Jawwad Farid and risky business in the IT sector

I would rather have one Jawwad than ten Mohammad Asifs, what about you? PHOTO: CIO PAKISTAN

Whenever we dicuss the IT sector in Pakistan, the conversation is usually about what we lack and not what we have. Then we compare it to India with all its government subsidies, state of the art infrastructure and lament all the catching up we have to do.

While there is nothing wrong with making that comparison because competition is healthy, we need to realize that Pakistanis have been blazing trails in the IT industry for some years. Even with all the hurdles we have in our way, the sector has been providing niche services and is often unnoticed. There is a lot more happening than companies making apps by the dozen for iPhones and BlackBerries.

This brings us to Jawwad Farid and his company fourquants.com, which provides enterprise solutions for companies facing difficulties in financial models and risk-taking by producing tutorials. They have gone one step further and are now providing their training via iPhone, iPad and  Android apps.

Here’s what Farid had to say about the new frontier:

1. Tell us about yourself and how you set out in the IT industry here in Pakistan?

Due to a series of fortunate accidents I landed at BCCI FAST ICS (now NUCES) in December 1989. It took me two years to figure out that I really liked computer science. By the time I was ready to sit down and learn I had graduated.

I initially picked roles that allowed me to spend plenty of quality time in front of compilers since I considered myself geek material, but then understood that the real money was in selling software  – not building it.

I left Pakistan to learn more about how the world operates and came back in 2003 after being in London, New York, Orange County and Northern Virginia.

2. Tell us what your product is?

Our most recent product is a training portal dedicated to teaching computational finance, treasury and risk courses online.

This is a space we discovered while working with the banking industry in Pakistan, Middle East and in the far East. We run apartially free portal as well as a premier enterprise edition. Under the FourQuants.com brand we have an iPhone, iPad and Android application which was developed by the award winning Pepper.pk design studio in Lahore (a P@SHA connection).

While there is a lot of noise around risk, treasury and compliance, the truth is that there are very few practical resources you could go to, to figure out how this stuff actually works. It doesn’t matter if you are a treasurer, an ALCO committee board member, a CxO or a management trainee. At some level they all have (different) questions that need to be answered. We provide these answers in such a fashion that they can put them to work at work, almost immediately. We are practical not academic;  hands on not bookish.

3. Your charges at $70 per course and more than $300 per quarter seem to indicate you are catering to a high-end market; how did you manage to position yourself in this sector?

Luck, parental guidance and some very good friends!

My parents and elders played a big role in helping me make a few right choices earlier on that made it possible for me to specialise at a very early age, which has certainly helped.  But I think it is important to do a good job of documenting and understanding what the customer needs and then help address that need in a  reasonable fashion. I think if we had done this in Fiji or Timbuktu, we would have had a similar reaction. Good products ultimately succeed because they fulfill a need. The challenge is in ensuring that your target segment is aware that you have the solution for their problems. Once you figure out what the underlying pain is, fix it and let your customers know you are almost there.

4. Aside from inefficient policies by the government, what hurdles did you encounter during your initial startup?

Despite all the bad press we get, it was far easier to start and grow a business here in Pakistan than it was in New York and Southern California (been there, done that). I was very lucky that individuals that I hardly knew stepped up and helped us find opportunities that we weren’t aware of.

For every year we have worked, I can name at least three people who selflessly opened doors for us that we couldn’t have managed on our own. Compared to the dip that we witnessed in the US at the turn of the century, the recession here was much milder. And while failing is always difficult and painful for a startup, failing in Karachi was like a light bruise versus multiple compound fractures in Santa Ana.

5. What advice would you like to give to young people starting out in the IT industry? Is there a chance for them to make their own startups?

Absolutely! Think smart, work hard and stay with it. It helps if you start early, live with five to six hours of sleep for 20 years, make the most of your talent and your time. Your big advantage is that building a technology product in Pakistan is getting easier and easier. Our last product launch took 45 days with three people, this December.  My first technology product in 1995 took ten computer scientists a full year to build and then promptly went splat.

There is of course, the downside. You will most certainly fail – just like the rest of us. But if you are prepared for it and handle it smartly (I didn’t), it’s not that bad. It gets easier with practice. Get over your fear, fasten that seat belt and give destiny a spin.

Remember that there are no shortcuts and that you cannot do it alone. All great successes are because of a great team. Value your partners and your team members. Don’t take them for granted.

6. If you were given the chance to become an IT minister for a week, what would you do to make things better?

Frankly speaking, I would shut down the IT ministry and give the entire IT budget to P@SHA. I am biased especially since I have served as a P@SHA treasurer in the past and I have seen myself that we do more with one percent of their budget and one person. If we had ten percent of what the government spends on the IT ministry, we could do so much more.

All this and I had never even heard of this company . People like Jawwad keep tinkering away, breaking boundaries and contributing more. This is the Pakistan we should be speaking of; these are the Pakistanis that will take us forward, to stand in the world as we should.

I would rather have one Jawwad than ten Mohammad Asifs, what about you?


As published in Express tribune blogs on 21/2/2012