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    Interesting article

    Umair.com: An Interview
    by Anita Dawood Nasar

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Originally published in Herald, Pakistan
    Every year the Internet World Show exhibits some of the world’s best technology products. This October’s show in New York was cause for a Pakistani celebration when Clickmarks, co-founded by Pakistani Umair Khan, won the “Best of show award” in the Business Applications category. Other winners of the Internet World awards have included heavyweights such as Cisco, Palm and Oracle. But impressive though Umair’s and Clickmarks achievement is, it’s just the tip of a very big iceberg.


    Silicon Valley-based Clickmarks won for its “Wireless enabled personal habitat”. This lets users compile their favourite internet content, or websites, onto a personal web page (their “habitat”), allowing them to read this not just on their PC but also through wireless devices such as mobile phones. The cutting edge part of Clickmarks’ technology is that the delivery from Internet to wireless device is seamless and efficient, with no further adjustments or software required to make it work.

    Clickmarks’ timing couldn’t have been better. Getting Internet content to wireless devices is The Next Big Thing. Recently, in Europe, telecommunications companies such as Vodafone, Deutsche Telecom and others collectively paid a mind-blowing $100bn to purchase 3G (Third Generation) licences for the bandwidth to accommodate this wireless Internet access. And by more than just happy coincidence Vodafone, the world’s largest mobile phone service provider, is also Clickmarks’ biggest customer.


    Umair Khan, Chief Technical Officer (CTO) and co-founder of Clickmarks has, at age 30, already made his mark on the Internet scene. He holds ten industry patents and in Pakistan is best known for Chowk.com and Urduweb. Chowk, literally a South Asian Internet intersection, was Umair’s first venture, set up in 1997. Today it is going strong with up to 10,000 daily visitors, reading, writing and chatting on Chowk. At Urduweb Umair developed one of the first Internet based Urdu word processing programme and a computer-age answer to the Nastalique script, now used widely in Pakistan and elsewhere.


    Starting at Habib Public School Umair moved on to the Karachi Grammar School, the MIT and a job at Intel; he then struck out on his own, building on Urduweb to develop Wordwalla which offered technology for multilingual communications. Last February he co-founded Clickmarks, where he may just have struck gold.


    So what does it take to get from Habib Public School, Karachi to being toast of the town in Silicon Valley? Anita Dawood Nasar speaks to Umair Khan to find out.


    Interview:


    In your short biography on Chowk.com you mentioned that you "missed making the Pakistan Cricket Team by about 35 lbs.". Were you seriously considering a cricket career and if so how did you make the jump from cricket to electronic engineering?


    Like all other kids in the seventies and eighties I wanted to play alongside Miandad and Imran and created elaborate scenarios under which I would time and again rescue the Pakistani batting disasters and bring victory. Basically I am an obsessive compulsive Cricket fan. But I never had any illusions that I was good enough for a cricketing career. I wanted to do Electronic Engineering in college but when I got there I realised what I really wanted to do was mathematics. Which is what I did at MIT - besides continuing to fantasise about hitting a six off of the last ball against. . .

    Looking back things seem to have been easy for you; you sailed through exams at school, got a 1500 on your SAT, went on to MIT and then landed a job at Intel, one of the most sought after companies for an electronic engineer. Was it really as effortless as it seems?


    Actually I got 1480 on the SAT. I did quite well but only after a good bit of sweat blood and tear shedding.


    A levels was particularly difficult because an English only co-ed environment (following on the heels of a boys only, Urdu only culture at Habib) was intimidating and not a little distracting.


    MIT was everything it was cracked up to be. If you wanted to excel you had to suffer, and I suffered. In retrospect, I have tried to be aware to the best of my ability of what I do not know or understand. That has helped me get to know and understand.


    The easiest part was getting the job at Intel, frankly. Once you had a good background built up, the rest is easier.


    What made you quit your job at Intel and strike out on your own? Was that a difficult decision?


    At Intel I had a blast for the first year or so. Lots of good computer design, development, patents etc. But the reality of living the ultimate Dilbert cubicle existence set in quickly. With Chowk and Urduweb I got my first taste of entrepreneurship. After that it was only a matter of time.


    Entrepreneurship comes with lots of perceived risks and almost no actual risks. All you risk is a steady, insipid climb up the salary ladder. If you want to strike out on your own just to strike it rich, then there is considerable risk. But if you start a venture because you want to utilise yourself maximally and you believe in yourself and the venture, there is no risk. What I have learned and experienced over the last 2 years would never have been possible had I been cubiclized in a large corporation all this time. I would not have hired, motivated, persuaded, funded, created, challenged, marketed, planned...this experience was never at risk. I left my green card at Intel, I had two kids, and I took a salary cut. That’s how I started and no I did not find it a difficult decision.


    Can you tell us a little bit about your current venture, Clickmarks?


    Clickmarks was founded in Feb 99. Wordwalla, its multilingual communications division was spun off as a separate company in December 1999. Since then we have raised about $21 million in financing, the major portion of that being for Clickmarks.


