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Stranded! Kim Tran, an American Success Story – Part Two

January 11, 2011

 Kim and her family survived one major ordeal only to face new challenges landing on a small island short of the island of Pulau Bidong, Malaysia.  Two days and nights later they would land on Pulau Bidong and begin an eleven (11) month odyssey on the island. Hard to believe their flight and their plight was perceived a blessing, but a blessing none the less.

There were thousands of their neighbors, friends and relatives who were less fortunate.  Young children, who’s parents had bought their freedom fell victims to pirates, were raped, had their possessions stolen, were thrown overboard or perished from malnutrition or starvation.  Those who remained behind in Saigon, with children too young to travel or couldn’t afford to buy their freedom met similar fates.

Pulau Bidong, one of the scenic and uninhabited islands off located off Kuala Terengganu, is often remembered as the temporary home of the Vietnamese boat people who fled their war-torn country in the 1970s. Out of the estimated 800,000 Vietnamese who left their country during this period, the biggest proportion, more than a quarter of a million, landed on their shores.

Although the island has the capacity to provide shelter for 4,500 refugees at any one time it took up to as many as 20,000 people at one stage, at the height of the arrival of the boat people. Pulau Bidong served as a half-way house for these people before they were sent to other countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and several European countries, and it took time to grant approval to those qualified to be accepted as refugees. Those whose applications were rejected were sent to the Sungai Besi Refugee Camp, where they were later forcibly repatriated back to Vietnam after the war.

In the early stages, the refugees, some with nothing except the clothes on their backs, ate anything they could find on the island including monkeys, frogs and squirrels. The wildlife population was decimated. To ensure the refugees got humanitarian aid and better living conditions, the UNHCR through the International Red Cross supervised the activities on the island.

Long-houses and offices made from wood from the local forest were built and the boat people were provided with better basic needs and amenities such as food, schools, workshops, electricity and water. Perhaps to make it just like home, the camp was subsequently turned into a bustling mini Saigon. It had the trappings of a township – post office, church, temple, tailors, hair salons, sundry shops and even disco and bar. One part of the beach was even named Pantai Cina – China Beach – after its more famous counterpart in Vietnam.

In Kim’s own words…

Later I had learned the aid ship following us was a World Vision Missionary ship.  Approaching land, our boat had stopped once the propeller had stuck in the sand.  The boat had begun to tilt.  Someone had yelled “get off the boat as quickly as possible.”   The boat was taking on water.   The men got off the boat and assisted the women and children toward the shore.  I remembered as I walked toward the beach, my head felt heavier than my body.  Once everyone had gotten to shore safely, each family cleared an area for their family and settled on the beach.  The women used whatever spare clothing they could find to cover the sand, so the elderly and children could sit down. While everyone was busy setting up camp for the night, I looked out at where the boat had been.  Within minutes, it had sunk tail first.  I could not believe it.  We were all stranded on this small island with limited food and water supply (of course, I was too young to worry about food or drink, I just thought of how lucky that I did not drown).  Some people from our boat started to look around the island and search for help but did not see anyone else on the island. The men continued to look around the island and talked among themselves.  The women were asked to occupy the kids.  Our caretaker, Anh, told us stories to help us sleep but I could not sleep that night.  I heard too many strange noises close by.  I stared into the sky.  It was clear with plenty of stars out.  I looked again to the horizon.  There was no remnant our boat had ever existed. 

As the sun rose a boat with Malaysian soldiers approached.  The soldiers told everyone on our boat to surrender all of our gold and valuables to them for safe keeping.  They assured everyone that these items would be recorded and returned to us, once we had been accepted by and ready to depart to a new destination.  Most of the people on our boat were skeptical and didn’t want them holding their valuables.  Finally, the soldiers demanded that if no one surrendered their valuables, we would have to stay on this island until they got what they wanted.  So families started to bring a few pieces of gold to the soldiers.  My dad quickly told my sister, My, and other sisters to keep some gold hidden under their clothes.  My family gave up approximately 50 pieces of gold to the soldiers.  At the time, we didn’t know the exact value of the gold.  The soldiers wrote something down (in Malaysian) and had each family sign.  We had no idea what they had written on those documents.  We believed that the gold pieces were as good as gone.  My dad just considered it payment so we could leave the small island in peace, a down payment on our future.

After this, they left us alone and told us that they would call for assistance.  At that moment, everyone was just relieved, happy and excited that everyone had found FREEDOM.   Later that day, someone was stung by a poisonous sea urchin.  The poison spread so quickly that she went unconscious.  The soldiers called and asked for immediate rescue.  That evening, the rescue boat came.  It only took her and her family and to leave the island first.  They would not take anyone else who had been stranded.  The soldiers pushed the others away from the motor boat.  Someone explained that more boats would be back tomorrow for the rest of us.   That news calmed the remaining people.  One more night, we spent on this isolated island.  The next day around noon time, several boats arrived.  We all packed whatever belongings we had left and we headed toward these boats.  I remembered treading through the clear blue water and attempting to avoid stepping on jelly fish of all colors and sizes that had covered the island’s shoreline.  Luckily no one else got hurt that day.  It was a short ride to a larger island called  Pulau Bidong, where my family would reside for approximately 11 months.  There were plenty of adventures and obstacles to come.

