‘Good quality IT work will attract foreign companies, no matter what the security situation,’ Humayun Zafar, IT Expert and Consultant
A multifaceted IT & IS professional, Humayun Zafar has over 25 years of experience in developed as well as emerging markets, both in public sector and private sector. To his credit, he is the stalwart of several ‘firsts’ in Pakistan IT history like 1st online banking, 1st fully online academic testing and evaluation system, 1st fully online academic management system, etc. He is also a Mentor at the MIT Enterprise Forum of Pakistan.
Following are the excerpts from BR Research’s recent interaction with him.
BR Research: Please tell us briefly about your association with the IT sector!
Humayun Zafar: I am an IT professional whose interests and efforts have progressed towards business centric IT solutions. Currently, I am working as a consultant for more than one set-up. These set-ups are dealing with the IT solutions for businesses. I have recently come back to Pakistan after moving around, working with developed markets like US and Australia and emerging markets in Southeast Asia, Far East and the Middle East. As I see things now, a lot of convergence has happened between IT and business; it is essential for an IT solution provider to nurture business perspective in the solution and that is why I find myself in a position better than many others who have an IT background but who are not much closer to the requirements of business enterprises.
This has to be understood that IT will remain a support industry, in the sense that it will not grow into a mainstream or core industry. IT is a tool that boosts the core business. Another major aspect to focus in all solutions is that with the profusion of digital content, it is very paramount to protect information, secure data and maintain ‘private space’. Being the custodian of data, the IT sector’s challenges increase.
BRR: What are the factors that, you think, have held back the local software industry compared to its neighbouring IT-BPO giant-India?
HZ: There are many factors why India has grown into the IT hub that it is, while Pakistan could not get on a sound path. For one, India is particular about processes, rules and regulations. Good or bad, they tend to follow those procedures and regulations. On the other hand, Pakistan has had a revolutionary approach, with little appetite for procedures, routines and processes. When everyone is trying to come up with its own processes and these processes often fail, it creates a lot of ad hocism. Most of the times, it’s like running in circles.
To illustrate, I have personally known the Indian government functionary whose action in the early ’80s to ban all foreign hardware and software services in India to support local industry which actually laid the foundation of IT revolution in that country. He was criticized a lot, badmouthed, but he stood his ground and the gurus of the field supported him. They took a long, elaborate route; they stumbled onto things but created their own hardware and software solutions which were the crudest at the time. But they persevered, they persisted, and today everybody is talking about and doing business with India. The private sector was facilitated in India and the rise of India’s software industry is only because of the private sector with supporting government policies.
In Pakistan, we did not set up the processes, didn’t follow the procedures, and that’s why we are way behind. For instance, we don’t even know who the custodian of software exports statistics is. Is it PSEB, SBP or is it PBS? Who is responsible for keeping the official records? By the way, the SBP’s recorded figures do not reflect the accurate quantum of software exports. I personally think that the number is over five billion dollars.
The other major factor that Pakistan is lacking is the strength of its individuals. Our top universities are teaching tools to their MS graduate students, when they should actually be teaching how to create new tools. We should be creating new processes and procedures, new standards, etc. If you look at the contributions to the international standards bodies like ICAN, ISOC, and IEEE from Pakistani professionals, it is negligible. We are living in a collaborative world, but Pakistani IT professionals are at receiving end, not contributing much, intellectually.
BRR: How do you view this perception that the deteriorating law-and-order situation during last five years has weighed negatively on the local IT sector?
HZ: I think the law-and-order issue is just a fraction of the whole. I feel that the real issue is the quality and kind of work that we produce here in Pakistan. We’re used to taking short-cuts, not willing to go full-length, and think that is somehow smart. I think that is cheating, basically. I have worked abroad, and I have confronted many negative perceptions being thrown around vis-à-vis Pakistan and its people. But during my interaction with the Western professionals whom I worked with, the negative impression never figured in the discussions – only work and quality work was under discussion.
The Western companies need to get their work done cost-effectively and efficiently. The cost of outsourcing work to Pakistan is much low, and that is still attracting outsourcing companies to come to Pakistan. The reason to outsource business to Pakistani companies is and will remain quality work at low cost. Pakistan is a haven for those companies that want to cut their costs, so the high quality work will itself attract more business.
BRR: Coming to the ICT services being offered in Pakistan, what are the factors that need to be looked at to enhance the broadband penetration in Pakistan?
HZ: The rate of growth in broadband usage in Pakistan has been tremendous during last few years. If you look at the numbers from bottom up, growth in subscriptions and data consumption has been impressive. Yet we may still be far away from the benchmark figures devised by the multilaterals for a developing country like Pakistan.
For broadband to penetrate more, first, the quality of service will have to greatly improve. Whatever QoS an operator commits, it must provide it to its users. They can charge higher for that, but the value for money must be visible to the subscriber. A cheaper broadband plan is no good and is actually more expensive if the connectivity is down for most part of the day.
Secondly, indigenisation needs to take place, in the sense that entrepreneurs and university students create utilities and applications that are centred on the disruptive innovation that broadband offers. For any new product or service, a period of handholding of the customer is needed for uptake and education. In the absence of such handholding in broadband, there is often a lot of misuse of internet. People need to be guided, educated and mentored about it. The onus falls on the mass communication media as well in Pakistan.
Thirdly, the competitive landscape may allow for more broadband service providers in the market. The new entrant will come up with a new trick, new service offering, new pricing formulas, and will help in expanding the broadband uptake. Fourthly and finally, since the broadband is an essential service, consumer protection should be at the forefront for the regulator. The current customer experience from the BSPs is widely unsatisfactory.
BRR: Do you foresee the 3G licenses auction taking place any time soon in the mobile telephony sector?
HZ: I would like the 3G licenses to be auctioned as soon as possible. The government can pull off this transaction if it really wants to, later this year or early next year. I think that since it’s a very technical area, although it has huge financial implications, the government needs to get some quality technical inputs, from top class consultants. Thus far, they have been trying to hush things, sweeping it under the rug, and it is obvious that everybody is losing out-the government, customers and operators.
So, the government must consult all the stakeholders, incorporate solid technical inputs, set their policies after deliberations, and then let the market compete it out. The rollout obligations are very important aspect of the auction. There are many areas which can benefit from mobile broadband. For instance, the government can set, as part of the auction, targets for E-medicine projects in remote areas and investment in E-learning facilities.
BRR: The government often blocks online content, and only recently shelved a project that was intended to install a massive system to filter a huge number of websites. Based on your experience in the Information Security domain, what is the better way to address the concerns of the government and the civil society?
HZ: There are tools available that can help the government to block specific contents on the internet. While all pornography material should be banned, it’s the other materials that also get banned because of one reason or the other. So, there should be an independent body-not a government body-which should decide which contents, should be banned on the internet. There should be conscientious, bipartisan people part of this committee, represented from the spread of various professions and civil society segments.
In this day and age, it is possible that the government can employ a system that can filter 50 million or even 500 million URL’s (website addresses) and block their content. I think certain degree of restrictions is inevitable, certain materials may need to be blocked and the cyber space has to be protected. But, this has to be deliberated on and directed from an independent set-up, one that is backed by a larger body of intellectuals, religious and academic scholars, professionals and public officials who formulate a policy as to what is and what is not.