IT or a time to get LIT? By S. Husain
… “Suckers bring your money and projects to Pakistan, but we as a Government don’t have faith in home-grown talent so we’re going elsewhere.”
People always ask me what it’s like running my own software company in Pakistan, and I usually never know how to reply. On one level it is one of the most rewarding experiences in my life, and at another is has also been my own personal hell. It has been hell because the Government of Pakistan is made up of little departments with little men behind big desks who shouldn’t be looking after a zoo in Burkina Faso yet they oversee processes and institutions which are supposed to bring comfort to the 130 million people of Pakistan. If only the bridge between theory and practice wasn’t so wide. To paraphrase Adam Smith, who laid the foundations of modern economics, “The function of government should be restricted to foreign policy, ensuring justice to its citizens, and to erect and maintain certain public works for the welfare of its citizens.” If Adam’s advice had been taken the economy of Pakistan would not be in the dismal state it is today. Starting with tinkering from the Ayub Khan years to the disastrous (and selective) privatization of Bhutto, to the current privatization madness, every time the Government of Pakistan has gotten involved in any institution it has managed to wreck it in no time.
As all readers know September 11th was one of the disastrous events in recent times for the Pakistani economy. While a global recession was in place prior to the events in New York, September 11th turned the worlds’ eyes on Pakistan once more. An already demonized and tarnished image was compounded due to the fact that we were one of the 3 countries, which had supported the Taliban. Throw in the recent tension with India and we have the perfect makings on an unstable economy with an even more unstable political setup. In the image game Pakistan is always last to finish, and I can find no one but the Government of Pakistan to blame.
Running a software company in Pakistan is no different from running any other dhanda. Despite all the assurances by the honorable Minister and his MOST (Ministry of Science and Technology for the uninitiated) comrades, no real changes have been made on the ground. If Internet bandwidth tariffs have come down then they surely haven’t been passed on to the consumer. And if they haven’t been passed on to the consumer then what are we, the taxpayers, paying the regulatory body PTA (Pakistan Telecommunications Authority) for? Running a software company means that we have to have electricity – anyone familiar with the reliability of KESC knows that to rely to KESC for anything but heartache is nothing less than suicide. Yet as entrepreneurs we are expected to compete with international companies with no electricity, no phone lines, and bad infrastructure. This is exactly like expecting the Taliban to win against the might of the American war machine. Though the Government has more important tasks at hand, and thankfully MOST has now stopped hosting press conferences, so we know some work is being done somewhere.
Speak to any businessperson in any sector of the economy and they will agree on one thing and one thing alone – that the time they spend dealing with senseless details such as the State Bank, the export promotion board, and some sundry 18 government and semi-government institutions, that half their time is dedicated to such trivial matters when it should actually be focused on developing actual work. Before I moved to Pakistan with plans of starting my own company, close friends and family tried to dissuade me by saying, “you have no idea what you’re getting into”, and reciting scores of stories about people coming back from greener pastures to the motherland to start up projects; yet leaving dejected in a few years. Needless to say bravado, inexperience, and youth all combined led me to take a decision which I wasn’t quite prepared for in any way. Slowly but surely the startup days began to show me what these people were talking about, and how I had nothing in my experience bank to prepare me for a journey which brought me in contact with the worst Pakistan has to offer. God knows who said it, but someone did, “the best lessons we learn in life are the hard ones.” Over the last one and a half year, I’ve learnt that today only the mediocre and the ones who can’t really hack it in the “real” world end up in government and their only job is to talk a good game and really not follow it up with anything. But then again if we look at the history of Pakistan, we’ll see that that’s what has led us here – bad execution. As a technology analyst in the Middle East my job was to sift through business plans and cut through the BS, and identify the good deals. What I see today when one reads about the latest achievements in the Pakistani tech sector I see nothing more than brinkmanship and a whole lot of BS. At no level is Government policy consistent let alone cohesive. On one hand the Government is asking software companies and global corporate entities to outsource their projects to Pakistan, and on the other hand institutions like the State Bank are handing out multi-million dollar projects to companies abroad. This is strange especially since there are companies with proven track records who are working in the financial sector abroad with regards to software. So what’s the message we’re giving any potential client of our software industry? Basically what’s been said is as follows, “Suckers bring your money and projects to Pakistan, but we as a Government don’t have faith in home-grown talent so we’re going elsewhere.” The same is the case of the local hardware sector – foreign brands are being bought at will for menial and low tech tasks like data entry when all that’s needed is dummy terminals, which the local industry can easily supply. Where is the support that the every functionary in the Government talks about? The local tech sector doesn’t need any more speeches, or IT extravaganzas; we don’t need foreign consultants or even local ones. What we need is tangible change on the ground which means that the Government needs to make tenders transparent, and rather than hand out projects to pet companies, give projects based on quality. Government tenders are like noora kushti or even like the WWF – everyone knows who’ll win in the end.
Usually management consultants who churn out their crap reports also prescribe policy recommendations at the end of their masterpieces so here are mine if anyone cares: 1) Dismantle EPB – we’ll export more without them, 2) Scale down the State Bank where they should regulate and not hand out business to favorites, 3) Privatize anything and everything that works immediately – it won’t if we leave it in public hands, 4) Disband the Commerce Ministry and send all employees on Hajj, 5) Don’t allow Government functionaries to hold press conferences or attend seminars and such – they only waste time which could be spent on doing something constructive – like knit socks, 6) Disband every commercial and information sections at Embassies abroad immediately – outsource to any decent PR company in the world and they’ll do a better job. If the Government can follow my 6-point agenda I guarantee that our exports will treble within one year. Will the real Citibanker please stand up?
At the end of this tirade, readers will probably think I hate what I do. Exactly the opposite – there’s nothing like running your own business, and the feeling at the end of day is one of great satisfaction and pride –something we can’t get when we’re working for the seth – whether it’s here or abroad. Do I regret it? Not a bit? Would I do it again? Now that’s debatable.