‘In the IT industry, you need to upskill with the innovation’
Burhan Mirza currently provides consultancy and mentorship to various IT ccompanies, where he is guiding App development, AI, and blockchain. He also serves as an investor in 15+ IT startups in Pakistan with a market cap of over $100 million. He is open to more groundbreaking and disruptive ideas from young entrepreneurs in Pakistan.Burhan graduated from Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology in Computer Engineering. He started his career at TradeKey.
Following are the edited excerpts of a recent conversation BR Research had with him:
BR Research: Tell us about yourself and your journey at TradeKey.
Burhan Mirza: I introduce myself as a life coach, an entrepreneur and an angel investor who is often referred to as one of the biggest aficionados of the IT industry in Pakistan. Having started my career after moving back to Pakistan with TradeKey, I always had a knack for learning new technologies and what all it entails. After 9 years in TradeKey, I was promoted to Business Unit Head, where I managed and oversaw all the business activities including International Business Division, leading the service delivery, marketing, and quality assurance departments.During my tenure, TradeKey was on the brink of being evaluated as Pakistan’s first billion-dollar company and was competing head-to-head with the likes of international corporations such as Ali Baba.
My journey at TradeKey was full of bumpy roads but it was worth it eventually. Initially, there were many challenges that I faced, including lack of support from the team. Imagine leading a team and your team members don’t cooperate just because you are the ‘newest’ in the team. As time passed, I managed to gain the trust of my team and we marched along steadily as ever achieving the highest sales in the history of the company. It was then that people started to look at my unit as an important one and it became the biggest bread winner for the company.
One of the fundamental approaches I adopted was setting clear goals and expectations for every individual within the team. I firmly believe that when team members are fully aware of their roles and responsibilities, conflicts arising from unmet expectations can be mitigated. In addition to clarifying roles, we also prioritized building a culture of trust within the team. By doing this, we were able to forge strong bonds and create a unified front. This sense of trust and camaraderie enabled our team members to go above and beyond their usual duties. Eventually this team became resilient, adaptable, and resourceful, allowing us to compete with international corporations on a global scale.
Besides all things work, I am a proud father of two and love spending leisure time with my friends and family. I enjoy playing cricket on weekends, it keeps me fit and helps unwind from the overwhelming work schedule.
BRR: What is your view of the IT sector of Pakistan today and how far are we from its true potential?
BM: Just like every other Pakistani, I consider IT industry to be one of the most important sectors in Pakistan. Although it’s a growing sector, it is still one of the most underutilized sectors in the country. Presently, we are working with all the extremely limited resources that are available and still trying to compete in the global market. The industry is creating jobs, adding to the country’s foreign exchange reserves and playing its part in economic growth. The current IT infrastructure in the country is no way near the global standards yet the sector is trying to outperform established markets.
I think we are far behind from our actual potential, which by the way is subjective to how one thinks is the actual potential. For you it might be the revenue it brings and for me it might be the number of foreign IT companies opening up offices in Pakistan.Initially, we need to develop the infrastructure, the policies and the skill set which is required for us to actually work towards our potential.
It is pertinent to note that private companies can’t process without the governments support even if they wanted to, due to limitations as basic as receiving and sending payments around the globe. I am sure you know how much tax our banks charge on credit cards when used for foreign payments. This will only discourage the new entrants and make it tough for the existing players to survive. The only solution to this is stringent policies in place which favor IT businesses and help the country earn dollars.
BRR: What are the potential IT remittances that Pakistan can bring home and what needs to be done on the policy side to facilitate IT exporters?
BM: Pakistan has been relying on remittances since a while now and even though previously it was quite significant, the recent figures are worrisome. The country faced a decline of more than 23 percent year-on-year (as per August’23). This decline has various reasons including currency instability, rise of gray channels and lack of policies in place. All this being said, there is massive potential for IT remittances in the country, we only need to bring a structure in place. The structure has to have ease of payments (both sending and receiving) which will be done with the help of merchants like PayPal and Stripe. Secondly, cyber security is another pressing issue in Pakistan. People will only start trusting the process once it’s secure enough and we are far behind in it. Third, I think introduction of IT industry friendly policies is going to bring that confidence both locally and internationally which will drive inflow in Pakistan.
I will talk about IT exports from a dual perspective including both the corporates and the freelancers. The corporates need relaxation on taxes, both on receiving payments and on importing hi-tech equipment. The government needs to set aside a budget which should be utilized for the development of basic infrastructure that is necessary for the ecosystem. You can’t expect an industry to flourish without having to invest in it. How many dedicated tech incubators do you see in Pakistan? Here is where the problem lies. Transitioning from an agro based economy to a service economy isn’t easy but it is the only option left for Pakistan now.
For freelancers, I believe there needs to be a representing body which is officiated and regulated by the government and this is where we clean our image on the international front of unsatisfactory work or ghosting after payments and similar scams. The regulatory body will ensure that the buyer and the seller (freelancer) both are safe in terms of expectations and timely work delivery. Believe me, this will be a breakthrough for Pakistani freelancers and it will bring innumerable green back for the country.
