The Business Journal last spoke to Shawnee Huckstep two years ago, just before she moved with her family to the United Arab Emirates to oversee the growth trajectory of her Colorado Springs-based company TechWise.
Huckstep and her husband Arran, who works as the company’s chief technology officer, started the company in the ‘90s to specialize in software development, but the firm soon switched to information technology to meet growing demand.
Then, in 2006, TechWise offered military training services and contracted heavily with the U.S. Department of Defense.
But as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began to wane, and federal sequestration dealt contractors harsh blows, the Hucksteps began looking elsewhere for opportunity. The company now specializes in defense and support services, emergency management and other types of consulting for the UAE, where TechWise Global (launched in 2010) is currently headquartered.
Huckstep discussed her experiences working and living in the Middle East: the differences, the challenges and the rewards.
Has the company grown much, in terms of employees?
It’s about the same. We may have about 10 percent more — around 220 — now. That growth is in consultants. We provide consulting services and subject matter experts for those countries that we work in.
How else has the company grown? How does it continue to expand?
We have opened a second office in the UAE. Our first was in Dubai and our second is in Abu Dhabi. There are opportunities everywhere over there, but I feel that we are mostly competing with other countries. It’s a different type of competition, for who has the best idea or the smartest approach to solving problems, and who can implement those plans in the most affordable way. I definitely feel that we represent America, and we are in many ways this sort of figurehead for American consulting services over there. I feel that our ideas are sought after and I see growing interest from other organizations and other countries — that’s really exciting.
What is the biggest challenge to competing in terms of cost?
Americans are the most expensive to employ, but we want those subject matter experts and employees with the experience implementing the types of missions we are recommending. When you compare an American with someone from Australia, or the UK, or Canada … the cost of labor is about 40-percent more. What ends up happening is we have to hire non-Americans in order to compete for business. As our business is diversifying internationally, we have the Americans who understand what needs to be done on the consulting side, but we have to hire other people to implement those plans.
What would you say is the primary cultural difference you see when it comes to doing business in the UAE compared to America?
The biggest cultural difference I have found is related to problem resolution. There is a completely different approach and mindset in the Middle East than Westerners have. In the beginning, I thought they were wrong and we were right … but over time I’ve realized the benefits to both ways of thinking. I don’t feel like success is necessarily getting them to adopt our opinions and mindsets — I think it’s all about working together and taking the best from both cultures to apply a unique sense of understanding, empathy, trust and respect for each other in order to solve those problems.
“I think it’s all about working together and taking the best from both cultures to apply a unique sense of understanding, empathy, trust and respect for each other in order to solve those problems.”
What do you like about the UAE?
It’s basically a big island … so there are beaches everywhere, very comfortable weather — it’s lovely. While there are so many great things and conveniences that America has that they don’t have — mainly public education — they do have many things that we simply don’t have. There is a very robust travel base. Every Western family that I know living there takes amazing vacations because it’s only three or four hours away from Turkey, Greece, Italy …. That’s an aspect of living there that I really enjoy.
Is TechWise looking to expand into any other Middle Eastern countries?
Yes, but we’re looking at keeping a headquarters presence in the UAE, because they are so accepting of Westerners. It’s a very friendly and a very comfortable environment. Frankly, living there is beautiful, and it’s very easy to acclimate to that way of life.
Have you learned to speak the language?
Not too much. The business language is English, so most Emiratees speak it. That’s actually one of the more disappointing aspects to living there — I’m not forced to learn more Arabic.
I wish it were more of an immersive experience, because I think it’s beautiful.
How would you describe the work TechWise is doing in the Middle East?
I can’t really say too much. I can say that, at the highest level, we’re helping the country develop their doctrine and integrate strategies, systems and training in order to build a more resilient nation.
To what do you attribute your success?
I believe the important part of success is building trust and proving that you will follow through… There are always going to be problems, and your approach to solving those problems is critical. It is also often related to expectation management and cultural misunderstandings. I’m proud because I think our team is committed to doing the right thing, even if we don’t always understand the decision or the perspective.
What other ways is TechWise growing?
We are currently expanding into more aviation-related business, as well as aerospace. Because of this greater role we have in the UAE, we have greater access to information and ideas and capabilities that the country is developing and are able to reach back into the pool of subject matter experts and companies we have relationships in the U.S. to form some teams and approaches that benefit both the U.S. and the UAE.