September issue 2004
Interview: Shazad Mohamed
“I haven’t had a chance to spend much time with people my own age”
-Shazad Mohamed, President and CEO, GlobalTek Solutions, Inc.
At first glance, Shazad Mohamed looks like any young business executive: gelled hair, shirt neatly tucked into semi-formal beige trousers, clean-cut features, a firm handshake and language peppered with technical terms like “capital overhead,” or “labour cost advantage.” He’s just your typical successful millionaire. The difference is he’s only 18!
While his playmates were learning to speak and spell, three-year-old Shazad was playing on his father’s computer. By five, he mastered painting and at six, he was effortlessly tuning violin strings. While other kids were spending endless hours on Nintendo, nine-year-old Shazad concentrated hard on his first computer course, picking up the intricacies of C++, Java, Visual Basic and extensible markup language, and devised a method of using radars to make weather predictions. By the age of 10, Shazad had designed his first website, was an avid viewer of the business channel, CNBC, and had begun analysing the stock market. Finally, at the ripe old age of 12, when his contemporaries were discovering the wonders of dating and the basics of algebra, our very own Doogie Howser became CEO and president of an internet business company, the now multi-million dollar firm, Global Tek Solutions Inc., based in Dallas, Texas, serving up to 60 clients. Born and raised as the only child of a Pakistani immigrant family living in Dallas, Shazad speaks five languages: Urdu, Gujarati, Katchi, Sindhi and English. At18, he is the youngest CEO in the tech world.
How did it all happen? It could be because of his parents, Mohamed and Sabira. While Shazad was still in the womb, they spent hours reading to him about theories of the universe, and playing various kinds of music — operas, Bach, Beethoven and a medley of folk and traditional tunes. But for Shazad, the secret is simple: “Do something that you absolutely love to do.”
Having expanded his operations from Dallas to San Diego, Shazad employs a 20-strong workforce in the US, and an additional 30 for his upcoming partnership project in India. In fact, his father quit his job at AT&T Wireless, to work for his son’s company.
Despite all his impressive achievements, Shazad remains a humble young man. But behind the shy smile and modest demeanour, shines an irrepressible glint of excitement as he talks about the future…
A: We provide software solutions for the healthcare industry, for patient charts, prescriptions or management of patient information. We deliver solutions essential to help healthcare companies automate, digitise and manage their patient information and their prescriptions.
Q: What inspired you to start GlobalTek, and what were your initial concerns, especially as a minor?
A: Obviously at 12, you’re going to be hampered by legal issues. My parents had to take over signing contracts and cheques. Other than that, I really didn’t face that many obstacles. I largely focused on merit, and tried to convince clients that our company would provide the best solution at the best price.
Q: As a 12-year-old, you must have faced scepticism over your professional abilities?
A: No, not personally. In fact, people were very interested in engaging with GlobalTek, perhaps because they saw in me a fresh perspective on technology and innovative solutions. I was coming from a background where I had no bias nor slant on anything. That may also have translated into an advantage for our customers. My age may not have been a help, but it was certainly not a barrier.
Q: You are planning to initiate projects in India. Undoubtedly there is a well-established IT industry there, but Pakistan is also eager to attract foreign investment. Why have you chosen not to invest here?
A: The key reason for choosing India is that it has the critical mass of talent and industry recognition. It was easier to make contacts and break into the market. But Pakistan, specifically, has some very interesting advantages. The Aga Khan University Hospital offers tremendous health care facilities, while some of the incentives that the Pakistani government is offering for software are promising. When you factor in the labour cost advantage, you have a very potent mix, which, if properly articulated to western companies, can be quite attractive. That’s one of the reasons that I’m here looking at what’s available and what can be the most appropriate way for us to get involved in the software market. I’ll be spending time meeting several people in the industry and observing operations that are already in action, which will give me a much better idea about opportunities in Pakistan.
Q: Do you think the Pakistani IT industry will pick up momentum in the future?
