PAKISTAN'S SOFTWARE OUTPERFORM INTERNATIONAL'S: JEHAN ARA
TARIQ AHMED SAEEDI (TARIQSAEEDI@HOTMAIL.COM)
Dec 10 - 16, 2007
Despite small size of revenue being generated in Information Technology sector of Pakistan, there is an abundance of raw talents available in the country to tap unexplored avenues and to compete with regional and international markets in terms of quality of products. This was stated by Jehan Ara, CEO of Enabling Technologies and Advisor to Pakistan Software Houses Association. Enabling Technologies is the first company, which went into interactive media business in early days of development of IT sector in Pakistan. Jehan Ara started her career as a journalist in Hong Kong. The city saw her rearing childhood during the era of imitable developments and bid her a good bye to rejoin after she finished her bachelor of arts in Karachi. Upon her return to the technology laden metropolis, she tried her stint working in diversified fields and industries ranging from public relations, publications to insurance industry that, she thought, moulded her into a person with conscientious approach in career selection. Spending her good time there in marketing and publicizing of tourism industry, she decided to finally move to Karachi in 1994-a decade of multi media boom all over the world-to establish her debut launch of designing multi media solutions for corporations well aware of the impact. Since, at that time the concept was moderately penetrating in the Pakistan's market, business action plan had to shape into two-pronged: one to educate people about emerging technology, which was even maiden for the US market, and second to seek and train workforce to keep the venture move along. So, it took her two years to vie and make company's first contract with IBM. The contract was about preparing and designing of a retrospective compact disc on progress of IBM in fifty years. That was actually a daunting task to complete that took her team eight months to collect relevant materials and to transform them into a final package. Only four people were involved in the project while 60 designers of IBM had already worked for a similar project and come up with a relatively low quality outcome. The achievement was greatly commended by IBM international management. She associated it amongst big highs during her professional endeavour. Enabling Technologies has also developed a similar CD on fifty years of Pakistan's Art. On ICI's operational history in Pakistan, it designed an interactive text screen application. All in all, her company made many interactive media projects for organizations of different industries. It unfolded product range of interactive media industry in Pakistan by developing CDs on conferences, companies, and so on and so forth. She thinks that this is an epoch of digital culture and readers seek a one-stop satisfaction through electronic information instead of being restricted to only a book at one time. She is the only woman proprietor holding membership of PASHA. Having been appointed as a president of PASHA, over the years she has been actively running affairs of the body. Presently, Jehan Ara is performing the duty of an advisor to the association. In her move to transfer knowledge about IT industry, practically which she earned in over thirteen years of untiring efforts, to entrepreneurs seeking business solutions she routinely involves in consulting. Jehan Ara was amongst the few pioneer team members of the association, who transmitted working agendas of the body in public. Let alone lack of awareness in home country, the association was not recognized and known across the border either. To strengthen association's standing, they organize training workshops for member-companies. In an initial attempt, information materials are being lined up to display on website of the association so that public awareness could be raised. Growth of IT sector needs consolidated struggles of major stakeholders. Here, association's role is to guide them how to seek finance; to attract venture capital; and to retain staff. PAGE interviewed Jehan Ara. Following are its excerpts.
PAGE: Is there a large pool of academically and technically skilled IT manpower available in the country to meet the local and export needs?
Human resource is a major issue being confronted to IT companies in Pakistan. IT industry of Pakistan is growing at a rate of fifty percent per annum since last four years. It can grow much faster but we need good people. While, in market situation is abysmally reverse in terms of IT institutes and universities which produce workforce needed for the sector. IT industry of Pakistan is being misunderstood as sagging. Parents are disgruntled to adopt for their kids IT as a favourable profession. Therefore, they suggest their kids to take banking and finance, medical, and engineering sectors as primary career options rather than IT. It is thought jobs are no more available in the sector. Basically, the prevailing misperception was rooted amidst the collapse of IT sector in the US in year 2002. Undoubtedly, that hit all of us. But, now scenario has been changed at 180 degree. The radical frame of mind has damaged the industry a lot causing snowball reactions on other related activities. There is a dire need to abridge information gap and to educate people that they can pursue a lucrative profession in IT industry. PASHA has been organizing job fairs in all over the country for three years to build a coordinating bridge between IT employers and job seekers. The job fairs provide a career counselling plate form to both of them to exchange ideas and knowledge. Sometimes, it was evident in such an occasion that over 30 vacancies were announced simultaneously by an IT company. Certainly, that implies that we have jobs. What we need is talent. Similarly, our association has been organizing ICT Award that is basically a contest among companies wherein awards on various categories including entertainment, finance, etc. are conferred to best performer. The winner of award is subsequently acknowledged to participate in the regional ICT Asia Pacific award. In a recently held ICT Asia Pacific Award in Singapore two Pakistani companies have won awards for designing best communication and financial applications among 180 vying contestants hailing from across the region. Pakistan's IT products are far superior to regional competitors. Judges around the region selected Pakistan's IT products as best following a stiff brainstorming session during the award. Nine different software companies represented Pakistan.