 As we approached new land (Pulau Bidong), we saw the wood dock.  We could see the people on the beach that were Vietnamese by their clothing, which got us all very excited.  Side note:  We all had thought the boats were taking us to main land of Malaysia.  Come to find out, this new home for us all was a refugee camp.  After all of us had gotten off the motor boats, each family looked for a spot for our family on the beach to settle.  Hunger finally hit my family fast and hard.  We were starving. We hadn’t eaten food in several days.  We had only drank water or something close to it.   

There was very little rice left to feed my family of 16 members.  We had to cook rice in a broth to have enough for my family to share.  We shared a small half bowl of white rice soup between us.  We passed the bowl to each family member in turn to sip.  My family had never suffered hunger.  This was a very humbling and frightening experience.  We were a proud family living comfortably to a family starving within a span of 4 days. 

Since the boat that transferred us to Pulau Bidong was the 23rd boat that had arrived at this camp, it was labeled number 23.  The population on Pulau Bidong Island at that time was roughly 40000+ people.  Our boat was assigned to the D or B area of the island.  This was how the island officials would divide and find the families.   That night we slept on a bank along the shore of the island.  The next morning, each family was shown to where we were to live.  When we got to our new home, it was just a patch of dirt.  It was up to us to build a shelter.  Unfortunately for my family, we didn’t have the skill nor the know how to build a structure of any kind and we would rely on other refugees to assist us.  We were tired, fatigued and hungry.  We slept with a plastic tarp for cover.  That 2nd night, thunder and lightning woke us, the rain water soaking us beneath the tarp.   We picked up our belongings to avoid the rain from ruining them.  The rain was so heavy, it poured down the hillside.  We all stood till morning and then we had were provide help to start building our new home. 

My dad and brothers went up the hill to gather woods and branches.  My family had many restless nights in the beginning.  To top it off, I had chronic Asthma attacks.  My family could not get me immediate medical attention.  We had to wait until our family was officially registered into the refugee residential list.  It took two days for the process to be completed.  We were helpless.  We went from a well-to-do family to doing things for ourselves.  It was very difficult life-altering event for our whole family.   Though time was all we had, my family was forced to quickly adapt to our new lives. 

Life on Pulau Bidong - finding clean water was a problem

My family life on Pulau Bidong:

My siblings and I shared one bed. There were 3 beds total in our home.   All of our beds were made with multiple and  uneven branches tied together.  But it was better than the dirt floor.  It was very difficult for my elderly grandmother.  She could not sleep on these beds.  Later on, she bought a wood plank that came from a wrecked boat.  This was used to make a more comfortable bed for her to sleep on.   For cooking, we dug a hole and mounted several rocks for a fire pit.  Other appliances and supplies, we had to buy with gold or money depending on the sellers.  All families received some supplies from the United Nations like rice, instant noodles, and beans.  Note: This is why I dislike beans, especially kidney beans.  To earn a living, my older siblings would buy and sell fresh fruits and others products from a lady, whom was the longest survivor on this island.  This lady would buy her inventory from Malaysian civilians that sail by our island.  The island was deemed a gold mine; for without gold or money no one would survive the hard life.  There was plenty of price gouging.  For instance, one bottle of Coca Cola, which cost 34 Cents, was sold for a $1.00.  This was just a small example.  There was no employment on the island. So, people created their own jobs. 

Some climbed the hill and cut trees for trading with those in need of lumber for shelter or for firewood.  My oldest brother, Jimmy, took on a risky business.  He swam offshore to where Malaysian fishermen boat drifted by.  The fishermen would bring different items to sell items such as axes; hand saws, tents, even cookies, which were in demand in our camp.  Malaysian police patrolled and would beat or kick the sellers and the buyers of these goods.  They would chase off the fishermen. One time, Jimmy had bought 20 axes as the policemen’s canoe was approaching.  Jimmy had to jump off the fisherman boat. The weight of 20 axes sank Jimmy to the bottom of ocean floor.  He panicked but would not give up.  He managed to drag the axes to shore.  Lucky for Jimmy with the weight of the axes he sunk quickly, otherwise the policemen would have beaten him with their sticks regardless if he had surfaced too quickly. 

