Can Kashmir become a viable ICT hub?

|September 15, 2016 0

KashIT:

KashIT is a special series initiated by CyberMedia to unleash the growing digital economy of Kashmir valley. These are a series of articles, interactions and company profiles highlighting the lesser known IT and ITeS ecosystem present in the valley and how it has harnessed over the period of time even in the most challenging and difficult times.

The objective of KashIT is to introduce the brewing IT sector in the valley and its latent potential that could be leveraged by the industry across the country and elsewhere to explore business opportunities enabling further growth.

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CMR already in engagement with ICTA (Information and Communications Technology Association of J&K) is attempting to promote the ICT sector of the state through a series of activities with the aim of collaborations and engagement among the ICT and ESDM ecosystem of the country with that of the J&K for business opportunities.

As several players within the ICT and ESDM look for Tier II and III locations for being competitive through collaboration, J&K can play a vital role as an assured backend partner.


 

In the second part of the KashIT series, we bring you a candid conversation with Shafat Qazi, the CEO and founder of BQE Software, who spoke on the various aspects of IT and entrepreneurship in the valley of Kashmir.

US-headquartered multinational company, BQE Software, which develops innovative business management software for time tracking, billing, project management and accounting, has been running its India office in Srinagar for quite some time now.

But there is an interesting story behind this two decades-old company. After doing his Masters in Science from New York University, Shafat worked as a partner with an engineering firm for 7 years in California. But the entrepreneurial instincts in him realized the need for a good and intelligence business management software and to solve this he started BQE in 1995 after selling his equity in the engineering firm.

He was ready with his first product BillQuick after 14 months of R&D and thus started the success story of BQE. Today, BQE has offices in Australia, India and Ireland outside the US and has some well-known businesses like PepsiCo, State of Alaska, Credit Suisse, Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), Amtrak, etc. among its list of over 400,00 users.

Excerpt:

What is BQE all about? What is the Kashmir connect; other than you being from Kashmir?

My goal was to develop a world class software for professional services firms that would allow them to track their time and expenses, bill their clients, keep track of their job costs and be able to do the necessary business accounting, seamlessly and intelligently.

BQE Software develops software keeping the above objective in mind that allows businesses to get rid of their repetitive mundane tasks and optimize their day-to-day business processes. We help businesses and business owners’ work smarter by providing actionable intelligent reports and KPIs.

Opening an office in Kashmir was my way of giving back to the people of Kashmir. I am a huge believer in system. A good system can bring the best in us, irrespective of the location or the local culture.

Can you please take us through your Kashmir operations virtually?

BQE Kashmir office is built with the US standards and the work culture is a mirror of our USA office. We strictly follow set standards right from employee selection to every other aspect of operations. It is because of such rigorous processes set that typical, out of 100 applications we receive, we end up selecting 3 to 4 candidates on average.

img_1797Our main focus is to attract brilliant Kashmiris that are currently working in India with reputed technology companies such as Microsoft, Infosys, and Google, etc. Giving them the opportunity to apply their talent in a reputed large USA based company’s offices in Kashmir and at the same time stay close to their friends and family.

Lower cost of living combined with the location helps us attract the talented Kashmiris not only from India, but also from UAE, Saudi Arabia and many other countries.

We pay our employees at least 50% more than any other similar business in Kashmir. In addition to that, we work only 5 days a week and offer excellent benefit package including health insurance and retirement planning.

Didn’t you face internal (within yourself) as well as external resistance of extending such a venture in Kashmir? How did you come out of it?

Considering the political uncertainties of Kashmir, we face numerous logistical challenges on a regular basis. When I developed the business model for the Kashmir office, I solved each and every challenge with redundancy. As an example, we have three separate Internet providers providing the connectivity to the office. Similarly, we own a heavy duty power generator in addition to the state-of-the-art battery backup. Employees are provided free transportation from and to work removing uncertainties of public transportation.

How has been the government support? Did you get more than what you were expecting or you learnt to go alone?

One of the smartest decisions I made when I started the office in Kashmir was to ensure that I will not seek any help from the local or the central government. The reason for that was to keep my operations totally professional and not be influenced by any favors from the government. I did not want our operations or the hiring process to be influenced.

One question that comes to everybody’s mind living outside valley is about ensuring business continuity. How do you address such concerns?

Since BQE Kashmir office does not provide any client services, so there is no impact on the quality of our services to our customers. The Kashmir office is primarily focused on software development and quality assurance and testing.

Perhaps you wanted to do something for your homeland. Other than this, did you find all the required ingredients for BQE to operate out of Kashmir?

Running an office in Kashmir is not as easy as running an office in Bangalore. Political uncertainty is a huge operational roadblock in Kashmir. Also, we do have a significant shortage of talent technology professionals. There are no local colleges that provide good computer science education. That is one of the reason that most of our employees have degrees from universities outside of Kashmir.

Are you planning to or working closely with any educational institution to address the talent crunch?

I am not working with any local educational institution, but would love to do so. The plan is already on our roadmap.

Are you planning anything more to aide resolving some of the macro-economic challenges valley faces?

The long term goal is to develop a technology campus near Srinagar where we could provide top notch education, incubators for young entrepreneurs, funding for startups and well-paid jobs for the talented ones. I hope to nurture the software technology culture and make Kashmir a viable hub for the development of world class software.

A lot many missions have been launched over the years, particularly after Prime Minister Modi took over. Are you contemplating leveraging any of them? For instance, Startup India, Skill Development Mission, Make in India, Digital India, etc. How do you see Kashmir in particular benefiting from them? Do they require any special augmentation to make them suitable for the valley?

I understand most of these initiatives are for startup businesses. BQE has been in business for 20 years and our Kashmir office has been established 12 years ago. We continue to watch all business opportunities offered to technology companies. We have not found any of those to be beneficial to us.

Private Funding has been almost non-existent in the valley. Are there any plans from your side or are you part of any such initiative that would help building financial ecosystem for startups?

I am currently working with a few successful business leaders in the USA and trying to develop a venture fund for startups in Kashmir. I hope to introduce that in next few years.

For many startups in Kashmir, the challenge is getting the end markets. Do you think they should look at possible collaborations with some of the IT giants within country for business development?

I would encourage them to work with non-profit organization and seek their help in funding, mentoring and coaching. Focus on solving problems through smart solutions. A great product does not need much funding. They go viral on their own.

What would be your advice for the local IT fraternity? Which all areas should they concentrate on?

The three big areas of focus ought to be the Mobile, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. That is where the future on technology will be for the next few decades.

A lot of startups are venturing in the valley also especially in the IT space. Any particular suggestions from your side? Would you be willing to coach a few of them?

For the startups I would say, don’t pin your hopes on government aids. Good businesses don’t sustain on government handouts alone. Develop a business model that sustains and thrives on its own. And yes, I would love to meet and coach young business owners.