Remote Employer

0

Technology obsessed civil engineer flew to the US and worked hard to study computers well before Kashmir got into the vortex of turmoil. He coded a popular software that led his employer to offer him a partnership. Then, Shafat Qazi created BQE Software that has global presence but major part of his half-a-billion company’s growth engine is in Kashmir, reports Saima Bhat

Shafat Qazi (in front row on right side) along with his employees at BQE’s Rangreth premises. KL Image Bilal Bahadur

It is not common knowledge that a non-resident Kashmiri runs  half a billion dollar company in the US and most of its 250 software developers, contribute to its growth from Srinagar. BQE Software, the company has more than four lakh users worldwide and it is growing fast in its niche area.

It has been a dream project for Shafat Qazi, since the day he started his formal education. But the dream took its own time to get the wings it required for which he had to land first in the ‘land of opportunities’, America.

Born to a professor couple, Qazi’s father retired as a principle of Amar Singh College and mother, a professor of Botany. But Qazi was more into practice than theory, passionate about technology since the day his mother subscribed to a science magazine, Science Today when he was a class 1st student in Burn Hall School. Instead of his curriculum, he had natural instincts of learning technology.

“I was able to read circuit boards and even make some. I remember I made FM radio station when I was too young,” Qazi said. This was why he used to compete in science projects and end up as a topper. Impressed with technology, and the great scientists, the lack of any course led him to opt for civil engineering in Regional Engineering College (REC) after completing his 10+2 exams. He was also selected for Birla Institute of technology but because of his father’s health issues, he had to stay put at REC.

During last year of his college, REC introduced computer sciences and Qazi was quick to take some additional classes where he learnt programming. Once out, his date with America was still on his mind and after receiving his degree certificate he started applying for various colleges. He was lucky enough to get at least five colleges as an option for his master’s degree. He chose one and moved to New York in 1985.

In New York, he decided to change his specialisation from civil engineering to structural engineering. “I had just 700 dollars in my hands when I reached there. I worked very hard in stores, restaurants during night shifts to pay for my tuitions till I got my scholarship,” Qazi admitted. He also started writing a software to support his studies.

The first software, Qazi wrote was for a doctor’s office for managing and billing his patients. “Obviously my parents couldn’t afford it and I had to help myself. And this software gave him enough money to survive honourably.”

After completing his course, Qazi sold his software in 1988, packed his bags and drove to California. “I was sick of weather in New York. It was exactly the same as that of Kashmir,” Qazi said. “By that time, I had a choice to decide where to settle in my life.”

In California, Qazi started with an engineering company, David Breiholz but his employer was quick to recognise his talent in technology. There was a group, Structural Engineers of California, who nominated him as the chair for computer applications committee and suddenly he started meeting different engineers including architecture.

Very soon Qazi became the talk of the town and his boss too couldn’t avoid it and he offered him to be his partner. “He had to as I was giving him good business. When I accepted his offer, he was quick to change the name of his company to Breiholz-Qazi Engineering (BQE).”

For next four years they worked together and by that time Qazi was married and had a child as well. “My wife had quit her job and we had recently shifted to our new house. We were living in hand to mouth situation.”

But still, Qazi informed his wife that he wanted to quit his job. He had already sold all of his company shares as he needed money to start his software company, which he believed could make difference in lives of people. “She was obviously not happy because quitting a job meant no income. I believe she was scared of saying the least,” said Qazi.

Qazi’s partner too had a surprising reaction, who asked him what name he had decided for his company. “He suggested what if you call it BQE software, and he was too generous to buy some initial shares in 1994 even before I started it.”

Shafat Qazi

BQE software finally started in 1995 with no proper address. Qazi started his work from his 200 square feet garage. It took him more than one year to write software for his first version and finally it was released in 1996, as BillQuick that included accounting, business management, time tracking, expenses management and time sheets. “Basically it was a full 360 degrees kind of software for all kinds of professionals, businesses, architects, engineers, IT consultants, lawyers, accountants for all kind of businesses.”

Once the software was in the market, Qazi had to think of an office and he shifted to the attic of BQE Company in 1996 with a desk and a phone. From 1997, he started hiring people.

After 15 years, BQE software has 250 employees with half a million users of different products. “We are considered to be world’s biggest software company that serves professional service firms. We have a good team and culture.”

