By Temitope David-Adegboye
Dr. Charles Iheagwara is the founder of Unatek, Inc., a US government Information Technology contractor located in Bethesda, Maryland. He is also the founder of Intruiononline Inc., a Cyber security online media and analyst service firm. He has held different career positions at KPMG, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Edgar Online, Inc. and other firms.
Widely travelled, Iheagwara has a Master of Science (SM) degree in Management and Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He also attended Harvard Business School, where he completed several MBA courses in satisfaction of the MIT degree requirements. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Glamorgan, Wales, UK, a Master of Science degree in Minerals Engineering from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, a certificate in Environmental Management from George Washington University, and Bachelor/Master of Science degrees in Metallurgical Engineering from the National University of Science and Technology, Moscow, Russia.
A licensed professional engineer and an internationally known technology researcher whose work is widely quoted in academic and professional journals, Iheagwara is the recipient of the 2007 Maryland-India Business Roundtable’s “Business Innovator of the Year” award and he’s a member of the Microsoft IT Advisory Council. In July 2011, he was invited and testified before the US Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship on the “Role of Small Businesses in Strengthening Cyber Security Efforts in the US.”
In this interview, he, among other issues, speaks about how Nigeria can use ICT to protect her natural resources like oil.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
How was it like growing up?
I grew up with the generation that valued knowledge, respected parents and elders and, most importantly, worshipped God to the true meaning of it.had my elementary school at Fatima Primary School in Jos and went to the elite Mbaise Boys Secondary School in the east. The rest of my siblings had both their primary and secondary school education in Jos except for my senior sister who attended Mbaise Girls’ Secondary School. Growing up in Nigeria was fun and very fulfilling. In the schools, discipline and the school curriculum were upper most in our minds. We cherished culture and practiced our religion as best as we could. Jos provided a good environment to be a boy and a young man. Those days, it was de-tribalised and we had fun with people of all ethnic groups and religions not knowing the differences.
Can you recall any event in your past that shaped your choice of course and institutions?
Not really, except that Mbaise Boys Secondary School (MSS) was one of the best at the time and we all aspired to go to good schools and to be lawyers, engineers, doctors, and all those kinds of professions. In such a highly competitive environment, one could only but work harder and pray to God for success.
But, I knew that I would attend the best institutions, which turned out to be the case. At MSS, I had three prefect positions – the regulator in forms 3 and 4, the furniture prefect and religion prefect in form 4. Nothing could have prepared me better for the life ahead. In particular, the regulatorship was quite demanding, as I was the first to wake up and carrying the school all day and night and being the last to go to bed. In the two years, I was the first to report back to school from vacation and the last to leave for vacation.
Such was the training that became very invaluable.
You’ve gone ahead to establish Founder of Unatek, Incorporation. How was the firm born?
Unatek Inc. was founded in June 1996 in the State of Maryland, USA. Originally, it was founded as UTV Environmental and Engineering Company. Later, we added another business line-information technology-and renamed it Unatek, Inc. UTV Environmental is now an operating business unit.
What problems areas is Unatek providing solutions?
Unatek provides services in major information technology areas. Primarily, we are a US federal government contractor with multiple contract vehicles, including the US Navy Seaport, US GSA Schedule, State of Maryland CATS II, Metropolitan Southern California, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
In recent years, Unatek has carved a niche as a cyber security firm. In 2011, Unatek won a statewide award as the “Homeland Security Company of the Year.”
In your view, how would you describe the ICT industry in Nigeria?
ICT is still very young in Nigeria. It has not been supported to the extent that society and businesses derive the maximum benefits from it. With a vast amount of human capital in the country, it should have been more advanced by now to the extent of generating revenue for the government and businesses. It is very conceivable to replicate Bangalore, Mumbai and Chennai here, given the abundant human capital. ICT is labour-intensive for the most part.
