Rally of the kings

Egypt was once head and shoulders above the rest of the Middle East when it came to IT, but times have changed. With a strong skills base in place, it is fighting back to win new business and carry out bold new projects, reports Duncan MacRae.

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By  Administrator Published  November 30, 2006

Over the years, Egypt has built itself a formidable reputation as producer of some of the most skilled, technically-minded workers in the business and it has long been seen as a one-stop-shop when it comes to outsourcing.

However, India is now renowned for offering top quality outsourcing services at rock bottom prices, while the UAE has experienced a growth and development that makes it one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. It is debatable whether Egypt really has started to lag behind its neighbours, but what is clear is that it is definitely feeling the heat.

Recent developments in the country though suggest an upsurge in both investment and progress, and a host of planned projects from a wide variety of companies give the impression that Egypt could soon be the cream of the IT crop once again.

Perhaps one of the most well-known projects has been IBM's digitising of artefacts in Cairo's Egyptian Museum - part of the company's vast Eternal Egypt project. Adel Sobhi, project executive, IBM, says part of what made this work so special was that it is something tangible to the Egyptian public and visitors - normal people getting excited about IT rather than just IT workers.

The digital tour guide is like an intelligent digital book based on PDA technology. It is a marriage between technology and Egyptian culture. It is available in Arabic, English and French and utilises an IBM technology called Text To Speech.

Sobhi says: "We don't record the voice of a human person and put it on the device. So it's very interesting and amazing technology with a machine telling you what you see on the device.” The main purpose of the project, Sobhi says, was to show how technology can help to promote the Egyptian culture to the visitors of the Egyptian Museum.

"It's very nice and a very useful tool for any visitor of the Egyptian Museum," he explains. "Secondly, it allows the visitor to see much more than normal. The museum includes 150,000 artefacts in the two-floor building. Can you see, as a visitor, this amount in one day or in six hours? Impossible."

IBM has also produced another digital guide for Bibliotheca Alexandrina Museum and is implementing a number of other huge projects in different sectors.

Sobhi says: "IBM worldwide is showing that Egypt is a very important market and we are investing and giving donations and grants to show that we are a good citizen. And at the same time, we are expanding and enlarging IBM. All IBMers are Egyptian working in IBM Egypt and now we have more than 600 employees, so we are expanding in Egypt. It's a good market for IBM.

"The Egyptian IT market is booming and the growth rate of the Egyptian IT market is considered to be very good compared to Middle East markets, and is competing with Indian and Chinese IT markets which is a good sign built on the stability we have in the IT and communications sector in Egypt. "We have a huge project coming up called the Grand Egyptian Museum and this is a US$600 million project. It's not only IT - it's to build a new museum at the Giza, with all the latest technologies, the most advanced and up-to-date technologies from lighting, display, IT, multi-media. You name it, you can get it."

IBM is not the only company to realise the importance of investing time and money in Egypt. Intel, for example, is investing heavily in the country's education sector. Egyptian-born Khaled El-Amrawi, general manager, Intel, Egypt, Levant & North Africa, understands the countries potential better than most. He moved back to Egypt in 2005 to start up a platform definition centre, having previously worked for the company in the USA.

El-Amrawi says: "The goal of the definition centre is to develop solutions, products, platforms, that cater to the needs of the people in the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern European regions. "We work on products like low-cost PCs to address people who are first-time buyers, who have problems buying a PC because it's expensive for them or they have a problem accessing a PC because it requires them to know English.

"So we got them an Arabised version of the PC that uses local software using the local languages. "As far as schools are concerned, we are actually involved in many projects. In fact, we are the main supporter for the Egypt education initiative. We are providing the ministry of education of Egypt with a very comprehensive program to train the Egyptian teachers on how to use and how to incorporate IT in the classroom."

In addition to the teachers' training Intel also has another program that focuses on the training of youth called Intel Teach. "We are donating 8,000 PCs as part of the Egypt education initiative," says El-Amrawi. "In addition, we're also providing some connectivity solutions to WiMax, like wireless broadband, to schools to connect schools to the internet,” he adds.

“We also work with many local customers in order to develop solutions for the ministry of education of Egypt, to equip classrooms with PCs, and with software solutions like school management systems and learning management systems.”

El-Amrawi says: "When you compare the Egyptian IT industry to countries in the Middle East it's apples and oranges. If you look at the population of the UAE versus Egypt, it's very different. The GDP in Egypt is much lower. In the UAE you'll find people buying the latest and greatest laptops.

"The market is less price sensitive. In Egypt the market is more price sensitive but the consumption volume in Egypt is much higher. You're going to see significantly higher IT spending, like in terms of volume for the ministry of education to support almost 80 million people versus just a few million in the UAE. "You are going to see the UAE more like the developed world - not very different from the US or western Europe. They have a very well-developed IT market which is not the case in Egypt. In Egypt it's more like an emerging market or developing market where the PC penetration is much less. "The quality of the IT workers in Egypt is definitely good, especially when you look at the top candidates and the top 15% of the graduates from the Egyptian universities. I think what you need to do with these recent graduates is give them training. With the appropriate training you can really get these graduates up to speed, especially when it comes to software engineering and hardware engineering. There are very good schools in Egypt that focus on hardware and software engineering which is good. I think what's a bit behind would be more the business people, the marketing, or the strategic planning people.

