Initially published in Daily Times by Saira Agha on Augus 6, 2018
In lieu of Independence Day on August 14, all of August, the Daily Times will highlight individuals who continue to make Pakistan proud. Our sixth interview is with award-winning scientist and academic Umar Saif
Tell us about your foray into the field of computer sciences. How did it all begin for you?
Because my father was in the army, as it is with all army children, I kept changing schools wherever my father was stationed. I also remember being homeschooled for a year, since there were no big schools at that place we were. It also used to happen that if suppose I am in Grade 2, and would have to change schools elsewhere, they would put me in Grade 3. So, I was always comparatively younger than my classmates. In Grade 5, I gave the Pindi Board Examination and did reasonably well. That was when my father decided to move the family to Lahore so our schooling doesn’t suffer anymore. My parents enrolled me into Aitchison College as it was the best school they could find. I finished my A Levels in a year as there was a shift from HEC to A Level system. There was an opportunity to take these exams with our senior batch, so I did. This is how one of my years was saved. When I arrived at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), it was an unknown identity. It was the year 1995. I was enrolled in the second Undergraduate Batch. I was 16 when I got in and did my BSc in three years. I applied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) but got turned down very quickly. I also applied at Cambridge University, although I didn’t want to but one of my professors encouraged me to, so I did on their last day of application for a Philosophy in Doctorate. I got accepted. I got into Trinity College, which is their best one. I was young, naïve and starry-eyed. Then I applied to MIT again and got accepted this time. I also worked there for four years. I taught and had my own research group and funding for a very large project which was called Project Oxygen. It was the initial days of what mobile computing would like. This was a $50 million project at MIT. It was one of those projects that really led to this revolution, in things like smartphones, computing etc. This was also what my research at that time was about. So I was part of that for four years. All the tech stuff you see all around you, is part of that all research. After coming back to Pakistan, I took up a job at LUMS and worked there for seven years. During this time, I did research in this new field of study called ICTD. For this research alone, I got several awards. I was named one of the top 30 researchers and innovators in the world below the age of 35. I also got a Google Faculty Award, which is quite prestigious. I was named Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. And I also won several Best Paper Awards. That’s an interesting career to have in Pakistan.
GIVING BACK TO PAKISTAN
Computer scientist and academic Umair Saif has given back to Pakistan by performing his duties as the VC of ITU and the chairman of PITB. He has also been a member of the provincial cabinet of Punjab.
A RECOGNISED SCHOLAR
After studying computer science at LUMS, Umar Saif received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge and then moved to MIT where he completed his post-doctorate degree. He rejoined LUMS where he taught as an associate professor of computer science.
RAKING IN THE AWARDS
Saif is the proud recipient of many awards which include the Digital Inclusion Award from Microsoft Research, the MIT Technovator Award, the Mark Weiser Award and the IDG CIO Technology Pioneer Award. In 2014, he was awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz by the government of Pakistan. Last year, he was awarded the Alumni Award by the British Council.
After winning the Google Faculty Award, my goal was to go to the United States, collaborate with one of my collaborators there, to work on this thing that we had proposed as part of that award to build. So the news about my winning ran on some channels. I think former Punjab chief minister Shehbaz Sharif took notice of that and called me up. He invited me over to have breakfast with him. Initially, I thought it was a prank call. But then later I discovered that he does call people up who have topped in their BA exams, etc and gives away presents etc. A few days later, I was in his little study. He told me I had done Pakistan proud and that I should work with him. Well, I had my apprehensions because I never imagined working for the government ever. I’m well known in what I do and a government job was not what I aspired to do. The chairman of Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) at that time was a on a one-year-leave. He also got involved and told me I should do this for at least a year. So I lost a lot of sleep over this, deciding whether I should do this or not. I think what convinced me what that when I was living abroad; you’re always judging and criticising Pakistan. We called the government “thieves” and “corrupt”. We blame them for ruining the country. So I thought to myself, I would be a hypocrite if I let go of an opportunity to make things better in my country in my own capacity, just because the salary would be less or fearing what people would say or if this job would be stable or not. All kind of doubts also got me. So I just went up to former Punjab CM Shehbaz Sharif and told him that I want to build a university. So if he could help me build that for the public sector that would be great. He said, “Let’s do it. I have also wanted to make a university for a long time. So let’s make one.” That’s when the Information Technology University came into being, which has now grown to 1,000 students and about a 100 faculty members.
You are the vice chancellor of ITU and also the chairman of PITB. Did you always envision yourself heading a technology driven institute at the time you started out?
I certainly saw myself setting up a university and running it, but never working in the government sector or setting up a government institution. That was not part of my plans.
You are a highly qualified individual who has studied at prestigious universities of the UK and the US. What made you come back to Pakistan to practice your profession?
My father was suffering from some health issues which he wouldn’t tell me about during the time I was at MIT. So I came back to Pakistan to live with my parents as my father got his heart surgery done. Although at MIT, I had my dream job, but just to be with my parents, I came back. For me, they are very important. It wasn’t anything else; it was just for my parents. I just thought they were aging, and their health was not good and they seemed to hide this fact from me. You know, six months before I made this decision, I had zero intentions of coming back to Pakistan, just because I had built my career that way. And I was doing so well. But then I thought, nothing takes precedence over parents. In fact, the day I arrived in Pakistan, I didn’t have a job. I was the first LUMS graduate to take up a job there.
How much is Pakistan lagging behind in the field of technology and how much time and preparation does the country need to excel in this field?
Indian IT exports are about a $140 billion annually. Pakistan’s entire IT exports are around $2.5 billion or maximum $3 billion. So that’s how much we lag, and this is comparing it to India only which is also a developing country. The largest IT company in India employs 350,000 people. The largest IT company in Pakistan employs roughly 700 or 800 people. So that’s the difference. There’s a huge shortage of good, skilled IT people in the industry. Very few Pakistani IT companies have scaled to a point of becoming noteworthy.
‘A lot of tech companies walk through the door telling me Pakistan is a third-world country. But here are some numbers for you. The number of Internet users in Pakistan is greater than the entire population of Canada’
What are you currently working on?
Many things. There is an agriculture project, then we have digitised textbooks in many schools all over Punjab through the project called e-learn which involves access to around 15,000 video lectures. We are putting smartboards in classrooms and equipping teachers with tablets. We are trying to have a uniform teaching standard throughout Punjab, by having pre-prepared content which is then carried out in the classroom. We now want to scale it up to a 1,000 schools. I’m trying to automate the Lahore High Court, according to which you cannot put up the next hearing according to a judge of your liking. You can’t bribe the judicial branch and make your case get scheduled accordingly. Bogus and fraudulent methods can now be bid farewell.
What is your vision for Pakistan and what does it mean to be Pakistani for you?
If we can benefit from this demographic dividend of young people with hopes, aspirations, energy and entrepreneurial spirit, we will be a force to be reckoned with. We are the lynchpin in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. A lot of tech companies walk through the door, wanting to tell me that Pakistan is a third-world country. But here are some numbers for you. The number of Internet users in Pakistan is greater than the entire population of Canada. The number of Facebook and Twitter users in Pakistan, exceeds the entire population number of Australia and New Zealand combined. We are one of the fastest growing markets for Uber, Careem, Facebook, Twitter, etc. We are the ninth largest market for cell phones. This is a country which has huge potential. Pakistan is also the third or the fourth largest English speaking country in the world. So, it’s really up to us to make sure we stop imploding after every five years and finally catch the opportunities that are thrown at us.
Syndicated from: https://dailytimes.com.pk/278675/pride-of-pakistan-umar-saif/