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Tue 7 Dec 2004 04:00 AM

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The Upstart

After 10 years at the regional helm of global software giant Microsoft, Mohammed Kateeb has taken a leap of faith and started his own firm.

Entrepreneur|~||~||~|What do you do after you’ve risen to the top of one of the largest companies in the world? Most people would cash in their chips, kick back and plan their retirement. Not Mohammed Kateeb. The ambitious former managing director of Microsoft’s Middle East operations has returned to his entrepreneurial roots by launching his own tech firm, InnoKAT.

The Palestinian-born Kateeb’s first-ever job out of college was his own small business in the United States. “After university, I started a software company with my professor and some others.

“We were writing medical software, allowing electronic billing in the mid-1980s, before e-commerce even existed,” he says. “We were making software that was ahead of its time.”

After realising that the software was too advanced for the stodgy medical industry, Kateeb and friends threw in the towel and got big-company jobs. In 1989, Kateeb landed at First Data Corp. (FDC), one of the largest electronic payment processing firms in the world, where he stayed until 1993, when he joined the biggest software company in the world: Microsoft.

His meteoric rise through the ranks began as an innocent university project. The engineering graduate was working in the United States for FDC when the company paid for him to obtain a master’s of business administration degree.

During his studies, he chose, as his final project, to look at the corporate culture of Microsoft, an icon of cutthroat American business.

“The Microsoft culture from the outside was very misunderstood. I spent three months doing research. I interviewed people who worked there, I spent time in Redmond [Microsoft’s headquarters in Washington state],” he says.

“The more I learned about the company, the more I realised I wanted to work there. I really fell in love with Microsoft during that project. So as soon as I finished my MBA, I applied for a job there.”

After leaving FDC — which he says did not mind paying for his degree only to see him leave: “They got plenty of mileage out of me” — Kateeb got a job in Microsoft’s research and development department. He started working on database software development at the company in May 1993.

After a couple years of working in the research and development lab, the company chose Kateeb to go to London on a six-month assignment. It was his first shot at getting out of the lab and into the personal, one-on-one consumer side of the business. “During that time I realised I really liked working with customers, so I decided to make a shift [away from research and development]. That’s when I started getting into field organisation, and I got promoted very fast,” he adds.

“Fast” is an understatement. Kateeb went from field organisation to running the entire operation in Saudi Arabia by 2000.

“I did it for one year, and we did a great job in Saudi Arabia. Then they gave me the title of general manager of the whole Gulf region. I stayed there for like four months, then they promoted me to managing director of the Middle East,” he says.

“So during one year and a half, I was promoted to three positions.”

Like many relationships, the honeymoon ended after a while and Kateeb began to feel stifled at the software giant. “Multinationals come with a lot of strict rules. You are basically an executioner in the field, based on strategies that get cooked in the US and Paris. So the flexibility of execution, which I love, was getting less and less at Microsoft due to the increased scrutiny with all the anti-competitive lawsuits.”

In addition to dealing with growing red tape and bureaucracy, there was added pressure from being in such a high position with such a controversial company.

In 2002, Kateeb had to deal with a major PR gaffe when the parent company’s Israel branch decided to run billboards in Tel Aviv with the Microsoft logo and the words: “From the depth of our heart — thanks to The Israeli Defence Forces,” with the Israeli flag in the background.

After much wrangling, Kateeb deflected the controversy by making sure that the billboards in Tel Aviv and one banner posting on the MSN Israel website were removed. Kateeb now describes the episode as a “nightmare.”

“First of all, I knew that Microsoft doesn’t get involved in any political issues. If I ever had any doubt about this, it would have introduced a huge issue for me and there would be a gap between my value system and the company’s. Knowing these facts gave me the courage to handle these issues with passion. Yes, the pressure was tremendous and the atmosphere was charged politically, and American companies were hated, but the good news is that I knew better.

“Individuals in the Microsoft Israeli subsidiary acted on their own and did things they should not have done. These things were against company policies.

“For two weeks I was on conference calls till deep in the night with the US, then all day with calls with my general managers and country managers.

“We had a strategy to respond in each country based on the mood on the streets. In general I think we did well in handling it, and our customer reaction to the way we handled the situation was very positive.”

Other pressures came from the intense world of Microsoft-haters, who can be quite venomous against the company.

In the United States, there are numerous websites dedicated to anti-Microsoft propaganda. There is even one site where users can download anti-Microsoft songs including “Windows 95 Sucks” and “Killing My Software With Windows.”By 2002, Kateeb was already thinking about leaving Microsoft.

“By October [2003], I decided I wanted to try something on my own. I had a lot of ideas, so I decided to leave Microsoft and go out on my own. I felt I needed some freedom … and that is what led to InnoKAT,” he says.

InnoKAT, which stands for Innovation, Knowledge and Advanced Technologies, is an ambitious endeavour. Kateeb plans to have 100 employees within the next 12 months.

“InnoKAT is a systems integrator. We will go and find the best IT products, tailor-made for a client. We will build and customise a solution for that company, which could be made of many different products. We will act as a consultancy, but also do the customisation and implementation,” he says.

“The other side of the company will work on creating our own product and intellectual property. For example, we want to create software for industries such as oil and gas, financial sector, public sector and telcos,” he adds.

Kateeb says finding funding for his new venture was easy.

“I was very, very lucky … while I was in Microsoft I developed a very good reputation and investors actually approached me after I left. They knew I was going do something and they wanted to be a part of it. So it was very easy; I didn’t have to do any fund raising.”

Apparently, employees came knocking on his door as well. “I have more than 200 resumes in my in-box, no exaggeration. “I haven’t put one single ad in the papers. It’s word of mouth.

“They hear Mohammed Kateeb is doing this; everybody wants to be a part of it … I’m getting a lot of resumes from the US, Canada and Europe from Middle Eastern people who are working there and want to come home,” he adds.

Kateeb says the Middle East is in dire need of its own multinational that can produce at international standards.

“In the last three or four years, via Microsoft, I have spoken with just about every major company in the Middle East and discovered there is a huge gap. In most of the world, usually 70% of the IT spending goes to local companies and 30% goes to multinationals. Here, it is the exact opposite — 70% goes to multinationals, and 30% to local companies. “We have very weak local, regional IT companies. Local companies have to take charge.

“Multinationals are here to make money, not to invest in the economy. A local company is much more attached to the local economy,” he says.

“I felt that the region is starving for something in-between a multinational and a local company, so we decided to start a regional company with regional ownership.”The other company directors are located in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait.

Headquartered in Dubai, InnoKAT will have regional offices in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan.

Kateeb says he is happy and at ease in the entrepreneurial role. He is tired of the “old ways of doing business” and wants to do things right from the start. “We will have a board of directors, we will be open and transparent so that people will trust us.

“We want people to see that the old way of doing business in the region is dying out.

“People are starving for transparency and openness. Companies that made their fortunes in the past by being corrupt or by doing it the wrong way [have ruined the region’s reputation].

“I think a lot of young leaders are looking for partners who are transparent and can be trusted, and this is what I am creating,” he adds.

Kateeb says he does miss the company of industry giants like Bill Gates and Steve Balmer, but at the end of the day, he felt there was something beyond that.

“I felt like I could on my own create something that is world class because I was a part of a world-class organisation for the past 10 years.

“Besides that, if I don’t step up, someone else will and the truth is, with my experience, I know I am the right person to step up.”||**||

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