Written by

Zia Khan (ZAK)

24 years of diversified professional experience in banking/fintech/ed-tech/process automation/software development domains, he has served highly reputable local and international organizations. Also offered advisory services to start ups and software houses. He has published various articles and worked on various research projects. ZAK possesses 3 Master degrees including computer sciences majors in e-commerce.

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Missed Opportunities: How Pakistan’s IT Sector Fell Behind

During the early 2000s, Pakistan’s software houses, now commonly recognized as tech companies, were actively involved in automating process flows, developing websites, designing graphics, and developing basic software modules for financial, accounting, and database purposes.

However, the ramifications of the 9/11 incident significantly impeded Pakistan’s IT sector, as numerous international orders were abruptly canceled, causing the closure of many software houses and widespread employee layoffs. This led to a substantial departure of skilled IT professionals, including network specialists, programmers, database developers, graphic designers, and game developers, as they pursued more promising career opportunities in Western countries, thus worsening the already significant skills shortage.

Conversely, during the same period (2000-01), India witnessed remarkable growth in its IT exports, with figures surpassing USD 8 billion and boasting nearly 3000 operational companies. This stark contrast underscored Pakistan’s struggle to maintain pace with its regional counterparts such as India, Vietnam, and the Philippines, which emerged as global leaders in software exports alongside China. By 2022-2023, India’s IT exports soared to approximately USD 190 billion, reflecting a robust growth rate of 12.2% from the previous year, with projections for continued expansion in 2024. Notably, a substantial portion of these exports, approximately 55%, amounting to USD 106 billion, was directed to the US.

In sharp contrast, Pakistan’s IT sector has struggled to achieve meaningful success, primarily due to a lack of expertise, inadequate skill sets, tepid political backing, and insufficient infrastructural support. Lagging in this rapidly evolving tech landscape, it is imperative that Pakistan draws insights from the successful strategies of its neighbors and undertakes comprehensive structural reforms to bolster its software export capabilities. Embracing a collaborative ethos, rather than a competitive stance, could catalyze growth within the sector, enabling Pakistan to establish a distinctive niche in the global tech sphere.

Pace of Technological Advancements in Pakistan: Shaping the Future with Current Trends

the adoption of contemporary approaches and trends in the IT field has been slow in Pakistan over the last 2 decades. The situation was particularly dire in public sector organizations for various reasons. However, the advent of generative AI tools has accelerated the pace of technological adoption significantly. While it took decades for laptops and computers to become commonplace in private and public offices, AI tools such as ChatGPT have been adopted by numerous organizations
within just a year of their launch. These rapid advancements are poised to redefine job requirements, skill development, and organizational culture in Pakistan.

Fostering Growth: Collaboration between Software Houses and Major Business Enterprises in Pakistan

Tech companies in Pakistan can accelerate their growth through strategic partnerships with large local businesses. This strategy not only fosters rapid expansion but also enhances the efficiency of major business hubs, ultimately leading to improved profitability. Achieving this requires visionary leadership at the board level, characterized by a risk-taking and forward-looking mindset.

To break away from conventional thinking, it’s crucial to dismantle mental barriers hindering the adoption of technological solutions. New ideas should be evaluated openly, fostering a culture where innovation is embraced and failure is viewed as a stepping stone to success. Additionally, prioritizing
a long-term perspective over short-term gains fosters sustainable growth and innovation within the industry.

A common challenge in the tech industry is the lack of business management skills among experts, running major software houses, hence limiting their capacity to scale up and grow their business volumes. Despite operating for over five years, many software houses struggle to expand due to inadequate management capabilities at the top level.

To address this issue, organizations like the Pakistan Software Export Board (PSEB) and other relevant authorities should engage these companies for potential joint ventures or advisory services. Such initiatives have the potential to enhance business growth and contribute to the country’s economy by increasing foreign exchange inflow.

Government Support: Paving the Way for IT Growth in Pakistan

While government initiatives such as the establishment of software parks and IT universities are commendable, they often fall short of delivering substantial progress in both the short and long term. A more impactful strategy would involve collaborating with international tech giants to establish offices in Pakistan. This would not only enhance the skill set of local talent but also boost foreign exchange inflows, contributing to the country’s economic growth

Saudi Arabia, a key strategic ally of Pakistan, has pledged nearly USD 150 billion to invest in AI and related technologies within the country. Major Pakistani conglomerates must seize this opportunity by actively engaging with Saudi investment entities and corporations for mutually beneficial collaborations and ventures.

Recent government initiatives have sparked investment discussions with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In May 2024, the government established a working group comprising highly skilled senior professionals tasked with devising a preliminary 5-year plan aimed at achieving USD 25 billion in annual exports by 2029. However, reaching this ambitious target requires concerted efforts and significant structural reforms to elevate and prioritize the underserved sector on all fronts.

To propel the growth of the IT sector, key incentives may include:

  • Implementing special tax incentives for prominent foreign entities
  • Introducing an IT Export Refinance Scheme (IT-ERF) tailored for software houses
  • Evaluating software house order records from the past five years before extending working
    capital facilities
  • Developing a credit score model for software houses
  • Discounting invoices of international orders with a margin and many other financial
    the structure could be devised
  • Also, incentivizing or providing scholarships for specialized IT courses to students, upskilling IT
    professionals and faculty members could further spur growth.

Accelerating these efforts requires appointing specialists proficient in both IT and business domains within the government sector. These experts should have a deep understanding of cultural dynamics, system shortcomings, the bureaucratic landscape, and ground realities. They must also be well-versed in sectoral requirements and stay current with technological advancements to devise customized business solutions tailored to local needs. Empowered with the authority to lead decisively, such professionals can drive substantial progress within the IT landscape.

Discussion

  1. Only solution is to impose Educational Emergency and Free Training Courses with the help of private sector(short courses) and practical paid training in IT-Houses all across the Pakistan….We need to produce at least 1-million Quality Graduates every year in IT. Sector. All other Degrees(Humanities Arts Languages etc) must be discontinued except IT short courses starting right after FSc/ICS.

  2. This article is a well-researched and thought-provoking piece that effectively sheds light on the critical issues facing Pakistan’s IT sector. It is a wake-up call for policymakers, industry leaders, and the community to take concerted action to unlock the sector’s full potential and ensure that Pakistan can compete on the global stage

  3. That’s indeed a great article. But I who is sitting in IT industry need to inform you of some ground realities. One of the major major drawback we are facing is the fresh graduates lacking everything that the market requires. Our institutions are not even somewhat close to the level of India which produces Excellent resourced ready to be hired my Microsoft, Google Facebook. Whereas our graduates lack even the basics, everything even the basic concepts need to be taught during training. Our institutions are failing us badly.

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