By Staff writer
The enterprise software giant is quietly making a big push in the area of education to make sure there are enough local people trained in its applications to ensure the long-term viability of the company in the region. Sergio Giacoletto admits it will be a big challenge
There are a number of things that normally spring to mind when thinking about Oracle: its controversial CEO Larry Ellison; its buying spree of recent years that has seen it capture a number of its rivals in the applications space; perhaps even Ellison's high-profile support of a team in the Americas Cup yacht race. But Oracle as a company heavily involved in education? That probably would not be high in most people's thoughts, not even if you were looking at vertical industry sectors where it sells software. Isn't that more something that the Microsofts and Intels of the world do?
Which is to do the firm an injustice, Sergio Giacoletto, executive vice president for its Europe, Middle East and Africa (MEA) operations, might feel entitled to retort.
Giacoletto was in the Middle East recently to see how various projects were working, most notably in Egypt, where the firm is heavily involved the government's ongoing education initiative. Last year saw Oracle sign a memorandum of cooperation with three Egyptian ministries - the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Education - to work with them on the rolling out of Oracle's ‘Think.com' programme in the country. The Think.com programme aims to help develop basic computer literacy skills for primary and secondary school children, while also helping to provide schools with greater internet access.
"We have already done 200 schools, the aim is to do 2,000 over the next couple of years," Giacoletto says. "When this is done we'll have helped 800,000 students learn to use the internet and other skills."
As well as working with students, Oracle has also set its sights higher, Giacoletto says, with the firm also having signed an agreement with the government to work closely with teachers in the country, including providing them with better teaching methods and certification in key skills.
"What we are doing there is ‘training the trainers': we are training the teachers at universities to improve the way they deliver technology skills," Giacoletto explains.
Not that all of this is entirely altruistic, Giacoletto admits: "At the moment there is a shortage of [Oracle] skills. If you look at the demand from our customers and partners, there are not enough students coming out with the right skills, so in order for our business and for the [local] economy to develop we have to do something about that."
The vice president of Oracle's own University training programme, Peter Bensch, recently told
that the region will need 18,000 people with Oracle skills by 2010 - or the firm will lose business. Giacoletto acknowledges that this is a serious concern for the company, although he says he believes the company's various training initiatives - including the Oracle University programme - will suffice.
"The good news is that people that have Oracle [skills] are getting better salaries than Microsoft people because there is this shortage of skills," he says. "But there is a shortage in the region, there is a shortage overall in Europe."
More immediately, the company is also keen to ensure that current customers are well looked after. In December Oracle opened its Global Support Centre in Cairo - its eighth worldwide and one of three in Europe (the others are in the UK and Romania). Stressing that this is far more than just a call centre, Giacoletto says the centre will help the company to provide true round-the-clock support for its customers - wherever they are located. While the centre will obviously provide strong local support, with a primarily Arabic-speaking team, the company views the work it will do with customers across Europe as one of its key priorities.
"We are building up capacity to do remote system management and tuning for customers in Europe," Giacoletto states. "We have customers that we provide services for, to do work such as tuning and monitoring. Some of that work can be done remotely, so we are building up capacity in Cairo, specifically for Europe, central Europe."
With the European market looking increasingly at options for outsourcing or even ‘offshoring' IT work, the Cairo centre could really come into its own, Giacoletto suggests.
"Egypt is offering an alternative to India and China quite frankly," he says, adding that this is good for Oracle and for its customers as they are in generally the same time zone, useful "particularly for those services that you have to do during the day", allowing Oracle to have software engineers working on problems in Europe.
"18 months ago we decided to open the support centre in Cairo, we went from nowhere to 350 people today and we're trying to go to 550," Giacoletto says, adding that the firm has been "pretty happy so far" with the quality of the software engineers that it has hired for the centre.
Last month also saw Oracle inaugurate a channel communications centre in Cairo, offering technical and support skills to the firm's estimated 800 partners in the region.
"We have a large partner community here in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) and we need to better support them, to have them come up with solutions and so forth," says Giacoletto. "So we are providing here a centre that provides telephone support, assistance and help to better develop their business and education."
One key area where Giacoletto believes regional business can develop is support for Red Hat Linux. In October Oracle CEO Ellison had announced that the firm was to provide support for the Red Hat Linux distribution, undercutting Red Hat's own costs for support. While the move has been criticised for potentially leading to a ‘fork' in the Linux OS, Giacoletto says that is not the case and that, if anything, it will benefit Linux uptake - at least here in the Middle East.
"I was surprised that the pick-up of Linux in the Middle East and Africa has actually been a lot slower than I expected," he claims. "I would have thought it would have been higher because of the advantages it brings for the market. It is still early days, the pick-up of customers that is starting to sign up for Linux support is starting to happen here, but it is definitely slower than Western Europe."
He adds: "I predict that by us providing support it will help the adoption of Linux because one of the problems that customers such as telecom operators and banks have is the issue of support. We have a lot of customers who tell us they want to go to one place for customer support, so this move should help."
Of course, Oracle has also been criticised for attacking the revenue stream of a company that it had previously closely partnered with.
"They are a partner from a technology point of view, now we are competing on the support," Giacoletto counters. "That is an interesting twist to the business model because once you have the open source licensing model then services becomes the competitive point for everybody," he points out.
For Oracle, its success in competition would seem to depend heavily on how many people it can convince that training in its skills sets is worthwhile.