Vickram’s View: P@sha’s President, Jehan Ara, on Pakistan’s Software Industry

October 18th, 2006 |
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Driving in Karachi is an exercise in confusion, damped-out road rage and sheer fun. The roads are mostly quite wide, but the combination of a large variety of vehicles and quaint driving styles makes for what the ancient Chinese legendarily called an “interesting life.”

I rode along one morning with Jehan Ara, the president of P@SHA, the Pakistan Software Houses Association, that country’s equivalent to NASSCOM, India’s powerful industry association, the National Association of Software and Service Companies. It was a little more practical than trying to pin her down to quality talk time in her office, where she is constantly besieged by phone calls and importuning staff needing her attention at Enabling Technologies, her multimedia technology and content company.

The management structure at P@SHA is completely voluntary, with elected members of the industry body taking turns to run the various functions. Three years ago, as an executive committee member, Jehan Ara took up the challenge of taking over the top post at the association. She was co-opted by her fellow committee members, as the then incumbent president had to resign due to personal reasons.

The association was floundering, with members disinterested and not paying their dues, sporadic activity and a potentially ugly spat with PSEB, the Government of Pakistan’s Software Export Board. Within a year, her able handling of the crises and enthusiastic development of association activity in Pakistan’s three major cities (Karachi, Lahore and the capital city, Islamabad) had the members lining up to re-establish their membership and participate in making things happen.

She credits her co-organising a workshop with PSEB that first year as instrumental in patching up the rift between the two organisations, and government money now flows to P@SHA events that attract the cream of industry, academia and an increasingly large number of quality people from Pakistan’s graduate schools. She has led several delegations abroad, some subsidised by PSEB, to build partnerships and find new opportunities for the industry in neighboring countries, including India and China, the regional powerhouses.

Her name was proposed for unanimous re-election when the first term ended a couple of years back, and now, in October 2006, her second and final term as president and committee member draws to a close. She has worked to create a permanent base within the organisation, with its own office and staff, and a proposal rests before the association to find a full-time person to lead the activities under a supervisory board drawn from the industry, the role played now by the executive committee.

Needless to say, I heard other P@SHA members voicing the thought that perhaps Jehan Ara should take this role upon herself, to continue consolidating the gains the industry body has achieved under her stewardship. It’s a tough call, because her devotion to P@SHA over the past three years has cost her own company growth opportunities in a nascent and promising environment – one that she has been instrumental in creating for other companies to forge ahead.

She has worked to make P@SHA a socially responsible body, more than its existence as a lobby and representative for industrial organisations. Following the disastrous earthquake last year, she worked tirelessly to bring satellite telephone connectivity, through donations from Inmarsat, to the shattered mountain areas. Another initiative has brought together organisations across the subcontinent to promote the use of intelligent solutions for the disabled, and to enable persons with disabilities to enter mainstream universities for higher education. University students compete to showcase their projects for the annual P@SHA Awards, with the winner being taken abroad to compete at APICTA, the Asia Pacific ICT Awards. P@SHA is also a notable member of ASOCIO, the Association of CIOs. Understandably, she now wants to get back to helping ET call for a home in this salubrious scenario.

Some pieces still need to fall in place, and I was very kindly invited to join in after the penultimate general body meeting in Karachi, at the iftar (an evening breaking of the fast – this is the month of Ramzan, observed by Muslims the world over as a time for daily fasting and prayer), where proposals to amend the structure of the organisation were discussed. Some of the members who chatted with me off the record were clearly in favour of persuading her to spend more time at P@SHA, this time with some kind of monetary compensation spelled out.

She’s not sure that’s the right thing for her as yet, but has a couple of months yet to decide. The new executive committee will be elected at the end of October, and the option of taking a paid job in charge of managing P@SHA will only open up once the Association rules are amended by a general body meeting. But she’s clear that her commitment to the organisation whose brand she has so ably built up, locally and internationally, continues. As she says, although Pakistan’s software industry is still relatively small, with the total number of business houses in the hundreds, it is nimble and has begun to work coopetitively to win larger local and international projects.

As I found, many Pakistanis who have trained and worked abroad are returning now to their home country to build successful careers and businesses in cutting edge technologies. If this becomes a trend, then in many ways Pakistan is, as Jehan Ara states confidently, a place to watch. And if she continues to keep her hands on the wheel, P@SHA will be the right vehicle for the highway.

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