In 1989 I was one of the fortunate few who found the then mostly unknown BCCI FAST ICS (now National University of Emerging and Computing Sciences), tucked away in a shady street between an Allied Bank branch and a commercial office complex. An unassuming collection of two thousand square yard bunglows, the foundation funded school brought computer science to a EE (Electrical Engineering) and CE (Computer Engineering) Pakistan.
I was luckier still that I knocked on the doors of FAST and was allowed inside. Two years into the program I suspected that the work we were doing was just as good as any other computer science school in the world. From code generating compilers to operating systems, from natural language processing to neural networks (remember this is 1991), our community of less than 100 students was busy redefining the benchmark for Pakistan at the school.
Come March 1995 and I found myself at CeBit, Hannover, the largest technology show east of Comdex. In that fateful 10 day trip I went from a state of awe (wow so this is what good technology looks like) to a state of disbelief (wait a minute; we built better products than this). By the time I was on the flight back home I was sure that what we were missing was good packaging, a little polish, more discipline and a few buckets of confidence.
In the next two years as we started winning contracts in London, Dubai, Phoenix and Riyadh, the nagging suspicion turned into raw belief that as far as technology goes we could do cutting edge work just as well here in Pakistan. Making money was a different story.
The same year, 1995, I started teaching at FAST ICS. Three years, three batches and some amazing talent later, I couldn’t understand why there weren’t more technology success stories coming out of Pakistan. Ultimate solution, a FAST origin startup had done well but in 1998, the founders sold the firm to a strategic investor and converted Ultimate into Progressive Systems (Pro Sys).
In the 12 years since Ultimate was sold a lot has changed within the technology scene in Pakistan. FAST now has multiple dedicated CS campuses and it is no longer the only CS option. Between KU, LUMS, GIK, SEECS (NUST), NED, University of Central Punjab and Sir Syed, the computer science graduate community is now counted in thousands, not a mere hundred. From the handful of understated, old school technology players that represented the employment opportunity in 1993, there are now hundreds of companies doing interesting, exciting and different work. More importantly between PASHA, PSEB and PITB, there is a growing eco-system of support that is helping create the foundation and the spring board for new technology ventures in Pakistan. The starry eyed rebels that hacked labs, projects and professors are now themselves being hacked by a new generation of starry eyed kids who are no longer constrained by the limitations faced by their seniors.
We did not know what was possible. More like blind leading the blind we stumbled, explored, invented and managed. This younger, newer, faster generation has a completely different clock speed and a brand new processing cycle. We would have been happy with one hundred thousand US dollars in revenues. These kids break a 100,000 in their first year. And when I meet them and see them at industry events, I hear their pitches and witness their work, I am satiated by their hunger.
They have enough drive to feed the entire class of 1992. To our future, who is out there slogging right now, thank you. (You know who you are…)