"Also, when it comes to hiring senior people Egypt has an advantage because you get Egyptians who used to live abroad, whether in the US or western Europe, and many of them look for opportunities to come back.

“So when you bring them back and mix them up with recent college graduates who have a decent education, and we provide them with training, I think you end up with a good mix and the people to drive the technology and the business forward."

El-Amrawi got his bachelors and masters degrees in electrical and computer engineering from Alexandria University, then obtained a PhD and MBA from the USA.

"I think the education I received in each country complemented each other. I think undergraduate education in Egypt is very, very solid," El-Amrawi adds. "I graduated from Alexandria University at the electrical and engineering department which I think is a very solid department with a solid curriculum. The US curriculum was like a piece of cake for me - it was very easy.

"What was missing from the Egyptian side was more the research and development, and the teamwork mentality, which you don't get much focus on in the Egyptian schools. How you work with people, how you drive projects with other stakeholders, how you develop your communication skills and how you develop your people-influencing skills. If you take into consideration the country size I think Egypt is competitive. Maybe what's missing in Egypt more than the likes of India is not really the engineering talent or resources. It is the business mentality and how to develop a business - how to market Egypt as an outsourcing hub."

With a strong skills base already in place, it is surprising that many IT companies are hesitant to invest in the country.

An example of one partnership that is thriving in Egypt is between security solutions providers McAfee and the telecoms provider Mobinil. Asem Galal, McAfee's general manager, says: "The partnership has worked out very well, both parties sit together on a regular basis to better understand the requirements and new products and technologies at hand. We also host training sessions to ensure Mobinil has the required training project implementations together to guarantee the optimisation of both resources and technologies.

"Gradually we've moved from a simple supplier of AntiVirus to a strategic partner for security and we started other aspects such as Risk Management - with addressing this aspect we became much more integrated with the total security plan at Mobinil than before. This was from years of working together, better understanding our business and identifying technology that fits us both. "With it being a telecoms company there were two main aspects we needed to look at. The first was response timing. The telecoms industry normally requires one of the highest response times, simply because of the nature of the business and downtime. The response that was required both supported agreement as well as the solutions itself and reflected the need of limited downtime if at all. "Secondly, there was a continuous need to protect the business as well as customers.

We have identified the need to protect our customers through data and various telephone lines. “This is one area that McAfee and Mobinil are working together on to protect customers. "McAfee is heavily involved with various security segments in the Egypt market including government, financial services industry, telco, oil and gas.

“We have seen growth during the last year in excess of 200% and we have also seen a huge increase in the number of security partners that are working with us on providing their customers with sound security systems,” he says.

"Egypt is a key region. The amount of projects and growth we have experienced in Egypt during the last couple of years has been tremendous. Also many of the partners that we work with have shown an excellent potential to work with us in other parts of the Middle East and provide added value to our customers elsewhere.”

Hesham Rashed, IT operations senior manager, Mobinil, says: "Working in an extremely sophisticated IT environment with the highest levels of technological innovations used, we are constantly in need of the latest anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-spam, personal firewall and intrusion prevention solutions.” “Our objective was to find a total comprehensive security solution and after comparing the solutions on the market, we decided to go for McAfee products as our suite for total protection for our environment.” The solution means that security can now be managed more easily.

"The centralised management and automation in several McAfee products are key features to the success of the whole solution,” says Rashed. "The decision was based on the best ROI and TCO, in addition to the best support services from highly qualified technical teams. Not only that, but the fast research and development are something we can rely on.”

There are a flurry of other companies keenly making the most of Egypt's IT maturity, leading the way by developing some ground breaking products.

Morphology specialists Taya IT, for example, has developed a sophisticated solution to the problem of Arabic search, based on Natural Language Processing technologies, called Tama. It extracts the stem of each Arabic word and can handle proper nouns using a dynamic proper noun analysis algorithm and extensive database.

The accuracy of Tama in supplying a disambiguated stem per Arabic word is around 97%, therefore enables users to obtain precise and meaningful results without losing information or receiving irrelevant information.

The production of such technology is just the tip of the iceberg and typifies the newfound drive in Egypt's IT industry.

The customers, workers and vast potential are all there, and it certainly seems now that all of the top companies in IT want to be there too.

“The growth rate of the Egyptian IT market is considered to be very good compared to Middle East markets, and is competing with Indian and Chinese IT markets which is a good sign built on the stability we have.”
“With the appropriate training you can really get these graduates up to speed, especially when it comes to software and hardware engineering.”

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