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An interview with Basit Hamid, chairman and CEO of Elixir Technologies

By Syed M. Aslam
Oct 30 - Nov 05, 2000

Elixir Technologies Pakistan is a fully owned subsidiary of Elixir Technologies Corporation, a California-based Pakistan-origin IT company. Elixir is a leading software developer of business solutions for electronic production printing and the Internet. Elixir has 5,000 customers worldwide with over 30,000 packages installed in 70 countries for clients in such sectors as banking, telecom, billing, health care, education, and manufacturing in private as well as in public sector.

Elixir Technologies Pakistan has been operating since 1995 and was the first occupant of the Software Technology Park at the Awami Markaz Islamabad in 1997. Today there are thirteen IT companies operating at the Software Park collectively employing over 300 professionals including software engineers, data transcripters and voice-over-internet personnel. Besides Islamabad, Elixir also has development labs in California and Prague which collectively employ over 250 highly skilled IT professionals including 100 at Islamabad alone. Elixir has offices worldwide including Zurich, London, Paris, Singapore, Malaysia, Melbourne.

Basit Hamid is the chairman and chief executive officer of Elixir Corporation. Born in Srinagar in Indian-occupied Kashmir in 1948, Basit proceeded to Norway for study when he was 19. After completing his study at the prestigious Oslo Bedrifts Okonimisk Institute in Business and Management Information Sciences he left for higher studies in the US in Environmental Engineering.

He later worked eight years in Europe for such reputable companies as Xerox Corporation in Norway and Belgium and IDA, the Scandinavian datacentre for major Norwegian banks. In 1978 Basit moved to California and started a computer software consulting company. In 1985, he founded Elixir in California and today is the chairman of its worldwide operations. He personally handles the Pakistan operations in Islamabad where he is now settled. Basit is considered a pioneer in the development of 'high speed electronic software systems ' for Xerox and advanced laser printing systems for the IBM. Basit is passionately involved to build the IT industry in Pakistan and it was PAGE's privilege to talk to him during his brief stay in Karachi.

Besides talking about the global operations Basit discussed the role Elixir is playing in the development of IT industry in Pakistan. Elixir, he said, is a strategic partner of Jaffer Brothers Limited and Xerox Corporation in computerisation of the Electoral Rolls Project for the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) project. Jaffer Brothers is responsible for the data entry and final printing of electoral rolls for 65 million Pakistanis before the Local Bodies Elections the first phase of which will be held in December this year. While Xerox is responsible for supplying the needed hardware for the project and NCR is supplying the hardware and data-based management, Elixir is providing the software and system-integration for the pioneering effort which will help the government to build the infrastructure for a fully documented society. The NADRA project is a state of the art set-up using the latest hardware and software technology to produce over 200,000 duplex prints a day and processing 3-5 million individual records daily. The job includes the data entry of 65 million census forms and Basit told PAGE that one million names and addresses are being entered each month and the activity will accelerate in the months to come to complete the job within a year hopefully. Once data entry is completed through 500 terminals which are being operated on the round-the-clock shifts, the electoral lists are printed on latest Xerox printers and sent to respective local administrations for verification. Once verified they are returned for updating and are printed in their final colour-coded format.

Elixir, he said, has also developed a customised Nastaliq, traditional calligraphy, Urdu font and highly specialised software for this unique project. Elixir's flagship software, Opus, is an integrated document composition and production system for developing, printing and presenting documents in any language to meet the needs of an individual customer.

Elixir is also involved with NADRA in its upcoming project of National Identity Card for Pakistani expatriates overseas and the related supporting systems. It has carried out extensive research with NADRA on high volume national ID cards production hardware and software systems integration, Basit said.

Calling the computerised electoral list a pioneering achievement Basit said that it will not only help to hold a truly democratic elections but will also benefit the country in numerous other ways. For instance, it will help facilitate production of National Identity Card, computerised Overseas cards for the expatriates, machine-read passports, driver license and birth certificates to help ensure issuance of genuine documents for improving national security.

