It felt like war, leading ‘operation bring M-Pesa home’

33-year-old Emma Nyambura led the team that co-ordinated transfer of servers across three continents. PHOTO| SALATON NJAU

What you need to know:

  • A South African anti-hacking team was on stand-by in case a mischievous person tried to infiltrate the code.
  • A data back-up had already been created in case someone interfered with the cables formerly linking M-Pesa to its servers in Germany and teams prepared on what to do to revert to the initial system among other checks. To the team, this was war.

  • By the time the new system was up, Ms Nyambura and her crew had ensured that M-Pesa now had the ability to process 900 transactions per second, up from the previous 320.

Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore tweeted a photo with a telling caption on April 19.

“Emma Gichonge was the Project Manager in charge. Not available for poaching! #MPESAImewasili,” wrote Mr Collymore, cheekily alluding to the recent appointment of the company’s Director of Corporate Affairs Nzioka Waita as the Secretary of Delivery in the Office of the President.

It was said to be one of the biggest and most complex projects the company had ever embarked on and the information technology specialist, who led the team of 320 people in the Herculean task of moving M-Pesa servers from Germany to Kenya — a process that lasted between 11 p.m. on Friday April 17 and 11.30 a.m. on April 19 after years of meticulous planning — received special mention from the CEO.

In the picture that accompanied Mr Collymore’s tweet, Ms Emma Nyambura Gichonge, 33, is focusing on something as engineers punch away furiously on their computer keyboards. She is wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “S.W.A.T team: We don’t meet standards. We set them.”

Ms Nyambura was having the moment of her life at the time the photo was taken in a room christened “The Cut-Over War Room”.

Despite having been on her feet for about 21 hours alongside senior engineers like head of product and services development Ken Okwero, she was happy that a project she had been co-ordinating since January 2013 had reached a fruitful conclusion.

The migration process had been codenamed “Operation Mwamba”, and it had been planned like a military operation, with an exit plan hatched in case of failure.

During the time when the rest of Kenya could not access M-Pesa services, the “war room” was a hive of activity, and Ms Nyambura was one of those working on overdrive to ensure all went well. The M-Pesa platforms Ms Nyambura and the team were migrating host all the information for the more than 18 million users who transact about Sh3 billion daily.

WAR ROOM

A South African anti-hacking team was on stand-by in case a mischievous person tried to infiltrate the code.

A data back-up had already been created in case someone interfered with the cables formerly linking M-Pesa to its servers in Germany and teams prepared on what to do to revert to the initial system among other checks. To the team, this was war.

By the time the new system was up, Ms Nyambura and her crew had ensured that M-Pesa now had the ability to process 900 transactions per second, up from the previous 320.

The new servers are embodied with the ability to return messages in three seconds compared to the previous 10 and also able to accommodate more mobile money transactions.

Also, M-Pesa will now run on second generation software made in China by Huawei, ditching the first generation one that had been designed by technology giant IBM.

It was in the “War Room” where a moment of silence was held before all M-Pesa services were shut down at 11 p.m. on April 18 and it was there that excited but fatigued employees counted to zero when M-Pesa was finally restored.

Insiders say the switch-back moment was an emotional one for Safaricom’s top brass.

According to Safaricom’s head of corporate and communications department, Marie-Anne Kui Kinyanjui, Mr Collymore almost shed tears of joy when the service was restored as others shouted in joy.

The CEO’s tweet of Ms Nyambura’s photo, posted three hours after services resumed, was coloured with a celebratory tone, same as two other photos of Mr Okwero and others in the team.

“And we’re live again on M-Pesa. One of the biggest IT projects carried out in Africa. Thanks to our customers for your patience,” Mr Collymore tweeted at exactly noon.

For the whole of that afternoon, Ms Nyambura was beside herself with joy.

With her slender frame, one can easily dismiss the company’s senior programmes manager as just another girl next door. But her credentials depict a go-getter aiming at the stars.

LIVE AGAIN ON M-PESA

She sat her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination at Precious Blood, Riruta, in 1999 before joining Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology the following year for a Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology.

“While considering the course I would take, I bumped into IT. I never had had it in my dreams but I decided to have a go at it as it was a relatively new field of study in Kenya,” she says.

“I secured internship at the National Council for Law Reporting between September and December 2003, where I worked under Gladys Boss Shollei (who would later be appointed the chief registrar of the Judiciary). She was very pragmatic in her work and was really into IT,” she says.

The council, she says, which is responsible for the Kenya Law Reports, was then still under the Judiciary and did not have sufficient funding.

“As such, there was a lot of focus into using technology to enhance and distribute information, and my IT skills came in handy. After completing the internship, the council assimilated me in January 2004. That is the same year I graduated from JKUAT,” adds Ms Nyambura, the  firstborn in a family of three children.

She worked at the council for four years and, during that period, she took part in digitising legal publications and the building of a new website that would make it easy to access legal information.

“Before a group of five interns was brought in, I was sort of a jack of all trades. I would link up with judges to get copies of their decisions, oversee the operation of the council’s website, among other things,” she says.

During her stay at the law reporting council, she developed an interest in project management.

“I had seen how various sponsors like the United Nations and DFID pumped in money to help the council and the measures they would take to ensure the money was well spent. That ignited a spark in me; a spark that had also been partly activated by a lecturer who taught us a common course in my first year in university,” she says.

She then decided to take a course in project management at a local institute before she took an online examination by America-based Project Management Institute.

