My subject for the interview today is T.M. Shabbir, the Chief Coordinator of BITM at BASIS, an author of multiple books and a lyricist. I met Mr. Shabbir through the mutual exchange of missives online. And you can tell within one minute of meeting him that he is a deeply curious and intellectually interested person. Many of us try to be interesting and it is relatively easy to be interesting because you want attention. But being interested in things and people is a far more admirable and useful trait that will not only make you interesting, but it will also make your life far more gratifying. I have been trying to learn this skill from Mr. Shabbir since we first met.
We have been having this discussion for quite some time. After a number of back and forth, I’m super happy to finally share this interview with you all. The interview covers a lot from Mr. Shabbir’s early life to his journey to what he is doing today, his management style, his work at BITM, the state of BITM, COVID and the rise of online training, his creative process, the importance of alone time, how he came to learn the inevitability of death and how the knowledge has changed his life forever, and much more. The interview is an illuminating read in its entirety. I have immensely enjoyed doing the interview, I hope you will enjoy reading it.
Ruhul Kader: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I want to learn more about you. Could you please tell me about yourself and your journey to what you are doing today?
T. M. Shabbir: I was born and grew up in Barisal. I completed my school and college from Udayan School and Amritolal Dey Maha Biddalay in Barisal, respectively. We are two brothers.
I studied commerce because my relatives made it sound easy to do extraordinary results in SSC and HSC exams known as board stand at the time. I thought it would be easier for me to do good results with limited effort if I study commerce and be with my genius relatives.
I was among the so-called bright students in school. Usually, good students choose science and the rest of the batch go to commerce and humanities. When I chose commerce, it surprised many. Commerce was yet to become a huge thing at the time. I was happy and hopeful that I would make a win. But when it came time to register for exams, the government changed the system from stand to grading system.
After my HSC, I came to Dhaka to attend the Dhaka University admission test. I sat twice for the Dhaka University admission test and failed to get in both times. In the process, I missed one academic year. The first time when I did not get the chance, I was devastated. When I did not pass on the second time, it was a personal low for me.
My father came to my rescue. He wanted me to apply to NSU or BRAC University. I skipped the NSU admission test. I went for the BRAC University admission test and got the chance and eventually went to BRAC University. In the first year, I was nostalgic and suffered from a sense of cognitive dissonance for not being able to study at Dhaka University. Eventually, however, I got over it and could concentrate on my studies, thanks to the environment, teachers, and education.
When in my 3rd semester, I joined Grameenphone in customer service. At the time, I was the youngest employee at Telenor. In fact, I had part-time jobs for most of my student life. I used to do classes in the day and work from 6 pm to 10 pm in the night. That was the beginning of a semi-professional life. I got involved with jingles and other creative efforts around this time. I used to write music. All these involvement outside of my academic studies took a toll on my academic result, I graduated with a poor grade. This was back in 2009.
I came to know about BASIS through BASIS SoftExpo. I attended SoftExpo a few times when I was at university. BASIS was not well-known at the time. About the time I was completing my internship, I came across a circular from BASIS for an entry-level position. I applied and eventually got selected and joined. I have been here since then. It has been 10 years.
I joined as an assistant project manager. It was an entry-level executive position with responsibility across departments and verticals with various types of work. I was involved in organizing events. BASIS used to do a ton of events and I was actively involved in each of them. BASIS has a number of standing committees. I was involved in the local market development standing committee.
The training was not a big thing at BASIS as yet. There were about one or two batches of students per month. BITM was not born. At one point, I was asked to look after the training along with other responsibilities. I was not particularly interested but did not feel bad either. I was learning new things which I liked. I came from a business background and this was an IT institute so I was learning a lot of new things related to software and programming. That was the beginning of my work in the education and training sector.
BASIS has been providing training since 2007. The scale was limited in those early days. In 2012, the BASIS executive committee decided to expand the training program and launch it as an independent institute. That's how the BASIS Institute of Technology and Management (BITM) was born in 2012.
I was asked to look after the institute for some time in the early days. I was relieved from other responsibilities and given more responsibility in training. About 2012-2013, BASIS did a few government projects including two projects - one project under the High Tech Park Authority and another under ICT Ministry LICT project called FTFL. We completed the FTFL project quite successfully. It was a training program where we trained 150 students in a three months program - one month residential and two months dawn to dusk classes. It was 9-5 classes and a very exclusive training program.
I worked on that project. At the time, BASIS had a responsible person for BITM and I was an assistant to him. We did very well with the training. The students who graduated from the training did an excellent career-wise. Parallelly, we also scaled our paid training program to 10-12 batches per month.