Talking about the start of Elixir's operations in Pakistan, Basit said that it started when he approached Salima Hashmi, the then Principal of National College of Arts Lahore, to provide her 10-15 students to train in computer-assisted graphic arts. Elixir facilitated the training of these students not only within but also outside the country to impart the best hands-on training and utilised their services to print 75,000 electronic books for the Unicef for teachers of Girl Guide. The project was the first ever electronics book publishing in Pakistan. Elixir trained another 100 students of National College of Arts Lahore providing them with the state of the world class marketing materials and most of them are enjoying lucrative careers within as well as outside Pakistan today.

Basit said that basic computer skills like data entry should not be looked down upon as they serve a very useful purpose of providing the very basis of IT revolution anywhere. Jaffer Brothers, one of the strategic partner in the NADRA project, has employed over 10,000 data entry jobs each of which pay a salary of Rs 7,000 plus a bonus of another Rs 5,000 per month to provide gainful employment in a country reeling heavily from unemployment. The NADRA project, has helped create some 15,000 jobs including Jaffer Brothers and Elixir and those with other strategic partners. Basic computer skills do serve a purpose, he added.

In addition, while nobody ever seems to miss an opportunity, appropriate and otherwise, about the progress that India has achieved in boosting its IT exports they fail to mention that software exports comprise 70 per cent of its total IT exports but the rest of the 30 per cent comes from such basic professional services like Internet.

Basit said that two years ago Elixir initiated a revolutionary project in Telemedicine Telmedpak aimed at creating IT awareness and providing educational and reference opportunities available on the Internet for health professionals and medical students. Telmedpak, he said, facilitates electronic access to medical information for the public, medical colleges and institutions in Pakistan. It is also aimed to use Telemedicine to link up remote areas of the country in need of quick medical help. The project, he said, is a pioneering effort in Asia and has gained considerable international support in recent months creating a much needed network with leading research and development institutions like Stanford, University of Southern California and University of California Davis.

Basit said that he has donated about $ 1.5 million from his own pocket on the Telemedicine project in Pakistan during last few years. He said in the next phase Telemedpak will be setting up the first medicine portal in Pakistan which will deal with four specific services. It will provide career counselling for medical students as well as handbooks and tutorials for general practitioners and indigenous herbal medicines for local doctors. It also aims to establish Telemedicine in urban health centres for the health professionals as well as patients in hard-to-reach areas initially in Taxila, Gilgit and Skardu. The provision of such services akin to 'ask a doctor' in the developed countries, he said, would be the first step towards globalisation of health and medicine in the country. Lastly, the portal will also provide information on such vital agriculture information as use of appropriate fertlisers, pesticides, research on pest control, crop genetics for the farmers.

He said that the most startling fact about the Telemedicine is that the five core members of the project, all doctors, were provided training in the US.

PAGE talked to Basit not only about his company but asked him many questions about many issues related to local IT industry. The following are the excerpts of the talk.

PAGE: When was Elixir Corporation established and what are its specialised products?

Basit: Founded in 1985, Elixir Technologies is a global IT company with 5,000 key customers worldwide and has strong partnerships with Xerox, IBM, OCE printing systems and Adobe. Elixir's software development and support operations are based in Ojai (California - USA), Zurich (Switzerland), Prague (Czech Republic), Islamabad (Pakistan), Singapore, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and Melbourne (Australia).

Using Singapore as its Asian hub, Elixir provides highly skilled IT professionals for advance software development joint ventures and "mission critical" one-to-one customer applications for key clients like the Singapore IRAS (Internal Revenue Administration Services), Union Bank of Switzerland - Singapore and the Government of Pakistan: Printing electoral lists for 65 million citizens eligible voters for upcoming elections for NADRA, and overseas Pakistani identity cards.

PAGE: Will you tell us about your team? What are the major markets of your products?

Basit: Elixir has over 250 employees worldwide and development labs in California, Islamabad and Prague. Our vertical markets are banks, insurance companies, Government, manufacturing, health care, Telecomm companies, utility companies and high volume "electronic printing" service bureaus. The list of Elixir's clients include such prestigious names as AT&T, Bank of America, Citibank, Union Bank of Switzerland, Barclay's, Societe Generale, Aetna, Travellers Insurance, Boeing, US Internal Revenue Service, Internal Revenue Administration Services for the Government of Singapore, Cigna Insurance, Toppan Forms (Japan), Taisho Marine, Prudential (Malaysia), Dupont, IBM, Xerox. It also enjoys the business of over 450 fortune 5000 customers in 70 countries on four continents. Many the customers listed above are also "outsourcing" software development projects and applications development services to Elixir Pakistan.

