They struggled to pay bills and loans. It was difficult even to deposit a small percentage of their monthly salary into their savings on a regular basis.
But when a networking chat offered a glimpse of new opportunities, Ahmad Azfar Ahmad Lotfi and Siti Hawa Maulad Bujang leapt at the chance to prove themselves.
A mutual friend introduced Azfar and Hawa – both already friends back then – to a data collection company, and the pair has not looked back since.
Within a year of joining the company as field data associates (FDAs), Azfar and Hawa got married, bought a house and a car, and currently lead a comfortable life in Sarawak. They have also assumed leadership of a team of FDAs, helping others to excel in the job.
Desperate for change
Prior to becoming FDAs, Azfar and Hawa both had their fair share of struggles with Azfar earning a pittance as a cook in a local hotel and Hawa, a single mother, working as a salesperson to provide for her 9-year-old daughter.
“My pay was less than RM1,000 and after paying for my motorcycle loan, fuel and house rent, I barely had anything left,” said Azfar, who refused to be dependent on his family once he had completed his Diploma in Culinary Arts.
Things were no different for Hawa, who was a Form Four dropout. She found it difficult to put food on the table for her daughter and mother.
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“When our friend introduced us to this job, we did not hesitate because it allowed us to travel all over Malaysia, learn and network with so many people. Of course, the pay was a big push factor. The job sounded doable: we had to interview target groups for our data collection.
“But we went through tremendous challenges at the initial stage as we had to travel to the interior regions, get out of our comfort zones, meet strangers, coax them into talking to us and be patient enough to gather the needed data within the given timeline,” explains Azfar.
All in a day’s work
A typical day for Azfar and Hawa today would see them leading a group of FDAs to collate the needed data on a range of topics like socio-economic development, living conditions, infrastructure and facilities and more.
They would receive a set of questionnaires and be given a project target and deadlines (number of people and timeline) to meet. A team is then dispatched to the identified locality. Upon completion, the collected data goes through a syncing process and is sent to the headquarters for consolidation and handover to the client.
“Dealing with people can be both easy and extremely difficult. Some are willing to entertain us while some shut their doors as soon as they see us approaching. Different cultures treat us differently so we need perseverance and good people management skills,” says Azfar.
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In Hawa’s case, she has seen her share of challenges in addition to putting up with unruly men and animals.
“I’ve been chased by dogs and geese and subjected to catcalling in addition to the existing challenges of travelling to the interior and dealing with all kinds of people,” says Hawa, adding that her team is always there to provide support and most people are generally obliging.
Persistence and focus win the day
They add that FDAs also need to be persistent in building a good rapport with their survey participants. In their language, this means FDAs will have to put up with verbal abuse, emotional outpourings and lengthy chats before they can finally do their job of collecting data.
“There is no such thing as an easy job. As a leader, I am open and transparent with my team members. I tell them that if they focus and work hard enough to improve their people skills, they can get their jobs done without any hassle and reap the benefits accordingly.”
He adds that FDAs need good mental and emotional strength in order to stay motivated at work. At times, they are also looked down upon by family and friends due to the unconventional nature and demands of their job.
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“I cannot allow these things to distract me,” says Azfar. “At least I have a job with a stable income and I am indebted to the organisation for giving us the opportunity to turn our lives around by focusing on our strengths instead of our academic qualifications and social standing.”