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Friday, July 30, 2021

‘If local software are not used in the local market, export of the same is a daydream’

An in depth interview with Shaikh Abdul Aziz, Chairman of LEADS Corporation Limited

One of the leading IT service providers in the country, LEADS Corporation Ltd has been a prominent player in the Bangladesh’s software market since 1992. At the helm of the company is its chairman Shaikh Abdul Aziz.

This year Aziz was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the BASIS SoftExpo 2020. The venerable IT entrepreneur spoke to Fintech recently. Here is an edited excerpt from the interview.

We spoke two years back. Tell us about what LEADS has been doing since last year.

We operate through three companies; namely LEADS Corporation Limited (the mother company) and its two subsidiaries, LeadSoft Bangladesh Limited and LEADS Training and Consulting Limited. LEADS Corporation is geared towards designing and implementing projects for both public & private sectors. LeadSoft is a fully software focused company and LEADS Training and Consulting is engaged in training professionals on high-end technologies. We are focused on the software development area from the beginning, and have been working in the financial sector from our inception. Our areas of work include designing, developing, implementing and supporting Application Software for commercial banks, non-banking finance companies, insurance, capital market, broker house, merchant banking, etc. We also provide ERP solution which is being constantly upgraded as the requirements keep on changing.                            

In the recent past we are working with newer technologies like Blockchain, Chatbot, IoT, AI etc. There are lots of talks about these technologies, but not many solutions have been created. We are planning to bring up some products based on these technologies. 

Are you doing anything in hardware?

We used to have a hardware division selling standalone boxes, but have moved away from that. We offer hardware products as part of a ‘Solution’. Customers who use our Application Software may also like to procure Servers, Workstations and Networking products from us. To that extent we get involved in Hardware.

At present one of our main focuses is what is called the ‘Contact Centre’, also known as ‘Customer Centre’, or ‘Call Centre’. We have made substantial progress in this area, and our teams are very excited about the future. We are acquiring new customers. Incidentally, we received an award from Cisco, our Principal, for our performance during 2018-19.

Large establishments, both in public and private sectors, require large setups of ‘Contact Centers’, engaging large number of Agents whose numbers vary from several hundred to several thousand.  That kind of setups require substantial investments. Not everyone can afford that; yet small and medium size enterprises do require some kind of setup. We are currently designing a solution with a targeted size of about 100 Agents for these potential customers. We are looking at the SMEs, education institutions, hospitals/clinics and the likes.

You talked about Blockchain. Tell us about its use in Bangladesh’s technology sector.

There hasn’t been much effective work in this field, despite a lot of talks, seminars and workshops. In my opinion, Blockchain-supported solutions have huge potential both in local as well as overseas markets.  Let us take a simple example. A graduate goes for a job interview and submits the supporting testimonials & certificates for review by the interviewer. The question is, how does the interviewer find out if these documents are genuine? Here comes the role of Blockchain. When an education institute issues a testimonial/certificate, the originals are stored in a Blockchain Server which can be accessed by any outsider wanting to check the authenticity of the documents. This is done immediately to the satisfaction of both the interviewer as well as the interviewee. Everyone knows the usefulness of this technology; yet for some unspeakable reasons, nobody is taking initiative in implementing it. However, I am hopeful that something will happen soon.

Another example. NGOs give out micro credit. They also payout money under different programs.  They have the problem of proper identification of the recipients, as many of the recipients don’t have NID. In addition, there is a need for proper record-keeping. A system in Blockchain technology can help the NGOs, as well as several Government organizations distributing relief, in making their job so much easy, quick, transparent, and secured.

You won the BASIS SoftExpo 2020 lifetime achievement award. Tell us about this.

I am grateful to BASIS for giving me this honor, and thank them for choosing me for this award. But I would say the word ‘lifetime’ is a little problematic for me. This implies that I have done whatever I could do in my lifetime, and nothing more is expected from me. That puts me in a quandary. Does that mean that my work must end here, and I must not achieve anything further? In my opinion, they should come up with some other name for such awards.

Nonetheless, this award will inspire me to do more.

Talk about your future plan.

Like I said, we don’t want to do everything at once. We want to be focused and we are being focused on areas we want to concentrate on. We are working in IoT, AI, Blockchain & Chatbot. We have formed different teams for each of these technologies. Currently they are learning and developing their skills. The idea is to equip ourselves first and then design solutions. Some of the products are already developed and tested; ready to go to the market.

You were involved with BASIS. Talk a little bit about the organization’s role in the country’s ICT sector.

The ICT sector progressed substantially since the time I started working in it. In the early days the Industry struggled a lot. In the recent past the government started to appreciate that this industry must be supported if we want the country to develop. Thus we can see many proactive initiatives from the Government to take this Industry forward. BASIS has been deeply involved in that process and has been playing its due role.

BASIS was formed in 1998. Prior to that there was one trade body for this Industry, called Bangladesh Computer Somiti (BCS). Being the only organization representing such a big sector involved in so many divergent products & services, it was difficult for that organization to do justice to all its stakeholders. Some of us in BCS thought that a separate organization was needed to represent the Software and Services sector which has a different model as opposed to the Hardware business. Thus BASIS was created. It has since been actively participating in all Government initiatives, doing policy advocacy at different Government offices and working towards promoting local products & services.    

There are now many CSE graduates. Should universities adopt programs for making them industry ready?

These graduates learn some theories and little bit of hands-on training in project works. But they have no idea about the real life situation. What I am worried about is that there is no effort in bridging the gap between Academia and Industry. So, when these graduates get employed they get lost, till such time they have spent at least a year learning how the Industry works. We could easily avoid the lost time if Universities can work with Industry under an agreed ‘attachment program’ for about a year.

The problem we have now is that we are not being able to give jobs to these youths. All the big companies in banking, pharmaceuticals, textile, leather etc. are procuring their Application Software from abroad. The local Industry is suffering from lack of work. Thus the job market is shrinking. There is a misplaced perception that ‘anything foreign is good’. Most customers don’t go in any real depth do find out the long term consequences of this attitude in the areas of the future of the Industry and the wastage of talented youth.

Let me end by telling you a true story.  After the independence of Indian sub-continent and creation of two separate countries, India & Pakistan, in 1947 the Indian Government was working on the first ever budget in early 1948. Prime Minister Nehru gave a policy decision that anything that can be made in India, regardless of quality, cannot be imported. The then Commerce Minister, a handsome clean-shaved person, happened to use foreign blades for shaving. So, in the proposed Import Policy he added a provision stating ‘up to a maximum of 10% of the total requirement of shaving blades can be imported’. When Nehru saw the proposal he looked at the Commerce Minister, who was keeping his head down, and said that those who cannot shave without foreign blades, should keep the beard. The matter ended there. There was no import of blades, even to this day.

The point is that this is leadership with a vision. Today India is making all products that they need. They are going to moon by using their own technology and resources. You can apply the same principle in Software. Local products must be bought and used, both by private and public sectors.  

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