Kashmir Operations

While earning in the US, Kashmir was never off his mind. In 2004, he started his operations in Kashmir from Rangret Industrial area where 125 employees are presently working. “We started with just ten employees,” says Qazi, who makes it possible to visit them every year.

BQE’s Kashmir office is working in three shifts, with at least eighty people working from 8 am to 5 pm, for five days a week. Qazi believes his employees work for just five days a week are more productive than the employees who work for six days a week. “You can get more productivity from a well-rested person.” Around 50 people working for customer based departments work during night shifts. They are all software developers.

Once employees step into BQE Kashmir’s office, they feel like they are in America. “It is about the respect, treatment, facilities and the openness about ideas they have,” Qazi said.

But he had just one concern then, the ‘brain drain.’ “All of our talents was moving out to Bangalore, Hyderabad, Indore, Pune, Gurgaon. Some of them were working in important positions as well but they were dying to come home. Home, where they had almost no opportunity, just one J&K Bank.” Qazi did his survey in all of these places and checked what they were earning including their perks. He then started paying them same salaries in Kashmir, which otherwise they were spending on rents and food, with an addition of health insurance and the strongest wish of living with their parents and at home.

Among all of his employees, Qazi says, several of his engineers are earning over two lakhs a month with many earning up to one lakh rupees.

“The point is not money but we have a wrong work culture in Kashmir, where people prefer public job over private when it is vice versa in any other part of the globe”. In the west, a public job is considered as worst of all. In government, no department works efficiently because they can never have a balance sheet, or profit and loss or stocks or accountability, transparency, and they don’t care if the department flourishes or not. They don’t care if they make a difference in anybody’s life or not. They just care whether their boss or minister is happy and if the bribe is flowing correctly, Qazi believes.

The Kashmir government, he said, should start looking at the trends in private sector like in Hyderabad, Bangalore where the economy is driven by private sector. Their government’s sublet everything to the private sector from their power management to their telephone management, to everything. “Everybody knows private companies do it more efficiently and it ends up cheap, so hopefully that is good,” he asserted.

The Kashmir experience has encouraged BQE to expand. Their new building in Rangret will be accommodating 150 more employees. But, it will be more of supply and demand in the market.

BQE’s Rangreth office KL Image Bilal Bahadur

Beyond software

Other than BillQuick, BQE software is a big company now. There is an exclusive innovations department. “We don’t just make software we make technologies. We have many patents in technologies that people use on day to day basis,” he said.

Presently, BQE is working on a new technology related to OCR, where different companies will ask their employees to click the pictures of receipts and they will automatically get generated with the accounting section of the company, without making an entry actually. By the time an employee reaches his office, his company might have kept his cheque ready.

BQE is excited about the drones and self-driving cars as well. Qazi says the good thing about growth is when it is because of critical mass, the customers, then the growth is exponential and it grows really fast. “It gives you more power to hire more people, to do things at higher scale. If it is a smaller company then they are more into making a payroll on the month to month basis.”

The Emotional Investment

For more than three decades now, Qazi is settled outside Kashmir but he still feels attached to his place. “I was born here so I owe something back to the land although I am a US citizen now.”

Whenever an engineer from Kashmir is flown to the US, Qazi asks them to stay at his house till they get adjusted to a new place and understands the new culture. Last time, he had an employee, and he asked him to visit many places in Los Angles before staring formally but instead, he could be found either at home or in office. He didn’t move out for a month and when Qazi asked him the reason he was surprised to know that the young man told him that he had not left home after dark throughout his life. Even though he was there and cars were around but still his mind could not comprehend it is safe to travel after dark.

“This kind of phobia is with everybody of this generation,” Qazi regretted. “They needed counselling that they can go out anytime and nobody was going to arrest or shoot them or nobody was going to ask him for his identity card.”

Software apart, Qazi has created a music band ‘IBM’ with singers Irfan, Bilal and Mehmeet. Under an American group, Funkaar International by Asmat Ashai, he helped the band to move around the globe and have music concerts.

“Asmat is a good friend of ours. She made a great point that resonated with my thinking that the Kashmiri language is about to become a relic in next thirty years because nobody prefers to speak Kashmiri. And it means with the death of our language, our culture will be dead.”