    Clickmarks allows the delivery of any content and the execution of any transaction on any wireless phone or handheld device. So you can get your news from dawn.com, or your Hotmail on your cellular phone in data or voice. And neither the website, business nor end user has to do any programming to achieve this. Clickmarks is a personalisable gateway between the wired Internet and the wireless world.


    Clickmarks and Wordwalla have received tremendous press with coverage in New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired magazine and others.


    Where do you see Clickmarks going and what are the main challenges to getting it there?


    I see Clickmarks growing to a profitable public company by 2002. The main challenge was and will be attracting and retaining top quality people.


    The most remarkable thing about Clickmarks and Wordwalla is its people. Both companies employee nearly 90 people between them, representing over 18 countries – with substantial representation from Pakistan. We have attracted the best talent that the world has to offer. Clickmarks’ CEO, is a former CEO of Magellan Systems (that makes GPS products such as the Hertz never-lost service), and a former Partner at KPMG. Wordwalla’s CEO is a former Vice President of Adobe Systems and Head of Adobe Japan. The Vice President of Product Development of Clickmarks, Wasiq Bokhari, is a PhD from MIT who discovered the Top Quark – a major discovery in Modern Physics in 1995.


    It is also critical that we are creative and flexible with our vision, which must grow alongside headcount. The market we are in, the technology base we have, the people we have today, guarantees success if we are up to these two challenges


    You developed Urduweb, which offered a web compatible Nasq Urdu font and Urdu word processor. What has been the response to these both in Pakistan and overseas?


    The response to Urduweb was startling. I remember sending out an email to about 30 friends to tell them about Urduweb. Before I knew it we had over 30,000 downloads in just the first few months. This is incredible considering that in October 1997 there couldn’t have been too many Urdu lovers on the Web. Even today I get regular enquiries about Urduweb. I sometimes feel Urduweb was my penance for having butchered Urdu language and literature as a student at Habib Public. It is ironical and not a little amusing to see the student who all but failed Urdu as a subject came about to be seen as a “keeper” of the language on the Internet.

    When and why did you decide to create Chowk.com?


    Chowk took shape when Safwan Shah a fellow Silicon Valleyite and I met. Safwan had an idea about an e-zine for Pakistani professionals in the valley, I had an idea for a website called “The Leafy Glade Inn” where people would submit short stories, poems and essays and discuss these. I expanded the scope of this idea and called it Chowk (intersection or town square) and presented a blueprint to Safwan who then worked the vision to the reality it is today.


    On the eve of launch, I got an MIT friend, Radhika Nagpal - computer scientist by profession and artist by choice - to create the Chowk image. And Ginni Dhindsa handled the website design, architecture, maintenance and upgrades. Chowk was launched on August 14 1997.


    Chowk was all about getting South Asians together. It seems to have drawn quite a response from South Asians overseas and within South Asia. Do you think building virtual communities of South Asians can or will have any impact on the shaky Indo-Pak political relationship?


    Chowk was never built as a bridge between India and Pakistan, as a means to strengthen that relationship or for bringing their people together. Chowk was a place for ALL to come and create and interact. That was the mission. We didn’t know whether this would bring people together or pull them apart. As it happened there was considerable interaction among Pakistanis and between Pakistanis and Indians. These were primarily about religion, culture and politics as these are important to South Asians. The impact of Chowk at a political level climaxed when General Musharraf’s son wrote “He had no Choice” on Chowk immediately after the military takeover last year, describing why his father’s decision was the right one. This article was covered in the BBC.

    Personally, the political Chowk is less striking than the human Chowk. Chowk is about how we all live the same life and how our individual experience of pain, excitement, passion, frustration, triumph, nostalgia and loss is enhanced and elevated by intimacy with the experience of others.


    Creating forums for people to communicate seems to be an important theme in your initiatives. Chowk offered a virtual space for a South Asian community to interact and Wordwalla promised communication with people in all languages. Is communication and bringing people together something that is important to you or was it just a coincidence that you developed these particular initiatives?


    No it wasn’t a coincidence. It was a confluence of two things: my suffering as a “disconnected” Pakistani in the US, and the power of the Internet in connecting people and alleviating such suffering. When I first came to the US as a student, the loss and nostalgia was almost overpowering (it never leaves you – you just get used to it). E-mail was a revelation. Chat was a small miracle. The alternatives – massive phone bills or no communication – were pretty pathetic. As the Internet matured and as the Web was born, I gained a lot from it personally and saw how others could gain more. Urduweb was born of this as was Wordwalla and Chowk. Clickmarks, with its ability to make anything available to people on any communication device is the next big step in this mission: to connect people with what is important to them, starting with other people.


    When you launched Wordwalla you positioned it as addressing the problem of the English-centric nature of the web. Similarly with the Nasq font, you spoke about it offering an opportunity to develop an Urdu presence on the Internet. Today most people seem to accept that English is and will be the language of the Internet. Do you think Urdu, or other languages, have a future on the Internet?


