Observation 1: There is a third

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The times, they are achanging

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During the past 5 months, I have made a couple of interesting observations. I am not sure whether these observations depict a general trend (which would probably be the case if my immediate social network is a representative sample of the IT industry in Pakistan), or if these cases are outliers (which would probably be the case if I hang out in strange company), but in either case, let me share my observations with you so that if this is indeed the shape of the things to come, then I can say “See-I-told-you-so” and feel smug about it after a couple of years 😀

Observation 1: There is a third wave of IT professionals coming back to Pakistan
The first wave happened when the dotcom bubble burst and truckloads of mostly Java programmers came back to the subcontinent. Many of us witnessed that and worried about our yet-to-start careers going bad, though it all worked out at the end.

The second smaller wave happened after 9/11, when a lot of Pakistanis started questioning their identity and came back in droves with their lifesavings in tow. This wave was responsible for a lot of small IT shops being set up, and also contributed to the boom in the property market besides the IT industry.

In the last five months, I have talked to quite a few people who are planning to come back to Pakistan. It is probably a small number to base any big conclusions on, but I think a “brain-gain” is in the making. These are the people who survived the dotcom era, stayed in the US, got married and had children – they are people from the initial batches of the better IT institutes all over Pakistan who graduated in the mid-nineties. Some want to come back because they don’t want their children to grow up as first generation Americans, and others want to come back because their parents are getting older and weaker, and the culture that they grew up in puts a lot of value in family ties and parents in general. Then there are those who have acquired a taste for capitalism and are coming back to be closer to cheap labor. Anyway, this is my first observation – the crop of the 90s is preparing to come back to Pakistan at an unprecedented rate. Is this a misconception or do you agree with it?

Observation 2: An underground IT culture is brewing

Programmers in Pakistan have been freelancing and moonlighting for a few years now, mainly because they aren’t getting paid enough at their daytime jobs, but I have noticed a recent change in this trend. A lot of people who jumped into freelancing during their final year at college have decided to stick to freelancing for foreign firms rather than going for a “regular” job with an IT shop. The people belonging to this underground culture are proud to be free, hang out at coffee shops and attempt to imitate/recreate the valley culture. They are proponents of a 4 hour work week, and why not, they can earn much more in a week than they would if they joined a software shop as a developer. They are good at what they do (which is the only way to survive in a free market) and they are growing in numbers – and that is not all. Some dinosaurs (children of the 90s) with much more experience than these newbies are quitting their 100K+ Rs. per month jobs and are joining this culture. The freedom of working for yourself from your home on your own schedule has arrived in Pakistan.

I have more substantial facts to back this theory, which include two friends who have quit senior management jobs to go solo (which is different from opening up your own shop, though it is usually the first step), and three people that I have interviewed who have been “spoiled” by freelancing and will only take a job if it matched the deal. But the bottom line is, people are taking freelance consulting as a serious career, with many of the good ones never applying for a job. Am I misinterpreting the tea leaves? Do you belong to this culture? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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  • Dude, you’ve hit the nail pretty much on the head i would say. the first is something even i’ve been noticing after talking with people. our very own osama hashmi is one of them (the third wave).

    for your second, i was a freelance programmer for over 4 years, and it was fun! even though i’ve converted to consulting and training it was a fun way of earning extra money and i can see people taking it up all the way to make it into a career. the chief pull towards this model, apart from working for yourself, is the ability to keep ALL the money for your work 😉

  • I have also witnessed such notions from few individuals in the Valley.

    Another reason is that many are finding developing countries as new found haven for new opportunities, which is true to some extent.

  • Ahem! – I will present my self as “EXHIBIT A”. I just caught my breath after 30 seconds. And literally I freaked out at first after reading your article. I present my self as the “perfect” example what you have said here, because:

    1. Yes! I work from home
    2. Yes! I couldn’t work in companies because I just couldn’t stand their primitive ways. For example,
    how many companies here actually use SubVersion or CVS for code versioning ?
    solid frameworks for development?
    write valid XHTML and CSS, let alone participating in the web standards project?
    stress accessibility and usability?
    stress a good design, if not close to csszengarden?
    and lastly, how many of these are product oriented ?
    I am asking these questions even I haven’t been out of Pakistan once.

    3. Yes! I earn much more in a week than I can possible earn in a month from any job here.
    4. Yes! I am a bleeding edge technology enthusiast

    Phew! that was load off my chest :)
    I’ve got my fingers crossed as I pray even harder that may these things come here at god speed.
    Also, I did notice “some” companies who actually do answer in a yes to my question marks above. Thank God!

