How did we get here. Part I

An abridged history of the technology industry in Pakistan. Episode I — The 80's.

ICS FAST — Class of 1992.

I was luckier than most kids of school going age since I had immediate family running one of the few Apple distribution and repair centers in Karachi. This break with chance made me come across my first Apple computer in 1984. The setting was a chess game that I lost but that one exposure to computer gaming as a thirteen year old was enough to hook me for life. I quickly found another more accessible cousin who had enrolled himself in the very first batch of computer science students at BCCI FAST ICS and leached onto him like a parasite. From chess we moved on to summer Olympics, from summer Olympics to word processing (remember Word Star?) and the hook sank deeper.

I was devoted to becoming an actuary so computer science wasn’t even on my radar. Friends and cousins in the same age brackets didn’t really think about the field. And there weren’t that many choices at the bachelor’s level. The engineering schools in Karachi ran computer engineering (not software) curriculum in tandem with electrical engineering but student troubles at NED as well as UET Lahore led to 4 year degree programs extending to 7 or more years depending on political temperatures. Once you had wrapped up your first degree you could get an M.Sc. from Karachi University or an MBA in MIS from IBA. For those who had more time and were waiting for their results and admissions to come through it was also possible to do a short course in computer science through IBA and Karachi University. In 1985–86 that was as cutting edge as computer science could get in Karachi.

On the employment front the picture was even more interesting. You could apply at AKU ISD which was the place to be for a CS graduate throughout the 90’s. Even though they worked off MAGIC, a second generation hospital management system, with second generation tools, the processes in place and the talent they had hired led to one of the smartest CS teams in town. Their entrance tests put you through the paces and made you work through linked lists and exotics algorithm you never thought would have applications in Pakistan.

You could stay back and teach at FAST ICS and most FAST gold medalist opted to do that while they waited for their GRE, GMAT and PhD application results to come through. If you were interested in development you could go the Oracle way (which was the INFORMIX way in Lahore), the RPG, the COBOL or the FORTRAN way. On the lower side of the social scale you could also do CLIPPER and FOXPRO route with one of the many accounting shops if you were really desperate.

The only products and domain you actually ended up working with were Accounting back ends, inventory management, enterprise resource planning and financial reporting. The places where you could get this work were chartered accountant practices, masquerading as technology consulting groups. To put it mildly it quickly got schizophrenic when a culture used to book keeping and record keeping collided with the free thinking, power to the people, all hail technology types.

To be fair there were exactly two, maybe three exceptions to the above classification. Systems Ltd, Systems Research and a handful of unconventional technology nomads including Dr. Altamash Kamal and the founding team at Digital — the pager company, who managed to create an oasis here in Karachi.

If three years of working with algorithms at school left you allergic to programming, you could always join the sales desk at IBM, NCR or Unisys. And then there were the plush, keenly contested, retirement gigs as head of technology at a multi-national organization.

So as a pure computer science graduate starting in the late 80’s the grand total of true development opportunities in Karachi could be counted on the figures of a single hand. If you were willing to work with DB based tools and the accounting focused domains of back end systems you could extend your opportunities to the fingers on the other hand. And that was it.

No successful product companies, no international exposure, no cutting edge, bleeding edge, or edges’ edge software.

All that came later. Unfortunately in the late 80’s if you were an excited computer science graduate looking for exciting technology oriented workplaces, to be in Karachi was just as bad as being on Mars. Or working for IBM (this one is for you Adnan Haider). Or both.

I recently did two pieces for Dawn on the technology industry and realized how far we have come as a group. Dug through my archives and found these — a four part series on our path to the future that I wrote in 2008–2009. Here is part I.