Looking around, you can’t see data centres, software development centres or any meaningful business process outsourcing. Nigeria should be making trillions and not billions from ICT exports if the infrastructure is developed. At the very minimum, you need excellent power supply, i.e. uninterrupted at all times, in designated development centres that will form the nucleus of any serious ICT development for export. The banks and government should extend credits to concerns that want to do business in this area on a global scale.
Is it being properly deployed in the country?
No. This is largely a private sector-driven sector backed by government-provided infrastructure and access to capital. None of this is in place now. For example, Unatek can come in to build two to four data centres and several other IT concerns that can drive development in this area. But we must be sure of constant power provision and access to additional capital. Of course, like every other IT company, we must have our backup power supply in place. But backups are backups.
What is your personal impression of the American ICT industry?
It is great. It has growing beyond the imagination of the inventors/creators/developers. Productivity is at an all-time height. My alma mater, MIT, has led worldwide development in this area. ICT has given the US and the world a new economy that has been extended to all parts of the globe, giving rise to globalization and the lift-off from poverty of many nations like India, China, the Philippines and so on. It is my hope that my native country, Nigeria, will join the ranks of ICT exporters sooner than later.
Do you think it’s being deployed negatively or positively for most cases?
I don’t think there is any negative deployment except for private concerns that may be running IT-based pornographic businesses and so on. ICT is an enabler of growth and a key driver for development. In this regard, more of it is better. The use for it is both personal and business. Either way, it is almost all the time helpful in different uses: online business, social media, business and government work tool, online education, secure online banking, transportation and bio-informatics.
How ready is the world, and Nigeria specifically, for deployment of artificial intelligence? Do you think this could help in taming insurgencies in countries like Nigeria, especially with the use of drones and micro-drones?
The developed world and some developing countries have been using it for quite a while now for a variety of purposes, including tracking and fighting insurgencies. Drones, for example, that are used to destroy terrorist cells are ICT-operated. But Nigeria is not yet there and can’t claim to. With resource commitment, it is conceivable that artificial intelligence with the other ICT programmes can be put to use in Nigeria for a variety of useful purposes.
How can countries like Nigeria use ICT to protect their natural resources like oil?
Bio-informatics can be used for that purpose. I am sure there are other ICT applications and knowledge domains that can be employed too.
What special provisions are you making in terms of capacity building for Nigerians?
A lot. I think we need data centres, business process outsourcing, development and cyber security firms to mention but a few. Unatek is planning a “Software Park” to be built in Nigeria in 2013. The good news is that the human capital is everywhere. But, we have to figure out how we can guarantee 24x7x365 power supply. If we are able to do that, companies, like Dell, IBM, Oracle, etc. will expand their operations in the country. But we have to address the security issues first.
What lessons for Nigeria’s ICT?
Get serious and be part of the 21st century world. ICT has eliminated most of the barriers that prevented countries from developing in the 20th century and earlier. In the 21st century, the landscape has changed. Nigeria should learn from India, the Philippines, Northern Ireland, etc. Not doing so, we delay development and the potential to make money from IT. I envisage a situation where, with seriousness, ICT export will be in contention as the major revenue stream with oil export.
If you were not into ICT, what other profession would you have loved to be in?
Any plans of returning home to create jobs for the teeming youth?
Yes! It is in our pipeline to establish a branch of Unatek, Inc. in Nigeria.
What would you say marked the turning point in your life? Maybe a decision that you had to take that changed your life or formed you?
Taking the risk to venture into entrepreneurship: Unatek, IntrusionOnline & UTV Environmental.
What’s the best advice anybody ever gave you and what was that advice?
My parents taught us to persevere, to be forthright and patient.
Are you married?
How did you meet your wife and what was the attraction?
One of my aunties introduced me to Susan. As to what attracted her to me, I think it’s her Victorian values; she is just a down to earth person.
How did you propose to her?
It was a two-year chase but eventually, she yielded.
What would be your advice to young Nigerians who want to go into IT in Nigeria?
Talents and innovation drives IT. Therefore, it is all about creativity and innovation.