Business

On The Yellow Brick Road: Muder Kothari

Muder Kothari grew up in Karachi in a time when the commercial capital of the country was peaceful, average, normal, dysfunctional metropolitan area and in the mid ‘60s the Ayesha Bawany School was considered to be the on outskirts of the city. Living in a large family of 11 children in the heart of the city, Muder studied at DJ Science College. Life wasn’t exactly easy and there was no silver platter anywhere in sight. Muder’s saving grace was that he was sharp, incredibly street smart and perseverance that could put a beaver to shame.

Even then, how does a kid from a poor family in Karachi’s end up creating companies and extend opportunities for hundreds of Pakistani engineers to find gainful employment that would create their future?

Young Muder came to the US in March of 1973. From the hustle and bustle of Karachi, the 18-year old landed in Price, Utah, which had a meager population 4,000. While in Karachi, he frequented the PACC (Pak-American Cultural Center) to research the cheapest, fully accredited college with the lowest tuition and Utah became his destination. He went to Northern California in the summer of 1973 and in 1974, he visitedthe San Jose area his spring break from college. There were a lot of jobs available and he felt he could support himselfhe decidedto stay on.

And support himself he did. There was little else to do except work and study and the work wasn’t always glorious. It was whatever paid the bills. Pumping gas, selling shoes, waiter, bus boy, building attendant, wafer fab operator, printed circuit board assembly (PCB); the list goes on. But some of this diverse work experience actually paid off.

By the time Muder graduated in 1979, companies wanted him because of his experience working with fabs and in PCB assembly. He worked his way through several jobs in high tech companies to get up on his feet. In 1983, he married a girl in Karachi and in 1986, he and his wife welcomed their first born. By this time, Muder felt that whatever he was doing wasn’t going to take him where he needed to go. So despite not having a plan to fallback on, he quit his job. “You see,” explains Muder, “even if I hit a homerun every time I got to the plate, it still wouldn’t be enough. I decided I was playing the wrong game in the wrong stadium and had to make a drastic change.” One year later, Muder Kothari launched his own company.

“If you do everything right and still don’t end up making something of yourself in 5-10 years, you need to change the plan.” His brother, Idris Kothari and dear friend, Saeed Kazmi, helped provide a safety net should he have failed. But with his experience and determination, Muder Kothari was unstoppable.

When It All Began
From 1979 until 1987, while Muder worked for other companies, he became increasingly restless. Even after giving 150% to his job, he would experiment other things. “Sometimes it was import-export, other times it was creating a printed circuit board, selling connectors and cables – just wherever the opportunity was,” he recalls. When he started his services company in 1987 called Pentagon Systems, he had a diverse range of skills he could tap into. He looked at the Personal Computer in a different way and found it lacking a security element so he created a security board called Sargent. All it did was ask for a username and password before allowing access to the system. “It was a one-man show and very interesting times when people would call say things like they haven’t received their order. I would ask them to hold, change my voice and be someone from the shipping department.”

He then began focusing on providing engineering services. In Silicon Valley, chip companies need to showcase their products at a working circuit board level, so Muder began working on developing a demo platform for chip companies. Unlike products that can be pitched based on prototypes, a chip needs to be a part of a board or system so the customer can test, evaluate and run it. “I provided a complete turnkey service from a board schematic drawing to a functional board for an engineer to work on. The ‘Eval Board’ was the first of its kind.” He took this solution back to Ungermann-Bass, one of the networking companies he used to work at because he was convinced that he could help them operate in a more efficient manner. What Muder was suggesting was disruptive and obviously incongruent with the company’s empire-building mentality and they didn’t give the technology a chance.

He started provided Development Kit, where customers could provide a fully functional circuit board with schematics, programs, PAL or PROM equations and some tools. It would have a board and be in a box. Using this, customers could then develop a product based on a chip. “Suppose you wanted to take it to manufacturing, so you turn the Development Kit into a Manufacturing Kit, where it was lower cost, form fit and function compatible,” explains Muder. He did this work for 10 years where he started as a one-man show and merged with another company.In 1997, the facility had 80 people, a good run rate and a nice shop.

Around this time, Hitachi had bought Maxtore’s facilities in Asia and became an offshore manufacturing company, International Manufacturing Services (IMS). IMS needed requisite engineering or technical expertise in US. “They were looking for someone like us and together we transformed IMS and took it public 9 months later. That was my first exit.”