PAGE: What's the volume of Elixir Pakistan's exports?

Basit: It has exported software and professional services worth approximately $10 million in last two years. I must add that our total revenues from worldwide operations from all activities total over $15 million annually. However, the retail value of these products and services through Xerox and IBM channels, Elixir's two major strategic partners, add up to $100 million per year.

PAGE: What's needed to usher a real IT revolution in Pakistan?

Basit: We should not try to "catch up" with others but have a "leapfrog" strategy and an implementation plan. How can we do that? Simple, we should start building platforms for e-commerce, future technologies, supporting and facilitating domestic IT use and by setting up effective infrastructure for software exports. Affordable internet will result in cultural assimilation and high speed and broadband telecommunication availability will help e-commerce and multimedia. Developing telecommunication backbones and nodes can help provide local hosting and international high-capacity connections will integrate our networks with the world. I must add that wireless availability is the wave of the future and we should start considering it seriously.

There is a need to upgrade our telecommunications system and PTCL being the sole authority responsible for it should take up development of IP backbones, provide DSL and other broadband services and most of all offer tariffs which are internationally competitive. It should make ways for the bandwidth sub-lease, increase Points of Presence and develop wireless services over PakMobile network)

For its part the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority should demand service standards from ISP's (NAPs, minima, pooling etc) and encourage trading of carrier, IP bandwidth and cable TV operators into ISP. It should also encourage wireless providers and satellite services.

The need for incubators can hardly be over-emphasised. They should be used to engage universities, assist in corporate structuring, management guidance, physical facilities, marketing support, in-country subcontracting.

Professional Resource Development is a must for the development of IT in the country. Funding should be provided for university programmes, fuel IT research, develop academic-level IT forums and encourage opening of quality vocational institutes. To increase computer literacy the concept of "smart schools" should be encouraged and school curricula should include computer courses. IT youth clubs should be encouraged to be established.

The government can help play a vital role to create an IT culture by lending an all-out support. It can set the much needed example by injecting technology at all government ministries and departments, by setting up computerised information kiosks, websites, encouraging government-citizen interface and availability of public sector transactions.

PAGE: What's required to boost software exports from Pakistan.

Basit: Quality human resources is abundantly available in Pakistan. All it requires is a matching quality project management, quality software products, advance infrastructure (broadband, ISPs), process management systems, advanced software development and quality control tools. As with any product, quality marketing is a must to expand the base of our software in the international market. It is a must that we start building the 'Pakistan name brand' in the international software market and should use our embassies as IT trade posts.

PAGE: Do you have any concerns about the availability of qualified IT workforce?

Basit: As demand builds we need our IT universities and colleges to produce top-flight professionals and increase capacity, help the non-university institutes to raise standards and curricula to world standards. However, it is inevitable that people are going to leave Pakistan for greener pastures. However, things can improve if we have strong IT corporate internship programmes to provide quality innovative jobs, stimulating work environment and training and high salaries can help reduce the "outflow"

PAGE: Are you satisfied with the quality of IT education in the country? Are we producing enough qualified IT professionals to meet the demand? What's the gap between the supply and demand and what could be done to address the problem?

Basit: We can do better by raising the level of curricula and induction of better trained faculty. However, we need to rapidly add more IT universities and upgrade the existing ones to offer Computer Sciences courses by bringing in private sector to start more quality IT institutes. Partnership with foreign universities/institutes to create more quality institutes can also help. It is imperative to produce more IT specialists at a rapid pace as presently the supply is falling far short of the demand.

PAGE: How could Pakistan become a more active software exporter of quality and quantity?

Basit: It can do that by raising the standard of project management skills, curricula/studies in universities, introduction of CMM type of software development process and tools. Training in Quality Control processes and implementation, instill a "pride of product" culture and develop entrepreneurial skills will also help Pakistan become a more active software exporter.

PAGE: Do you intend to go public in near future?

Basit: No.