‘Banks need speed, scale, agility and an innovative mindset in the digital era’
Ammara Masood is an industry leader with over three decades of experience across three continents. Her expertise lies in IT strategy, consulting and digital transformation, mainly for clients in banking, financial services, telecoms and high-tech sectors. She has been the CEO and President of National Data Consultant (Pvt.) Limited (referred to here as ‘NdcTech’) since March 2010. Ammara is currently an elected member of the Central Executive Committee for Pakistan Software Houses Association; she is also serving on the Industry Advisory Board of Habib University. She has an MBA (Information Sciences) from California State University (San Bernardino); an Executive Diploma in Strategic Uses of Information Sciences from Stanford University Graduate School of Business; an MBA from Quaid-e-Azam University (Islamabad); and a Bachelors from Kinnaird College (Lahore).
BR Research recently interviewed NdcTechCEO and President. Selected excerpts are produced below:
BR Research: NdcTech has been around for a while. How has its service portfolio evolved over the years? And how does it differentiate itself from local rivals?
Ammara Masood: Our company provides IT services to banks and financial institutions. We are focused on providing transformation services for both core and digital banking. We have been in this niche for the last 22 years, and right now we are present in about 22 countries, with offices in Pakistan, UAE and Singapore. About 70 percent of our sales come from exports and the remaining 30 percent is from local market. Predominantly we are an export-driven firm.
We define our company mainly as an IT service provider. We are different from other IT service providers, especially in Pakistan, in that we have capabilities both as a front office and as a back office. Other service providers are mostly development centers/arms for IT companies that are based out of the US, UK or Europe. Whereas we not only actually sell our services in Pakistan and outside of Pakistan, but we also deliver them.The kind of talent that we need for NdcTechincludes sale, marketing and consulting professionals who can face clients, perform business analysis, and deliver projects.
BRR: The pandemic has been a boon for many local IT companies. How have things been at NdcTech during this turbulent period?
AM: We have also seen a similar trend where Covid-19 has been positive for our growth, especially because the services we are providing to financial sector, including banks, includedigital banking. Pandemic actually accelerated digital banking, so the work we were getting and the delivery timelines we were being demanded by customers were aggressive. Last two years have been phenomenal for our growth.We foresee digital trajectory to continue post-Covid, because once a customer is used to digital banking, s/he will never go back to brick-and-mortar banking. As a result, banksthat were previously falling behind in core modernizations and transformations are also ready to invest in technology.
Overall, and not just in the banking industry, there has been an acceleration in the digital transformation, be it the telecoms sector, the manufacturing sectors, the hospitality sectors, etc. One of the reasons of this acceleration was the impact Covid-19 had, as people were isolated and corporate office went remote. This necessitated investment in making processes more digital and providing digital services to end customers.
BRR: How has been the journey to digital banking like for Pakistani banks?
AM: The banking sector, especially in Pakistan, had been more of a brick and mortar business, so there was already, for some years, customer demand for banks to offer digital banking. But Pakistani banks were slow to adopt it, as they were doing trials with not much conviction that digital would really become a model shift for them. But when Covid-19 happened, they had no choice but to provide digital services to their customers through various channels and to start investing in digitizing their processes. Besides, different regulations that were coming during this period demanded that banks invested in those technologies.
As a result of above factors, there was a huge demand for such services where banks and other financial institutions were not looking at mobile and internet just as a channel, but they were looking at how to transform themselves to provide a platform for their customers. In order to be ready to provide such services, banks actually looked at putting together a platform. And for that, we at NdcTech, which represents leading banking software company Temenos, offer solutions for both core modernization and digital banking platforms. We were very much in the right place at the right time, and we were able to capture a lot of market during this period.
BRR: Recent growth in digital banking is well documented, but how sustainable is this growth, in the context of rising cybercrimes, identity theft incidents, etc.? Eventually, users have to have trust in the ecosystem.
AM: During the last two or three years, we have seen that there has been a huge number of attacks from cyber security perspective on various banks, including larger banks. There was also a problem of data security where data for cards or information about banking accounts was being hacked and leaked locally and internationally. The resilience, security and robustness that is needed to provide digital banking services really requires more of a platform for customers than just an odd channel for doing mobile banking.
BRR: Since your company also caters to financial institutions here in Pakistan, how do you see competition evolving between local banks and Fintech companies, especially on the digital front?
