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An abridged history of technology industry in Pakistan, two

1991 is the year when the world changed for me forever. At the beginning of my fourth term at FAST ICS my father went out and bought me an Intel 286 DTK computer. He borrowed 30,000 rupees from two elders in my extended family. For us as a household, it was an unthinkable amount and an enormous investment in addition to my tuition at FAST ICS as well as the burden of my actuarial exams.

To put that amount in context, a year later when he upgraded our car from a two decade old Hillman to a more recent decade and a half old Toyota Corona, the entire transaction set him back by forty five thousand rupees. Fifteen thousand more and we had a car that carried our family of six around everywhere and made it possible for my father to drive to work and back every day. My thirty grand slim line desktop that cost exactly 66% of the above mentioned asset just sat on my desktop and only looked pretty.

I am not sure how he or I justified this act of selfishness but that is what fathers do. And on the same selfish note that is one of the many reasons why we love them.

Armed with my DTK, that August I enrolled myself for five courses. Operating systems (OS), Digital computer logic (DCL), Theory of Automata, Computing II and I think Data structures. Operating Systems was being taught by a recently returned practitioner who worked full time at Unilever offices at Avari Towers and snuck away in the evening to teach the course on OS at FAST ICS. Salman Qureshi’ class started at about 4 pm and ended late in the evening. It was complimented by an equally exciting class on the design of digital circuits; not basic electronics but the AND, NAND, OR and XOR gates stuff.

Between Ali Naqvi (DCL) and Salman thirty second year students suddenly crossed the threshold from being bored-what-am-I-doing-here over grown teenagers to shit-this-stuff-is-really-cool state of nirvana. I still remember my night of enlightenment when after being up for three nights, I was able to load my boot sequence on my simulated simple instructor computer and run my very first program on my very first operating system that I had just finished writing with the help of two of my other project partners.

And we were not the first to cross that path. In 1991 we were the sixth batch to come into the program and undergo the transformation that comes only when you write, debug and test your own operating system, your first compiler, your first digital computer logic circuit and your very first network.

In 1991 the presence of an environment where you walked in as a hyper active teenager and in less than three years walked out as an individual who could hold his own at a programming competition anywhere in the world, in a third world country that was struggling with a democratic experiment gone wrong with its commercial center on fire, was nothing short of a miracle. BCCI FAST Foundation and Aga Hassan Abedi made it possible. Many others followed but they are the ones that we owe our first debt of gratitude.

In 1986 FAST triggered the sequence that led to the availability of just over a thousand computer science graduates two decades later. You cannot build an industry without resources. Irrespective of whether you work with cutting edge pure development or boring accounting backends, for a technology firm to survive and grow it needs easily available, affordable, trained fresh geeky blood. Even though the initial output at FAST was limited to 30 students per year, the success of the FAST experiment soon seeded similar experiments in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi.

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