Equally important issue is our education standard which is not up to the mark. In subsequent effects, we have to retrain pass-outs for six months to make them adaptable to practical work requirements. PSEB has begun an internship programme in which it would pay Rs.3000 per month to each internee; while we train them. To some extent, it is working. But, this amount is too meagre to attract talents. There are very few institutes which are creating in-working-condition lots. Their learning is limited to broad perspective of IT industry and thus misses specialized concentration on a particular subject. Youngsters of our country are very talented. The need is to hone their skills and to advance them to create world class designs. Nevertheless, education starts from primary and secondary level, to resolve this problem HEC needs to format and revise IT curriculum to integrate ongoing dynamics of the industry. IT is rather ever changing sector. Ministry of IT started Outreach Programme (IT training programme) in collaboration with well reputed universities and institutes of Pakistan in suburban areas. The outcome was remarkable as trained lots outperformed those of urban areas and that was so within limited training exposure. Sindh IT Board is dysfunctional and contributing nothing to change perspectives of the industry. Government should be serious in this regard. There are 90 million young people in the nation. They have to be educated right away to drive and sustain growth in IT sector.
PAGE: There is an apprehension that enforcement of Intellectual Property Right and Act on IT sector in Pakistan will cross product price beyond buying power. How do you foresee it?
Intellectual Property Right and Act should be glanced at in two ways. It is important. The software, which IT companies are creating, should not be pirated because we spend significant number of years in designing. Additionally, international software should not be pirated either. However, IT companies should also understand that they should determine price in accordance with local market. Microsoft and some other large companies are selling their product at low price in China, India, and other countries than in Pakistan because of rampant piracy. Growth of IT sector of Pakistan is dependent on strict enforcement of IPR.
PAGE: How long will it take to IT industry to compete with regional and international market?
Although currently Pakistan's IT industry stands at as low as US$ 2 billion that includes local and export receipts we should consider a contextual analyses of the industry of Pakistan. Given the low scale of operational efficacy of Pakistan's IT industry, for instance in comparison to India, we can not compete. In India, there are forty thousand workforce employed in call centres alone. However, the amount they earn per person is very low. Aggregately, there IT sector is more revenue generating. In terms of software products, Pakistan produces quality better than India. As far as other fields of IT sector are concerned, our companies are also producing very sophisticated products. Some of our companies are so efficient in quality deliverables that they attract foreign businesses. One of our IT companies in its initial year of operation succeeded in making international blue tooth clients such as Vodafone. Evidently, clients are satisfied with quality of products. We are attracting business from Europe, Australia, and Far East countries. Adoby group (designer of range of Adobe products) has invested in a company located in Islamabad as it found company product stunningly innovative.
PAGE: As government preferably supports financing in IT industry through venture capital, why not alternative sources especially bourses are also explored to mobilize funds in the sector?
In order to be listed on exchanges, there has to be a certain paid-up capital required. Since companies in Pakistan are small they can not do that. They initially need funding to grow to a particular financial capacity prior to move to exchanges. So far, only two companies are listed: Netsole and TRG. Most companies have been set up with personal funds. How much capital they could form? Banks have not been funding software companies because there are no collaterals. Financial institutions require tangible securities against loan. As there are no such securities, IT companies could not avail this main source of financing. They can lend to textile mill which may collapse but not to IT firm. The reason could be instability of price in the market. By not sanctioning loans they actually don't value intellectual capital (security). Now, that is beginning to change. Some of the banks have realized to bring changes in their criteria due to revival of IT sector.
PAGE: Has government been facilitator and enabler to encourage the private sector to drive the development in IT sector?
Government policies are somehow good. It is encouraging export by giving IT companies tax incentives. But, most companies are only able to move into export after they grow to a certain level. Till then, they have to pay all taxes. Tax incentives are only for exporting products not for domestic ones. It said venture capital is tax free. There is only one capital venture firm that is TMT Venture. They started quite few IT companies. It didn't work out. Government's effort to promote IT sector is not enough. Government is doing its best to promote IT sector. It urged KESC to charge industrial tariffs to IT companies. Nothing in practicality has been enforced. IT companies have to pay more in lieu of electricity bills than any other same-sized company because of high usage of computers and allied machineries. Government paid 80 percent fees of CMMI certification to have subsidizes only five IT companies out of 900 operating across the nation. CMMI certification is like ISO but for IT companies. Government partly pays booth rent of international exhibitions supporting companies financially. Government is providing these kinds of subsidy. Our bandwidth is still more expensive in the region despite its rate has come down recently.