By Ali Haider Gokal
and Syed M. Aslam
Jul 24 - 30, 2000

Faisal Khan completed his Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Florida Institute of Technology in 1993. He completed his Masters from the same institute two years later in Electromagnetic Fields and Satellite Communications. He is the one of the six co-founders of Net Access and has been its Managing Director since the company was established in 1996.

Since his university days in 1992, Faisal Khan has been involved with the Internet which was still then in its embryonic state. He has an avid interest in making bluechip/multinational companies reap the benefits by going digital on the web. He specialises in e-Commerce application analysis, and solutions, leaving the development part to the professionally qualified staff. Faisal, in addition, is also working on projects like interactive multimedia on the web and networked environments like Network Access Points (NAP).

PAGE talked to Faisal Khan about his company and the overall scenario of the local IT industry.

The following are the excerpts of the talk:

PAGE: How did it all start?

Faisal: On my return from the US after finishing my Masters I applied for jobs in various organisations. However, I felt that I was denied the jobs on one pretext or another. I also realised that I was not cut out to work for somebody. Net Access was literary established in the bedroom of my house on January 26, 1996. I realised that you cannot bring the users to the content but content to the users. This has been a philosophy of Net Access all along, and perhaps our strongest point, that we aim to bring the contents closer to the users.

While Net Access was mentally conceived on that fine January night in 1996, we got it registered in June the same year. We hired our first 'colleague,' that's the term we prefer to use for our staff, in August 1996 to commence operation the same month. Today, we have over 40 'colleagues' working with us and by end this year we expect to raise their numbers to a maximum of 80.

PAGE: Your software development works are aimed at Internet and Intranet markets. How feasible has that been?

Faisal: It's a profitable business provided you are focused, research- and browser-oriented company. In 1996 we were one of two browser companies operating in Pakistan. Today, there are hundreds of such companies in the country. Despite immense competition there is still money for the company such as ours. At Net Access, we don't have any superficial business models but rather have an economic model. We realise that the advent of the digital economy brings with it an altogether new set of rules as well as new leaders.

PAGE: What's been you least successful project?

Faisal: It was Citibank's CTS Intranet project. Though challenging and interesting, the project managers kept on changing the project which was altered a total of seven times. The lack of project documentation from the client as well as the contractor resulted in forceful changing of the project scope by each manager.

PAGE: How can Pakistani businesses make the best of the Internet usage?

Faisal: While Internet use, as far as e-mail and PC dependence is concerned, is on the rise, and expected to increase five-fold from 200,000-250,000 active users today to over 1.2 million in next five years, only a handful of companies are actively engaged in exploiting the power of the web for their corporate benefit. Static pages sans pricing and lack of inter-activity simply do not cut it any more. Mere registration in search engines will also not suffice. Banner-ad marketing, registering with the portals of vertical industries have become an absolute must. A more comprehensive awareness drive should be undertaken to educate the businesses and the corporate sector about the web and how to best benefit from it.

PAGE: What are your impressions about the local software industry?

Faisal: The industry seems to be booming and I say that on the basis of my own personal experience. However, the software industry seems not to market itself in a proactive manner. Publications around the world are mentioning India, Ireland, Israel, Netherlands and a number of other countries for investors/companies to sell their respective countries as a base for off-shore software development. The business and image of the local software industry can only be improved with the aid of a properly engineered marketing campaign. Pakistani software developers should be encouraged to participate in such prestigious international IT exhibitions as COMDEX, CeBIT, etc. Some 700 international IT exhibitions were held in the world last year of which Pakistan participated in only two while India participated in at least 417. The Government of India allocated $ 18 million alone for the software industries of Bangalore and Hyderabad to ensure their presence in these international exhibitions.

PAGE: What does your client base look like?

Faisal: We have 70 plus accounts, all of them corporate not only in Pakistan but also in US, Canada, Europe, Middle East. We offer consultancy, software solutions and support services which are not only better but also at costs that can hard to match. Though we undertook some work which was outsourced to us we are more interested to offer our services to the local corporate sector and have been pretty successful at that.

PAGE: Are you satisfied with the quality of IT education in the country?

Faisal: I am concerned about the absence of quality IT institutions in the country. A majority of such institutions which have mushroomed in the country over the years are there to make a fast buck. We prefer to do our own OJT — On the Job Training — to groom 'colleagues' as per our specific needs. I have seen that only a fraction of 3-4 per cent of all the job applicants have an inbuilt talent for the related jobs. On the other hand, we have retrained engineers as well as doctors, MBBS, who are presently working with us. What we really lack is good visualisers whose demands will rise as we would have to face the multimedia explosion. Multimedia can be defined as applications that bring together multiple types of media like text, illustration, sound, animation and video. Coupled with interactivity, that makes multimedia content come alive in dynamic ways to make a far more influencing impact. At this point in time, the IT and computer industries are in the process of evolution where the entry and the advancement level are not tied closely to academic achievements. Besides sound IT skills, a flair for creative work is also a must to develop a skilled multimedia force to meet the needs of time. We should start paying attention to develop a skilled force of multimedia professionals that are going to revolutionalise the contemporary IT scenario.

PAGE: Much has been said about the brain drain of the IT professionals from the country. Is it really that bad ?

Faisal: There are two types of brain drain: There are those who just want to go out period and then there are others who want to start their own businesses.

PAGE: What can be done to increase the PC penetration in the country?

Faisal: Prices of hardware can only down if there are sales volumes. This has not been the case as only 120,000 PCs are sold in the country annually. We need at least 180,000 more new PCs every year. We are trailing behind by one-third but I am optimistic that we will be able to catch up in next few years. What we fail to realise is that we have one of the biggest video penetration in the world and that shows the immense potential that we have for PC penetration.

PAGE: Are you satisfied with the quality of Internet services?

Faisal: The quality of services provided by dozens of ISPs is very good, particularly Cybernet and Supernet offers tremendous services. Though offering almost similar services, I believe that even the small ISPs are making money. Unlike many other countries Internet service providers in Pakistan find it hard to offer value-added services as e-commerce as we are not a content producing country. While I am satisfied with the quality of service I believe that one should not pay Internet fee to have access to such basic service as e-mail.

PAGE: Are you satisfied with the per machine per person productivity in the country?

Faisal: Quality costs money. We take pride that we are the most expensive operator and specialised services in the country. While Rs 100,000 per machine/person/month revenue is an ideal productivity level and Rs 60,000 is an acceptable figure, at present per machine/ person/month productivity at Net Access is between Rs 20,000-25,000.

PAGE: What's your edge?

Faisal: I attribute the success of our company on a single factor 'research.' We encourage our colleagues to read which is a must to keep abreast of the latest technologies, trends and ideas in our chosen profession. This is also the reason that we have our own test to hire the skilled staff irrespective of their academic qualifications. One has to pass this test to qualify no matter how impressive one's academic qualifications look on the CV. We subscribe over 40 technology magazines and import additional books and magazines as and when required. We also offer an unlimited access to the Internet to our colleagues. From the day one our operations have been concentrated on Web/Intranets. No other over four-year old company can claim to have this distinction in the country.