Lastly, I believe the educational policy is as vital as the IT policy. I’m saying this with decades of experience and identifying the gap between academia and the market requirements. The IT professor in a college has never had practical experience ever in their life, how do you expect people to learn the ground realities from someone like him/her. Learning from books helps you learn the basics but an IT job/business is so much more than just basics.
BRR: What kind of counselling and coaching do you provide to people, and what is your take on the skillset in Pakistan particularly in the field of IT? What do we lack?
BM: After years of being an entrepreneur, I have dedicated my time to coaching and career counseling. I provide life coaching, business consultation services along with executive coaching, and my ultimate favorite is providing career counseling to students which I provide without any fee. You won’t believe the number of students who are stuck in their career because of the degrees that their parents/guardians wanted them to do and eventually become demotivated because they are not enjoying their work. While it is essential that you get formal education, it is also pertinent that it should be of interest to the person. My core strategy with such people is to dig deep, put myself in their shoes and identify their problems and eventually provide them with the best possible solutions.
Infact, this reminds of a recent encounter with an HR professional who wasn’t enjoying his field of work. After evaluation, what I did was to add more to his plate, something which had to do with management decisions and as expected the performance of that candidate improved majorly. We just need to find the right roles for the right people. I always say it and will continue to say it, the right talent combined with the right opportunity is the first step towards greatness.
The skill set in IT does exist in Pakistan but in a very limited spectrum. The gap between academia and the industry is increasing day by day. While the industry is inclined towards latest tech and what all it entails and is also looking for people who know this tech, our schools and colleges are still teaching students about a floppy disc. Another major issue is we lack the diversity in the skill set specially in the IT industry. You will find developers but very few who are up to the global advancements – we are a nation which opposes change instead of embracing it. We want to stick to the basics and continue working with the skill set which we learnt years ago, but in the IT industry if you don’t upskill with the innovation then unfortunately you will be history. I think it has to start from the grass root level where we build such institutions which are solely dedicated to IT skills, such programs which can land you a job within months of learning a new skill and as fascinating as it may sound it is the reality that IT skills can get you jobs anywhere in the world. Our students after studying 20 years think they have a massive career ahead of them while someone who learnt a new skill in let’s say 6 months which is market relevant can earn more than them.
It is a mindset which we lack and we really need to become more informed on what is actually going to be fruitful for us in our careers. I think the government as well as the private institutions really need to step up their game. We set up 40 laptops in a lab and call it a state-of-the-art facility which is absurd. Almost half of the population in Pakistan doesn’t even have access to internet, how can you expect a nation to compete on the global stage with such realities. Unfortunately, the current ecosystem for existing IT companies in Pakistan is also not very favorable. There are problems like merchants who don’t want to come to Pakistan, importing hi-tech equipment is subjected to tax and government policies on IT do not provide any relief to the companies and even freelancers.
This might sound harsh but for Pakistan’s IT industry to flourish, the policy makers must start considering it as an important industry for the future of the country.
BRR: How do you view the current startup landscape in the country and how do you explain the VC interest in 2021-2022 and the recent slump across the globe and what does that mean for Pakistan?
BM: I think that’s again a very good question. So, for the audience to understand it, I will break my response into two parts, first I will talk about the Startup landscape and then move on to the next bits.
The startup landscape in Pakistan has been growing since the past few years. There is a significant cultural shift which is one of the primary reasons for this growth. The upcoming generation likes to work on their own terms, own timings and want to enjoy the flexibility which one gets in their own business. Not only this, but the access to technology and internet, a growing young population and rising middle class income households have also given boost to the startup culture. People coming from humble backgrounds try to identify the problem, discuss it with their friends and family and start working towards solving the problem and commercializing it. The key sectors in Pakistan’s startup landscape include e-commerce, Fintech, EdTech, health tech, and AgriTech. Due to the unfortunate instability in the country in recent times, the startup culture is suddenly taken aback – rising costs courtesy of massive inflationary pressure leaves the ‘hustlers’ with less disposable income to pursue any ideas for a sustainable business.
In the past two years, the VC interest across the globe was on the rise and we saw traces of that in Pakistan as well. This was primarily driven by the digital transformation post Covid-19 and most VCs were looking for projects of the future. A lot of businesses saw innovation and garnered VC’s interest in concepts which were still to see their peak in terms of revenues. Additionally, the traditional investments were also seeming less lucrative at the time because of the low interest rates in most countries leading investors to seek higher returns in alternative assets. Pakistan also had its fair share of VC funding with a historic year of VC investments exceeding USD375 million in 2021 but we failed to do so in the following years. Despite the existing VC interest, Pakistan failed to develop a structured network of angel investor syndicates over the years which is why we have multiple startups competing against one another for the limited funds that are available.