For drinking water, there were only a few public wells which supported the large population on the island.   We would travel for miles, stood in a long line.  It could stretch for miles and we waited our turn.  Once we reached the well, we would gather a bucket of water.  Public wells soon went dry.  People started to dig their own wells.  Before the water system was built, most private wells were only used for bathing and washing.  The island was undeveloped and not ready to handle people especially large populations.  No sanitary system existed.  Heavy rain would contaminate the water supply and jeopardize the fresh water supply, which made everyone’s life more miserable.  Later on, the United Nations brought in piping and helped build a water system that transferred fresh drinking water for everyone on the island.   

My family tried and gradually adjusted to the lifestyle on the island.  Yet we would continue to pray and hope for a miracle that some country would sponsor us.  My family was low on the list for sponsorship for several reasons.  We were not a part of US military services or affiliated in anyway.  My family was not classified as a priority at that time, the US delegates could not process the sponsorship right away.  My family could only hope and wait for acceptance based on a religious sponsorship.  The biggest problem was the size of my family.  Most groups did not have the financial funds to sponsor 16 people. Our lives on the island were like the movie Groundhog Day and seemed hopelessly mundane.  We all lived day-to-day as  best we could. Churches and temples were built.  W donated wood, tree, and tents.   My brothers, sisters and I would spend our spare time by studying Basic English at any church or temple that offered free classes. 

Who is the shy one? Kim and family - USA - airport

When the last of these boat people left the island in the early 1990s, what remained were mute reminders of recent history: charred wooden buildings and rotting huts which once housed about a quarter of a million boat people since their first arrival in 1978.

Today, the only welcome for visitors to the beach of Pulau Bidong is a barren beachfront stall and glimpses of buildings heavily hidden by overgrown brushwood and bushes. Only emptiness, signboards with Vietnamese characters and names are still on display – ghostly reminder of the past.

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Happy New Year!

December 31, 2010

My wife Terri and I were joking about having dinner out tonight at 4 PM.  It was great!  The food, the wine, spectacular!  As we left the restaurant, the parking lot was full.  The crowds were gathering.  How old are we?!! 

 We reminisced about how we’ll miss all the dress up, all the glitz, all the kisses and hugs tonight from friends and revelers, alike. For those of you old enough to understand the term, we are just “fuddy-duddy’s”.  Yet, there’s still hope.  We have set the alarm for 11:59 PM tonight to wish each other and all of you a  Happy New Year!

'Tis The Season

December 9, 2010

My Treasures

(‘Tis the season, yeah)
To see the children laughin’
Everybody should be dancin’
Come on and clap your hands ‘cuz

(‘Tis the season, yeah)
For us to all be grateful
It’s time to be thankful
Let’s do it while we’re able

…and so on.

Artist: Mary Mary lyrics

‘Tis the season to spread joy and happiness.  “If you are unhappy, and you know it clap your hands!”.  Uh-oh, wrong song.  True, is it not?  You know when you are unhappy.  Chances are everyone around you knows you’re unhappy, too. 

Then there’s, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”  If you’re not feeling the love ask yourself,  “Am I happy?”  I find I rarely ask the question myself, certainly not often enough.  So just in the moment, try it on for size.  Ask the question, “Am I happy?”  The experience can’t be any worse than trying on your favorite pair of jeans.  Ha! Then again it is the holidays! 

Seriously, you will probably become as retrospective as I am regarding the question of happiness.  Of course the answer, at least in any moment in time, can be entirely up to you. You may be wondering why am I asking now, at a time when the spirit of giving and receiving is at an all time high?  The holiday season can be a busy, stressful time. Many of us go out of our way to please others.  There’s even this myth that suicide rates are highest during the holidays.  Not so.  Fact is, suicide rates are lowest in the month of December.  The spirit of giving is safe, at least for now. 

So if you’re broke or simply aggravated by the gift giving thing you might ask, “What’s with all the gift giving this time of year?”  Well there’s the Christians and Christmas.  Sometime after the birth of Jesus, three seemingly wise men, also known as the Magi, bearing incredibly expensive gifts considering the price of gold today, came to visit the newborn, Jesus Christ.  Or blame ancient Romans who held year end celebrations to honor Saturn, their harvest god; and Mithras, their god of light…  As part of these celebrations, the people prepared special foods, decorated their homes with greenery, and joined in singing and gift giving. These customs gradually became part of gift giving.

Then there’s tens of millions of Americans who don’t even celebrate Christmas religiously, either as followers of non-Christian religions (Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews) or as individuals with no religious affiliation.  What a drag it is to buy gifts for someone you believe is barking up the wrong tree (or cloud). In reality, many different events, both spiritual, religious, and tradition based, are being celebrated in many different ways during these times.

Is it right time to spread good cheer?  Or is it laborious like Ground Hog Day.  Granted it is only a few very cold weeks out of the year.  There’s Black Friday.  Black Friday you camp outside in the freezing cold, gangrene sets in, turns your fingers black and they fall off before you can grab an unbelievable deal on Black Friday.  Cyber Monday specials are already gone because you can’t keyboard without fingers.

