"Why don't you leave your job and start your own venture?"
Mir Sakib was taken aback by the suggestion. The year before he had started working in the software department of Incepta pharmaceuticals - during the final year of his undergraduate studies in computer science and engineering from North South University - and was on course for a successful career in IT in the corporate world.
But the investors at the Asia Foundation Hackathon on election data - where he and some of his friends were participating - were so impressed by his project that they felt he would be better off starting his own thing.
It was easier said than done. Sakib's family were middle class and conventional, and he had already lost his father. And then there was the issue of finding the capital to start a company.
"My family, like most others, preferred that I stick to a steady job. And that's understandable," says Sakib, during a recent interview with the Business Standard after his name made it to the list of Forbes' 30 under 30 Asia.
Sakib decided to keep his decision to start his own venture a secret from his family for the time being. He teamed up with Hasib Mahmud, a childhood friend, and launched Cramstack in 2016.
"We began with a monthly budget of only Tk 20,000," Sakib recalls.
Although Cramstack explored a number of products, Sakib had always set his mind on data analytics because of his love for math.
Today, Cramstack is at the forefront of providing data analytics and business solutions to different companies in Bangladesh. Just four years down the line, their clients include the Ministry of Power in Bangladesh, a number of RMG exporters including SQ Group, a number of banks as well as international clients such as Boston Consulting Group.
One of the premium products is a natural language enterprise database which they developed while participating in the Grameenphone accelerator in 2019. Cramstack essentially organises all the data available with a company in a manner that allows its employees to search through the database in plain English - just like Google.
"For example, if they type 'what are my sales for a specific year/month,' it will appear there immediately, giving them a Google-like experience", Sakib explains.
Data analytics are vital for companies to make sound business decisions although many companies in Bangladesh still don't understand the value of the service Cramstack provides. In fact many companies are loath to organise their data in a structured way.
"When we first began working with the Ministry of Power, Energy, and Mineral Resources (MPEMR) in 2017, we discovered that the vast majority of their data was prepared manually in an excel sheet. Some were even in the form of scanned images," recalls Sakib. Cramstack then embarked on the arduous task of digitising all that data.
"We eventually provided them with an operational dashboard in which we stored data from all power stations and updated it on a daily basis. We collect data from the central data warehouse, conduct trend analysis, and then deliver the report to them."
"We use AI to automate extraction of information from unstructured data to provide insights."
Even during this crisis period, when the coronavirus is wreaking havoc, Cramstack has made its presence felt by leading from the front in providing the government with information from healthcare professionals and immigration authorities in the shortest possible time to track and limit its spread.
"We worked with A2I during the first wave where we provided multiple solutions pro bono. We helped structuring field level data collected by the government," says Sakib.
"We structured and filtered out potential covid patients from all digital platforms of Bangladesh. We provided mobility analytics on population migration and movement within Bangladesh to track cluster movement and formation to govt admins of all districts through a2i," he added.
When Cramstack first started, data analytics was an alien concept in Bangladesh.
Although things are beginning to change, Sakib says there are some obstacles preventing this sector from reaching its full potential in our country. Among many things is a behavioural barrier- the widespread unwillingness to embrace the future letting go of the past.
"We tried to incorporate many new features, such as the critical path, which is essentially the monitoring and assessment of the production plan with all processes and their time frames to ensure the estimated time of delivery, while working with many garment factories."
"Some clients were particularly fond of them. However, some of them did not want it because they were content with the traditional method of production (e.g. manual input in excel sheet). So, there still exists a behavioural barrier in the sense that many people are hesitant to make a move to the next stage," he notes.
The second issue stems from most people's tendency to copy-paste from the internet— it is almost as if hardly anyone is willing to go beyond Google these days.
"When we give adverts seeking data scientists, we do get a lot of resumes. What usually happens is that we want to take four/five people, but we only take one. This is largely because most of the people we interview are happy with what they get from the internet. It may be that they have found something in a tutorial, they take it as the solution without realising the fact that when you come to work in the real world, your internet examples don't work. You have to come up with your own solutions and thinking," says Sakib.
"In fact, we got a lot of clients only because those who worked for them prior to us provided google solutions, and this is the main reason why a lot of the data science teams fail to find success in Bangladesh," he added.
The only goal of Cramstack from here is to go from one high to the next, establishing Bangladesh as a key player in their field in the global market.
"What we want to do is go beyond borders. Even though we have already been working with international clients for years now, we want to do it on a larger scale," concludes Sakib.