When it comes to Jordan’s thriving IT sector, no one company comes to mind before STS. Now celebrating its 25th birthday, the company grew from an office housing its four founders to a multi-million dollar operation spanning five countries in the region. Within the last quarter of a century, STS has transformed itself several times, now into a market leader in large-scale projects in the Arabian Gulf. Despite many ups and downs, the IT solutions company now employs well over 350 people and is the main subcontractor behind the e-Dirham Program, helping the federal government of the UAE design, build and manage an easy-to-use yet sophisticated Internet payment gateway for citizens to pay public fees.
Q: You recently celebrated your silver jubilee, a journey that began in 1989. How would you sum up that period for STS?
A: The journey started in 1989 when four friends decided to establish a company and stick together for a successful future. Starting as a third party maintenance (TPM) company and moving into selling hardware as customer demand evolved in the early 1990s, we later established partnerships with leading IT companies to become a hardware vendor. STS saw the need to expand and merge its expertise by integrating the products it offered to become the envisioned system integrator. By then, we offered distinctive solutions to various sectors of the industry. In 1999, management saw the need to expand into the online business. STS was the first to introduce Internet servers and implemented the Arab Bank’s e-Banking services in the year 2000. Later in 2004, STS introduced its in-house developed Payment Gateway, PayOne, which was the first of its kind in Jordan and the region at the time. During this period, we branched out to five regional countries, in addition to having distributors in other states covering the MENA region. Now STS has a rich experience, having completed thousands of projects, with 400 long-lasting partners, a client base of over 1,000 and more than 350 employees who hold over 2,000 technology certifications. The journey was seamless in retrospect, yet with transformations large in magnitude.
Q: Your early beginnings in the late 1980s were tough and got a lot more complicated with the economic and financial crisis that swept the country in 1989 and then the Iraq war. How were you able to hang in there and pull through?
A: What a rocky start for a start-up. Certainly with the crisis in place, we had difficult times as the devaluation of the currency meant that our cost suddenly tripled. The war also led to the requirement that we obtain special permits to import and closed the doors to enter the Gulf market. Moreover, as new entrants to the market, it was difficult to land projects, at first due to the market underestimating our abilities. Success is not discovered as a bed of roses. Hard work, determination, perseverance and resilience kept us moving. With one another at STS, we showed mutual respect, trust, cohesion and ambition.
Q: You started the business with four employees and a capital of $15,000. Today, you are running a multi-million dollar operation, with over 350 employees scattered across five countries in the region. What has been the secret behind this success?
A: From day one, we built ourselves according to what we like to call the principles of STS, meaning that any opportunity, any project STS lands, anywhere in our operating regions is based on efficiency, ability, transparency and competitive price. By developing a cohesive team of talented, like-minded and good-spirited experts, we were able to establish synergy among members and form an enduring culture resisting failure whenever it knocked on our door. With these principles and values, we gained the trust and confidence of customers and their bet on us as a partner is what makes STS what it is today.
Q: In a recent interview, you said that you were the first company in Jordan to use Internet servers. What does that mean in basic, layman's terms? How did that give you an edge over other competitors?
A: Internet servers are the hardware and the software that helps deliver web content that can be accessed through the Internet. The insight we had as management in 1997 gave us a great leap in the market when we successfully adopted, as soon as it emerged, a technology area that became a main pillar of the global ICT sector.
Q: STS has evolved over the years, from a company that serviced computers to a hardware vendor and then a solution provider. How would you explain this trajectory?
A: As we started as a third party maintenance (TPM) company in 1989 trying to fill a gap in this area, we focused on establishing customer trust and expanding our client base. The needs of our customers also started to change and evolve towards a company they trust to provide them with hardware as well as maintenance services. With that in mind, the emergence of new technology also triggered our action over the course of the following years and as result we became a hardware vendor with long-lasting partnerships with the biggest IT giants in the world. Along the road, our knowledge developed and grew wider. We started to see ourselves as a system integrator, as we at STS assess, architect, implement and provide the best turnkey integrated solutions by different vendors of technology, and later as a solution provider, where we created intellectual property (IP) software products and achieved many recognized solutions, such as the first payment gateway of its kind in Jordan and the region.
Q: One of your biggest markets is the GCC, where you have been very successful at developing e-government portals and e-payment solutions. Tell us a bit more about this line of business.
