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 force.
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 promotion.
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 et al.
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