Archives for December 2013

Foreign Service Exam: The Most Important Language

Folks, I hear from a fair number of people and see questions on the various forums about the Foreign Service Exam. One of the top questions is how do your abilities in foreign languages help you get into the Foreign Service. Unfortunately, except for a slight bump on the registers at the end of the selection process, they don’t help you on the Foreign Service Exam.

What is the critical language to master for the FSOT?  English. Hands down.

I’ve talked about this in previous posts —  How to Improve Your Writing 30 Days and Suggestions on Writing Your Personal Narrative — but the Foreign Service relishes and promotes on your ability to write. There are agencies in town wedded to PowerPoint and other trickster ways to avoid ideas in a narrative. The State Department still lives or dies by the written word.

We’re all familiar with George Kennan’s “The Long Telegram,” a 5,500-word treatise on why we should not deal with Stalin and the Soviet government . I’m not sure that anyone at State would read such a long cable today, but he followed it up with a shorter article in Foreign Affairs, published as the work of “X.” Both of these served to shape what we came to know as our containment policy towards the Soviet Union.

I’m not pushing you to write lengthy cables that probably won’t be read.  I’m simply arguing that writing has not/not gone out of fashion in Foggy Bottom.  The flourishes of Kennan’s writing likely wouldn’t be appreciated today either. Short, crisp, and factual writing is of critical once in your in the Foreign Service, and it’s equally important to pass the Foreign Service Exam.

Don’t underestimate English’s importance on the test. The Examiners want to hear about you, your experiences and perhaps more importantly how you learned through trial and error and occasionally falling on your face. Humility goes a long way in your FSOT writing, especially in the Personal Narrative section.

So while your skills in a foreign language — hard languages, in particular — will go a long way in your careers. You need to master English to pass the test.

As I recommended in my previous posts, there are a number of good books out there to help with your writing.  Below is one of the best.  It’s honest, straightforward and a quick read. Take another look, if you haven’t already.

Bon courage,


Apologies for My Absence

Sorry for my long absence. I’ve started working on a telecoms start-up — — and it has sucked up all of my time. But in a good way.

We at Vanu-Africa (all five of us!) have the passion to provide access to cell phone and data service to rural Africa. In addition, the technology will provide internet wi-fi and battery charging stations. The equipment we use is completely green, can help provide jobs, and open up rural Africa like never before.

Up to now, all African countries have leapfrogged over landlines and embraced the cellular telephone. While Smartphones only make up about 20 percent of the market, more African countries are upgrading to 4g and LTE networks. In fact, in 2013, the number of cellphones in Africa (admittedly a larger population) has surpassed the number of cellphones in the United States. Mobile banking, telemedicine, literacy and other education programs are ramping up.

But in spite of these recent gains, rural Africans have been left behind. Carriers have balked at installing cell towers outside of metropolitan areas because of the expense (~$250k plus recurrent costs for diesel generators and fuel) and what they perceive as a marginal rate of return. Under government pressure and subsidies, carriers in Tanzania and a few other countries are pushing out into this large, if still untested, market that makes up at least 50 percent of Africa’s growing population.

And that’s where Vanu Africa comes in with a couple of solar panels, lithium ion-batteries and a 50-foot pole to provide access up to 1,200 subscribers and a signal that can reach up to three kilometers.

The heart of this technology is the CompactRan. Developed by Vanu Bose (the son of Amr Bose who founded and ran the Bose Audio company), the CRan is literally a network in a box that weighs 15 lbs. and draws only 50 watts of power.  This is no crazy untested machine; in fact, Vanu is installing them in rural Vermont to improve services there.

I will be writing more about the FSOT, so please stay tuned…

Best, Bill