One month out of the year, you need to avoid the hype retailers bring to bear.  Retailers would have you trick or treating in Santa Claus costumes and dispensing candy canes in October. 

Receiving gifts is equally taxing.  Too often a gift received becomes an albatross around your neck.  A comedic example being the prominent presentation of a framed photo of a friend(s) or relative(s) on the rare occasion (excluding Florida residents) they come to visit.  Personally, I realize this admission alone means there will be hell to pay. 

So what makes you happy?  Giving gifts or receiving gifts; decorating your domicile; hanging lights and ornaments on a Christmas tree; preparing a holiday feast for the multitudes?  It’s not so easy.   One long sigh from someone down the hallway, one obscene sign along the highway, a wayward thought, an unkind word, a tear from inside your head and you begin to doubt whether you have an outside chance to be happy. 

The answer is, there is no answer… to the question, “Am I happy?”  The definition of happy may be as simple as finding a favorite place in time, in your mind, alone or in a crowd, be it a smile, be it a moment to savor.  I have come to realize right now ‘tis the season.  There is no past.  There is no future.  Give a gift you can return without receiving;  love and respect for your family and friends.  From this gift you will find happiness, especially the returns.   

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to family and friends of all religions and faith.  

 One of my favorite expressions – May you live each day of your life.   Jonathon Swift

Kim Tran, an American Success Story

November 12, 2010

Kim Tran

Kim Tran has come a long way.  Perhaps farther than most people, over 12,000 circuitous miles from Saigon to the US, settling in the Tampa Bay area; and further than most IT professionals, from a seven (7) year old Vietnam refugee to a Team Leader; a highly respected and valuable technical support representative with over 9 years of service at Integra Business Systems.

When most children her age were contemplating Kindergarten, Kim’s life lessons were forever altered when South Vietnamese President Duong Van Minh delivered an unconditional surrender to the Communists in the early hours of April 30, 1975. The few remaining Americans evacuated Saigon.

There are all kinds of connotations surrounding the term “boat people”.  Here at Integra, when we think of “boat people” they are personified in Kim Tran.  She’s a person with an easy smile and an even easier laugh, albeit more of a shy giggle.   We at Integra are fortunate to have our very own refugee (survivor) of an era of trauma and suffering that once was the aftermath of the Vietnam War. 

KIm Tran - Upper Right with Family in Cho Lon

Many people think of Vietnamese refugees, as only those who were fleeing the country in 1975 as the Americans left Vietnam.  In fact, a large number of refugees “boat people” didn’t flee Vietnam until the late 1970’s when China decided to invade Vietnam.

The Chinese began financing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as a counterweight to the Vietnamese communists at this time.  The Khmer Rouge launched ferocious raids into Vietnam in 1975–1978.  Vietnam responded with an invasion that toppled the Khmer Rouge.  The conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia escalated in 1978.  In response, China invaded Vietnam in 1979. The two countries fought a brief border war, known as the Third Indochina War or the Sino-Vietnamese War.

The short but bloody border war with China a year later resulted in a deliberate policy to encourage the departure of ethnic Chinese(Hoa) from Vietnam.  From 1978 to 1979, some 450,000 Hoa left Vietnam by boat as refugees or were expelled across the land border with China.

In the late 1970s the Socialist Republic of Vietnam took increasingly drastic action to transform the capitalist economy of the south into a socialist one and the Hoa in Vietnam were disproportionately affected, leading to the first wave of ‘boat people’, fleeing the Vietnamese communists, primarily from the South, beginning in April 1978. 

Cho Lon (Saigon's Chinatown)

Kim was a seven (7) year old and a victim of circumstance.  Beginning in 1975, the Hoa bore the brunt of socialist transformation in the South (Vietnam).  An announcement on March 24 outlawed all wholesale trade and large business activities, which forced around 30,000 businesses to close down overnight followed up by another that, banned all private trade. Further government policies forced former owners to become farmers in the countryside or join the armed forces and fight at the Vietnam-Cambodia border and confiscated all old and foreign currencies, as well as any Vietnamese currency in excess of the US value of $250 for urban households and $150 by rural households. While such measures were targeted at all bourgeois elements, such measures hurt thec Hoa the hardest and resulted in the takeover of Hoa properties in and around major cities.  Hoa communities offered widespread resistance and clashes left the streets of Cho Lon full of corpses.  These measures, combined with external tensions stemming from Vietnam’s dispute with Cambodia and China in 1978 and 1979 caused an exodus, a majority of the Hoa, many who fled overland into the province of Guangxi, China, from the North and the remainder fled by boat from the South.  Sadly, officials estimated that nearly one-third of these “boat people” perished at sea from starvation, drowning, and pirates, problems that increased when some Asian countries began turning away boat people.  By the end of 1980, the majority of the Hoa had fled from Vietnam.