Muder had a great deal of faith in the engineering talent of Pakistanis and always wanted to give back somehow. Since IMS had plants in China, Thailand and Hong Kong, Muder used to take his Hong Kong colleague to Pakistani engineering universities on a regular basis. To the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute, Punjab University in Lahore and NED in Karachi,so candidates could be interviewed. Not only did he bring 50 or so engineers back to the US, he also placed about 50 test engineers to Thailand. “What I am trying to say is that there was enough talent pool in Pakistan for me to facilitate this.” He frequently traveled to Karachi to recruit people. “It was Professor Noman of NED University who helped find some real incredible people.”

Muder was actually becoming a conduit to recruit the best talent from Pakistan and let them have a chance at something big in Silicon Valley. “Not only did the company and engineers benefit from this influx of highly skilled human capital, but Pakistan also benefited because a lot of these people went back or, regularly go back, to share their knowledge and experience.”

Setting up Building the Yellow Brick Road
Muder’s idea was to establish a process supply chain take that took advantage of the time difference between the US and Pakistan to gain an edge in the market. “When it’s Friday weekend here, its Saturday morning in Pakistan. Suppose I sent a file on Friday evening. Now the team in Pakistan has all day Saturday, Sunday and Monday. It isn’t until Monday evening in Pakistan when the teams in the US would be coming into work again.” So when someone left work in California on Friday evening and returned Monday morning, they would have three days worth of work waiting for them. The result of this process management across 5 days was get Muder about 10 days worth of work output complete.

But it took some trial and error to perfect the process. He bought a 600-baud modem from AT&T for $1000 and would send ASCII files back and forth. If it were just one big file being transferred, they would lose time and money each time the connectivity broke, which happened often. So Muder developed an algorithm to cut the ASCII file in smaller chunks and send it file by file, then have it recompiled in Karachi. And this was happening on regular phone line before ISDN!

“I took the process of printing circuit board layout and cut it into seven segments. The first two and the last two parts were made here in the US. The middle three that were the most labor intensive and required more time than the others, were sent to Pakistan over the weekend. The customer didn’t know what the backend process or that the work was being divided and outsourced.” Nobody else could layout a board of such magnitude and complexity in a week except for his team, which gave him an incredible niche and reputation. “So that put us on the map. When companies would go to trade shows like Comdex back in the day, their engineers would need demo boards and working products developed faster than they could make them. So they would come to us because we had the process in place and could deliver.”

And as is the case with engineers, as they changed jobs frequently, they took Pentagon Systems with them, allowing the company to grow quite a bit in 10 years. Pentagon Systems was generating so much business that their Karachi office soon outgrew their modest office to a bigger and better-equipped facility.

“And what incredible talent there is in Pakistan and it’s mindboggling how they are able to work through such poor conditions in the country.” He recalls an interview he had conducted during General Zia’s time, when kidnapping, violence and the state of insecurity was high. “This candidate came for a job interview with dirt and oil stains on his shirt. Apparently while he was on his way for the interview when gunfire broke in the streets and crawled his way out to make it to the interview. What do you do with guys like this? How could I not hire him?”

If we consider the people who came to US in the 60s and 70s as Batch Zero for the high tech industry, and number the subsequent generations of people who have come, we find a progression of sorts. Muder sheds some more light by explaining, “Where we had odd jobs for survival and earn tuition, the subsequent batches can reap the rewards from what we have already established. While we didn’t have springboards to jump off from, the guys who followed did have some sort of a network in place. They can move farther ahead a lot faster.”

Batch Zero has the benefit of their date of birth. “Because we were born in the 50s and things were just starting to happen in the 70s and 80s, all of us had the advantage of a virgin landscape. You know the saying, ‘the rising tide lifts all boats’ which is what was happening. Today, the competition for jobs is at the whole new level. You have to take a look at what was life like back when we came to the US. When we started, there were no cell phones or mobility and we worked without PCs. If we could make things happen with the limited resources we had, imagine the possibilities now.”

He thinks back to 2001 when his brother, Idris, sent the now-Cavium Founder and CTO, Raghib Hussain to him for some guidance. At the time, Raghib and a colleague had an offer from a VC for about $8 million dollars to invest in an idea they had, where he would get 50% of the money immediately, and the remaining when their company was successful. “Since I was in this business, Idris thought I would be able to give some prudent advice to Raghib on what to do with this offer. And while I told Raghib to take the money that was coming his way, my advice to the new team was that if Raghib and his friends managed to do what they were setting out to, they would be worth a lot more, giving the VC a bigger stake in their valuation for a significantly smaller investment.”