We were quite strict about quality from the early days, which helped us to make a good name for excellent training programs. We never spent a penny in paid advertising but we started to attract a ton of students through word of mouth. We started to increase the number of sizes and batches. While I was all alone initially, by the time we completed these projects, we had a 3-4 person team to manage the training.
Around this time we received the SEIP project - an ADB financed project under the Finance Ministry. They were working with a number of organizations across verticals including BGMEA for training garments workers and were interested in working with BASIS for the IT component of the program. After some discussion, they agreed to work with us. I still remember we worked for 36 hours to prepare the project proposal. I used to work with Fahim Mashroor, Founder of BDjobs. He was the President of BASIS as well as the convener of BITM at the time. I was in the office for 36 hours at once and Fahim Bhai was also with me most of the time. After working for 36 hours, we submitted an initial draft. Here I want to add that, all the presidents of BASIS and conveners of BITM have played a strong role in the growth of BITM, especially I want to mention the name of Mr. A K M Fahim Mashroor, Mr. Shah Imrul Kayesh, and Ms. Farhana A Rahman.
In 2015, we started working on the SEIP project. I have been involved throughout the project. The first phase of the project ended in the year 2018. The target was to train 23000 students with a 60% job placement and a certain training standard. We have been able to achieve those targets successfully. 23000 people received the training with a 65% % job placement success. We had an extension in 2020 where we trained some additional 6,500 students and again we met the target with a 62% job placement. The third crunch of the training will start from 2021 which will be a 2 years-long project. We are currently working on the plan.
In short, this is the project part of BITM. Apart from that, we have our regular paid training programs as well as our in-house projects which we call collaborative training programs. We organize training in partnership with BASIS members who are involved in providing training. The purpose is to spread out the BITM training across the country instead of keeping it based in Karwan Bazar. Now people can take BITM training sitting in Uttara.
We have two campuses - in Dhaka and Chattogram. The ambition is to gradually spread across the country. We opened the Chittagong campus for the SEIP project.
In our collaboration project, we have over 30 member companies who are our partners and a large number of students take training through these partners. These are mostly paid training, where we charge students a fee for training.
The project trainings are free of cost and students who continue also receive a stipend - monthly taka 3110. These training sessions are one to three months in length.
Ruhul: How many training programs do you have now?
Shabbir: We have currently 30+ paid training programs. Under the SEIP training program, there were 10 free training programs.
Ruhul: As the Chief Coordinator of BITM, could you please tell us a bit about your work?
Shabbir: When we are doing a project there are project-related guidelines and rules that we need to follow. This offers limited room to show creativity. These projects usually come with business plans. To that end, our goal usually is to comply and execute the business plan as best as we can. There are a ton of different types of audits that we have to comply with. I had no idea about these audits until I started working on these projects. Donor agencies run a long list of audits such as an anti-corruption audit, monitoring audit, quality control audit, financial audit, annual audit, quarterly audits - all these audits take place within a year. We need to be aligned with all these audits.
We have 20 people in the team and 50 plus trainers who work with us. More or less 70 is our average team size.
When we have projects and programs, we divide these projects and programs and assign them to different departments who handle different aspects of the operation.
I do the basic design in collaboration with a few of my colleagues and the management team. I then distribute and assign each part to different departments.
Teamwork is tough. Everyone needs to be in sync and work in cohesion despite the fact that everyone is different. I ensure that we are collaborating effectively and operating well as a team.
We also work on collaborative training projects. Since we have some 30 partners, each of us has about 2-3 partners who we collaborate with. Each of us probably manages two-three partners along with our regular work.
Ruhul: How do you approach your work? What is your management style?
Shabbir: I like to delegate. I don't like to keep things to myself and control everything. The things that come to me, I try to delegate and involve my team.
I empower my team and allow them to decide what should be the best solution. They decide their deadline. They meet the deadline. When they fail to meet deadlines, they regret it. I apply corrective measures where necessary. My team is everything in how I work. I totally depend on my team and work with the team.
Ruhul: How do you ensure that your team delivers?
Shabbir: I try to remain informed about what’s happening in the organization. I know the progress. I'm always informed who is doing what and how much progress we are making. I do the final monitoring. I get the daily progress report from the team. I sit with the team almost every day.
For example, the deadline for a project is the 10th of the month. I don’t wait for the 10th to work on it. I follow-up frequently. When I see someone is making a mistake or falling behind, I don't simply sit and wait for the deadline to come. I try to guide when there is a need for doing so. When I feel that I need to step in and suggest, I sit with them and offer suggestions.
