What Ails Pakistan’s IT industry
Columnist Nadeem Haq talks about
the problems that retard our IT progress.
Pakistan’s IT industry fails to deliver despite
generous government incentives. Pak IT performance has disappointed its
most optimistic supporters and cast serious doubts as to its ability to
boast this nation’s troubled economy. Nadeem Haq examines the problems
that plague Pakistan’s IT industry and offers some fundamental solutions.
It came as no surprise when Pakistan’s top banker publicly expressed
disappointment over the performance of his nation’s IT industry.
Addressing a gathering of Pakistani businessmen in Lahore, the Governor
of State Bank of Pakistan Ishrat Husain lamented over the substandard
quality of IT education and under performance of the software industry
in the country. Hussein is not alone. A growing number of Pak IT watchers
share his concern.
High hopes were once pinned on Pakistan’s software industry for
its potential to lift the sinking economy and create employment opportunities
for a vast number of software programmers. But recent economic data indicates
that Pakistan’s software industry is still not ready for Primetime.
The government funded and privately managed, Pakistan Software Export
Board’s data indicates a mere 9 percent increase in the IT products
export. The total export volume remains under 20 million dollars. This
pales in comparison to neighbouring India’s 8 billion dollar IT
export. Pakistan’s arch rival India’s IT industry continues
to grow at an astonishing rate of 25% and its IT export is expected to
cross the 50 billion dollar threshold by 2010.
The recently released data also indicates another alarming trend: a reduction
in the size of IT base in the country. PSEB reports a steep decline in
the software houses. Several dozens software companies have gone belly
up in the past three years.
Who is to blame for Pakistan’s spectacular failure in creating a
brand name for itself in the international IT market? Critics say both
the IT industry and the government are to share the blame; the IT industry
for lacking a sense of direction and the government for its feeble driving
It would, however, be unfair to discredit Pakistan’s IT industry
and characterize it as a total failure. It has made tremendous progress
in past three years and has done some catching up for the time lost during
the political and social chaos of 1990s. But it’s still taking the
baby-steps. It needs to grow up fast and get ready for a sprint.
The Musharraf administration has been very generous in providing financial
incentives to the country’s struggling IT industry and in general
has done a great job in creating and expanding the infrastructure for
the industry. But the major roadblock in the growth of IT industry continues
to be poor manpower quality. Pakistan’s both public and private
universities are churning out under qualified IT professionals. The IT
boom in the Western world and neighbouring India did enhance Pakistani
public’s awareness about the information technology, but it did
little to help improve the quality of education that Pakistani students
receive in most private and almost all state-run institutions.
“The computer science departments in Pakistani universities face
challenges on three fronts,” says Aadil Osmani, a 36-year-old computer
scientist for Erickson based in the Middle East, “the major challenge
comes from within. Little attention has been paid to faculty development.
Under qualified faculty fails to generate a driving force to create competent
manpower.” Osmani bluntly says that in some cases the faculty is
intellectually depleted and is not capable of performing at a level that
it is expected from it. Osmani may be a bit too harsh in his criticism
but he is right on the mark. Many faculty members in the public universities
have been successful in advancing their careers without actually doing
much in their respective fields. It’s not uncommon to meet with
junior or even senior faculty members in nation’s public universities
who have yet to publish their first research paper in a respectable scientific
journal. Faculty is promoted based on seniority not performance. This
has created an environment in the public universities where performance
pretty much doesn’t count. Getting older on job guarantees automatic
The faculty is paid by Pakistani payers, and they have a right to ask
how their tax money is spent and what dividends the society gets in return.
Critics say there is a certain culture in the Pakistan’s state run
universities, which needs to be changed to allow active research in these
institutions. Adequate funding for basic science research is a must for
the nation’s progress, but that alone is not enough; the government
has to implement a new culture in the institutions that fosters intellectual
freedom and at the same time demands best of their efforts from the students
and faculty. Osmani stresses, “there should be high entrance and
exit standards for the students and the faculty. Those who don’t
perform well enough should be weeded out”. Osmani, who maintains
close ties with his alma mater in Karachi, says of public universities:
“the students are like pebbles and the faculty doesn’t know
how to cut and polish them into diamonds.”
This is exactly what Musharraf administration’s top technology guru
Attaur Rehman seeks to do. Federal Minister Dr. Attaur Rehman, an internationally
recognized scientist, wants to change the way public universities are
run in the country. He wants to put together a plan, which ensures adequate
funding to the departments engaged in active research and faculty development.
He is probably the most vocal advocate for a change in Pakistan’s
higher educational system. Although Dr. Attaur Rehman is one of the few
cabinet members who enjoy respect of his boss, President Musharraf, he
has few supporters on the campuses. He is facing stiff opposition from
the teachers’ unions who want to maintain the status quo.
Teachers’ unions in public universities in Pakistan have morphed
into coal miners’ union, says Osmani. These old guards will do anything
to defeat Attaur Rehman’s plans to revamp our universities. Pakistan’s
future depends on its progress in science and technology, which is impossible
without world-class education.
Musharraf administration has invested $350 million in the IT infrastructure
in past two years. This is a remarkable achievement in itself. A nation
known for giving low priority to education seems to be waking up. But
unless Pakistan improves its quality of education it cannot produce the
needed manpower to support ever expanding IT market.
But, the government alone can do only so much. Pakistan’s IT industry
doesn’t seem to have a sense of direction. There has been more emphasis
on exporting IT services than developing software products for local markets.
Pakistan’s domestic market remains untapped and the multinational
software companies are making inroads into the market. There are two cardinal
principles of running a business: product development and acquisition
and finding markets for them. Pakistan’s own domestic market offers
huge opportunities for the software industry but the industry has not
been coming up with software products to meet local demand. Many Pakistani
banks and businesses have turned to foreign companies to buy their products.
“Why don’t they come up with their own products and compete
with foreign software companies on their home ground?” says Syed
Nasir, a neuro-oncologist based in New Orleans. “They are obsessed
with the notion of exporting IT products and seem to have forgotten the
local markets. They can make tons of money at home.” Dr. Nasir alludes
to Microsoft’s monopoly in the Pakistani market. Microsoft sells
its over priced software products in the local markets and the Pakistani
business have no alternative but pay for them through their nose. “Pakistani
software houses should develop their own version of say Office Suite—compatible
with that of Microsoft—and sell to local business at a rock bottom
price and thus recapture the local market.” Dr. Nasir suggests.
Many software companies in India and China have successfully developed
their versions of popular foreign software products and established themselves
in the market. Some of these Indian and Chinese software houses are now
taking their products to the international market to compete with Microsoft
A strong domestic market for Pakistani software houses will provide the
springboard to jump into the international arena. Developing products
for both local market and export are not mutually exclusive, however,
a strong domestic market share will provide the Pakistani software companies
with a rock solid foundation for international competition.
About the Author
The author is an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of West
Virginia in USA. He can be reached at NadeemHaq@lycos.com