While in America, Qazi says he communicates with his children in Kashmiri but when he receives guests from Kashmir, their kids cannot comprehend Kashmiri words which embarrasses him. “I feel ashamed why we are looking for Azadi. We have already blended with either India or Pakistan,” Qazi said. “After 25 years our kids here will be speaking Hindi or Punjabi or any south Indian language because I have seen many kids prefer to watch south Indian movies.”

From many years now Qazi was working on it and found that people who speak Kashmiri are looked as low-class people and Urdu speaking are seen as middle-class families and the ones who speak English are treated as elites. “In this class differentiation, there has been the role of missionary schools as well. When I was in school, we were punished to speak in Kashmiri. This trend should change. We should encourage our kids to speak in Kashmiri.”

Qazi takes it as his social responsibility. He has worked on the avenues to revive it. And the most important way to do, he believed, was through music. “IBM band did a Sufi style music fusion which I believe has Kashmiryat soul in it yet it has felt of western instruments in it such as guitars, cellos, violins and their tune is more upbeat which is liked by the present generation.”

Initially, he was suggested by his friends not to add western instruments with the traditional Kashmiri music but after more research, he found no music instrument was actually from Kashmir. “Rabaab, Santoor, were adopted from central Asia so I believed we can adopt other instruments as well to be relevant.”

In 2017 summer, when he was in Kashmir, he was astonished to see even Wazwan was not spared and people have converted it to buffet system. “Wazwan, the 40-course meal is something we cherish. I request please keep Kehwa, keep the samovar preserved. Although we have electric kettles to replace them what are we going to pass to our next generations?”

BQE is now ‘angel investor’ for various new entrepreneurs who need guidance, mentorship and financial help. “We actually formalised it into a proper incubation centre where we could really try to encourage entrepreneurship in Kashmir, otherwise we lacked such systems. Although there are great minds here, they don’t know how to be an entrepreneur. If they are mentored and they are given the funds, they do wonder absolutely,” Qazi believes.

Handicrafts

Handicrafts have boiled down to the basics where it is ‘survival of the fittest’. Entrepreneurs got greedy but at the end of the day, the question is did our handicraft industry really thrived in innovating, creating designs.

Recently Qazi’s wife helped bring Kashmiris together in the US, and she managed to get 1000 Kashmiri, who were scattered all over the USA, who otherwise used to meet when there would have been the crisis in Kashmir like floods, mass killings.

Qazi thought it is sad that they don’t get togather for culture, happiness, for celebrating good things like music, handicrafts. So his wife started working with a few people, which shaped into a group of ‘Kashmiri Gathering of Northern America’, KGNA. So far the group has met twice and this year when they met in Philadelphia, Qazi met another Kashmiri, Jahangir, who had done innovations in technologies, in handicrafts. He believes there are many great people working for it but they should look into it as their ‘social obligation’ to save it.

Kashmir as IT hub

Qazi believes Kashmir can become world’s biggest IT hub. Kashmir has the perfect environment for technologies because of the fact that it is landlocked. Weather is cold and very comfortable and during winters people tend to stay indoors more which is good for programming. It is just a matter of what you want to put your resources in and what benefits the people more. I have seen Kashmiris are more intellectual than workers, don’t expect a Kashmiri to construction a building but yes they can build a good technology company or something that has intellectual value behind it. They thrive on that. In general, Kashmiris have a good IQ and that needs to be tapped, and then all the Kashmiris are living abroad, bring all of them here and you are done.

What will IT do to Kashmir?

IT means three things to Qazi. Look at economies that have changed America. Earlier they were world class cars, ships producers or television, refrigerators, microwaves, but today America doesn’t produce all those things but their GDP is highest and they run the highest economy of the world with Google, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, Apple.

The revenue IT companies bring is bigger than what they sell or need investment because the software doesn’t need any investment, they don’t need any raw material or inventory or storage, and it will sell at three times more than the cost of other objects. What we need is just a laptop.

Kashmiris are early technology adopters. On the day one when the cell phone was introduced Kashmir had 22000 applications and Jammu 1000. This is because Kashmiris understand the value of internet because people here read; they value education which is a thing that he is proud of. More and more kids are going to school

“Mark my words, from 20 years now, there will be nothing but restaurants in Lal Chowk. There still will be hustle and bustle. It is not a matter of if, but a matter of when,” he said.

About Author

Leave A Reply

*