AM: I had previously seen that large and mid-sized commercial banks were very much in their comfort zone of brick and mortar banking and, therefore, they did not spend much on innovation. After recent developments – starting from branchless banking regulations a decade ago, to issuance of EMI licenses, and lately the framework licenses for digital banks – commercial banks in Pakistan now seem very clear that they need to move and invest in technology and be at par with new players. And the new Fintech players are very agile, can do innovation very rapidly and also have capital. Since it takes years to transform legacy operations and processes, banks are aware they cannot wait much longer for digital transformation.
BRR:You mentioned Temenos earlier. NdcTech is attending Temenos Community Forum in London. What kind of learnings do you expect from this event?
AM: Temenos Community Foruminvites all its customers on annual basis, where we get a chance to interact with banks of different sizes as well as Fintech firms and service providers like us. This year, the on-site event is happening after a gap of three years due to Covid-19. We are excited that we will be able to meet leadership from several banks at this large banking community forum. For a company like us that is representing Pakistan, we will have an exhibit there and we will also get a chance to speak. Also, one of our customers, Bank of Punjab, is nominated for Best Innovation at this forum. That is an excellent example of a Pakistani bank that has innovated on latest technology and is nominated for an award.
BRR: The kind of digital banking interface or user experience (UX) that many Pakistani banks have for mobile banking and internet banking needs a lot of improvement. That subpar front-end experience perhaps reflects weaknesses on the back end. How can digital banking be made more user-friendly in Pakistan?
AM: One of the cross-industry trends right now is that firms are actively working on user experience. Generation-Z is very much used to doing most of their tasks on mobile or the internet. That is the reality banks are also facing. The Generation-Z is now coming into the workforce, they are earning money, they are doing online shopping, etc. Banks are also finding the need to invest in user experience. Again, this is a worldwide phenomenon, where banks are realizing that what they can currently provide is just not up to their customers’ expectations.
For a firm like us, we also realize that just developing a mobile app and giving a front-end on the internet is not going to cut it unless we invest in design thinking and some of the modern techniques and tools. We have been able to partner with a number of design firms, and banks are doing the same thing. If the banks bring us on-board, they expect that we should be able to provide the user experience.
BRR: What other things do Pakistani banks need in the digital era?
AM: The banks need speed, scale, agility and an innovative mindset in the digital era. These are the things that back-end can readily provide for them. Speed and scale can be provided through models like cloud banking, which can help match the rising demand. On the agility side, back-end can provide the flexibility to do new product innovation, come up with new processes. Banks need to invest in back-end technology and services that can provide readymade solutions.
BRR: How do you see a situation where actually IT companies from Pakistan are able to develop cutting-edge financial software and cloud services solutions that are used by global banks?
AM: For that, among the things that are required is to, first, create talent that has global skills. Second, when we get those skills, we should be able to export those skills. For instance, many large foreign banks are taking services from us, because we provide global skills.And third, for a product company, the sales engine cannot be weak. A good sales engine can help achieve scale internationally.
What I have seen is that local IT product companies are not able to scale much outside of Pakistan because they do not have a business model that partners with external companies. So while they have people here who will go outside Pakistan and implement IT projects, they are not able to scale because they are not partnering with large system integrators, who can actually take their software and make it big. Even if you look at companies like Temenos, at one timethey were a really small company when they started, but today they are among the leading companies.
BRR: Being a leading woman heading a prominent IT company, what inspiration and motivation can female IT students and mid-level professionals draw from your journey?
AM: From my own personal experience, I think what is important to rise to this stage is to understand that you will always learn more from your failures than your successes. Whenever something goes wrong, you must remember how you resolved the issue and what you could have done better. Besides, what has motivated me to be where I am today has been the passion to do what I do. I always look for excellence, not only among my people, but also in myself. Every day is a new learning for me: I learn when I meet other people and when I read about things. That has been a major part of how I have been successful; it is also why I have been able to add value to a lot of my customers and the impact I made in the industry.
As a woman leader, I was pleasantly surprised to see other women leaders in Pakistan’s IT industry as well as women owning IT companies. Even in the West, there is a very small percentage of women who actually make it to the leadership position in IT.
BRR: Lastly, NdcTech is in the process of being acquired by Systems Limited. How do you see the significance of this development?
AM: This is a very important strategic development as two leading technology companies have entered into a binding term sheet for the acquisition of NdcTech as a wholly-owned subsidiary under the Systems Limited Group. NdcTech brings the experience of delivering digital transformation in banking and knowhow of different markets, which coupled with Systems Limited’s global operations and product portfolio, would help our customers avail exceptional end-to-end services. Post-acquisition, NdcTech will continue to have their independent management and unique performance culture. And the company will continue its growth strategy, benefitting from the parent Systems Limited’s strengths as well.