By Laura Collacott
Link Development's operations are helping governments and businesses stay connected in technological age.
To your average Westerner, the name Hanan Abdel Meguid is ambiguous and gives little clue as to whether the bearer is a man or woman. Meguid is aware of this and delights in surprising new business clients with at meetings with her gender and status. And not only is she one of the rare female CEOs, she is has also achieved all of this acclaim in her youth, another fact that she is unabashed about: "I once started a presentation with ‘I am 37 years old' and everybody asked ‘why are you telling them your age?'. I said it's because I'm very proud of every year." Correspondingly, a quick look at her professional history reveals a string of successes.
Meguid has been with LINKdotNET, the parent company of Link Development for 11 years and so has seen the company grow and mature. Link Eqypt was formed in 1995 as a provider of turnkey internet solutions and services and merged with ISP provider InTouch Communications in June 2000 to become LINKdotNET. Identifying a niche in the Gulf software market, Link Development came along in 1996 with the remit of helping governments, multinationals and local companies to employ the latest technologies. Focusing primarily on portals, intranets, e-commerce, helpdesk solutions and unified communications, Link Development has been so successful that it has attracted the attention of global powerhouse, Microsoft. Bill Gates himself was present at the 2003 inauguration of one of Link Development's flagship projects, the Egyptian e-government portal.
It’s not only about delivering a solution...it’s about the technology really being used.
It is here in the area of e-government solutions that Link Development has really created a name for itself. This began with the development of the Egyptian portal, in close collusion with the government. The forward-thinking nature of this project is noted by Meguid who says, "The Egyptian government were pioneers in government initiatives. There were some very bright, receptive people that were actively trying to introduce new ideas to how the future should look like, what is the change and what are the things that will really impact on people's lives."
The bilingual e-service now offers in excess of 700 online facilities which provide ‘joined up government' to citizens, business, foreigners and investors. Recent news releases, information associated with government services, request submissions and transactions can all be found or carried out here. In practice, this means that car tickets and electricity bills can be paid whilst browsing for legislative updates or relevant rules and regulations. Where formerly citizens would have to battle their way through Egypt's superfluous traffic to reach a government office, this service is a ‘one-stop-shop', accessible to all, from any location and around the clock. "If you come to Egypt you'll understand the traffic and how hard it is for people to move around; so being able to serve the citizens via the internet is a major advantage!" jokes Meguid.
In a palpable effort to maintain their leading position in the field, Link Development has also developed systems to analyse the uptake, use and criticisms of their portals. Citizen Relationship Management has arisen as a consequence of their commitment to each project undertaken. "The success and continuous operation and improvement of e-services is the success itself, not the launch" emphasises Meguid. Constant evaluation and appraisal of the system allows them to keep the software current and relevant to the citizens making use of it. It is this undertaking that has earned the company recognition from Microsoft (in the form of an invitation to join their Presidents' Club), an accolade that has boosted the reputation and drive of Link Development.
By this token, Meguid believes that Link Development establish their status as a ‘technology partner' with their various collaborations: "We have demonstrated all across the years that we are a very solid company, stable, growing, that we can really be a very strong technology partner for different governments and enterprise. And technology partner is a very important word, like I said, it's not only about implementation, it's about working together in order to deliver successful solutions for the citizens, for the businesses." The emphasis is on the long-term. To this end, funds are invested in training the workforce associated with the respective projects (alongside continued appraisal via the CRM concept) to create truly sustainable ventures. She stresses that, "governments need to own the operation and maintenance of their e-services. It's not only about delivering a solution, it's not just about the technology part, it's about this technology really being used, adopted, operated and maintained by the people themselves."
This long-term attitude is not limited to the immediate projects that they work on. "We're a very active company and active in the IT community in general," she tells me. "We believe in the long-term and the long-term for Link Development and for LINKdotNET and for the whole of the IT industry, not only in Egypt but all across the Middle East. We work on shaping the curriculum to accommodate the needs of the future for new graduates." She actively consults with university academics to achieve this.
Training both technology and people to adapt to the needs of the future is a very apparent theme in Meguid's business operations. She very much gives the impression that she really has a vision of the bigger picture and a steady, pragmatic approach to expansion and progression.
With regards to growth, Link Development applied (and tailored) the blueprint so deftly developed with the Egyptian government to a number of other countries and enterprises keen to emulate the accomplishments of the portal. Gradually, Link Development has spread to other states in the Gulf, with an office in Saudi and another opening in Qatar shortly. The UAE in particular has been a key location for expansion. It is a symbiotic relationship that the company and country enjoy though, as Meguid explains: "The UAE is a hub for us because all the multinationals and all the international companies, it's a very big business hub and it consumes very high quality products and services. So for us, this was always a challenge that made us sharpen our skills and knowledge in order to sustain the Gulf." The incremental and well prepared approach has allowed them to benefit from steady and continued growth. And now they've turned their attention to Europe as they venture into the business process outsourcing (BPO) market there.
Our company is a demonstration of a new style of company in the Middle East.
Using their portal software experience, the intention is to firmly establish Egypt as a BPO destination for Europe and the Middle East, a realm that has traditionally been associated with India and China. Meguid confesses that they are hoping to close this gap; "I truly believe that Egypt can be the India of the Middle East. We're very close in terms of language and understanding of culture." She cites the abundance of resources in terms of human capital and infrastructure along with the cost advantages offered as reasons for firms to choose Egypt as an IT outsourcing destination. The cultural similarities with the Southern Mediterranean countries and the similarity in time zone combined with the innate language skills that the Egyptian population exhibit have meant that Italy and Greece have been the primary targets for this campaign. Following the piecemeal policy that Link Development has followed to date, tentative explorations are being pursued before any wider reaching projects are launched.
All these developments are conducted through Meguid's formidable team. She praises the talent of her co-workers and has every faith in their combined talents: "Our company is a demonstration of a new style of company in the Middle East, which consists of a lot of great talents driving the company; a lot of young managers with a great deal of energy trying to do something different." And the energy, youth and innovation of the team breeds a positive atmosphere for company advancement; it is the self-confessed force that drives the business forward.
To maintain the strength of their diverse talent pool, Link Development work simultaneously on individual development with internal programmes in place to encourage the uptake and adoption of relevant qualifications. This nurturing process is one that Meguid has enjoyed herself from her colleague and mentor Khaled Bichara, who she credits with recognising her strengths and developing her weaknesses. A resolute effort to constantly consolidate the team is an enduring policy in Link Development and serves to highlight Meguid's guiding philosophy: "Anyone who believes in the dream and the team can make it." She concedes that she occasionally has to be reined in by more cautious associates on the dreaming component of this philosophy. She justifies this with the familiar adage, "Shoot for the moon and you will always fall back on the stars." It has certainly yielded impressive returns so far.
Perpetual innovation, an array of business projects, diversification into BPO and expansion into different countries must make this an exceptionally challenging job. It would be reasonable to become fatigued with it after so long; does she still enjoy it after 11 years? She smiles; "When you find the right job, you'll never work again!"