  • I have been a freelance web developer since 4-5 years but now I’m a “remote” developer for a foreign firm. More and more people are joining what you term the “underground IT culture”. I’m working towards a dual/mixed career of business + software (web dev chiefly) which translates to pursuing a business related degree course to graduate in (which currently, I haven’t!).

    Before I forget, let me mention that it’s a great way to pay your college fees 😉

  • Thanks for your input everyone.

    @mansoor When you interact with a lot of people, you get this feeling about the zeitgeist, and this time it was bothering me particularly as I see an important emerging pattern here.
    When I first started freelancing, it was to stay in touch with the basics and learn a bit about the new technologies (which grow old and the cycle continues), and earn some gadget money in the process.

    The generation before me (atleast in my middle-classed family) wanted a ‘secure’ life working for a bank/govt. organization/civil services etc. with a planned progress path and pension to go with it. I for one am glad to see more and more people conquering their fears and taking risks with their lives at an early stage in their careers. By eliminating the employers from the equation, freelancers can certainly earn more going solo, but I still recommend these brave souls spend atleast SOME time at an IT shop so that

    a) They can learn how to fit into an existing culture and tackle the issues the surface when they do, which is a valuable experience that you can’t get if you have always worked alone.
    b) They can observe and note how others do things, for later comparison and for better appreciating their freedom and choice when they DO go freelance fulltime.
    They can think of it as a parallel to the doctors’ “house job”
    All the issued that arise in an economy full of freelancers have been addressed all over the web, so they can learn from others’ mistakes and won’t repeat anything.

    @haris Thanks for the addition, yes there are lots of unsolved problems here that can be solved and some profit made in the process, minus the cut-throat competition.

    @sohaib Creating a stereotype is very easy, and you are living the life of one :-) There is the kind of people who are always afraid of losing their job as it probably took a lot of effort for them to get it, and then there’s the kind who are passionate about technology and doing things the “right” way, and will not compromise over that, which makes them sharp and competent, and financial gains are only an after effect. What I am REALLY curious about is:
    How many of you are actually out there? Come forward please!
    We are usually busy discussing startups and the industry in general, when this culture is slowly but surely evolving and has the power to take over the Pakistani IT market. By this post, I wanted to draw all such G&W readers out.
    By the way, firms do use and understand Subversion/CSS/XHTML and all the pretty and beautiful stuff, we are not all idiots you know 😀

    @asad Thanks for coming forward. “underground IT culture” is my own terminology (though I wouldn’t mind if it gets reused 😉 ), I call it underground to differentiate it from mainstream, as freelancers are typically insulated from all that is happening in the local market.
    Do you know others who are in the same boat as you?

  • If you’ve noticed, Indians ex-pats moving back to India aren’t considered that big of a deal. But when you see a Pakistani professional heading back … there’s suddenly this debate about the sanity of that person. I guess, it’s because of the dismal state of our country.

    But if you think about it, this behavior fits perfectly with the Maslows hierarchy of needs theory in which, once your physiological, safety and self esteem needs are fulfilled, you start looking forward to your self actualization needs. This is sometimes termed as Mid Life crisis.

    Also, from what I’ve heard from some old timers .. life in the US isn’t that lucrative as it was before 9/11. Racial Discrimination is invisible, but it is there. The flooding of Indians in the US has affected the job market as well and now the upcoming recession will deal another fatal blow. So think all these factors also contribute to the decision of heading back …. and of course, the desire to be back with their families or raising kids in Pakistan is there as well.

  • @punsliger you sure did the job of getting this one (me) out of the burrows lol! And I agree I do sound stereotypical in this comment. But I am confident I can work in any firm, but the only thing keeping me from doing it is the “opportunity cost”. But I also know that at some point I surely will work for a firm, like right now I’d be happy to work half-time for a firm. It’s just that most of them do not understand that once a freelancer always a free lancer, and can’t make very long termed commitments.
    As for firms who understand and implement all the beautiful stuff, well to be honest, these are the ones I have come to know via G&W only. Their websites do all the talking which gives me immense pleasure because for people like me, the stamp “made in Pakistan” is everything. It’s been too long we have been following false gods of imported education, products and all that when everyday I am convinced we underestimate our selves. Now it’s just a matter of harnessing opportunities to prove it. And watching startups here at G&W adds to my conviction. For this I am thankful.
    And one thing I forgot to acknowledge earlier, is that it’s true me and my friends (who are half free lancers) hang out in coffee shops, mostly with our laptops trying to work and have fun at the same time :) – so there you have it, a complete profile :)

