Nurturing home-grown talent | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 06, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:04 PM, September 06, 2017

Nurturing home-grown talent

K. M. Saqiful Alam, Lecturer in the Department of Management, School of Business and Economics at North South University, mentors many of the upcoming fresh grads, professionals and budding businesses in Bangladesh. A data science enthusiast, he talks to Next Step about his projects and the future of education in Bangladesh.

You're an educator, a business advisor, a corporate trainer, and a career counsellor—how do you juggle all of these?

Well, I have just one personal secret here, which is that I work. I'm happy when I'm working. If I don't work, I feel guilty, I feel insecure. But at the same time, one of things that I always do is try to schedule my work better. North South has a fixed schedule, IBA teaching has a fixed schedule. My office hours end my 6, which leaves a good deal of time from 6 to 8 or  9 that I spend with possible trainees,  businesses, or students I'm mentoring. I also multitask. One thing I waste very little time on is scrolling my news feed. That's something I don't do at all.

You mentioned scheduling. Do you actively schedule out your day? Or your week? 

I have to keep my routine flexible because sometimes a business advisory or consultancy or training opportunity comes up. So I do not schedule more than a week. I try to keep a schedule of a day and something that helps me a lot is the checklist approach. Every morning I have a list to finish. Smartphones may not make us smarter, but they do have some great support functions. For example, the app really helps with to-do lists.

But apart from that, as an efficiency expert, what advice would you give to a student or a professional?

First of all, the simplest piece of advice that I would give to a student or a professional is to make good use of recreation. Some people's recreation is social media and while it wastes a lot of time, I would not tell you to stay away from it. Instead, put it to use. I keep up with my classes, class representatives, interns, and students who work with me using Facebook.

Another thing is that we waste a lot of time regretting stuff. People regret, people feel surly about things, people get depressed. If you want something, if something's not happening the way you wanted it, then go get it done. Work for it. Most problems can be solved just by working.

What's something you learnt later on that you wish you'd known as a student?

As a student, I used to be the perfect example of a couch potato. In my four years at IBA, I went to Mentors, taught, then went home. But after graduation, I saw that I didn't have much to show for. I figured out in my third year that I wanted to be a faculty, but I wanted the easy way out: Be a North South faculty, earn rent off my dad's apartment building, live the happy life. So I headed to Manchester for my Masters. Initially, I wasn't doing too well at all. But in the second semester, my results were suddenly among the top three in the class, I was teaching all my classmates, and while working on my dissertation, two professors actually fought over me! So that's when I started working harder and getting more confident. And it turned out that there is so much to do.

When I joined North South, I met students who were determined to make an impact in society. So I started helping them organise concerts and small shows for social causes and so on. There's something that Mark Bezos said something that really affected me: Every day does not give us an opportunity to save a life, but everyday gives us an opportunity to affect one. Why wait a millennium to help people?

So back to your question that if I could change something back in my undergrad years that would be the call to action. It's never too early to start. The world is out there. Get out. There are so many places to be. There are so many interesting events.

Another thing, and this is advice specific to Bangladeshi people: Be a foodie, helps a lot. All the hangout places, all the go-to places in Dhaka are food place, and if you're a foodie, the chances of you running into people are huge. Go to coffee shops—some of the coffee shops, like the North End Cafe at Lakeshore, have a very interesting set of clientele. I met a BRAC project director, Rubaba Dowla, and a UN representative just from North End.

On that note, what's a good way to start a conversation?

When you go to an event, a simple way to break the ice is to listen to other people first. The people who matter are always talking. One other advice is to do your homework first. Read up on the speakers and you will find some areas where you can chip in. For example, you hear an educator talk about the new education paradigm. So you can then ask that person what courses he/she thinks are which majors should be more developed in Bangladesh. Ask a relevant question and they're already hooked.

Well then, as an educator, what majors do you think should be developed in Bangladesh?

The present world is moving in a very interesting direction. First of all, we're witnessing the emergence of data science. And while data science requires a quantitative background, it's not only quant-based. One of the key skills that has helped me in my career so far is the right balance between quant and strategy—nowadays it's not decoupled anymore, it's one person handling both. So I would say a few areas that we need to develop in education is quantitative interpretation skills. The key to a good analyst or a good business decision maker is to look into the results to infer what the results mean for his question.

This actually falls around management information systems (MIS). Previously, when we thought about MIS it was more about information management and information systems, but nowadays in MIS, we should develop the concepts of coding and algorithms. I would actually recommend we introduce programming in school. A programming language is not only a platform to work and develop software on, it teaches you logic. Even business students should learn one programming language. 

Another area we need to develop is model-based thinking. The present world is based on models of critical problem solving and decision making. There is a lot of data out there that we can’t make sense of. A model helps you organise the data to make your decision.

Finally, in finance, something we need to stress on is risk management. Finance professionals from the banking industry, from corporations, from regulatory bodies, from the CFA charter unanimously agree that it’s the next big thing in finance. In the past, our education system was built around advertising, promotion, setting up businesses, but now with most of the businesses set up, it's about contingency planning, management and sustainability. And one of the main issues in sustainability is managing future risk. 

To wrap it up, what are you working on right now? And what's next for you?

I'm currently teaching risk management, operations management, project management and applied statistics, but I'm interested in developing more data science courses. So my next step is to get my PhD in analytics and MIS at Purdue, after which I plan to come back and develop the analytics field in Bangladesh.

I've already mentioned this before, but in Dhaka there are a lot of individual enablers, and while we don't get a lot of infrastructural support, we have sort of developed our own infrastructure. There are many disconnected enablers out there who are all aiming for the same thing: the proper development of the younger generation. So if I'm planning to develop a platform for them to share resources, it could help these people grow faster.

Another thing that I'm planning to work on is an online mentorship platform with themed webinars, because road transport is one of the biggest problems that I've faced mentoring students.

Finally, there's a competition mentorship platform that I'm working on where ex-champions and ex-participants could share their resources and advice. With their help, the younger kids have a brighter future ahead of them already.


The interviewer is the In-Charge of the career publication of The Daily Star. She is also a senior at the Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka.

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