Days 3-5: No Natural Barriers

Despite my luggage trailing me by twelve hours, the Johannesburg leg of the trip got off to a good start. My hotel was adjacent to a casino, and where there's a casino there's usually a men's clothing store amidst other shopping adventures. Sure enough, I arrived at the door of a popular South African menswear store two minutes after closing time. But the store staff let me in, I bought the only thing that fit me (a cotton sweater), and was set for Day Three of the trip.

Friday morning was spent with customers, Friday afternoon with Sun employees in a Town Hall format. It was another great set of discussions with employees about team work and customer focus. While it's impossible to understand the culture, politics, and people of any country in just a few days, I left with a few strong impressions.

Johannesburg has no natural barriers. Many cities are built nestled against a mountain range, on the banks of a river, or around a natural ocean harbor, springing up with defense or low-cost transportation in mind. Johannesburg arose up on top of the gold mines, and driving around the city you'll see small mountains of mine excavations and the constructs of mine heads.


Sports are an international language; rivalry is an international boundary-drawing technique. Cricket, rugby, field hockey, and soccer are a big deal. Hotel staff wore jerseys from their favorite soccer teams on Friday, extending the notion of what constitutes a "uniform" and providing grounds for a lot of discussion and good-natured kidding. Preparations for the 2010 FIFA World Cup are well underway (that's the pixelated style stadium under construction), and the road construction has a pronounced impact on weekday traffic in and around the "business area" of Johannesburg. The Indian Premier Cricket League began play on Saturday in Johannesburg, mixing a bit of American-style cheerleading and in-stadium "production" (read: theme music) with international cricket. Saw a field hockey team in the airport and felt a bit sheepish wearing an ice hockey t-shirt. In the airport, I picked up a VodaCom Cheetahs rugby hat, and was asked "Do you support them?" I only answered that I liked the hat, out of concern for stepping into the local equivalent of Red Sox-Yankees politics.

With the national election coming up next week, political posters abound in a truly multi-party system. It was equally interesting (to me) to see the surfeit of attention given to Barack Obama, from Shep Fairey-style portraits of ANC candidates mimicking the "Hope" poster to t-shirts of Obama for sale in a local mall. In the airport, Obama's books line the top shelf of the news stand side by side with those of South African writers and political figures.

Saturday afternoon had me in an open-air market, haggling over the price of a beaded zebra figure. The "hawker" showed me his "cash register" - a combination of his Mozambique passport, his South African visa and neatly folded bills. He brings his handcrafts over the border at regular intervals, sleeping in or near the market for weeks at a time, repeating the process in a commute that includes an international boundary described in at least half a dozen languages. I was immediately reminded of Kiva, the micro loan, crowd-sourced company that helps micro-scale businesses grow by infusing them with capital in reasonable sizes and terms. When the zebra joins the menagerie of other figures I've purchased on various long-haul trips, it will remind me of boundaries, and how we have a technology opportunity (and imperative) to help cross them.

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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