The recent slump is an alarming sign for many industries in Pakistan. Not only for the startups but also for established businesses. The only way to sail through these tough times is by collaborative effort by the private sector and the government. Business friendly policies need to be introduced which promote and help thrive the business environment in the country. While it is a challenging phase it brings an opportunity for the local investors to step up and play their role, and also for the policy makers to devise a mechanism which attracts local and international investors to keep the ecosystem running. Lastly, I think it’s important for Pakistan’s startup ecosystem to remain resilient, adapt to changing circumstances, and continue fostering innovation regardless of any external factor.
BRR: What are then some of the other flaws in the tech startups in Pakistan? How can we compete with countries like India?
BM: In the recent times we have seen a lot of tech startups opening up in Pakistan which is a good sign for the country. The founders or the entrepreneurs are driven by only one motive which is the green back. To understand the flaws of these startups, we need to understand the business practices by these startups. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier the only motivation behind it is making money, which many a times leads to not sustainable business practices and eventually closures. The startups which are already short on funding, don’t really have any contingency plans in place. As soon as they see their numbers going down, they go towards the easy option i.e., closure.
Another major flaw is the lack of experience, the founders who may have worked in software houses get fascinated with the concept of earning in foreign currency and dive in with absolutely no experience. Running a business is not as easy as it may seem from outside and only when they step into it, they realize the pitfalls and the intricacies of a business. Another point that I want you to understand is a falling business just doesn’t impact one or two people. It affects a lot of associated households and eventually leads to a negative impact on the economy.
Moreover, the ecosystem lacks funding and mentorship as well. There are some incubation centers in the country but you can literally count them on your fingers. Very few startups come out of those and even less succeed in surviving. The culture of mentorship is missing not only in the tech industry but all other industries. The industry experts are either insecure or too busy to share their insights and advice with the upcoming generation.
In terms of startups success ratio, we don’t even come near India. Firstly, they have the infrastructure which is required for this ecosystem. They have the connectivity, the equipment, the support, the funding and all other things which are necessary. I am sure you know that Apple, the world’s first trillion-dollar company is now making iPhones in India – while we don’t even have an official store here in Pakistan. I don’t think we’re even worth comparing with our neighbors, and that’s the sad reality. Just recently, I was watching a world cup match and they had a person sitting in South Africa being teleported to India on the ground alongside the other experts for an analysis. That is the tech which the world is talking about while we are still trying to find a stable internet connection in most parts of the country.
Was India always like this? Answer is no. They changed their education system, they opened incubation centers, and they developed an ecosystem where you can reach out to potential investors. The process did take time but they are reaping the rewards for it now. We can also do that and any country can do that however, we desperately need the government to address regulatory barriers and invest in building a more conducive environment for startups and work on increasing acceleration centers. We do have local investors, both individuals and companies which invest in startups but the trust is still missing because eventually with no support from the policy makers, such startups are bound to fail.
If you ask me about how the future looks for Pakistan in this space, I think you will have a slightly positive response on this. Although slowly, but people have started to realize the potential IT has and what it can do for themselves and the country. The barriers will definitely need addressing for it to flourish. Besides that, I think the awareness and the hunger is building up which is a good sign and can lead to big things in the future.
BRR: How do you see AI and big data transforming the business landscape and how can Pakistan benefit?
BM: I can go about responding to this question and not stop for hours. The subject is of so much significance and there’s so much to talk about in this. In my opinion, AI and big data in Pakistan is not even in the infant stage of its adoption. We still are not aware of how this breakthrough innovation can take businesses to a whole new level.
I will try to keep it as simple and basic as possible for the audience to understand. AI and big data help businesses to take informed decisions by analyzing data and have turned business intelligence from reactive to the proactive. Secondly, they are extremely helpful in enhancing the customer experience and customer management. Talking about customer management, AI driven chatbots can also be utilized for conversions and lead generation for the business. These solutions are not only cost effective, efficient, reduce inventory management cost and help businesses in unlimited ways.
While there is immense scope for private firms in Pakistan to utilize the benefits of AI and big data, there are challenges which exist and restrict their implementation. As a matter of fact, AI needs a lot of data to analyze and provide solutions, and here lies the problem that we do not have the infrastructure for data storage in place. Although efforts are being done to solve the problem but we are still far behind. Another problem is the lack of skilled workforce which knows how to operate these systems, the ones who have learnt it have already migrated from Pakistan. Lastly the ethical concerns and the lack of regulations in place add to the misery when it comes to adoption by businesses.
Pakistan has various avenues in different sectors including tech sector, agriculture sector, health sector and educational sector where AI can be implemented. This can drive economic growth, ensure efficient service delivery and create employment opportunities in these sectors. For Pakistan to prosper on this front, we need to go back to the basics, first by training the new and existing workforce on these models and then creating and implementing these models in organizations to fuel the ‘technovation’ in the country. Moreover, the government also needs to step in by opening up incubation centers which are solely dedicated to developing modules for AI and big data utilization in educational institutes as well as organizations. Pakistan’s IT policy must be centered on promoting an IT skilled workforce, developing the IT infrastructure and supporting the private sector with flexible and IT business friendly policies.