Technical Man and More

In the last ZTE-NBN hearings, the four principal witnesses all seem to be “technical men”. Three are engineers and all made money from computer technology.

Being an engineer and a technical man myself, I could relate what these men were saying.

CATEGORIES OF TECHNICAL MEN

Mr. Leo San Miguel insisted that he was just a technical man, interested only in technical matters. As such, he said he did not know anything about commissions, kick backs, “lagayan” or “tongpats”. Mr. Madriaga contradicted his kumpare by saying that people of San Maguel’s “caliber” cannot just be technical men. He said he and his team did the real technical work for ZTE. Mr. San Miguel was the one who was in charge in liaising between ZTE and the Filipino Group and between ZTE officials and the Technical team.

I understand what Mr. Madriaga means. There are technical men and there are technical men. The first group is composed of the honest-to-goodness technical people whose main goal is to do their job well – designing systems or building projects and minding the details.

The second group is made up of people who understand and even design technical projects but whose main job is entrepreneurial and social. They think up of projects, source funds and create technical teams. Mr. Madriaga belongs to the first group. Mr. San Miguel belongs to the second. Mr. Lozada, at least since his foray into government service, also belongs to the second.

There is a third group. The people in this group are not engineers but are technical minded. They do the same things as the second group. Mr. Joey de Venecia belongs to this group. The last two groups wheel and deal. They meet people, play golf, join various social and civic organizations, etc. In short, they build networks of influential people.

During the Aquino presidency, I worked in my brother’s company. He was the President and CEO, I was the VP. He did all the wheeling and dealing. I took care of the technical stuff – the very important nitty gritty. We had foreign principals. The company had retainer’s fee and a commission for every successful project. Nothing more. We were not involved in under the table commissions.

My brother and I did not know how to promise “commissions” to government people. If we knew how, we could have made a lot of money and the country as a whole would have benefited because our projects were way ahead of anyone else in the country in terms of technology and benefits – from train systems to satellite mapping to renewable energy. What we wanted most was real technology and knowledge transfer so the country can develop faster.

At any rate, since I was a mere technical man, I got practically nothing to show for it so I left my brother’s company. However, he got me again later as a consultant.

During the Ramos years, my brother did one project where the commissions were so big because of the government’s stupidity. The government gave a floor price for the bid that was so high it should have been the ceiling price! My brother only got one project. There was plenty for everyone. Some people made a killing (billions and billions of pesos) while the poor Filipinos paid the bill. (Hint: It was during the so-called “Energy Crisis”)

Later, my brother was able to partner with a huge power company in the US and they gave the best proposals to the government. In one project, they offered the government to transform the Bataan nuclear power plant to a natural gas-powered plant. They offered to pay off the Bataan nuclear debts; buy the old engines; and, use the natural gas from Malampaya-Camago. In another proposal, they offered to rehabilitate Sucat and Tegen power plants and power it with natural gas, at no cost to the government. They were both BOT plans.

I was at the Department of Energy then and I saw that their proposals were by far the best. But I told my brother to forget those proposals because the natural gas was already promised to the Lopezes and not even hell or high water could change that.

But he was stubborn. He thought that President Ramos could see that their proposals were the best. He and his group, accompanied by no less than the American and English ambassadors, met with the President and his energy advisers. Naturally, the President endorsed the project.

But, as the ZTE-NBN investigation has shown, the best proposals do not necessarily get the final approval. My brother’s law firm wanted to sue but finally decided to just let go of it. If only my brother knew how to say “Sec, may 200 ka dito!”, he could have gotten a lot of projects.

Instead of climate-friendly natural gas-powered plants, the government got all the polluters – diesel-powered and worse, coal-powered power plants.

TECHNICAL MEN AND THE SOCIAL ORDER

In my previous post at my other blog, I wrote:

For those who know the workings of government-business relations, technical men do not socialize with CEOs and Cabinet officials.

In the case of the ZTE-NBN deal, Mr. Madriaga is a Technical Man. He studied at UP and graduated from Texas A&M University. Engineering-wise, he is better educated than Lozada and San Miguel.  He can be considered a “successful man” and one the country’s top people in his line of business. He claims to be the “chief designer/consultant of ZTE Project” and has a “Scope of Work” document with his signature as well as Leo San Miguel’s and ZTE Manager Wang Feng’s. But he was never a part in the meetings among ZTE people, the “Filipino Group”, Joey de Venecia, Sec. Neri, Sec. Mendoza and COMELEC Chair Abalos.

