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Post 9/11: The view from tech workers abroad

Computerworld

By Todd R. Weiss

(IDG) -- It's been nearly eight months since the September 11 attacks, and as an American IT worker abroad, "things are getting back to normal," says Douglas Brown, director of consulting in Asia at Computer Sciences Corp. But after work, as Brown makes his way around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he's stationed, an uneasy feeling still keeps him on guard, "like the other shoe has not dropped perhaps."

Indeed, it's been much harder being an American IT worker in another land since that horrific September day, say Brown and others who work and live far from the states.

Now more than ever, American workers residing in foreign countries have to remain vigilant about their surroundings and any potential threats, while being careful not to dress or act like Yankees. They need to keep others abreast of their whereabouts and use extra caution as they travel and spend time in public places.

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Brown says he continues to take precautions, such as taking a different route to work each day, in case he's being targeted as an American. But worries remain.

"The feeling moving around the city has fundamentally changed," he says. "You always have this uneasiness" as you travel on the streets, even when you are walking around. "You also walk with a sense of purpose and direction."

At work, there are other changes, too. "Most of the work in Asia is extremely relationship-based," with many social activities with clients, Brown says. But since the attacks on New York and Washington, "that kind of time spent in those situations has dropped a lot" because business associates worry about taking Americans to public places where they could be at risk, he says. "They're trying to look out for you and not put you in a situation where you feel uncomfortable."

Another post-September 11 change is more subtle. Before heading out for an appointment or a business trip, Brown finds himself making a quick call to let someone know where he is and where he's heading -- just to be on the safe side.

He says he tried to remain as outgoing as he was before the attacks because the alternative is to be afraid. "And to be afraid is to let those who do such horror achieve their goals," he says. "The challenge in this new world is that nothing is sacred, and the amount of time one feels the need to be in heightened awareness is practically constant."

The friendships Brown has made abroad have been strengthened since the attacks, as people have pulled together and look out for one another. "We go to places which will maintain the adventure of living in another country while minimizing the potential for discomfort on either side," he says.

Brave New World

Such anxiety has become widespread for American workers in overseas postings. Barry Kozloff, president of Selection Research International Inc., a St. Louis-based firm that evaluates workers for suitability for international jobs, says the combination of the attacks and the sluggish economy have markedly slowed the number of Americans in all fields going abroad to work.

"There's a lot of concern about sending Americans to work in the Middle East, even more than before," Kozloff says. "You have to look at it region by region."

John Walsh III, director of service delivery in Europe for Computer Sciences' chemical industry group in Bad Homburg, Germany, says office security was increased immediately after the attacks. Several building entrances were closed as a precaution to better control who goes in and out, and several guards were added. The company also made workers aware of several anthrax scares that ended up being false alarms.

As a former intelligence worker at the U.S. Defense Department, Walsh says he's taken more personal precautions as well, including avoiding speaking English in public.

When he and his family are in their home outside Frankfurt, they feel very secure, he says. "Probably when we feel most unsafe is when we're at a large American icon like McDonald's or at the airport."

Right after the attacks, Computer Sciences called its overseas workers and offered to fly them and their families home to the U.S. as soon as possible if they wanted, Walsh says. Only one temporary worker took the offer. Walsh has about three Americans working for him out of some 400 people in eight European nations.

There have been outreach efforts by the U.S. Embassy, which has answered questions and given comforting support, he says. On September 12, Walsh had satellite television installed in his home so he and his family could stay abreast of what was happening back home.

So would he feel uncomfortable bringing any new American IT workers overseas now?

"Not particularly," Walsh says, "as long as those people would feel comfortable working overseas."

On a recent trip back to the states, he says, he was heartened by the "rejuvenated pride in America" he witnessed. "I think it makes you proud to be an American seeing everyone pulling together at a time like this."

Toby Weiss, a senior vice president in Tokyo for Islandia, New York-based Computer Associates International Inc., says that in the past, companies in Japan and Korea frequently sent workers to the U.S. to get technical expertise or to review trends. But companies have cut back dramatically on those trips, he has noticed.

"The September 11 tragedy caused a slowdown in companies willing to travel to the U.S.," Weiss says. "It's starting to pick up a little bit more now."

What's more, some of CA's foreign IT employees who were working in the U.S. at the time of the attacks "had a sense of uneasiness" that the company had to help them work through, he says. CA did this by providing security information and updates through the company's global security department.

As for being an American in Japan, Weiss says he now has a "much more heightened sense of what's going on, but really I'm not overly preoccupied" with concern. "My sense of worry has increased a little, but my sense of awareness has increased tremendously."

Eric Peffer, a delivery mobilization manager at Computer Sciences in Jakarta, Indonesia, says his everyday work routines haven't changed. But like others, he remains constantly on alert for potential safety problems.

Right after the September 11 attacks, some of Peffer's American co-workers were temporarily evacuated, but things soon returned to business as usual, he says.

In his work travels in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore since the terrorist attacks, he says, he has received warm support from locals, most of whom are Muslims. "The Muslim citizens are constantly reinforcing the fact that the attacks are not representative of the behavior a 'true' Muslim supports," Peffer says. "They emphasize that the attacks are against all the beliefs of the Muslim religion and were carried out by radicals."

Irene Dec, vice president of international operating management at Newark, New Jersey-based Prudential Financial and a regular traveler to London, Asia and Central America, says her company's in-house security staff has done much to alleviate her worries by keeping traveling workers constantly up to date on any problems.

Immediately after the attacks, only business-critical travel was permitted by the company for about three weeks, but that restriction was lifted in October. Prudential has about five Americans abroad in IT within her division, she says.

Says Dec, "They're really doing studies out there to tell us if we're at risk."


 
 
 
 


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