, the diversity and the simple but profound interactive exchanges, are the assets of these programs that I benefited from over a period of 5 years from EMMIO to DBA... You learn to question your thoughts, to challenge the known and the unknown, to create, and to innovate…”

by Jennifer Clark

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