This is the story of one of the survivors, one of the Chinese refugees “boat people” from the South and her family; our very own Kim Tran.  Kim Tran, a Team Leader and Technical Support Representative for Integra Business Systems, Inc. since June, 2001 will be celebrating her 10 year anniversary with Integra next year. 

In her own words…

“Like many other immigrants after the fall of the South Vietnam or Saigon, my family and I had fled from our country in search of a better life.   My name is Kim H Tran.  What I am about to share is my recollections of my family’s escape from Vietnam.  This is my first time ever that I have written about this.  The event started when I was about 7 years old.

My family was financially well off before we left Vietnam.  We lived in downtown Saigon Cho Lon (Big Market), Vietnam.   I remembered after the war in 1975, many lives, including my family’s, changed forever.  The communist soldiers seized and captured what they deemed to be theirs, which was everything valuable…  Then they posted soldiers at each house and business 24/7.  We had two soldiers posted in front of our home.   Their job was to monitor everyone and every activity.  Large businesses shut down and migrated to other cities. Many families lost family members to the communist’s cause, either by choice or by involuntarily draft.  Saigon was no longer an energized and vibrant city.  It was  replaced by turmoil and confusion.  After the war, my family’s schooling was interrupted.  I remembered being sent away to our plantation in Long Khanh,  for several months then rotated to a factory in My Tho, in another city, for several more months.   My grandmother didn’t want to retain anyone who might attract attention to our home and businesses.  As a consequence, those who cared for my siblings and I (our caretakers) were let go except one, Anh.  Anh was presented as one of the sibling in my family to the soldiers.  
 
One day in 1978, I was awokened by my mom.  I was told to be quiet and get dressed.  She gave me 2 sets of clothing and I was told to wear them both.  I was instructed not to bring any of my personal belongings.  Once my younger brothers were dressed, we were led  by someone to the river.  My grandmother, mom, 4 younger brothers and several other people and I got into the small canoe. 

 The oarsman took us all along the river, which led to the open channel. 

Vietnamese canoe owners were paid to transport passensgers to fishing boats.

As we approached daybreak, two patrolling soldiers in a canoe came from the opening of the channel traveling in the opposite direction of our canoe.  They asked the oarsman, where we were headed.  The oarsman replied, “To a wedding across the way.”  I forgot to mention, we had a passenger pretending to be a bride in our canoe.  The soldier inspected the canoe and passengers and we were allowed to proceed on our way.  As their canoe disappeared, the oarsman and several other people began to row toward the ocean as fast as they could.

There was a planned rendezvous with a larger boat.  We finally reached the bigger boat, all of us were rushed onto the boat and we proceeded quickly below to the engine room.  And it was there that my mom, my younger brothers, several other people and myself stayed for days and nights.  We had neither food nor drink.  I couldn’t tell if it was night or day just darkness all around me.  One day, I was awakened by a soft voice calling my name.  I could barely open my eyes due to fatigue.  As I struggled to open my eyes, I saw a bright light crack open and slowly got wider.  I saw a small arm passing a cup toward my way.  I tried to raise my arms to grab it but my arms felt too heavy.

Someone close to me grabbed it and passed it to me.  First sip, I couldn’t tell what I was drinking.  It tasted lemony but salty and smelled funny.  I pass it back but someone encourage me to drink a little bit more to quench my thirst.  I replied I can’t drink, it tasted so bad.  A soft voice told me, yes but tried anyway.  I took another small sip and passed it along to someone else.  That was the first time, I saw a glimpse of daylight since my family and I boarded the boat.  It seemed like an eternity in the darkness. 

Vietnamese Fishing Boat #23 used by “boat people” in mass exodus.

Later that day, the light shined through from the same opening.  People were allowed to come up on deck to get fresh air.  One after another, people rushed to get out of the pit, as I called it.  My brothers, mom, and I weren’t able to reach. My mom was carrying my youngest brother; he was just a toddler then.  Someone jumped down from on top and took us kids up one by one and lifted us onto the deck. 

I got my first breath; the fresh open air filled my lung so quickly that it hurt.  I felt a boost of energy.  We were then allowed to stay above, seemingly safe from danger.  I looked out onto the ocean and as far as my eyes could see, all that surrounded us was the deep, dark ocean.  No birds or land in site.

As evening came, someone yelled out to get everyone below.  Once more, we were rushed down into the dark, smelly, pit of hell.  Everyone was told to keep silent.   A lady sitting next to me was pregnant and had a toddler.  The toddler wasn’t feeling well and started to cry.  Up above the deck, someone hushed us and told us all to keep the kids quiet.  This lady had to quiet her child by using her hand to cover her toddler’s mouth.  She held her child close to her body.  It seemed like hours.  The engine grew louder as it strained for more power.  The smell of engine oil burning became even stronger and almost unbearable.  The boat rocked violently from side to side with such force that people were thrown one on top of another. 

