Tête-à-Tech with Abbas Khan: The Tech Brains Behind Abacus Consulting


Abbas Ali Khan was born, and raised, in Lahore. He spent few of his initials years of life in Saudi Arabia, but later on came back to Lahore to finish high school. He completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Mathematics and Computation from Oxford University, and then went on to join PricewaterhouseCoopers. He qualified as a Chartered Accountant, and soon entered the technology space, something he was deeply passionate about, and always wanted to pursue.

After 5 years of working in London, Khan moved to Pakistan and joined Abacus, which at the time was a part of the PwC network. A few years later, the organization went through a transition, and became independent, leading to the creation of Abacus. It has been seventeen years now, and he has been with the organization since then.

Starting out, Khan’s mandate was to build the technology business and practice. When he joined, there was a very small technology practice with a team of only few people. He diligently worked on expanding the business, and now at this point of time, Abacus has a sizeable technology and outsourcing business, which Khan oversees as Managing Director. Here’s Abbas Khan in conversation with Team CIO/IDG Pakistan.

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Pakistan’s ICT Industry Surpassing All Expectations

Abbas Khan has served the ICT industry for nearly 2 decades. We asked him on how well the local industry is shaping up to his expectations, and here’s what he had to share.

The way the ICT industry is shaping up, 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.

Technology generally tends to have similar influence around the world; the impact of technology does not usually vary a lot by geography. So technology in the US, and/or this region, will generally have the same outcome, and its impact is quite similar. “In Pakistan, however, we have a lot of work to do. Some regions like the Middle East, North Africa and Dubai are ahead of the curve, but most countries are similar to Pakistan, or even behind,” he said. As a company that is engaged in enterprise system deployment, Abbas Khan says this potential for growth is very exciting.

If you look at the enterprise space, Abacus is very deeply involved in it. He shares,

“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.

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The consumer side, he explains, is very different. Since consumers have access to the same technology that is available everywhere in the world, for instance the iPhone X works exactly the same way in Pakistan as it does in the United States. The same apps are running on these devices, you can download the same apps and you have the same capability.

“Hence, there is a disconnect between the computing power that the consumers are holding, and the automation and the digitization that the enterprises have achieved so far”

Khan looks towards China to serve as a case study in successfully digitizing the consumer market. He doesn’t believe in enterprise automation for being the only solution towards a thriving digital consumer market; what Pakistan needs is the right kind of policies at the government level. He states that if the policies had been more encouraging, by now we would have had a much bigger consumer digital market.

“At Abacus, we are trying to help enterprises reach out directly to the consumers, and get the power of digital services in the hands of small enterprises, and the average consumer. This idea of hosting Hackathons and APIs, needs to develop faster, as it will help us catalyze the development of consumer technology,” he said.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Speaking of industry milestones at large, the first one that Khan talks about is the commoditization of Artificial Intelligence.

“We see Artificial Intelligence penetrating every aspect of our lives, from our smart phones to our application systems; we see it on the internet and we see it in your devices”

However, it is still in its early stages, he believes.

We also see 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.

Read: Tech Leaders @ 2018: Talking Fourth Industrial Revolution with Umair Azam

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). While this progress in the ICT industry is taking place, we are witnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution will help converge these developments.

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.

Quoting an example of Artificial Intelligence meeting the physical world, he said “there will be self-driving cars on the roads. In the United States, there are more than 4 million people who depend on driving as their source of livelihood, 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?”

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Industry Specific IT 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.

In a nutshell, he said, cross-industry buying trends are driven by common developments in technology.

ERP is 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 is 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.

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Pakistan’s First APIthon

“I am very excited about the APIthon. We have been working in the area of APIs for the past three years now, and the reason we got into this area is because the digital economy is growing very fast. According to a report by Accenture, 25% of the global economy is now digital.”

The way it is measured is by looking at any transaction which has a digital footprint, even if it is paid with cash, it will be counted as a digital transaction, hence it is included in the digital economy. For us, this definition is exactly right because in the world of APIs it is all about reusability of data and digital assets. Once you carry out a transaction, and even if you collect cash, you leave a digital footprint and that digital footprint can be reused through APIs. So APIs are all about opening up the digital assets, reusing them, and connecting the digital assets with the global digital economy.

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Right now it is 25% of the world, and it is growing very fast, so the reason we are having this APIthon is because we are telling our clients “if you don’t embrace this now, you will not be connected to the digital economy, and since it is growing very fast, sooner or later you will be out of the market altogether, so it is a necessity now”.

We have done implementations of API management in a number of different organizations, and now we want to bring some of our clients like Telenor, Bank Telenor, JS Bank, and the partners for APIthon, into a laboratory environment.

Banking on the Youth

We want to bring young people, developers, startups, into this laboratory environment, and put them together. Instead of just talking about such collaborations, we are actually making it happen, and showing the world how it actually works by connecting small business with large enterprises, and trying to see some digital transactions, and seeing the digital economy being built in a laboratory environment.

We want and expect young talent that comes in to come up with innovative ideas that excite everyone. At the end of the day, the objective was to have a few work products come out, which everyone would look at and say, “Wow – how did all this happen in a two-day lab environment?” That was our expectation, and we are overjoyed with the fact that we met beyond our expectations.

Read: Tech Leaders @ 2018: Jubilee Insurance – Disrupting the Insurance Industry

Looking Back to Look Forward

Abbas Khan reflects on 2017, saying,

The one thing that we have learnt this year is that the pace of disruption in the technology sector is increasing very fast. The old or the traditional giants in the technology sector are being threatened by this very new set of fast growing companies that are emerging from Silicon Valley, and places like that.

For example, “Apigee,” he says, “is a company which is now bringing itself into contention against some of the big tech giants who are well established in the field of integration. Apigee is taking a very focused area and competing very successfully against the big traditional and dimensional leaders.”

At the same time, he adds on that a lot of other emerging, smaller companies and not the multibillion-dollar companies are taking the lead.

These companies are growing very fast and that is why at Abacus, one of the things we are doing is trying to align ourselves with Silicon Valley by keeping an eye on what’s happening there and building new relationships.

Abacus Consulting has already signed up with a few emerging players from the Silicon Valley in the last one year and is moving forward. Abbas emphasized that Abacus Consulting envisions lots of opportunities in the years ahead with these new partnerships.


Interview conducted/edited by: CIO/IDG Pakistan