Wed | Sep 18, 2019

Keith Smith: Leading the vision of e-Learning with limited sight

Published:Sunday | September 8, 2019 | 12:07 AM

So metimes, unfortunate things happen that alter the course of your life. But sometimes, that unfortunate thing puts you directly on the path to the best things that will ever happen to you. For information and communication technology veteran Keith Smith, losing sight in his left eye and experiencing low vision in his right eye altered his life, but has also given him a new lease on life.

Born in Coventry, England, in the mid-4960s to Jamaican parents Keith (retired businessman) and Rupertia Smith (retired nurse), Smith first stepped on to Jamaican soil at age eight, after his maternal grandmother, who was living here at the time, fell ill and his parents decided to resettle the family.

Smith settled in Maverley for a few months, while attending Constant Spring All-Age, but later moved to Harbour View Primary. He recalls sitting the Common Entrance Examination at age 10 and earning a spot at the renown Kingston College (KC). Smith described his journey as a ‘Fortisan’ as “the greatest experience of his life”.

After eight years at KC, Keith matriculated to The University of West Indies in St Augustine, Trinidad, graduating with an upper second-class honour, placing him second in the BSc in electrical and computer engineering programme. During his time at UWI, Smith resided on Canada Hall (also called Hermitage) which he considered another great experience, where he formed lifelong relationships which he has maintained to date.

Yearning for ‘home’, Smith, who hadn’t returned to England since leaving at age eight, thought it was the perfect opportunity to return and experience life in England. That he did in 1988. The job he wanted in his field didn’t come right away, though. His first job was at a furnishing store in Stretham, England.

About one month before commencing his masters, Smith would seal the deal with his now wife of 29 years, Jakki. Two years later, she gave birth to their first child, Abigail, who is now a director for residence life at Pace University in New York. While his wife was in labour, Smith recalls adding the final touches to his dissertation.

With a masters degree under his belt, Smith said that he started exploring growth opportunities within the company. As luck would have it, a position for a senior engineer in the video systems group came up, for which he applied and was successful.

“I ended up being part of a team that developed the world’s first PC-based conferencing system,” Smith said.

He credits his experience at British Telecom as the foundation for his career.

He recalls being invited to Sabina Park to watch the West Indies versus India match by his good friend Dr David McBean, who, at the time, was an executive at Telecommunications of Jamaica (now Cable & Wireless). There, he met Errald Miller, president of Telecommunications of Jamaica at the time. They chit chatted for some time about his work in London. Miller would reveal that the company was about to emerge into a competitive environment, and that he needed to transform the company and asked him to consider coming back to Jamaica to work with him.

Smith returned to the UK and a month later, he received a call from Jamaica following up on the offer Miller had made him. It would take months after submitting his résumé, however, before Smith heard about the proposed offer.

“One day I got a call from his (Errald Miller’s) office saying Gary Barrow is coming to the UK on some business, he was a vice-president of TOJ (Telecommunications of Jamaica) and Errald had asked him to meet with me to discuss opportunities in Jamaica,” Smith recalled.

They met, did an interview, and he was made an official offer. Smith, who had intended to return that September, sent his family home that month instead and completed the last four months at Deloitte & Touche. He will always remember his return to Jamaica as it’s now a significant part of Jamaica’s history. Smith returned to the island the week Jamaica played Mexico in the 1997 World Cup Qualifier. During that time, he decided to become a naturalised Jamaican.

Smith started at TOJ and spent three years at the organisation moving from head of department for business efficiency to acting vice-president for business efficiency and vice-president for customer care and finally, senior vice-president designate for mobile. Smith can be credited for his work in transforming among other things the customer care at the institution, which became a model in the Cable & Wireless group.

Smith was headhunted by Digicel Jamaica and joined the company in 2000 as director of operations. Digicel had just won the licence for an alternative mobile provider. His stay there was short-lived, lasting less than a year and a half. He later moved into consulting.

Soon after, he was recruited by Air Jamaica as vice-president of Technology. Keith replaced his good friend, Dr David McBean, who was largely responsible for his return to Jamaica. He drove the transformation and modernization of the ICT environment, modernized their reservation system, rolled out an e-ticketing system and online booking.