    I don’t see a future where every one will read write and speak only English. The world is getting connected at a faster and faster pace. In its early days the Internet connected computers, the World Wide Web connected people via PCs. The wireless web is now connecting people to each other via all cellular and handheld devices. Connecting people worldwide across all devices means catering to ALL languages. The Internet is not a business to consumer or business to business connector. It is a people to people phenomenon. It must outgrow its English only roots. And it is - at an incredible rate.

    Has it ever been an issue for you as an entrepreneur, an employee or an employer, being a Pakistani in the US? Does it have any impact on how your employees, your previous employers or potential investors respond to you?


    No, it has not been an issue, just a fact. A Pakistani Muslim, an MIT engineer, and a father, is a stark contrast to the single-white-Harvard-MBA-male entrepreneur stereotype in the Internet age. It has had a positive impact on investors who want the entrepreneur to be, at some level, non-conformist. It has been good for my previous employers because I believe Pakistanis are fundamentally hard working and I have inherited that national gene. I think it has been especially great for our employees because in coming to a start-up they have left a comfort zone and come to a new country. They take comfort in someone else who has done that successfully


    I remember one early investor saying: the risk you are taking in starting up this company and leaving your green card at Intel is far higher than any risk I am taking in betting money on your success. That was the first cheque - $10,000 - to come into Clickmarks. Our first server was bought on that money, on the fact that I am a Pakistani in the US.


    Do you plan to take your skills back to Pakistan at any stage?


    Clickmarks and Wordwalla have to engage, at the appropriate time, in offshore development and Pakistan will certainly be a viable option. To that extent there is certainly a possibility of my ventures going back to Pakistan. In fact the first version of Wordwalla was all developed in Lahore at Techlogix Inc.


    Will I personally take what I have learned back to Pakistan? I certainly hope so. I remember the seminar I gave in December 1997 at IBA entitled the Alif Bay Pay of Business on the Internet. That was an incredible experience - as good as my days as a schoolteacher at The City School after my A-levels. I would love to relay everything I know back to people in Pakistan (and let them decide if it’s of any use) on an ongoing basis regardless of where I reside.

    What do you think of this government’s new emphasis on the technology sector in Pakistan? Do you think it will vitalise that sector or is it too little too late?


    It is never too late. Whether it is too little remains to be seen. In the end the impact will be dictated by the engineers and entrepreneurs in Pakistan, not by the government. To the extent that the government does not stand in the way of the technologist, the new initiatives are good. But it will be up to the technologists to deliver: to leverage their local advantages (inexpensive labour, good work ethics, intelligence and creativity) and overcome local disadvantages (a horrible education system) to create a global success.

    On a more personal note: many Pakistanis in the US worry about the impact on their children of growing up in a different culture from their own. Yourself and your wife both work; you have three children and seem to have a very busy life. How do you feel about these sorts of issues and about your children growing up in the US?


    Both my wife and I focus on giving our children a sense of their own cultural, national and religious heritage. We understand that their identity will be a mixture of their birthplace and that of their parents but we feel strongly that they should accept their heritage as a large part of their identity. Speaking to them in Urdu only at home, leveraging the South Asian community in California, discussing history and religion, and not being alarmed at their sense of identity and roots being broader and different from our own – are some of the things we try abide by.


    What are your ambitions and priorities for the next few years?


    My only ambition and highest priority now is to achieve a balance between the professional and the personal, that has been missing from my life over the last three years. Seven 14-hour days a week take their toll. Your child is 2 years old only once and your spouse’s stamina is almost but not quite infinite. Reversible reactions happen only in A-level Organic Chemistry. Every professional gain comes with a personal loss at some level. Its time I was good to myself and my family.


    Where do you want to be ten years from now?


    Ten Years from now I want to be sitting in Kuala Lumpur in one of 23 Chowk Cafes worldwide, getting cricket scores about the ongoing Sharjah cup on my cell phone, reading Nawa-e-waqt in Urdu on my Palm pilot, and discussing the early writings on Chowk of the first Pakistani Woman Nobel Laureate in Literature with my daughter.


    #2
    This indeed sounds very promising..
    Thanks for sharing this article
    There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the end the sword will always be conquered by the spirit. --Napoleon Bonaparte

    Comment


      #3
      Ranjeet, thank you for sharing this informative, & uplifting article w/ us. It's a very pleasant change from all t/ negativities usally posted in this forum!

      Comment


        #4
        Originally posted by FunkyDesi:
        Ranjeet, thank you for sharing this informative, & uplifting article w/ us. It's a very pleasant change from all t/ negativities usally posted in this forum!
        This is from latest addition to CHOWK.COM .I wonder despite reading about such talents. In India ,Indians on purpose or to depress there enemy always down play Pakistanis.If Indian can have 10 fortune 500 i.t compamnies Pakistan just has to have one 1 to maintain parity ,in propotion to the size of the two.

        Every potential from nuclear physics to art to executive trainee & management icons Pakistan has more than its propotionate share of a develping country as India & pakistan are.

        There is Asif who has AST computer hardware co. in partnership with Chinese & american AST in which A stands for Asif.

        Comment

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