A: Certainly. I think that wherever you have creative and talented people, and where you combine that with structural elements, industry can develop. There are things that I would like to see. For example, better institutions for computer science graduates. I’m sure investments are beginning to take place, and within the next few years we’ll probably start to see results. In the software industry, talent, creativity and logic are the most important factors to look for, because our people are our business and that’s our most critical asset. We have to be able to find the right people. Pakistan is definitely a place where those elements are coming together. When you back that up with strong education and strong theoretical background in computer sciences, it becomes a very attractive proposition.
From what I’ve seen, the basics are here, but there definitely needs to be broader institutionalisation. There is a need for broader access to a computer science curriculum and world-class meritocratic standards at educational institutes. We need to get some MITs and CalTechs developed here, so that we can get key, talented people and really tap into the resource pool. But again, I haven’t had the chance to personally check out some of the institutions here as yet.
Q: Did the economic slump after 9/11 affect your company?
A: Actually, we did notice a lessening of contracts for the first month or two. But we very aggressivley used the opportunity to go out and win more market shares and pull in more customers so we were able to weather that storm.
9/11 coincided with the downturn of the tech industry in general, so a lot of our competitors were also in the process of restructuring their businesses. Because our cost structure was low, because of the way we had set up our business, we were able to leverage that and really show customers that our solutions were the best in the market and that we were able to deliver. We used that as a way to go out and renew our accounts, so it was a matter of changing the market perception.
One of the nice things about being so young as a company, is that at that time we didn’t have large capital overheads, and we had structured the company so that it was virtual. We were able to communicate through video conferencing and save on software.
Q: Did you face any negative personal repercussions after 9/11, given your Pakistani origin?
A: Personally, I didn’t experience anything. In the business world, people are focused on merit. The religious side, or the ethnic side, really didn’t come into it.
Q: Do you think that technology stocks in the US have reached their peak, or is there more room for expansion?
A: Well, healthcare is really not affected that much by economic upturns and downturns. People are going to get sick whether it’s in a good economy or a bad economy. So from that perspective, we’re in an industry that’s really not affected by the broader economic scenario. Personally, from what I’ve seen and heard from people that I’ve talked to in the industry, there certainly seems to have been a tremendous improvement in the past year, and tremendous growth in the sector.
Q: Why did you chose to work in the healthcare industry?
A: When we started doing consulting work, we found there was a tremendous opportunity for technology to be applied to healthcare. The market is extremely under-operated. There’s very little technology being used at the information level or at the clinical level. We have seen fantastic breakthroughs in the pharmaceutical industry, but you don’t see technology being applied, where there are tremendous administrative overheads, and where businesses have been trying for the past10 years to automate and apply techonology. You just haven’t seen that in healthcare. A lot of it has to do with the mindset, the incentive, the cost structure and the way the industry is currently built. But there are very interesting things happening. Funding for research and grants in the US have doubled to 100 million dollars a year. The right environment is beginning to open up for broadening the automating sector. With these elements coming together, now is the time to get into this industry and make something happen.
Q: With your record of straight As, perfect standardised test scores and a 4.0 GPA, how do you balance your business and academic workloads?
A: It’s just effective time management. Obviously, I don’t get as much free time as I would without the business, but the company is so exciting and so interesting that the tradeoff is really worth it. I love what I’m doing and if that means that I spend more time on it, that’s what I’m going to do.
Q: When you started your career, you didn’t have any formal business education. How did you learn the basics?
A: I read a lot and I was able to educate myself on the technicalities of business. Also, you learn by seeing what other people in the industry are doing. I think that business schools provide you with a compressed opportunity, all the information is taken together and it’s given to you in a very easy-to-use manner, where you’re able to accesss the information within a few short years. But spending time in a business itself, opens up learning opportunities. You pick up on different aspects because you have to know them in order to grow in the company. That, and spending time with other businessmen: learning, observing and reading has allowed me to get to where I am today.