Soon I heard voices but I couldn’t recognize what was being said.   I heard a lot of commotion above me, but I couldn’t see anything but darkness.  Someone opened the hatch from where we were hiding below and spoke out.  I still couldn’t understand what that person was saying.  Another voice said, “It’s OK, come on up.”  People slowly climbed out one by one, all of them frightened.  When it was my turn, I remember a pair of large arms grabbed me and pulled me up.  I was passed to another person.  I must have blacked out. 

When I came to, I was on a big ship.  Later I learned it was a World Vision missionary ship.  People were talking strange, I couldn’t understand word.  I found myself wearing a strange think woven sheet around me.  Someone passed me some French biscuits (cookies).  I received several shots in the arm.  They directed me to follow the crowd towards our boat.  There was more turmoil back and forth from those on our boat with those on the ship.  Women from our boat started crying, which led us kids to also cry.  In the end, unwillingly, we had no choice but to board our smaller boat.  The ship departed but followed us for a time.  Morning came and evening came.  We felt lost and abandoned.  The rescue ship long since disappeared.   As our boat traveled on the open ocean, seemingly aimless, I saw wood planks floating very close to our boat.  First there was one, then another and then even more.  People started to worry.  Then the captain on our boat yelled out, “I see land ahead.”   The mood on our boat changed from one of doom to one of relief.  The boat grounded.  Those who could got off the boat and assisted the others to shore.  They carried women and children on their backs.  Once on dry land, I rememebered looking back and watching the boat sink into the sea.  We were stranded.

To be continued…

Imaging Horsepower

September 11, 2010

What’s under the hood of a new generation of document imaging systems?

Best practices in document imaging was defined by large, clunky and expensive scanners for images and optical jukeboxes for storage. In the early 2000s centralized scanning and research was the norm due to limitations in networking technology and the associated hardware costs.  

Desktop computing has morphed into notebook computers and mobile devices.  Every year American businesses generate over 2 trillion documents. At our current rate of information exchange that number will increase every three years.  On the average, a community bank manager can spend 30 minutes to three hours a day (or three months per year) searching for documents.

Internal intranets have replaced local area networks as the preferred method for businesses, including community banks, to share information. This translates into many more documents and many new document types for banks to manage. To deal with the increases in content, document imaging and Computer Output Laser Disk (COLD) has been replaced by Enterprise Content Management (ECM).

More documents to manage on internet time means availability and access to documents must be fast and secure.  Lower-priced scanners and the proliferation of multifunction printers make it easier to capture documents at their source.  Add privacy policies, ever increasing regulation and compliance pressure, compel community banks to use ECM effectively to manage their documents.  Best practices for an ECM system must address several key areas.

Easy to use.

A successful implementation of ECM means the bank employee must find the software easy to use.  An ECM application using the ubiquitous browser is a good choice for searching for documents.  Who isn’t familiar with the internet browser?  This reduces the bank’s cost and the time to train employees, especially in areas of high turnover. It can be as easy as the “Back” button. To compete and to communicate effectively in our new world, documents must be easily accessible to bank employees from a multitude of sources.  Today many documents are “born digital,”  where documents include e-mail and e-mail attachments, text, Web content, word processing documents (such as board minutes and spreadsheets for accounting), digital photos and video.

Fresh off the presses, this post also appears as an article titled “Imaging Horsepower”  that appears in September 2010  ICBA Magazine. It emphasizes best practices and it certainly plays to our strengths! Warning, it’s a yawn if you’re not looking to add ECM or improve your current ECM solution. http://online.qmags.com/IB0910/?fs=3&pg=53&mode=1

The Web is always on.  Bank customers have online banking and can bank anywhere and at anytime.  Bank employees need access to customer documents too, anywhere and anytime. With ECM software a bank employee in a branch could retrieve an image of their ID or Signature card for identification purposes.  If there was no ID on file they could scan it locally, at their desk.  They could take an application for a loan, scan the application and ID to an electronic folder, notifying the credit department to process the application, get it approved and back to the branch employee to complete the loan.  This can reduce the chance of fraud, satisfy regulatory compliance, such as the USA Patriot Act and save the customer time.

An ECM product can also employ an eSignature application which allows bank customers to eSign deposit and loan documents.  Instead of printing to a laser printer the print job is sent to the eSignature application.  All pages appear on the display for signing on a digitizing pad or tablet PC.  One major advantage to an eSignature solution is the capability to predefine all signature areas, initials and number of signers on a document or document set.  The signing process cannot be completed until all signatures and initials have been completed. This saves time, especially if the bank employee has conducted the signing at the bank customer’s home or office. 

eSignature can eliminate or substantially reduces printing costs.  The bank’s eSigned copy is automatically stored to the ECM archive.  The customer can opt to receive the eSigned documents by e-mail, on a thumb drive or the documents can still be printed after the signing.  eSignature comes with the added benefit that bank documents no longer need to be printed, signed and then scanned into the ECM archive.  This saves both time and money.