A week later, Raghib called up and said he had declined the money. Cavium Networks, now worth more than $2 billion, was established and Muder became its seed investor and mentor. “I introduced Raghib to Basharat Ali, gave them their first check and stepped off as the two got ready to take over the world.” By now, Muder had set up and run companies along with the experience of mentoring and working with a lot of talent that was steadily flowing into the Valley. And he had liquidity so he began funding startups. “Some take off, some don’t. But that’s how this business is.”

But while Pakistan has the talent, absent is a unified platform where everyone, all the stakeholders, can come together or work together on. There are platforms that are forming but then, everyone talks about doing great things. “Come Monday morning,” says Muder, “nobody shows up and that hinders the prospect of growth.”

Leap of Faith
What is most striking about Muder’s narrative is that he only knew one thing: he needed to be anywhere other than where he was. He was skilled, innovative, creative, had a network of really smart people and a raw passion to change his situation. Looking back, he realizes just how crazy he was to quit his job when his son was only 6 months old. “But I had to do something to change the situation.” He was 32 years old when he made his first leap of faith.

Muder is an Industrials and Systems Engineer. His forte is to look at system inefficiencies, utilization and performance and overall improvement. And he spent a lot of time observing the processes of banks, hospitals, pipelines, factories, process plants and everything else to learn how to make things more efficiently. “When you are by yourself, you learn how to do things more efficiently and make the most of what you have. You have to be creative with the resources and time you have at your disposal. If you’re poor or lazy, you better be smart.” That and have the determination to keep landing on your feet until you eventually stop falling.

“My life seems to be such an amalgamation of so much I have been through, mapping the road upto today is a bit tough. But lessons like dealing with people, standing your ground, and believing in yourself when nobody else does, have made a difference in my life.”

Muder has many lessons to share but the most critical one he says is this: “The answer to ‘what business are you in?’ In fact most people do not realize that the goal of any business is to make money. Technology or whatever else are just means to achieve the goal. Working in the Valley teaches you appreciation for quality and every hour of labor that goes into it. And you quickly learn about the dignity of labor and the respect that comes with it.” Of course all those things like ‘being in the right place in the right time’, has a big role to play in how your life pans out. Timing certainly helped Muder grow his business. “People were coming up with circuit boards and chipsets but couldn’t produce them quick enough to match the demand. I positioned my company there and talked about just two things: TTM (Time To Market) and TTV (Time To Volume) and we were able to help with both. These were all very narrow and fast moving windows and if one company doesn’t hit it, someone else will.”

“Understanding and acknowledging that success has to do with all these lessons can be learned equally well from those who fail – just requires a change in mindset.” He recalls a piece of advice his professor said aloud on his first day of Physics lab at college. “He said, ‘If you are unfortunate enough to not make any mistakes come talk to me.’ In other words, if you are doing something, anything at all, you are bound to make mistakes. And that took away my fear of failure in some ways. When I was selling cables, representing printed circuit shops and making assembly boards, many of these things didn’t work very well and I failed. If you fall down, you just get up and go at it again.”

Muder explains that he was doing a few things simultaneously when a friend looked at his balance sheet and identified where he was making or losing money. “I used to laugh and tell him I was in the business of cutting invoices, because when you prepare and send an invoice, you get paid. He gave me some financial analysis to help me stop the losses and focus the company. To Muder, the adage, ‘do what you do, and don’t do what you don’t do’, is what you learn after meandering a while. His focus in life was making things more efficient, and that’s what he would ‘do’.

“Today, success depends on the individual and I think Pakistan has failed to accommodate our youngsters. We seem to be spending more money on armaments than universities, parks and libraries. But at the same time with the advent of technology, anyone can have his or her presence felt.”

Muder may have been part of the first generation of high technology engineers to move from Pakistan to the United States, but the technology has now moved onto the nth generation. It’s exponentially grown. “We were the has-beens of this time. These guys are the ones who are going to pull this cart into the future. The leading edge technologies in our heydays, are now obsolete so today’s generation will do a lot more. Sure that era developed the platforms, now is the time for innovation through software and the cloud to make the future an exciting one.”

Life makes a full circle and then moves to another level when you read a story like this. Muder came to the US and his struggles were desperate yet with hard work, innovation, a great deal of perseverance, he changed his life. The last time he worked for himself was 2000. The last time he held down a job was 1986. He fell many times but got up. And he is still standing strong.

 

This profile was originally published in the book, A Greener Valley, authored by Rabia Garib and Talea Zafar, published by InfoTech (Pvt) Ltd.

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