Interview conducted by Umay Salma and compiled by M. Oneeb H. Khan
Dr. Umar Saif is the Chairman of the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), and has been lauded by prestigious universities such as MIT for his efforts in the field of IT. Dr. Umar Saif is currently heading Plan9, a start up incubator, as chairman of the PITB. Plan9 and SEECS signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Friday 28th February and the FICS team took this opportunity to interview Dr. Umar Saif.
What was your motivation to leave MIT and come back to Pakistan?
The honest answer to that is that I came here to live with my parents; that was the only reason, it was very personal to me to come back, but the experience has been wonderful.
Coming back to Pakistan, I never felt that I’m going to a country jis mei kuch ho nhi skta. It was unfortunate that when I came back here a lot of people used to believe key yaha kuch nhi ho skta, bohat saare log research nhi krte the bohat ache log bhi kam the, aur entrepreneurship wala kaam bhi kam tha but I think over time we’ve been active and now we’ve come quite far because of all the great people that have worked here. I have always been surrounded by students, colleagues, mentors, they’re all wonderful. Matlab Pakistan mei jo talent hai, also the warmth of the people it’s all so greenfield because kuch hua nhi hua is liye there are no restrictions, rules, traditions to stop you. You know if you want to do something in Cambridge, and I attempted doing one in my life at Cambridge – they have about 800 years of tradition, right? So it wasn’t easy to get new things done there idhr tou it is a total greenfield, you can do anything that you want.
What about the problems we have here?
Problems waise Pakistan mei as such koi hai nhi. I am always surprised to hear this I don’t know what problems, matlab tell me what problems? There ARE no problems in this country for aspiring entrepreneurs or students, these are great facilities, great universities. You live in the sixth most populous country in the world; your cities are quite developed. This is a very good place to be, I don’t know what problems. I am always quite surprise to hear these “problems”. Electricity? Woh tou temporary problem hai, you know? It occurred three-four years ago and it’ll go away in a couple of years and that’s that.
We hope so…
Haan nhi it will go away soon because it has become such a political issue now. It will most certainly go away in a couple of years, so beyond that there’s a security situation but then which country doesn’t have a security situation? I think it (Pakistan) is a good place to be, I never felt Pakistan is a difficult place to be.
Would you attribute our pessimistic attitude to the lack of self-confidence in our people?
People just don’t have self belief in this country because there is
no example, koi Steve Jobs yaha se nhi bna abhi tk, jis din bn jayega then everyone will say here’s a guy I want to emulate and see what he’s done.
I’ll give you one example, Lahore mei humne Metro Bus bnayi hai¸ and there’s some of us who’ve worked on that project with the Chief Minister (of Punjab) in the previous tenure, ab Metro Bus ki jo utility hai woh hai but what it has done for the government is that whenever we now want to attempt a challenging project, we cite the example of the Metro Bus. It has become a testament of what you can achieve in this environment and I hope we have more of these in the entrepreneurial space, in the research space, and then more and more people will start emulating that.
So, you have studied and taught in the Western Education system and you’ve studied and taught in the Pakistani Education system, how would you compare these two systems?
Well so my experience outside of Pakistan is slightly skewed in the sense that I went to Cambridge which is the best university in the UK then I went to MIT which is probably the best university in the US so I wasn’t really exposed to the West education system as such, since both universities were outliers in the kind of people that they admitted so Cambridge is great because they get the best students in the world to come there and MIT is great not because of the Americans but all the great people that they get from all over the world.
But surely there is a reason why it attracts people.
Well that’s because the West is a very open society. The invite aliens, people like you and me, to come in and work there and give them all this space to be successful. An African American became their president, someone from Austria was the governor of California, and so it is a very open society. They have very little prejudices and that is what attracts people to that country and then they give you level plain field to do what you want to do.
So the two universities I went to admit the best of the best, they’re very good universities – everyone in the class has been an A+ student their entire lives – that is how they made it to MIT and they’re all sitting with you in your class so it is a very humbling experience since all of them are better than you. You really have to be on your toes to keep up with your own students. Pakistan mei because of the diversity of students that you’d get in NUST and LUMS, will obviously not be the best from the world, so it’s a very different experience but the top 10% at NUST, LUMS, FAST etc. are all MIT grade students. A+ students are the same everywhere.
Can it be said that you’re satisfied with the current system of education in Pakistan?
Governmental institutes have really gone down the drain, but I’m more than satisfied, I mean look at what the institutions like NUST, LUMS, GIK, FAST and IBA are doing for the country. If you went to a second their university in the US, the quality of education there wouldn’t be much different than what you have here at NUST. I don’t think it’s very different now; they’re actually pretty world class institutes.
What message would you give to the youth and what are your expectations from them?
My message for the youth is to work with honesty, keep their head down and keep working hard. Nothing comes by taking a shortcut and the challenges or whatever you have around you are very temporal and, believe me, if you went to another country they will have their own set of challenges. Pakistan is a wonderful place to be, you have so much opportunity in this country, a country which is very quickly coming of age. In sha Allah our children will live in a country that is a force to reckon with and it is up to the youth now, about 60% of our population, to do wonderful work.
Being the chairman of the PITB, what do you hope to accomplish in this capacity?
Well, you know, working with the government can be hard in Pakistan. I work in Punjab mostly because of the Chief Minister that we have, who really is a very hard working man. He drives you. It is very difficult to keep pace with him. He’s a good manager to work with so, I enjoy working with him and therefore, we can actually get things done there. We have digitized textbooks in Punjab, we are now doing telemedicine, we’ve automated our high court, and we’ve automated the police system. I think there’s so much automation that one could do for the government. The smartphone is what I chose as my weapon of choice: it’s easy to use and cheap, so I think we’ve come a long way in terms of automating a lot of things in the government. It doesn’t take much to get things done there so that’s my hope and ambition, that we keep automating the procedures of the government and citizens will find it less painful to interact with the government.
One last parting question: What are your hopes from the freshly signed collaboration with SEECS and Plan9?
I have huge aspirations from this. This collaboration can trail blaze a little bit, once we’ve done it, it can act like a catalyst, like wind under the wings of universities like NUST, for them to then take this torch and fly higher. I believe NUST and LUMS and GIK and IBA and FAST have such a great student body that if they have things similar to Plan9 in their campuses they’ll do a hundred times better than what we’ve done because they have access to great students like you, who have enthusiasm, this twinkle in their eyes to change their life and to change the lives of people around them so I have to think that this collaboration is the first step towards achieving this, we’ll have great universities adopting the plan and the model and In sha Allah we’ll start churning out great startups.
Thank you so much for giving us your time.
My pleasure, thank you.