The entire team reports to me. There is no layer in the middle. This makes it easy for me to understand the pulse of things. Although it is sometimes time-consuming, I get more results this way. I try not to keep the bottlenecks. It is easier for me.
Ruhul: How does BITM function?
Shabbir: BITM is part of BASIS. Since BASIS is an Association, we operate as a non-profit organization.
We earn some revenue from our collaborative projects, our own paid training and that's how we finance our operation.
When we are working on projects, there are some infrastructure costs and other costs included in the project expenses that help us run the projects.
Ruhul: What is your ambition as an organization in the long run?
Shabbir: BASIS has the ambition to turn BITM into a university. A fresh student will enter and come out with a degree after four years. The curriculum will be prepared according to industry needs. Industry people will train them up throughout the four years. After graduation, they will work in the industry. BASIS has a vision of something like this for BITM.
Ruhul: Coronavirus pandemic has negatively affected the education sector across verticals. What impact have you seen in your operation?
Shabbir: BITM has always focused on physical training. While we believe that the way we train, physical training is the best for that, we were also planning to start our online training as online education gains momentum in Bangladesh. We eventually had to do it earlier than we originally planned, when we had to shut down our physical operation due to the pandemic like many other educational institutions in the country. We launched our online training quite suddenly. And to our surprise, the feedback has been excellent.
Initially, my team was not familiar with the operations of online training. As a result, we had to go through several challenges. At first, we had to be self-motivated to work from home and organize online training programs for the first time, something we never did before. We were working from home and then we had to coordinate with trainers who were also working from home. Coordinating a training program is something like coordinating an event where you need a lot of logistical support. There are a ton of moving pieces. My team had to manage everything remotely, from trainers to students and everything in between, for the first time. Initially, it was a completely different experience for everyone. The most difficult part was the communication part. Convincing the audience for doing online training was a tough sell. The worst part was dealing with the unutilized labs of BITM. Every month we pay the rents and other bills while we are not using any of the facilities.
We had to reduce the training price to attract the audience although our regular training cost is quite high compared to what we are offering online. Similarly, maintaining training quality remains a challenge. In physical training, ensuring the training quality is much easier than in online training. However, we have seen a good response.
Ruhul: How are you dealing with the impact of coronavirus pandemic on your operation and business?
Shabbir: We are doing a number of things. In order to manage the motivational level of the employees, we are ensuring on-time salary and other festive bonuses. We believe we can only overcome this challenge if our people are motivated and get to work excited. We are doing everything to ensure that the team is motivated to work hard.
In order to ensure the training quality, we communicate with the trainees frequently and collect their feedback. We are providing the class video after every class. We have our IT support officials in every class, who help trainees with any technical challenges they may face. For each batch, we maintain a Facebook closed group and ask the trainees to discuss the training topics in the group.
To minimize the fixed monthly cost, we had to shut down some of the labs. Balancing our expenses and revenue has been a tough challenge.
We are very active on our Facebook page. Every day hundreds of interested trainees knock us for career guidance and training related issues. We try to help them regardless of whether they buy our training programs or not.
Since we had to reduce the training price significantly, we are focusing on increasing the number of trainees to meet the gap between the revenue and the expenses.
Ruhul: How does your online operation work? What kind of response are you seeing?
Shabbir: We have been able to streamline our online operation and we are now doing okay with our office operation. All our people use Zoom, WhatsApp, Asana for regular office communication and collaboration. Providing training online, however, often comes with an extra set of difficulties. Major problems are the internet speed and electricity. Due to internet bandwidth and electricity failure, many of our trainees often face problems in attending the classes and many miss classes.
Despite the challenges, BITM online training has been receiving an excellent response from the audience. The training feedback has been really good. In the last three months, we have provided training to more than 800 trainees and all the training programs were paid.
Ruhul: How have you managed to achieve growth in your online operation?
Shabbir: As I have mentioned earlier, training is a price-sensitive market. Many of our target audience is not comfortable with online learning. We had to fix the training price and training hours very carefully. We have also worked on building awareness on the importance of developing skills for the post-pandemic world. These two strategies have helped us to attract a good number of students. We have reduced the price of training and to compensate for that we have added a greater number of students per training to improve the revenue. We have also found out that as we move online, the entire country is now our market.
Ruhul: What’s your long-term ambition for your online operation?
Shabbir: BITM has a plan to develop its own online learning platform in the near future.
Ruhul: You have been working in the IT industry for a long time. What is your take on IT education and business in Bangladesh?