Even in the meeting where the First Gentleman allegedly told Joey de Venecia to back off, Madriaga testified that he was brought along to Wack Wack by San Miguel but was not part of the meeting.

My brother’s company represented foreign firms – French, German, etc. In one business project, my brother and I met with the concerned Department Secretary who endorsed us to the President of an attached agency. One day, an engineer from that agency called us and asked for a meeting to discuss technical matters. Since I was the technical man, I went to their office.

While the engineer and I were discussing technical details in his office, the company President came in. He expressed surprise at my presence and demanded to know why he was not informed. He was very irritated with the engineer. He brought me to the Vice President and told me that I should be talking to that VP about any technical details.

I was aghast. I thought their engineer was under his instructions to ask for a meeting. But then, I did not understand what was so wrong with meeting with his technical guy who seemed to be merely trying to understand the project better.

Later, I told my sister-in-law about it. She is a lawyer and had been in government service for some time. She told me that when doing business in the Philippines, one cannot talk with the higher ups and at the same time talk with the people below. There is a social pecking order that must be followed.

Coincidentally, the President of that attached agency is a relative of one of the witnesses.

TECHNICAL MAN’S JOB

In my previous post at my other blog, I wrote:

San Miguel said at least twice that “it was his job to make his clients happy.” For that reason, he let his clients use his car and he accompanies them to wherever they want to go. It was in that capacity that he met Mr. Abalos and all the others involved in the deal, he said.

A technical man’s job is to make sure the project is technically feasible. It is not his job to drive his clients around or “to make his clients happy.”

In my categories of technical men, the first group is concerned with purely technical matters. The second and third groups usually want “to make the clients happy.”

Many Filipino dealmakers are fond of wining and dining clients. Not with our company. We usually book the hotel accommodations for the clients. Once, I told my brother that I could get them a huge discount in a 5-star hotel. I asked him if I should and he told me not to bother. They should be able to pay the regular amount.

But I remember once, I was told to go to the hotel to discuss some technical details as the Malaysian clients were about to leave the country. After the discussion, the Malaysians thanked me and politely asked if I already settled their hotel bills as they were checking out already. Unlike Europeans, most Southeast Asians expect the hosts to shoulder most expenses, and they return the favor when it is their turn to host. It was a good thing I had my company-issued American Express card and settled their account. I regretted not getting a discount for them in the first place.

My brother was not too fond of wining and dining clients. He preferred to meet politicians so he could lecture them on political issues. So, sometimes, I was forced to wine and dine clients.

Before I worked for my brother, I had my own company. We dealt with foreigners, too. Since I was basically a technical man, I got a partner whose job was “to make the clients happy.”

COMPUTER MEN

I am quite envious of the four computer / IT guys in the Senate hearings. They appear to have made huge sums of money out of their knowledge of computers. I probably learned how to use computers at the same time or earlier than them. Yet I never got a dollar out of it. Well, I got (literally) a few dollars from the Internet in the 90s while pursuing my hobby of creating websites for fun (nothing professional).

I first used the computer in 1976 at the university abroad. And I was hooked. It was a huge IBM (370, if I am not mistaken) mainframe. At first, we used keypunching machines to encode our programs. Much later, there were monitors and keyboards.

As engineering students, we solved our engineering and mathematical problems using the computer by writing the programs. We used Fortran, PL/1 and Assembly for the more difficult problems and BASIC for the easier ones – industrial management (called industrial engineering in the Philippines) problems.

But we only turn to the computer if our handy programmable calculators could not solve the problems. We thought we could not live without our handy HP (Hewlett-Packard) or TI (Texas Instruments) calculators.

(When I came back to the Philippines, I was surprised to learn that my former classmates who became engineers never used programmable calculators. In fact, they said they were not even allowed to use calculators during exams. That could only mean that they were asked to solve only the simplest problems.)

By the time I graduated in 1980, the Sinclair ZX80 portable computer was introduced commercially for under £ 100. The CPU had a clock speed of 3.25 MHz, 4 KB RAM and its own OS. For monitor, one uses a TV set and for storage, one uses cassette tapes played in a cassette recorder.

I wanted to be a Systems Engineer. There was no Computer Engineering then. But my cousin, who was two years my senior, was already taking that. I did not want to be the second Filipino Systems Engineer so I took instead, Petroleum Engineering. As far as I know, I am the first bona fide Petroleum Engineer (obtained the degree in 1980).