Easy to implement.

Community banks rely heavily on IT for the latest and greatest technology necessary to compete with larger banks and comply with ever increasing government regulation.  An ECM application that is easy to deploy (one click installation) and receives unattended updates via a secure Web server is ideal for a busy IT department.  ECM applications, once written for the desktop PC (legacy applications), are now written for the Web.  Today’s ECM platform should include one-click technology to deploy the ECM application across the enterprise to multiple locations easily and efficiently.  Again, time and money saved.

 Many community bank branches have invested in multifunction printers, which include the ability to scan documents.  An ECM system can compatible with MFP devices is a plus.   The availability of bar-coded documents from most new account and loan origination vendors make scanned documents easier to identify and archive. Documents can be captured (imaged) in the branch, then indexed and store centrally by the ECM system and accessed by any user across the enterprise who has been given the rights to access them.

 The ability to drag and drop “born digital” documents into the ECM system, easily identify and file these documents from a multitude of sources is essential.

Secure.

Some would argue making documents available via the browser is risky.  Which is more secure?  A file folder on someone’s desk or encrypted documents in a secure file folder stored on a secure server in a secure location accessible only via a private network?  Many community banks have multiple lines of business, which require multiple levels of document security. For example, someone in new accounts may not be allowed to access loan documents.  Other personnel may need to access both new accounts and loan documents but only customer related documents.  They may need to be restricted from access to employee only documents and human resources. With an ECM system, multiple layers of user security down to the document level is possible.  Only the persons that have been given the rights to view the document can view it.   

Compliance, completing a successful audit.

Internal audits as well as audits from state and federal governments can be conducted much more quickly and efficiently with ECM.  An ECM system that employs document tracking allows the bank to define which documents are needed for every type of deposit or loan transaction.  Document tracking can determine if all the associated documents have been archived or if documents are missing.  Reminders are created and e-mail or printed notices are sent when a recurring document (such as financial statements or certificates of insurance) is needed.  If documents are missing reports, notices are sent to the responsible bank employees and managers. Logs show an audit trail.

 Your ECM vendor must produce and keep current, a vendor management package.  The package must include information such as SAS70 certification, audited financials, a security agreement, acceptable use policy, password policy, termination policy and a disaster recovery plan, to name a few  documents and policies required by community banks from their ECM vendor.

Legality.

An ECM system should include a log that will record when a document has been viewed, printed, e-mailed or whether a document has been revised. It will display by default the current version of the document and also keep older revisions.  Document retention policies can be set on each document type as to the length of time the documents are will be viewable, when they are moved to long term archive or when they are destroyed.

 Documents will not be moved or destroyed without the administrator of the ECM system being notified and given the option to change the document(s) status. Any eSigned document that is altered will cause the eSignature to be replaced by a large red “X” in the signature areas.

Disaster recovery.

A co-location facility is recommended to be either manned by a third-party provider with the technical skills to back up your mission critical applications and be located within one day’s vehicle travel from the primary facility.  Community banks that may not be able to take advantage of the latest ECM technology due to cost or lack of IT resources can employ an ECM solution from a Software as a Service (SaaS) provider.  Most SaaS models will include disaster recovery which essential to an ECM deployment in today’s world of regulation, compliance and security.

Go Green, Save Money.

ECM software can cut down on the cost of printing, reprinting, faxing, postage and courier runs.  If everyone across the enterprise has the ability to view the documents they need, there is no need to keep “shadow” copies of the documents and files in multiple locations.  This saves money and also makes for good press.  Community banks that already have a “Go Green” initiative or wish to implement one can say with confidence their ECM product saves trees.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” – Alan Kay

August 31, 2010

Business is improving, despite all the obstacles in this unpredictable economy that remain and those ahead of us.  This is largely self-fulfilling prophecy as our engine runs on premium personnel and our management team isn’t half-bad either.

We have invested a great deal in new products and new markets.  I’m a big fan of Alan Kay’s expression, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Klondike Bluffs mountain bike trail outside of Moab. In the background, Arches National Park and the La Sal snow-capped mountains (click on the photo for a better view)

I guess you could say this message comes somewhat diluted by the BP oil spill.  Accidents, like the BP oil spill and natural disasters are unpredictable but they are going to happen.  I can see the raw and gut-wrenching affects as they unfold for our neighbors in the Gulf States and the Florida Panhandle.  We are certainly not exempt from the fallout.  We are also far more fortunate.

There’s little one can do in the moment but there is much that can be done to either prevent an occurrence or deal as effectively as possible with the results.  Unless of course, your government gets in the way.  That’s a whole other topic. 

