The IT Guru

Ngoni Murandu of NANA Development Corporation discusses the evolution of computing, misconceptions about Alaska, and why having an accounting background is an asset

It’s a long way from Harare, Zimbabwe, to Anchorage, Alaska. Just ask Ngoni Murandu. Through a series of professional achievements and promotions, starting with a two-year stint at PricewaterhouseCoopers in the early 1990s, the Zimbabwe native now finds himself in the enviable position of chief information officer of NANA Development Corporation (NDC). The business arm of NANA Regional Corporation, NDC was founded in 1974 and is headquartered in Anchorage. Now a $2 billion company, NDC is a quiet giant, with 54 subsidiaries and more than 11,000 employees; operations across the United States and the world; and interests in a host of industries, including hospitality, health care, oil and gas, mining, transportation, and more. What’s most unique about NANA is that it’s not only an Alaska native-owned company, but its earnings also directly benefit the thousands of Iñupiat people, an indigenous population from Northwest Alaska, who are also the company’s shareholders.

People might ask how someone from Zimbabwe wound up in Alaska. How did you come to work at NANA?

I started at NANA in 2008. Prior to that, I spent three years working for a drug maker, crisscrossing the globe. In my third year of travel, I realized that I was missing all the key milestones in my family’s life. A friend I’d worked with had been calling me about coming to work at NANA. We had all the stereotypes—sled dogs at the airport—and misconceptions about life in Alaska. At first, I said no. But then we went to visit, in June 2008, and fell in love with the place. At some point, my mother and mother-in-law will forgive me.

You started out on a career track in accounting. What happened?

My father had always hoped for an accountant—my first toy was an abacus! Through high school, I took extra lessons in math and accounting to assure my success as a future accountant. My father’s proudest moment was the day I was accepted into the clerkship program at PricewaterhouseCoopers. For the next two years, I progressed in the audit world until my heart was stolen by computing, which was in its infancy back then. When I was offered a position at IBM as a business reengineering process specialist, my father warned that computers were just a fad and [the] bubble was bound to burst. I never looked back.

How has your accounting background helped you in tackling IT issues? 

It has been an asset for me, as I look at all operations we perform within IT relative to their ability to positively impact the bottom line. I also understand the value of time and project management, with respect to their impact on costs. I maintain very disciplined budgetary controls within our teams and encourage our IT professionals to view operations from a business-centric point of view.

What does a typical day look like for you?

In a corporation with 54 businesses, there are no typical days. I may start a morning with a discussion about federal contracting and new infrastructure to support a billion-dollar consolidation of service companies. Noon may be a call with our operations team in Australia, and mid- to late afternoon may be consumed with planning for an enterprise performance-management system with potentially 10,000 users. The day may close out with our hospitality division discussing broadband access in arctic conditions.

How important is it that NANA remains under native-Alaskan ownership? 

It is essential. Like many other Alaskan native communities, the NANA region has benefitted from some direct investment from the federal government. However, the level of investment is significantly improved if supported by capital and dividends from a self-sustaining family of businesses. Many in the Arctic have come to depend on the social and cultural services provided by NANA. In fact, NANA shareholders can never sell their shares, so the current ownership structure will never change.

How does being an employee-owned company work out for NANA? Is it problematic, or is it more successful because the employees have a stake in the business’s success?

NANA is a shareholder-owned company that happens to employ some of its shareholders. That’s what differentiates us from other employee-owned businesses. Our shareholder employees are held equally accountable for delivering results by the friends and families who support them in their careers at NANA. The broader NANA community functions like one very large and communicative family, with its own culture and natural way of managing through crises.

What do you like best about your job?

I enjoy the fact that no one day is like the other; the diversity of the corporation brings about many exciting challenges and unique solutions. I’m also fortunate to work with an outstanding team of professionals. In many cases, my role is simply to create the conditions in which their sense of innovation and creative genius can flourish.