  • Thanks for the insight Sohaib, looking at this blog’s name (Green White), I’m sure that we all believe that Pakistan can be an amazing brand given half a chance. We don’t underestimate ourselves, we are pretty optimistic infact.
    afreen: True, the total number of quality IT professionals that Pakistan has produced so far is very small when compared with india, and if I am not wrong, India tops the global list of IT grads per year. So with its dozens of billionaires and hundreds of thousands of IT professionals, it is certainly not a big deal.

  • “made in pakistan” truly is powerful. at a time when pakistan was being considered a dangerous spot, i was still winning contracts on rentacoder with my signature line “providing pakistani quality”. at the time, it appeared to be more of a pun than anything else, but in time i grew to stand behind that commitment. one of my top priorities was to deliver software which worked, to which end i provided free support (defect fixing) for upto six months after deployment.

    many of my clients, however, didn’t report back any major bugs, which was a great boost both to my self esteem and the brand which i stood by.

    long ago, in the late nineties, i also had starting a jokes list with the title “pakistani jokes” in which i would send out a selection of western and locally adapted (blond = pathan) jokes. that list grew upto 4500 subscribers before i handed it over to another list manager since my matric exams were near :p

    so yes, the brand ‘pakistan’ is desirable.

  • Haroon Azmat

    I would like to add some reasons why this third wave happened and people are planning to move off back to Pakistan.

    The main reason is recession in US and it may start effecting people in the UK as well. This cause directly related to consumables and increase in mortgages and renting.

    Global increase in inflation may effect the average professional life and most of the migrant start thinking to move off back to home country because they do not manage their savings as they expected and they had made a year before.

    They start thinking on the main reasons that they had when they left the country. If i’m not wrong one of them would be good savings and then healthy life in old age. So current situation is really shaken their objects and goals that they wanted to achieve while living in developed countries.

    On top of that they may face discrimination that somehow exist and preventing them to get into management. They may compromise with that and try to immune with the system. But they must have strong reason to fight against discriminatory attitude and practices.Again this would be good savings and bright future for the next generation.

    I’m not confident that the existing circumstances and system in developed countries giving much to average professional Pakistani to sacrifice their families and Pakistan.

  • Kallie Berry

    I belong to this freelancing culture.

    1. Projects are challenging.
    2. Money is great.

    I switched because of:
    1. Income taxes (2-10~%)
    2. Inflation (10-30%)
    3. Traffic Jams/Commuting Time (1-3 hours wasted)
    4. Sales Tax (15%)
    5. Increment (5-10%)
    6. Devote more time to personal ventures and learning

  • Kallie Berry

    I want to enjoy life and not code to death.

  • Obi Wan Kenobi

    @Arfeen: Not sure who told you there is a job shortage in US IT job market. On Wednesday, I was with one of Microsoft’s Sr. Manager whose group has 75 Dev/75 QA/40 PM and he told me that he really could not find a person to hire and they have lots of money to expand their group and they vision this group to going to be 700 in next 3 years. (Microsoft is hiring lots of people from Pakistan these days and have set up a development center in Vancouver where all these guys would work due to H-1 quota issue and would go to Redmond soon on L-1). Similarly in valley where I work, there are plenty of jobs and we can’t find a decent talent to hire and for last 2 years, I have seen so many times we had to compromise on quality because there was not an adequate person to fill the position so we just took the best of the slot.

    And not sure if I ever have smelled racism in USA in my stay here for last 5 years. There would be always one or two problems here or there but this is a great place to work for. I hate it when people try to play a victim.

    Regarding recession, I have not seen any impact of it in local IT job market by now. I have my own theory of this recession, all these investment banks know they are rotten so they are crying “Wold Wolf” so that Fed could bail them. Not a single company from valley missed its target in this quarter and all fore casted new highs for remaining 2008 (except for Sun but then they have their own problems). This week, it was the first time after heights of dot com that S&P 500 index had more weight of technology sector than the financial sector, does not tell much about recession in technology sector for _now_ but then no body knows of future. We will see.

  • Punslinger – do you see this trend changing with recent socioeconopolitical events?

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