I believe we are as well prepared as we can be to limit the impact of most natural disasters.  Arguably we are and will be impacted on a financial and personal level as well.  To what extent will be born out by the actions, performance and lessons learned by others.  Certainly, we are far more fortunate.

There is still no consensus on when and where the economy will improve.  I spend a great deal of time measuring and evaluating circumstances as they may affect our business. 

You can watch Fox News or CNN but our success or failure has little or nothing to do with the economy, politicians or other outside factors.  It has to do with you and me.  It has to do with the quality and functionality of our products and services.  It has to do with how we deliver our products and services!  It has to do with how we choose and treat our customers and our partners.

We are nothing to big business or big government in terms of our success or failure.  We are everything onto ourselves.  We will not succeed or fail due to outside influences.  We will only fail if we are cannot deliver excellence on all levels, products, customer service, implementation and ongoing support. 

Conversely, big business and big government need us to succeed, Theirs has become a global problem.  Because they have simply ignored the entrepreneur; unless, of course, the entrepreneur is holding the glass slipper.  Small businesses are mostly carriages of pumpkins and mice out there delivering the goods.  There are very few Cinderella stories.  Once delivered, the glass slipper still fits but we are working well past the ballroom festivities which has become just as intended, a fantasy.  We are soon  forgotten.  When the carriage and horses are stabled and the cats are away, the mice, small business people, you and I, will come out to play.  Small business can be very resourceful, if left alone.

Made in the USA

August 30, 2010

Made in the USA

by Alan Wiessner on Monday, October 19, 2009 at 9:16pm

“Made in the USA” isn’t about the Big 3 automakers…
It’s time to put the brakes on government spending. The road to recovery lies with the success of small businesses, not with behemoth car companies and big labor. If we were going to bailout anyone, we should have bailed out the car dealerships and auto supply companies to allow them to remarket, retool and invest in new technologies. We should be growing our tax base, which is only going to happen if we fuel the small business private sector. Speaking of which, why are we not doing more to grow and keep promising small business technology companies and their technology jobs in the USA, where our best talent and our best jobs can remain right here at home?

“You will find men who want to be carried on the shoulders of others, who think that the world owes them a living. They don’t seem to see that we must all lift together and pull together.”    Henry Ford

We have Bill Gates and Microsoft, Larry Ellison and Oracle; and Eric Schmidt and Google, not to mention a plethora of phenomenal technology and software companies that started from nothing and today generate thousands upon thousands of high paying private sector jobs and tax revenues, all “Made in the USA.”

What’s more, most technology companies, in particular software companies, do little to harm our ecology (true green); they do not tax our ports, our roads, our bridges or our rail. This reduces our carbon footprint, while not adding to the tremendous and costly burden on the seemingly never ending and costly construction of our roads and our beleaguered transportation infrastructure.

Competition is increasing dramatically from foreign countries who wish to attract our talent, both foreign and domestic grads educated here in the USA, many getting their higher education with the help of US taxpayer dollars. The number of “propeller heads”, a.k.a., the savvy entrepreneurs and highly skilled workers “Made in the USA”, are leaving for a more favorable business climate or jobs overseas.

Our foreign competitors are offering much lower tax rates and hundreds of thousands of dollars in incentives to technology business startups and to their highly paid – highly skilled employees. They are advertising a better quality of life, improved infrastructure and a lower cost of living. Our foreign competitors recognize what we increasingly take for granted, which is the huge tax and revenue potential from small business startups, in particular in the technology field; with their disproportionally high numbers and high salaries as it pertains to job creation. This is coupled with the minimal impact on their country’s costly transportation  infrastructure.

The now and next generation of Bill Gates’, Larry Emerson’s and Eric Schmidt’s may find our politics too ambiguous, too costly and too unimaginative to breed success here in the USA. There are hundreds of thousands of small businesses and entrepreneurs right now who are losing the battle against a poor economy accentuated by high taxes and ever increasing regulation. There are hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurial ventures not even born yet that will never pass the incubation period.

Where should we, the United States of America, concentrate our efforts to keep our existing technology gurus and attract the next generation of “byte heads?” We need to provide education and programs that offer immediate and future tax relief to small businesses and their employees, like a payroll tax holiday. To do this we need to elect government representatives who want less government, who do less for Wall Street, who care less about big government and big union.

We need tech savvy, forward thinking, feet on the ground, “been there, done that” politicians who have missed a few paychecks like the rest of us and who want to do more for small businesses and the working class. Get started by offering existing small businesses and their employees, tax relief with a payroll tax holiday of 6 months or more. Offer new business start-ups, especially technology and software businesses who are Made in the USA and who are 1) less impactful on our transportation infrastructure; 2) provide green technologies; and 3) provide the high end wage earners, which is our future tax base, lower taxes and less government to stay and grow their businesses here in the USA.

“What’s right about America is that although we have a mess of problems, we have great capacity – intellect and resources – to do some thing about them.”
Henry Ford

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