A: Jordan was the first to talk about the e-gov program, which was seen as a vehicle to revamp the way the government interacts with its citizens through enhancing government operations and improving citizen service levels. The Gulf, however, embarked on this journey before and moved faster than Jordan. Playing the early bird, we accommodated e-service and expertise in software solution and portals and entered the e-payment field by developing our in-house product PayOne. As a result, we successfully landed and implemented the Jordanian Government Payment Gateway, which was the first online platform in Jordan and the region; the Ministry of Information and Communication’s technology e-gov messaging, communications and portal infrastructure through the Secure Government Network (SGN) projects; the eDirham project in the UAE; the Kingdom of Bahrain e-gov portal and portal plus; the first e-gov services in Qatar; and a contribution to the e-gov projects in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Yesser Program), among other projects. Developing this line of business and pursuing the e-gov direction, I believe, would solve current infrastructure and economic problems, such as reducing traffic, fuel consumption and load on governmental entities.
Q: The largest and possibly most lucrative e-government project STS has built thus far was the UAE’s e-Dirham project, the Emirati government’s national payment system. Can you share with us more information about this venture?
A: In 2007, in response to a tender by the UAE Ministry of Finance, which is responsible for revenue collection for the federal government, STS and the National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) formed a consortium and won the tender. The e-Dirham project automates and controls payments and revenue collection, such that all constituent government transactions are done electronically using cards to track spending, avoid fraud and prevent the loss of cash. The Internet payment gateway is used by citizens to pay for government fees; the system also includes business centers that are spread around the country for citizens to fill out forms with barcodes to complete their paperwork. An accompanying card is provided, co-branded with Visa, and can even be used to purchase anywhere and withdraw cash from an ATM. STS also installed the point of sale networks that accept government payments and continues to provide technical operations for the whole system in partnership with NBAD. The solution is based on PayOne, STS’ own software, and involved very high customizations to cater for the requirements of the ministry. I hope that the eDirham project will be a start for other successful projects of its kind.
Q: In Jordan, STS is a major contributor to the Ministry of ICT’s e-Government program. What exactly is it that you do for the ministry?
A: STS is a major contributor to the Secure Government Network (SGN) connecting around 120 governmental entities, numbering around 60,000 employees in Jordan, to use the latest software applications powered by state-of-the-art hardware and network infrastructure. Messaging and collaboration, directory services, file sharing, VoIP and video conferencing were successfully implemented. STS also heavily contributed to the National Broadband Network (NBN). As for solutions that service the public, STS implemented the MoICT portal for the e-gov program, hosted at NITC, which acts as a single point of access to all automated governmental e-services. The setup at NITC provided by STS comprises of data center and network implementations. In coordination with the Ministry of Interior, STS also implemented the Department of Borders and Residency e-services project, which saw benefits like reducing the cycle of issuing visas and permits from two weeks to three days. Other government projects include the Social Security Corporation portal e-services and the Jordan Army Force portal and e-services, among others.
Q: In a country with high unemployment and where there are constant complaints about the mismatch between what the private sector needs and what the education system produces, how easy or difficult is it for an IT company like STS to find the right talent?
A: Recruiting the right level of skills into the workforce is especially hard for a regional, leading IT business. The level of technical skills of fresh graduates is low and requires nurturing through our IT certification career development. Universities that stand out from the rest are: Jordan University of Science and Technology, Princess Sumaya University for Technology and the Jordanian German University. The turnover rate of employees is relatively high as many decide to travel to the Gulf for work due to higher salaries. STS has released many talented employees to Gulf companies. Our position in heightening and enriching employees’ expertise led us to be called the STS Academy by the ICT community in Jordan.
Q: Hype is, indeed, rampant about cloud computing. What is STS doing to help its partners – be they in government or the private sector – “move” to the cloud?
A: STS provides all necessary technology and managed services for private businesses and governmental entities wishing to become cloud-ready. STS also provides managed services to ISPs and telecoms through enhancing their data centers and existing infrastructures to qualify them to sell these managed services to their clients as an added-value service. Moreover, as a Microsoft Gold partner, we provide access to cloud-hosted versions of Office 365 on a software as a service (SaaS) basis.
Q: Irrespective of past or current violence in Palestine, STS chose to do business in the Occupied Territories, opening an office there in 1996. How much of that decision was driven by nationalistic causes or patriotic belonging?
A: Jordan and Palestine are inseparable twins. We feel it is our duty to serve the Palestinian ICT sector. We, at STS, are keen to replicate the contributions and successes done in Jordan to the Palestinian ICT sector.
Q: Finally, how do you see the next 25 years playing out for STS?
A: We plan to grow our regional business, especially in the GCC. We also want to grow our innovation and our IP. We will stick to our model, which is based on the highest levels of honorable business practices, transparency, high ethics and reliability. Our pride in the company and its success inspires us to replicate the model, which succeeded in Jordan and all countries we operate in.