Shabbir: The main raw material of any tech business is HR/people. Infrastructure and other resources will rarely make a difference if you don't have the right people. This is what we have been doing at BITM - training people up and preparing them for the industry so that entrepreneurs can find the right resources.
The main challenge for the IT industry is good human resources. In IT the employee turnover is high compared to other industries. The ambition of BITM is to create enough capable human resources so that the IT industry does not starve off of good people. When we train people, these organizations get a little more polished people.
Ruhul: We all are more or less aware of the complaint that we lack skilled manpower in Bangladesh. Since you work and interact with young people, why do you think this is the case?
Shabbir: This is a complex and multidimensional problem. The problem does not lie with students or young people alone. Other stakeholders are no less responsible.
There is a mindset problem among many students and young people where they think that at the end of a four years degree they are ready to work. They expect that since they have graduated, people will call them up and give them jobs. They seldom take personal development seriously.
On the other hand, when a company or an entrepreneur hires someone, they hire them to do some job. If a new hire fails to do a job, it means they would not keep them. When a new hire comes with some preparation, it makes it easy for the company to shape the person. Often the companies get raw talents. When a person comes raw, usually companies invest in training them up. The person learns to operate after a year or so and then changes jobs making it unattractive for the companies to prepare new hires. As a result, many companies don’t show much interest in investing in people. If students invest some time when at university to develop their skills, it is better for them as well as for the ecosystem.
A significant percentage of students that we come into contact with have a sense of apathy where they are quite reluctant to learn and they think it is useless to invest time and effort to learn.
Now if you are not skilled then your opportunities are likely to be limited. I think many of our students have mindset problems. I have come across people who did not join a job just because the office was a bit far from their home. In fact, the guy did not inform the company that he would not be joining that too after collecting the appointment letter. And when the company called, he said that he would not join because the office is a long distance from his home. This is the state of many of our young people.
Companies have responsibilities to grow their people as well but you have to be skilled first to receive the opportunity. People rarely pay attention to their responsibilities.
Ruhul: We have a lot of skill development and training programs in Bangladesh. We have initiatives from the government. We now have a growing number of private organizations doing training. What is your take on training as an industry?
Shabbir: Skill development is a big thing in many countries. It is more relevant in today's world when we are going through a new industrial revolution. In Bangladesh, a lot of private organizations are offering training and skill development programs. These organizations depend on selling paid training.
At the same time, the government has a number of excellent skill development programs where young people can take training for free. There are good sides to these initiatives. One of the good sides is that people who can't afford to take paid training can take these opportunities, learn new skills, and find employment opportunities. Many people do very well after taking this training.
Then there are negative aspects to these initiatives as well. When you are getting something for free, many people take it for granted and don't take these opportunities seriously and don't invest time and effort to learn and grow. As a result, many students don't attend classes regularly and drop out of these programs. Many people attend for certificates. But if you don't learn anything, the certificate does not matter. Many students see these as academic exercises instead of learning and development opportunities.
In terms of training as an industry, these free training programs are good for many companies who are involved in executing these training programs. At the same time, these are not good for companies that offer paid training because people learn to perceive that training can be availed for free thus why should I pay for skill development. This makes it hard for many training companies to survive let alone thrive. Probably the government will take some initiatives to make this space more healthy.
Ruhul: I personally believe that companies should invest in their people. If you are not investing in your people, then you should not complain about not finding skilled professionals. It is that simple. Since you are an insider, to what extent do companies in the technology industry invest in their people?
Shabbir: There is no alternative to training and skilling your people up in tech because technology is a fast-changing world. I see a lot of companies do invest in people which I think is a good practice. Many companies send their people to us for training and development.
I believe that this should increase. Companies should invest more and spend more on developing their people. Many companies don't invest in their people because they fear what if people leave after receiving training. This is an argument that many companies, who are conservative in investing in people, offer. But then there is the counter-question: what if you don't train your people and they stay.
I think investing in people is net positive because if you invest in your people and everyone in the industry does the same, then when people go from one company to another, everyone is getting skilled people. More importantly, unless you train your people, you can't grow as an organization.
Ruhul: You have been working in learning and development for many years now, what is your process for learning new skills? How do you learn?
Shabbir: I try to take online courses on Linda and other platforms. I do one to two online courses every month. I have been doing this for the last four-five years.
I read online journals and magazines and major business and tech publications online. It is not that I read these magazines for learning purposes, I read them because I enjoy reading them.
I prefer learning by doing. When I joined BITM, I used to work on events. Then I became deputy manager, then manager, then senior manager, then coordinator, deputy chief coordinator, and now finally chief coordinator. In each of these steps, I learned new things.
