Young and making IT

The IT industry is teeming with young people who have come to live their dreams and make their fortunes. Windows Middle East meets up with some of them.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  March 24, 2003

I|~||~||~|The IT industry has often been thought to be a ruthless one. Several people have founded their businesses on big dreams and aspirations only to be rendered penniless because they couldn't keep pace with the latest technology and business models. But many young and brave hearts have turned their faces away from forewarnings of failure and gone ahead to live their IT dreams.

Windows Middle East met up with a few who are young and making IT.
Some, like Christoph Schell of HP (ME) and Ali Dalloul of Microsoft (ME), have slowly climbed up the ranks to get where they are today, and there are hundreds of others like them in the Gulf. Then there are others like the CEO of, Rabea Ataya, who decided to go ahead and start a dotcom business and succeeded. What kept Ataya going was sheer grit when the dotcom world was crashing around him and today, has broken even.
Another group doing well is a young Indian trio: 28-year-old Meghna Rao and 29-year-old twins Chirag and Chirayu Patel, who dreamt of doing something significant while on a Caribbean cruise. The result was Vertscape, an e-business services and solutions provider that now has offices in the US, India, Europe and the Middle East. Meet some of the people that are living the IT dream.

Christoph Schell
General Manager, Personal Systems Group, HP Middle East
30 years old

Which country are you from?
What did you major in?
Business Administration

How did you get into IT and at what age?
At the age of 24, as an intern with HP Europe.

Tell us the story behind your rise to GM of personal systems group in HP.
Prior to this function, I headed the indirect commercial sales business for HP's growing Middle East region, across the entire product portfolio. This involved management of sales, channel, corporate accounts and category teams across 12 countries in the region. In this role, I had the chance to develop strong relationships with key decision-makers within private and government sectors in the Middle East and fostered solid links with HP's channel partners in the region. I joined HP Middle East as the sixth employee in 1998 and had originally joined HP in July 1997, where I held the role of consumer deskJet product manager, for HP EMEA.

What was your biggest challenge when you joined the company?
Learning how to 'swim' in a 90,000 employee organisation, while keeping speed and agility up.

What was HP's position in the market before you came in? How have you helped the company in the region?
I was the sixth employee of HP Middle East. As such, I am still playing an instrumental part in a team, making HP the number one IT company in the ME. In a recent feedback session my team valued three points about the way I deal with them: (1) entrepreneurial minded, (2) quick decision taking and (3) straight forward communication. So, I believe this is how I help HP!

Where do you see yourself five years from now?
In China!

If you were heading HP worldwide, what is the first new decision you would make?
To ensure that Michael Schumacher moves from Ferrari to BMW (I am sure my German will help!)

What message do you have for those who are entering the IT industry?
It is a great business to be in and I am enjoying every day.

Rabea Ataya
CEO, chairman
30 years old

Which country are you from?
I am Palestinian - Lebanese, a US National.

What did you major in?
MSc. Engineering Economic Systems, Stanford University, 1994.

How did you get into IT?
My undergraduate degree was focused on computer hardware and software. Immediately upon graduation, I joined the corporate finance arm of an investment bank in the US, where I focused on technology companies in transactions ranging from IPOs, to M&A, to debt offerings. The combination ensured that I built a strong academic technical foundation as well as a thorough understanding of the business issues relating to technology companies.

Tell us the story behind Bayt.
Bayt was founded by a young group of men and women who had successful experiences, either as entrepreneurs or in leading positions, with the largest multinationals in the region. All of us had prior roles recruiting individuals for our organizations. Throughout we found that the traditional methods available to us were slow, difficult, and ineffective. Meanwhile we were well aware that highly qualified candidates throughout the world interested in finding jobs in the region had significant difficulty finding information on opportunities in the region. Bayt would bridge the gap between opportunity and talent creating an information marketplace where job seeker and employer could find each other quickly, easily, and cost-effectively. Beyond that, Bayt would help these individuals make better decisions in building their lifestyle, hence the term Lifestyle Engineering.

When was Bayt conceptualised?
In 1999.

Who came up with the idea?
The initial conception of Bayt was an idea that came to me while reading a computer-related magazine on a flight from New York. Bayt, as it stands today, however, is the product of the efforts of a truly unique team of people — the partners and associates of Bayt — as well as the culmination of thousands of feedback comments from our users.

At what age did you think of it?
When I was 27.

How did you manage the financial investments?
Bayt's first investors were the founders / managers. Each of us put a significant amount in the business both as a statement of our belief in the concept as well as to bridge the period until we found the ideal investor. The founding team was very focused on finding an investor who brought far more than just money to the business. We were searching for a financial investor who was a valuable advisor and who would take an active role in building value in the business.

