An interview with Mr. Naseer Akhtar, President & CEO of InfoTech Group
Please tell us about your professional background?
I did my Bachelors in Mathematics and Physics from Punjab University , Lahore . After completing my education, I went to Canada and started my career as an engineer. I worked there for some time and then moved to U.S. where I worked with couple of other companies in their technology divisions.
In 1984, I came back and joined the non-banking division of BCCI which also included the BCCI Foundation for Advancement of Science and Technology (FAST). At that time, it was a Research and Development organization and not an educational institution as it is now. I worked there for about 3 years and then finally decided to start something on my own.
In 1987, I founded a company by the name of South Technology and Services. We provided solutions for automation in different fields which included the textile industry, fertilizer plants, industrial control systems etc. From 1987 to 1995, I was involved in a number of projects that ranged simultaneously from Avionics to Communication and from Industrial Control to Software Development.
I founded InfoTech in 1995 and currently we are the number one IT System Integrators in the country with 3 branch offices outside Pakistan . We try to provide services which other companies of Pakistan hesitate to offer for example, automation of stock exchanges, tax reforms/automation of government, central bank monitoring systems etc.
Who are you major clients?
Our major industrial focus is the financial sector which includes banks, the capital market, stock markets, Telecom Operators, Federal Government, E-government programs and the Federal Board of Revenue.
Who are your major competitors in Pakistan ?
We have no competitors in Pakistan . Our company provides system integration, end-to-end solutions for an enterprise or for a large scale customer; from infrastructure to design to building their business solutions, supporting, maintaining and planning things for the enterprise. There are hardly any IT companies which offers these services simultaneously.
How much workforce do you have?
There are 200 employees working in InfoTech.
At present, how many projects are in progress?
We are very selective when it comes to customers. We do not expand based on demand but on our own capacity. We have about 30-35 customers locally and 15-20 customers in the international market. Usually, at any given time we are engaged in 8 large-sized projects concurrently. The projects that we are working on this year are 50% from Pakistan and 50% from other countries.
What is the present situation of IT industry of Pakistan ?
Unfortunately, it is in a bad shape. I believe that we have the potential required to do wonders similar to India who have been doing it for the past two decades. They have almost exceeded 40 billion dollars of exports of IT services and we haven’t even touched the 2 billion dollar mark.
We have a huge pool of young talented IT graduates. Education is the basic requirement for the IT field which is fortunately available in Pakistan . All we need is channelizing the fresh graduates so that they do not get distracted. They should be properly trained in this field.
Do you think that the private sector should play a role to train the IT graduates by opening new companies or is it the responsibility of the Government?
Private sector cannot absorb all the IT graduates. We are growing at a very slow scale and can only export IT graduates if we have enough experienced man power.
There is no short term or long term policies. Government lacks the vision for the IT industry of Pakistan and is unaware of the fact that how quickly we can increase our exports. Commodities like rice and flour can be increased by only a few percent every year but IT Services exports can be increased 100% yearly by investing the right kind of resources provided by the government.
Major initiatives are always taken by the Government since they are usually the largest spenders in any sector and have the ability to be the catalyst in an industry by creating opportunities. For example, E-government is a department which has been in existence for the last 10 years but lacks skilled people. The department should be provided with adequate funding. Large scale projects can be launched by the government to give jobs and business opportunities for IT professionals.
In your opinion, what steps are required to improve the situation of this industry?
We do not need regulatory bodies but policy makers and a leadership that should sit down and plan our competitive advantages as a nation. We face numerous hindrances as we do not have enough electric supply. We have the manpower but we still require policies, a structural mechanism to utilize the export of services. We can increase our 2 billion dollar exports to more than 10 billion dollars in the next few years.
Even today many companies especially the government offices of Pakistan are still not fully equipped with technology and have piles of paper work and inefficiencies. In your opinion what are the main reasons behind this?
In the Government offices, there is a huge capacity and potential for IT transformation but the WILL is absent. The officials do not want to make their work process transparent and efficient because of the wrong intentions. For example the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) is restructuring itself since the last decade. The World Bank has given 150 million dollars to them and they have taken extensions twice to do the work but still have not done anything. I have given a number of proposals to FBR about different tax systems but they are not willing to move forward. We do not even have a Budgeting System or Expense Management System in the Ministry of Finance.
What are the major issues being faced when dealing with local clients?
There are numerous issues we have to face in dealing with local clients. Firstly, they do not budget properly. For example, if they require 20 million rupees to do a certain job, they will budget and try to fix the problem with only 2 million rupees; this is usually one of the main reasons why projects fail.
The other problem is the fear of change. Clients try to avoid automated systems in most of the offices because it will create a transparent environment and then they won’t be able to do any favor for themselves or any of their friends.
How do you compare the local IT market with other countries in which you are operating?
There is absolutely no comparison of IT market of Pakistan with other countries, not even with Africa . We are doing a number of projects in Africa and are working with governments of different African countries. They are far more efficient and have a clear understanding as to what and how they want to do a certain project.
There is a huge potential in the IT industry of Pakistan but opportunities are far less than what they should be. The size of population and economy is huge, but the size of industry is very small. Many companies and government offices are not willing to implement new technologies to improve their efficiencies.
What advice would you like to give to new entrepreneurs who want to enter into the Information Technology business?
They should stay positive despite of all the negativities as things will turn around soon. All we need is focus, determination and research work. Always think creatively and do your home work.