In the early days, I used to work all alone. I have worked in every area of BITM operations. BITM has 4 labs here and I have worked in setting up each of these labs. Since I joined here in the very early days, I did everything and I learned in the process. If you join an organization that is sort of an established organization, you don't learn much in terms of setting things up. Because everything is organized and ready. But in an early stage organization, you do almost everything. As a result, your learning curve is quite steep. I did that here.
Since I started early, I made a ton of mistakes. Now when I stray I can understand and catch myself and make sure that I don't repeat the mistakes. My way of learning is more of this type where I work, make mistakes, and then learn from the mistakes.
This is what I ask my team to do as well. You learn by doing, by making mistakes. But that does not mean you can turn making mistakes into a habit.
Ruhul: What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your journey?
Shabbir: When I decided to join the BASIS, I had an opportunity to join another company with better pay. I did not take that opportunity because somehow I liked this place. I made the decision for various reasons.
Now it has been nine years and I would not say that I did not compare myself with my batchmates sometimes in the past few years and feel a little left behind. I did. But now that I look back, I think I made the right decisions.
One of the perks of working at BASIS is that I continue to have the opportunity to work with a long list of successful entrepreneurs and technology leaders in Bangladesh. It has been an extreme pleasure for me that I had the opportunity and continue to have the opportunity to work with some of the best entrepreneurs in the country. This you can’t buy with money.
I have learned management from some of the best entrepreneurs in the country. The lessons I have learned in the past nine years, these are invaluable lessons. I don't think I would have received some of these opportunities in many years had I not worked at BITM.
In the early days of my job, I used to be easily offended. I used to get angry easily. However, I have become more circumspect over these years. These days I help others manage anger. I try to understand the situation and think from the perspective of the other person. This has helped a lot in my personal life. This ability to deal with anger more gracefully has helped me to be a better person.
Ruhul: What is the best advice you received?
Shabbir: I have an interesting story. At the time I was the coordinator of BITM. Our then Chief Coordinator suddenly left, and BASIS was looking to hire a new Chief Coordinator. My boss at the time asked me why I was not applying for the position. I told him that I thought I was too young for the position. He told me something profound that changed my way of looking at things. He told me that “you are already managing the job and you are more than qualified to apply for the job.” He advised me to apply. I applied and eventually I was made the chief coordinator. Everyone in BASIS at the time appreciated that. That's when I learned the importance of precocity: that you have to always punch above your weight. Always reach for higher goals.
Ruhul: You are a published author. You write music. And then you manage one of the largest technology training institutions in the country. These are two different things - one is creative and another is pure managerial. How do you manage these two different selves?
Shabbir: People try to balance work and life. I don't subscribe to that idea. Every moment is your life. I'm living my life now. I don't wait for going out of the office to begin living. I instead try to enjoy every moment - be it at work or outside. Life is too short to waste it.
When I was finishing my studies, I lost my grandmother in about 2009. I went to Barisal to attend her funeral. I was very close to her. We had an excellent relationship. I could not comprehend the entire event until we finally buried her. It was a surreal moment for me. When we went to bury her, I finally came to realize that people do really die. Before 2009, I did not lose anyone that close. Before 2009, deep down in my mind, I did not fully internalize the idea that people die. After losing my grandmother, I came to learn that people do die.
That event changed my life. I came to realize that I will die one day and my days are finite. That's when I started to live more intentionally. That's when I leaned towards music. First listening to music then gradually trying my hands in writing jingles for dramas. I then did some fiction and non-fiction writings that were published in some publications. This book is the compilation of all that works. Writing gives me energy. I enjoy myself and life when I'm writing. I come alive.
Ruhul: What is your creative process? Do you have a routine that you maintain?
Shabbir: I don't have a process per se. My music is mostly based on stories. For dramas, there is a story, I then come up with music based on the story. I write almost all the time. It is not that I take time off to write, I don't. Whenever I come across an idea, I take notes and then compile then eventually.
However, I keep some time for reading every day - about 20 minutes.
Ruhul: How does a typical day of you look like?
Shabbir: I spend some time alone every day. I mostly write when I am in the office. When everyone leaves the office, I spend some time alone: I don’t attend calls or talk over the phone, use the internet, or do anything else during this time. I sometimes listen to music or write a few lines when I'm alone. Most of all, I enjoy this alone time. It helps me to put myself together. This is my favorite time. I try to have this alone time every day.
Ruhul: That was the last question. Thank you for being generous with your time and insight.
Shabbir: Thank you.