Q: Yet you do plan to go to Harvard.
A: I think that college will provide the intellectual environment to apply a lot of the things that I have already learned, and to absorb some new theoretical information and engage with brilliant minds in a different arena. I get to spend a lot of time with very smart technologists and very smart business people, but I think it would be interesting to spend time with very smart academics and very smart students, who are able to expand on a lot of the things that I’ve experienced and already learned. I plan on doing something in computer sciences, law, business or economics. I think these are all important components of a well-rounded view. I think that they’ll be critical for the future.
Q: Most of your employees are older than you and there are bound to be some ideological differences. Do you face any issues dealing with that in the work environment?
A: Not particularly. One of the things that I focused on very early on in the company, was hiring intelligent people. I didn’t want to have a company that was dominated by politics. I wanted a meritocratic and intellect-based company, where the best ideas win. And really, the only way you can do that is to bring in very intelligent and talented people.
Q: There are rumours that Bill Gates wants to recruit you. Are you planning to work for Microsoft in the future, or collaborate on certain projects?
A: From Global Tek’s perspective, we already deal with Microsoft in a number of ways. We leverage their platforms, we utilise their technologies and certainly do business at that level. Obviously, the tablet PC is one of the the technologies that we’re involved with. So that relationship exists. Personally, it would be premature to comment on what future plans I have.
Q: Balancing the demands of a successful career, heading a company and pursuing an education must sometimes prove overwhelming?
A: Absolutely not. This is not like work, it’s like doing something that I really enjoy, something that’s a tremendously fun activity. I started a business at an age where I didn’t have to support myself, so it’s almost a hobby.
Q: With such long working hours, do you get time to just be a kid?
A: I actually get to socialise quite a bit, but it’s just that it’s with a different group of people. I spend most of my time with the technology industry and with business people. So obviously, my socialising is within that group.
Q: Do you identify with your Pakistani roots?
A: Certainly. My parents are Pakistani and I have an inherent cultural connection with this country. The culture, the heritage, are all very natural to me.
Q: You’ve achieved a lot more than an average 18-year-old, but in the process, you’ve missed out on regular teenage activities, like parties, girls and sports. Do you have any regrets?
A: Absolutely not. I think I’ve had tremendous opportunities that perhaps other people would not experience at my age. Certainly, I haven’t had a chance to spend that much time with people my own age. This area is so exciting and so interesting, and I’m having so much fun that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Work in itself relaxes me! I love to read on a variety of topics like technology, business, philosophy etc. Any intellectually stimulating activity like that is fun for me.
Q: Where do you see yourself 20 years from now?
A: I think 20 years from now, I’d definitely like to be in business, running a company, and guiding it strategically, and probably working in the technology sector. There are so many opportunities in artificial intelligence and nanotech. I think my most pressing concern is missing out on so many opportunities. There’s just so much happening in this space, that you can really only focus on a few key areas. Right now, we’re doing healthcare and there are some very exciting things there, but there are so many exciting areas opening up. I’d love to do a lot of things in artificial intelligence, in nanotech, in biotechnology, and know how all these different components come together. My concern is more a feeling of not being able to engage in absolutely all these areas. It’s not a fear of missing out, but time is limited, and you really can’t engage in all things. So I’d really love to spend time, from a business perspective, developing companies and creating technology in these areas. But I think it’s a very good problem to have!
Q: What’s your advice for teenagers in Pakistan?
A: It’s difficult for me to give that advice, because I’m not sure I can relate to the type of issues that teenagers here face. Obviously, the US is different. Education is widely available and it’s just a matter of whether you have the initiative to take advantage of it. I’m sure that for people here, it’s a different situation. Everybody would like to take advantage of an education here, but perhaps it may not be available. The advice that I give to anybody, anywhere in the world is, that focus on developing yourself. Read a lot, engage intellectually, do your best to get access to resources, knowledge and the best educational institutions that you can. And do something that you absolutely love to do.