He left Air Jamaica after leading transformation there for five years and joined up with his friend, Ian Moore, at an adjoined consulting doing software sales and system consulting. Describing himself as a “rolling stone”, Smith left after two and a half years and went to Trinidad to help his friend, Gary Barrow, who was there doing work with Telecommunications Services of Trinidad and Tobago Limited (TSTT), in their rollout of IPTV.

He returned home in 2012 and went straight into a job as director of information technology at the Jamaica Public Service. Less than two years later, he was promoted to vice-president of technology and innovation where he drove transformation, upgraded their customer information system, new bill prints, new website, issued tablets to workmen and meter readers.

Now at the top of his game, life as Smith knew it was about to change. In 2014, he became ill, losing sight in his left eye, which he attributes to lifestyle issues, specifically not managing his diabetes. He consulted with his doctor, who revealed that he had a detached retina. He attempted surgery, but was unsuccessful, which led to him losing vision in his left eye.

His right eye later started to deteriorate. Keith recalls driving to a gas station in Barbican to get ice, “I saw the parking space I was going to was empty and I drove straight into the back of an F150. Could hardly see a thing,” Smith said. That was the last time he drove a car.

A recommendation was made by his good friend, Dr Charlton Collie, for him to get treatment in Miami. With the advice and support of his good friends, Earl Manning and Tony Davey, and his wife, Jakki, who escorted him in a wheelchair, he went to Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami.

“I saw the doctor (who was an international retina expert) the Friday and he looked at the left eye and said well we can’t do nothing much, but we can save the right eye, but we need to operate quickly,” Smith said.

What was supposed to be a check-up, turned into surgery with an approximate cost of J$2.98 million.

In October last year, he stumbled upon an advertisement for the post of CEO for a government ICT organisation. At the time, he did not know that it was e-Learning Jamaica. Accompanied by his wife, Smith attended the interview and was successful. But he had to overcome some mental barriers before getting here, though. Smith said that he was never confident to discuss his condition and that affected his desire to return to the working world.

“When you lose your sight, you lose your confidence. I had lost my freedom. I lost my ability to drive. I was concerned about my ability to care for my family,” Keith said.

“My line minister, Hon. Fayval Williams and the staff of MSET, board chairman Christopher Reckord and the other directors and my team, at e-Learning, have just been fantastic. The staff are very supportive of me in terms of my disability and for that, I am eternally grateful,” he added.

With over 24 years of senior executive experience in both the public and the private sectors, Smith is now tasked with leading the transformation of e-Learning Jamaica at the executive level. After eight months on the job, Smith has been successful in several things.

“I was able to get the company’s establishment approved by the Ministry of Finance. That has been outstanding for quite a long time. Made some changes to the leadership team and also worked on the internal culture and performance ethics of the organisation,” Keith said. “I have an open-door policy within the company. Now, any member of the staff can knock my office and come and talk to me once I’m available. I’ve implemented a more relaxed culture where we all operate on first names, rather than the formality. And I’ve got engaged with a lot of the staff to understand them and their work,” Smith added.

In eight months, Smith said that they are changing the direction of the organisation, getting it focused back on providing technology solutions.

“We’ve reviewed all the projects and figured out where we are. We had Tablets in Schools project. We are now doing Tablets for Teachers programme, Tablets For Physiotherapists as well and also, at this point, we are planning a major project to refurbish the ICT systems in the schools and building out a structure to manage these programmes,” Keith explained.

“I was saying to a friend, I don’t see myself leaving e-Learning Jamaica in the short term,” Keith said. “I see e-Learning Jamaica over the next three years as being very pivotal in ensuring that all the publicly funded schools now get access to the right basic ICTs. Providing them with laptops, desktops, audiovisual projectors, tablets for students, laptops for students at high school, in some instances facilitating a bring your own device strategy,” Smith mentioned. At 54 years old, Smith said that he is at the legacy side of his career and is excited about the opportunity to transform the organisation.

Now in a space to reflect on the highs and lows of his personal and professional life, Smith said that one thing that has guided his journey and kept him going was the KC motto “The brave may fall, but never yield”. Etched in his mind from his tenure there, he explained that these words have been a mantra by which he lives. Providing him with a reassurance that it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down. All that matters is you get up one more time than you were knocked down.