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Francis Boon

Champion for NetHope Academy Training

Francis Boon in Haiti 2010

Shortly after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Francis set up antennas to provide connectivity to NGOs in Port au Prince.

July 2011. IT Managers in NGOs often lead double lives. Oxfam manager and network specialist Francis Boon knows this first-hand. One day he is desk-bound in Oxford, a dad in a suit; the next he is huddled with rushed-in aid workers in a tent in tsunami-ravaged Indonesia, a lone IT worker relied on by countless aids who are working with 100 computers on two modems as the dust is, literally, still settling.

It helps that Francis is the kind of person who can handle being thrown into the thick of things. After all, this is how he got his start as an Oxfam IT worker in the first place.

In the mid-‘90s, as an Oxford graduate in chemistry, Francis’ only relationship with computers was using his home desktop as a drum machine and sampler. That he owned it strictly to pursue musical interests didn’t matter; he knew his way around a computer, and got his foot in the door at Oxfam in the mid-‘90s installing PCs with Microsoft Office. Back then the entire office in global headquarters was on a dial-up modem, with email just for the international division. “Quite some changes since that time,” Francis recalls with a chuckle.

Today, with some 16 years of experience in several IT positions in field offices around the world, Francis says the primary role of an IT Manager is to translate a myriad of requirements into technical solutions–from basic desktop troubleshooting to installing and maintaining secure communications systems. Doing this in an NGO, he says, requires the ability to find the technical know-how when needed and a real passion for the work.

Indeed, IT managers in NGOs need to update and expand their knowledge throughout their careers. They must understand emerging technologies and methodologies to help support their teams to be as efficient and productive as possible—which is where NetHope Academy comes into play. To improve his knowledge in satellite communication, Francis took the Advanced  VSAT training in France and then shared  what he learned with his team in the U.K. and several other teams throughout Africa. During Fran’s first foray into international work in Zimbabwe, a Microsoft course was so affordable that Oxfam actually saved money paying for his trip.

“I was a champion of NetHope within Oxfam for a long time,” says Francis. Francis helped NetHope setup satellite communication in a village in Indonesia after the tsunami in 2005, to provide reliable connectivity for the different agencies who’d had their existing lines disrupted and needed extra capacity quickly as they had a huge influx of extra staff. Francis also helped NetHope install radios just weeks after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 to ensure non-profit  organizations in Port-au-Prince were able to communicate to coordinate emergency relief efforts. Francis has leaned on NetHope in the course of fieldwork many times. He says the examples are always small and simple, like not having a scanner in the office and being able to borrow from another NetHope member organization close by until his arrived. “Fairly simple stuff, but it’s all about what’s available locally in the market. That’s where my heart is–empowering the field people and letting them have relationships with each other.”

Fran (center) with colleagues after helping NetHope setup a VSAT link in a village in Indonesia after the tsunami in 2005.

After his first trip to Zimbabwe, Francis helped develop communication infrastructure in many African nations, including Senegal, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya. He then moved on to work in Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, and Pakistan before working his way over to India, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, and beyond. Most recently he helped build and maintain communications infrastructure in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti.

Francis devotes long hours and tremendous passion to every project to get the job done. Working so diligently for weeks at a time in developing countries while on an assignment can, he admits, take its toll on personal relationships. However, the ability to help people recover from a disaster makes it all worth it, and he doesn’t think he’d do it differently. His biggest advice to anyone considering a career in IT management: “Enjoy the ride.”