After graduation, I went to Europe for a vacation. I planned to go to the US and probably look for work there. I did not want to work in the Middle East because of their discriminatory salary scale – salaries were based on nationalities. I have always been against any form of discrimination. I was shocked that Muslim countries can do that. It goes against the Islamic principle of equality of all people.

To make sure that I would not go back to Saudi Arabia, I gave back my residence /work permit (I had a general residence/work permit much like a citizen’s) and asked only for an Exit Visa. When I got my passport back, I saw that I was given again a Re-Entry visa. I returned to the visa office and told the guy there that I did not want a Re-Entry visa. The fellow there was surprised and asked me if I was certain I did not want a re-entry visa. I said I was very sure. And so he cancelled my Re-Entry visa.

But on the eve of my flight to the US from Europe, I called my eldest brother who was in Saudi Arabia. He was very much against my going to the States. He insisted most ardently that I should go back to Saudi Arabia and help him in his business there. I told him that I already gave up my residence / work permit and had my re-entry visa cancelled.

But he insisted and so, like any dutiful younger brother, I changed my plane ticket and flew back to Saudi Arabia. That was another mistake – in a long line of mistakes – I had done in my life.

I have always thought that if I had gone to the US, I would have been there during the infancy of the personal computer and internet industry and perhaps I would have been part of it in one way or another. James Clark of Netscape, Stephen Jobs of Apple and Bill Gates of Microsoft were / are my idols.

When I returned to the country in 1983, I told my Systems Engineer cousin to collaborate on computer programs for oil and gas and sell them to oil companies. But he was not interested. He said he left PNOC because there was nothing for him to do there.

Incidentally, President Marcos issued an LOI stating that Filipino students in the Middle East be given $ 50 monthly allowance and for those taking relevant disciplines were to be given by PNOC $100 a month. PNOC was paying my cousin US$ 100 a month allowance during his four years in college. PNOC refused to give me allowance even if my field was more related to them – Petroleum Engineering. The reason was political. His family was pro-Marcos; mine was anti-Marcos.

Funny thing, after so many years, I eventually worked at PNOC.

I wanted to work in the computer industry but there was practically none in the country, or nothing that I was aware of. Once, I saw an ad about a company that needed computer programming teachers. That was in 1984. I went there. It was a big house in Dasmarinas Village or somewhere else in Makati. The applicants were given an exam. I saw a guy who was interviewing applicants. I overheard him telling one applicant what I presumed to be the salary. It was ridiculously low (according to international standards.) I remember telling myself that if that guy would tell me he would pay me that much or that little, I would tell him, “No thanks, but I would pay you that much to be my assistant.”

He did not interview me. Nobody did. After a few days, I got a call from a lady who told me I passed the exam but there was no vacancy. How could there be no vacancy when they advertised for so many?

Those were the same words that I got from the three oil companies I applied for, a couple of months earlier. Petron/ PNOC, Shell and Caltex all told me there were no vacancies. They were oil companies but they did not need a bona fide Petroleum Engineering graduate, with practicum in Germany, on-the-job-training in Saudi Arabia, and study tours in Germany, Algeria and Mexico.

THE INTERNET

In January 1994, as consultant to my brother’s company, I went to Malaysia to attend a series of seminars / workshops on the ENCORE “beyond mainframe” computers as we were thinking of introducing them to the Philippines. One of the seminar topics was the Internet. It was there that I was introduced to the concept of the Internet. At that time, there were no ISP’s in the country.

During that time, to test the concept of the Internet, I asked the company if I could send an email to my girlfriend who was working for an international wire agency, the Inter Press Service, in Manila. That was my very first email.

Later, I have read and heard accounts of the supposedly first email received in the Philippines, sent by an American in March or later of 1994. Well, I sent an email, which was received by my girlfriend, before that.

The IPS offices around the world were connected through the Internet and the writers / editors were emailing each other. But they did not even call them emails yet.

In 1994, I was already using the Internet even before its supposed “birth” with the publicly accessible ISP. The Internet was then comprised of local BBS networks which were later connected to international networks.

I tried to convince my brother to go into the ISP business so I could better study the internet industry. But he was not interested.