She later enrolled for a Master’s degree in IT Management at the University of Sunderland.

“It was a long-distance course on which I concentrated every Saturday. I had no life for 27 months,” she says.

After being certified as a project manager, she landed a job at Safaricom as a project officer in September 2008.

“I was excited. Kenya Law was a small company of about 50 people in total; and here I was in Safaricom with so many people. I took time to integrate into the system,” she says.

PROJECT MANAGEMENT

Ms Nyambura never knew she would one day be charged with co-ordinating one of the most technical projects that Safaricom has ever undertaken.

The “M-Pesa coming home” initiative, or “Project Mwamba”, was one of at least three major projects that Ms Nyambura had led.

Between 2008 and 2013 when the company management gave a go-ahead for the migration of the M-Pesa infrastructure to Kenya, she had headed a number of projects.

“The first time I was given a leadership role was in 2009 when I was handed the responsibility of co-ordinating the second phase of a project to ensure customer care representatives had a central place from where to access clients’ data,” she says.

Before that, she explains, the representatives wasted a lot of time trying to log in to various systems while serving clients. The project was intense and a good learning opportunity.

“A lot of focus was on transformation because this was new. It took a lot of training, reviewing our processes internally, very many cross-functional teams and getting the right exposure.

“I did that until April 2010 and it was marked by adrenaline rush. There were so many things to do, many people to manage but we made it,” she told Lifestyle.

In July 2010, she earned a promotion to the position of project manager in Safaricom’s technical division.

“I applied for the internally advertised post and I was lucky to be taken in. When I got in, I was told to lead a team that would streamline the billing system; to bring the pre- and post-paid services into one,” she says.

This was implemented in two phases: One from July 2010 to February 2011 and another between February and October 2011.

“It is in the course of this project that I first interacted with the Chinese experts. They are different. They work extremely hard. I was sponsored to go for training in China and I came to appreciate the way they work,” says Ms Nyambura.

Her impression is that while the Chinese are not as vigorous in processes as the Americans or Europeans — and that was a gap she had to fill — they are very quick to turn things around and fix issues.

“And it was because of this project that I made a presentation to (then CEO) Michael Joseph and Bob Collymore for the first time as they were transitioning. I panicked a lot,” she says.

Then came the idea to bring M-Pesa home.

Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore (right) greets Ms Emma Nyambura Gichonge, who was managing the project to bring M-Pesa home. PHOTO | COURTESY

“In January 2013, there was an endorsement at the executive committee that the M-Pesa infrastructure had to be relocated to Kenya,” she says.

The core system of the mobile money transfer service was in Germany, owing to an agreement between UK-based Vodafone and IBM, an American computer manufacturing company.

“IBM has a big server firm in Germany and when Safaricom was rolling our M-Pesa initially in 2007, they didn’t anticipate it would be as big as it got and assumed the servers would be enough,” explains Ms Kinyanjui, the mobile service provider’s communications boss.

“After eight months, it had eight million people, now it has 18 million. The growing numbers were part of the reasons behind bringing it home,” she says.

The initial date for migration was set for August 2014 but this was not achieved due to technicalities in communication.

“The project had three programme managers: myself from Safaricom, someone from Vodafone and someone from Huawei. IBM was being managed by Vodafone. That has been the arrangement,” explains Ms Nyambura.

“We split into three main teams. One was charged with ensuring we had the best data centres that would withstand threats like power outages and would be kept at a safe place,” she says.

THE MAIN TEAMS

Another team was also dealing with business readiness since the platform would move from Germany to Kenya and that would change things.

“The third one was for risk and audit, to ensure the integrity of data during transfer. Forty-six per cent of our GDP passes through M-Pesa and we had to ensure we got the right controls and monitoring,” says Ms Nyambura. “There was also another project around technology operations. Previously, technology support was being done in Egypt, Germany and India. The first line was Egypt, the core support was being done in Germany and the third support in India.”

After a series of meetings, rehearsals and presentations, the moment of truth came on April 12. This was the day when the Safaricom leadership would decide if the company was ready for migration.

Former CEO Michael Joseph, Mr Collymore and other heads asked various questions on the company’s readiness.

“By then, we had done six rehearsals; two of which were service affecting, meaning we brought a service out two times so that we could really practise what it would mean to cut one end,” Ms Nyambura explains.

They gave it a nod.

The preceding week was spent educating users on what would happen during and after the migration.

The week also saw the teams start the transfer of data from the old system to the new. The old data had to be converted to a format that the second generation software had to understand.

Explains Nyambura: “We were terminating services in bits because the data migration was in two bits and that would make it easier to revert to the original system. That is why some services were withdrawn earlier.”

On the night of the main switch-off, the main activity that was done was transferring data from the old system to the new.

“It was a lot easier because we had rehearsed it 14 times before,” Ms Nyambura says.

During the migration, special attention was paid to the 24 services that depend on M-Pesa. The team had a checklist to ensure all other products were considered.

Afterwards, an audit team checked if the new data was similar to the old one. It gave an okay shortly before noon and the transfer was a reality. The Central Bank of Kenya had its representatives as did audit firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Once the service was restored, the teams went into celebrations in the afternoon as they ushered in the M-Pesa technicians to take over.

At about 3 p.m., Mr Collymore officially released the transfer team and Ms Nyambura, who is single, could not wait to go home to catch some sleep after a 21-hour marathon – bringing M-Pesa home.

 

 

 

 

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