Abbas Ali Khan

Tell us about yourself, about your education and career? What is your current work portfolio at Abacus Consulting?

Starting out, my mandate was to build the technology business and practice. When I joined, there was a very small technology practice with a team of only a few people. I diligently worked on expanding the business, and now at this point in time, Abacus has a sizeable technology and outsourcing business, which I oversee.

You have been part of the ICT industry from long now, has ICT industry shaped up to your expectations? Please highlight key milestones that you think have helped the industry in shaping up?

The way the ICT industry is shaping up globally, I would say that it is beating all the expectations. It is developing exponentially fast, and what characterizes this growth is being hailed as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or 4IR. The commoditization of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has played a fundamental role in the 4IR. Though it is still in its early stages, we see Artificial Intelligence penetrating every aspect of our lives, from our smartphones to our application systems; we see it on the internet and we see it in your devices.

We are also witnessing a rapid development in what is known as the 'Internet of Things', where 'everything is connected'. The world is projected to have 50 billion connected devices by 2020, and 100 billion IoT connected devices by 2025; this translates into 10 devices for every person in the world, leading to a hyper-connected world.

We are seeing developments in the physical world, such as manufacturing technology, where we have 3D printing, and we are also looking at advances in the biological space, such as gene editing and implants (which are able to interpret signals from the human body).

What are your views on the digital economy? How is it affecting the markets internationally and locally?

Technology generally tends to have similar influence around the world; the impact of technology does not usually vary a lot by geography. In Pakistan, however, we have a lot of work to do. Some regions like the Middle East and North Africa are ahead of the curve, but most countries are similar to Pakistan, or even behind. 

If you look at the enterprise space, Abacus is very deeply involved in it. We have done more than 500 large enterprise system requirements in Pakistan and the region, however a very small percentage of companies and enterprises have truly automated, and implemented, to the full extent. Less than ten percent of companies have truly implemented end-to-end enterprise systems, hence ninety percent of the work is yet to be done. If we look at the West, we see a much larger percentage of companies and enterprises have gone past that milestone.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is all about the convergence of technology and its impact on our landscape, both physical and digital. When developments in technology come together, so does the opportunity for new products and new spaces. There will be self-driving cars on the roads very soon. In the United States, there are more than 4 million people who depend on driving as their source of livelihoods, such as taxi drivers, bus drivers, and truck drivers. The advent of self-driving cars would mean many of these 4 million losing their jobs. So the impact of AI on the labor market, or generally on the world, is quite substantial, and it is coming very fast. The question to ask ourselves is "are we doing enough to prepare for such changes?"

Do you think the local market is addressing the needs of the digital economy?

The current digital era is based on one fundamental principle i.e. the connectivity. The companies, in order to participate in the digital economy properly have to open up their organizational boundaries and expose their data to the ecosystem. Opening up is one thing, and the readiness for the openness is another. Generally, in Pakistan the readiness of the market is at the very nascent stage: the need for data security and elimination of silos are still there.

Additionally, if I look at the corporate sector, only 2,000 out of a total of 80,000 private sector companies have implemented digital enterprise solutions in Pakistan. The role of big scale companies in the new digital cannot be stressed enough. Big corporations need to be the early adopters of digitization for the revolution to truly take over. A majority of these companies are yet to implement those solutions at full scale. The industry leaders are not implementing ERPs and not automating their systems properly.

At last but not the least, if we look at the curriculum of our universities and schools, the majority of them are still teaching the courses that were relevant in the 3rd or even 2nd industrial revolution but are irrelevant for today's business needs. Our youth is going to compete against AI and bots in the near future, if our academic institutes keep on teaching them the same courses and skillset then winning with AI is next to impossible. According to a recent report from Forrester, by 2021, intelligent agents and related robots will eliminate a net 6% jobs, in the context of the US only it makes approximately 9m jobs - it's a huge number and 2021 is not that far away!

What are the latest technological advancements and how do you think Abacus is helping the market with new trends?

At Abacus the way we work is very much cross-industry. We invest in functional capability and specific technology solutions. Most of our technology solution sets, and functional capabilities are usable by all sectors.

ERP is a big part of the landscape. In most sectors, it's still very relevant, as there is still a lot of enterprise automation that needs to be implemented. So ERP is definitely one of the core technologies that are out there and is very much in the market. The other is cloud; there is a big shift that is happening, in terms of adoption of the cloud. I think cloud is one technology that is being implemented slower than people expect it to be, but it is happening. Cloud is the future, because technology as a service is the future. So we see an increasing number of clients now going onto the cloud for their infrastructure as a service, rather than buying the hardware, and this is happening in all the sectors.

Abacus Consulting is also playing a key role in the enablement of the digital economy in Pakistan. Being a market leader in the digital transformation solutions, we are currently working with over 600 different companies and helping them with modern technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Robotic Process Automation, Open APIs and Platform as a Service, to name a few. Abacus Consulting is also initiating events like APIthon, which was held in January this year at National Incubation Center Lahore, LUMS, and the second one is scheduled on 5th and 6th May in Islamabad, through which we aim to promote sharing of digital resources among key players in the industry and make sure that newcomers, who are looking to take part in the ongoing digital industrial revolution, feel welcomed and encouraged to bring their innovative ideas to the table.

What strategies should enterprises implement to stay relevant in the 4IR?

Enterprises must open up and collaborate with young startups and digital companies to make sure there is coherence among different private sector entities. A young startup which is looking to implement payment solutions shouldn't have to reinvent the payment industry to make its application functional. Sharing resources to propel the whole ecosystem forward is the only viable solution left. A good example of taking this initiative is JS Bank who has recently launched an online developer portal to make access to its APIs much easier for budding startups.

Moreover, companies have to look at process engineering with a new outlook. They have to Leverage AI and automate as many processes as they can. By incorporating these changes and reducing their cost of operations through modern technologies, they can, more effectively, open up their services to younger startups and achieve easier connectivity with the rest of the digital market sector.

Tell us something about upcoming APIthon? Why is it important for the economy of Pakistan?

Abacus plays a role of an enabler of the digital economy by supporting initiatives that include Artificial Intelligence, Robotic Process Automation, APIs and Platform economy to name a few. We have been enabling our clients across the globe to stay relevant in the 4IR and now through APIthon, we are empowering startups and young entrepreneurs to collaborate with big companies and leverage this new digital age. The success of APIthon chapter 1 inspired us to launch the second APIthonthat happened on 5th and 6th May at National Incubation Center in Islamabad. This time we had several partners coming from the telco, banking, ride-sharing and ticketing businesses that are excited to open up their digital assets to the startup and developers community. We received more than 250 applications from all over the country and over 70 participants were part of the hackathon.The leading Telco and Banking businesses came up with the real business challenges for participants to solve through APIs. The problem solvers got an opportunity to work directly with the companies -hence encouraging collaboration and bringing real value at large.

We have got support from Silicon-valley based entrepreneurial ventures that will help the winners to travel to the US and learn from the experts and leaders over there. We are hopeful that these startups and developers will go to the Silicon Valley, come back and share their knowledge with their peers in Pakistan.