Did you have to convince anybody that it was a sound business idea?
We continually have to convince people that Bayt is a sound business idea although, over time, that has become progressively easier. At first, I had to convince my partners that they should leave their highly successful businesses and jobs to build a business in an untried industry and in a nascent market. We then had to find the right investor and convince them to put a significant amount of money at the right valuation. Beyond that, we are continually evolving the site and the business model in order to best satisfy the needs of the employers and job seekers on Bayt. Building a business fundamentally means that you are continually on a quest to have people see the value of your proposition.

How did you go about planning and building the web site? Whose help did you get?
The first step in building Bayt was putting together an exceptional team. For months, I sought a combination of the technologist, marketer, operations and sales manager that had the ideal combination of experience, similar vision, and cultural fit. The resulting team is the greatest contributor to the success of Bayt.
Together we were able to place the systems, people and initiatives in place that have brought Bayt to its leadership position in the region.

Do you have plans to start any more web sites? Where do you see Bayt going from here?
Bayt is continually evolving to better fulfill its lifestyle engineering proposition. Stay tuned in the coming months for several new services that Bayt will offer on its site.

What are your career ambitions?
To continually work with and learn from the most interesting, highest calibre people in the region.

What is the message you would give to young people like yourself who dream of starting a dotcom?
Remain honest to yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. Find others who can excel where you fall short. Admit your mistakes quickly and move on. Move QUICKLY!

Meghna Rao, Chirag Patel, Chirayu Patel

Meghna Rao: Founder, Managing Director, Vertscape (28 years)
Chirag Patel: Founder, Director— Product and Strategy, Vertscape (29)
Chirayu Patel: Founder, Director of Operations, Vertscape (29)

Where are you from?

How did you get into IT and at what age?
Chirag: At 21, I got into IT. Worked for Siemens Automation in the US. CoFounder of Equity fund focusing purely on the technology sector.
Chirayu: Again, at 21. CoFounder of Equity fund focusing purely on technology.
Meghna: At the age of 21, got into IT. Worked for Venture Capital Firm in the US managing a portfolio which focused on technology sector.

Where did you get the capital to start your business?
Chirag: Basically, from angel investors. i.e. family and friends. We were the winners of the DIC eBiz Awards. Prize money was $150,000. This was just a prize money not an equity investment in the company. The eBiz challenge award helped us jump start our business in this region.

What’s the story of Vertscape?
Chirayu: In 1999, the three of us were on a Caribbean cruise ship talking about all the entrepreneurial things we would all like to do in life. During that time, the three of us were working for different firms in US in banking, venture capital and technology companies. All of us have family owned group companies and have always wanted to leverage technology into our businesses. During that time we found that there was a major gap in the IT industry for the solutions and products that would provide the client with the end solution in a quick and feasible manner. From then onwards, leveraging our expertise and experiences, we began to research for six months before we came up with our first business plan for Vertscape. Vertscape was then formed by combining a set of individuals with technical and industry experience.

What made you venture out and start a business with the other founders?
Chirag: For me, starting a new business in hi-tech is an adrenaline addiction both intellectually and physically. I need to be able to have control over my thoughts and speak my mind without being worried about getting fired. I like to go along with my intuitions and not depend much on others who may have different agendas. I have a need to do something real and with the need to prove myself. I would never want to work for anyone and want to always be my boss with clear vision. I like to be in an industry that's so dynamic where the competitive edge is really "speed". This means that the faster you execute, the better you do. Time is key!

Why did you decide to start a company like Vertscape?
In 1999, companies such as Cisco and Dell had already purchased and deployed eBusiness software for their own organisations to transform the way they interacted with their customers, suppliers, business partners and employees. Similarly, many other companies, both IT and non-IT related, invested into technology and solutions to help automate various business processes internally or externally. It took these companies many man-years and tens of millions of dollars to deploy these solutions where they engaged professional services companies to build an infrastructure that was powerful, reliable and scalable enough to help take advantage of the Internet today and to meet needs as they increased over time. Today, with the maturity of the e-business market, a lot of companies of different sizes and industries are looking to take the eBusiness route. However, there are some continuing major problems: limited IT budgets and expertise, impractical solutions, high vendor dependency and lack of data & systems compatibility.
We experienced these difficulties and realised that many solution providers claimed to be able to do things they really did not know how to deliver. The hype was much higher than the value. Tired of hearing exaggerated claims about the way the internet would change their lives, and bored by tales of the get-rich-quick lifestyles of millionaires, we set out to build practical solutions that would leverage their extensive knowledge of operations and processes of existing traditional brick and mortar businesses in various verticals, ranging from trading, manufacturing to services, in which they operated.