When I first visited the World Wide Web, I was hooked. I immediately saw the huge potential for revenues. But again, I did not have resources and I had no inclination to scout for financiers. I saw Philippine web companies going up and not succeeding, simply because they did it the wrong way.

In the late 1990s, I was making several websites for the mere fun of it. In some websites, I even got a few dollars from referrers and advertisers.

ENGINEERS and the INTERNET

As an engineer, I took it for granted that all engineers are naturally internet-savvy. After all, we studied computer programming. Even our calculators were programmable. Internet language or website development language – HTML, came from the same mold. I met a few engineers from the Middle East and they could all make websites. And they could all do computer programs whether they are Mechanical, Chemical, Electrical or Pertroleum engineers.

Every time somebody asked me why I knew how to do websites, my answer was always – “I am an engineer.” One time, I was talking over the phone about the Web with somebody. I was talking about my websites and some of the emails I received about them. He asked me where I learned to do websites. As usual, I said, “I’m an engineer.” Then there was a long pause from the other side of the line. I realized that I was talking to an engineer, who was working at a state-run company and a former engineering teacher at UP!

From then on, I stopped telling people that I know the Internet because I am an engineer. I also realized that many Filipino engineers do not know computer programming or website development. Something must be wrong with the Philippine schools’ curricula.

ENGINEERS and WRITERS

Although I studied engineering, my heart has always been in the humanities. I love reading – from the classics (Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. ) to the contemporary (Vidal, Capote, G.G. Marquez, etc.) — and writing (plays, essays, short poems).

But since my degree was in engineering, nobody wanted to get me as a writer for a newspaper or magazine. Writing novels is out of the question since there is no real market for local books in the country.

Just to prove that I could write, I took the CCP’s First Summer Playwriting Workshop in 1984. The participants were all writers, including a Palanca awardee. Our facilitator was the perennial Palanca awardee Rene Villanueva. When he asked us to write a monologue, he chose mine as the best and called me a genius. He also chose my one-act play as one of the top three. But since my play was in English and I refused to translate it in Pilipino (a lot of the dramatic nuances would be lost in the translation), it was not performed on stage.

Once, I was with a group of people at UP. We were talking about doing a book with different people writing about selected topics. One man there was a specialist in alternative healing and esoteric studies. When asked what topic he would write, he said he cannot write. When asked why, he answered very matter-of-factly, “I am an engineer.” I almost fell off my chair.

When I wrote an article for Mr. Jaime Licauco’s Body/Mind/ Spirit magazine, he said he was amazed that an engineer can write very well such that there was no need to edit it at all.

Fortunately, in 1999, a friend’s mother was a section editor of a newspaper and she invited me to write. She had seen an article of mine a year or so earlier. That started my career as a professional writer. Previously, I occasionally wrote articles for any newspaper or magazine that would care to ask.

In 2001, I was one of the winners of the Gawad Kalinangan, the Manila Rotary Club’s Journalism Award for one of the articles I wrote for the newspaper of my friend’s mother. Two of my articles were chosen among the seven finalists.

After that, I decided to formalize my journalism credentials by taking M.A. in Communication Studies with Journalism as major at UP. I thought that that would stop people from expressing surprise that an engineer can actually write. In the middle of the program, the College of Mass Communication introduced the M.A. Media Studies program to replace the old one. Since I had already taken all the required Journalism courses, I shifted to the new program but instead took Film Studies as my specialization. I was the first Filipino graduate of the M.A. Media Studies program at UP.

ALL-AROUND” MEN

Growing up, my idols were Winston Churchill (writer, politician), Jose Rizal (writer, artist, eye doctor, linguist, etc.) and Leonardo da Vinci (painter, sculptor, inventor, etc.), among others. These men were not content with one field of knowledge or discipline. They were Renaissance Men.

I did not want to be a mere technical man, so I tried other stuff. In college, I had one year of Liberal Arts courses at UP. While taking up engineering abroad, I took various electives like International Relations, Economic Development, Psychology of Adjustment and Microeconomics.

After graduation, I went to business, trading, finance (capital markets), and even real estate brokering (I am a licensed broker). I also took up a post graduate course in Economics – the top level Strategic Business Economics Program (SBEP) – at the University of Asia and the Pacific. I lacked the thesis for the M.B.E. degree. And to round it all up – I took up languages. I studied French (obtained a Diplôme de langue française) and Spanish.

But of course, a technical man will always be a technical man. Neverthemore.

2 thoughts on “Technical Man and More

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s