Did you have to convince anybody that it was a sound business idea?
We had to convince the investors. Our families believed in us and thus the business model.

How old were you all then?

How did you go about planning and building the company? Whose help did you get?
Each of us have family owned business groups with more than 30 years of operating experiences in brick and mortar businesses. We leveraged the expertise and guidance from the professional management from the group companies.
Along with that the team we built have years of experience in software development and services as they had worked in numerous multi-million dollar projects across the globe on various technology platforms.

How many employees do you have?
65 globally.

How long has it been since that first day? How far have you got?
More than three years.
So far we have built proprietary software, launched a product, acquired more than 35 customers in 12 months, acquired key large clients in Europe and Middle East and reached positive cash flow.

What was your biggest challenge?
Meghna: When we entered mature markets, such as the US and Europe, we needed to be able to differentiate ourselves from the competition. We have so far designed a technology that can beat the competition with a unique product. The challenge was to differentiate our selves from the other vendors who at 50,000 feet claim they can solve the same business problems. The differences are really in the details.

What next?
Chirag: We intend to work closely with partners, such as Microsoft and HP, to create a focus in certain vertical industries. The solutions will then be rolled out through a partner model in various regions covering the EMEA and USA.
The current offices in India, UAE, Holland and USA will be expanded as the sales operations increase.
We will look at the Far East region as our current milestones are met. We would like to increase our 40 client base to over 100 over the next 12-16 months.
The focus in the market segment will be the Enterprise as well as the SMB sector. Both will have a different sales operations structures and sales strategies.
What message do you have for young people?
Chirag: Keep the momentum going and go all the way. It is very easy to give up during the initial stages of the company due to frustration, too much work, stress and errors.

What would be a typical day in your life?
Chirag: I work from 9am until 6:30pm and 10:30pm to 2pm. Between 6:30 and 10:30pm I play tennis and have dinner with my family.

Ali Dalloul
General manager, Microsoft North Gulf (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar)
32 years old

Which country are you from?

What did you major in?
Bachelors of Science (BS) in Business Computer Applications and Systems from California State University, USA.

How did you get into IT and at what age?
My earliest experience with computers was in the early 80's in the days of the Apple, Commodore, Sinclair CPM, the IBM PC, and MSX Sakhr. Given my mathematical bent, the fascination with the machine's possibilities had a captivating effect on me, and it has not faded away till this day, prompting me to embrace the field of IT on the personal, academic, and professional level.

Tell us the story behind your rise to Country manager for Microsoft, North Gulf.
I joined Microsoft in 1998 as business development manager responsible for establishing the first-ever Microsoft office in Kuwait, developing the channel, the enterprise market, government relations, and Microsoft's overall in-country operations.
Working initially from home, and commuting between Kuwait & Dubai for several months, the momentum was building and I hired two more people, and we opened an office of three Microsofties! We persevered, in spite of numerous challenges that at many times seemed insurmountable, and posted amongst the fastest market (from Microsoft's perspective) growth rates in the world, thereby capturing the attention of Microsoft's management regionally and globally, and earning me the coveted Microsoft CEO Award for outstanding achievement.
The promotions followed, and I was asked to cover a wider geography (Bahrain and Qatar) in 2000; in 2001, I was promoted to country manager, Microsoft Northern Gulf (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar); and more early this year, to general manager, where I oversee and manage the overall Northern Gulf market at the strategic level.

Do you ever plan to start a company of your own?
I would not rule out opening my own company if I am inspired by a novel technological idea that I feel would contribute to growing the industry and driving positive change in the world.

What was Microsoft's position in your area of the market before you came in? How have you helped the company in the region?
I remember my first meeting with my direct manager. He sat with me for two hours on my first day, and give a list of 20 items to do. ‘Go and talk to so and so at Microsoft to learn so and so, then go to Kuwait and establish an office for Microsoft, hire the staff, develop the channel, build press relationships, make sure Kuwait passes a copyright law, establish Microsoft's name in Kuwait, and bring me X millions of dollars by the end of the fiscal (which was already 45% finished)!
And by the way, we don't offer immediate training in Microsoft — you learn by doing, that is the best way!’ I was taken aback at first, but I loved the challenge, so I got down to action and ran with the wind, and the results today speak for themselves. Our turnover has increased by 30-fold since then, Kuwait has enacted strong copyright laws, we have built a large Microsoft

Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I aspire to manage a larger geography, and/or perhaps take on a more strategic assignment in Microsoft worldwide, even if no geo is involved.

What message do you have for those who are entering the IT industry?
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. ||**||

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