A eulogy for a polymath and a mentor
The passing of National Professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury marks the sudden end of the extraordinary journey of a man who was venerated by thousands of his direct students at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), Brac University and University of Asia Pacific as well as thousands more, who came in touch with him through his professional and pro-bono engagements in diverse fields, to whom he was a quintessential teacher, mentor and philosopher-guide.
Though my stint as a student at Buet starting in late 1979 didn't last long as I went to USA to continue my undergraduate degree in engineering, professor Choudhury's legendary capacity for mental math and photographic memory of people's genealogy and calendar of events already reached my ears as they did to anyone who have ever attended Buet as a student.
After I came back upon finishing my undergrad studies and eventually became an IT entrepreneur here I had the privilege of knowing and working with professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury closely as we shared a common passion to work on policy support for IT development in the country.
Professor Choudhury or "JRC Sir", as he was commonly referred to, will forever be remembered as an institution builder. At Buet the "Computer Center" that later became "Institute of ICT" flourished under his leadership—which he steered during the formative years in the eighties. He took the mantle of a startup university at the turn of the century and built up Brac University as its founder vice chancellor into the premier institution of learning that it is today. However, he left that prestigious job to focus on his technical leadership role for the design and supervision of the largest bridge of the country—Padma Bridge—where his extraordinary structural engineering acumen saved the bridge from seemingly insurmountable and unique subsoil conditions through hitherto unknown structural solutions. He later joined the University of Asia Pacific as its head and greatly elevated that institution's standing among private universities till the day he died.
In the IT industry he was instrumental in guiding the policy regimen for the development of the software industry and shared with the IT entrepreneurs and visionary political leaders of the country a dream of seeing the nation leapfrogging the IT divide and reaping rich dividends from IT services export. The "JRC Report" that he authored in 1996 at the instance of the then commerce minister became the blueprint for jumpstarting the software industry when there were hardly a few firms engaged in software development and professional IT services. Without that initial fillip it is difficult to imagine what would have come of the software industry that today garners nearly two billion dollars in export and local revenue. I was fortunate to have been one of those few plucky software entrepreneurs that banded together to form Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) in late 1997. To us "JRC Sir" had always been the champion whenever we needed policy and administrative support at the highest levels and he will forever be the champion in our hearts. It is befitting that BASIS recognised his contributions to the ICT industry by bestowing upon him the "BASIS ICT Champion Award" in 2009.
In 2008 the ICT ministry entrusted professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury to review and update the National ICT Policy that was adopted in 2002. The committee brought together all ICT stakeholders from academia, government, industry and NGOs under his stewardship. I had the privilege of working as the convener of the working group of that committee which included many luminaries such as the current telecom minister, the policy adviser of A2i, and heads of other IT associations and government/defence departments; this working group put together the new structure of the ICT Policy that has been adopted by the govternment in 2009 and has continued to this day. Professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury's foresightedness in guiding the formulation of the revised ICT Policy shall remain a watershed moment in the history of ICT development of the country.
In the short span of three months as an adviser (cabinet minister) of the caretaker government in 1996, professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury created another milestone when he steered the liberalisation of the VSAT licensing that opened up the floodgates of the real-time email service and internet utilities in general.
Professor Choudhury was passionate about anything that would help the country in general and the youth in particular. Despite extreme demands on his time from his professional engagements as a University VC and technical adviser on very large infrastructure projects, he always found time for pro-bono activities whether it was to guide IT industry associations, math, programming and blockchain competitions, environment and architectural activists, earthquake preparedness and awareness initiatives or education assistance to the underprivileged. It was his intervention that has brought the International Collegiate Programming Competition (ICPC) to Bangladesh for the first time which will be held in this country in 2021. He also helped bring together the stalwarts of the academia, government and the industry in organising the first ever Blockchain Olympiad in the country. The winners of the Blockchain Olympiad Bangladesh 2020 will be declared on May 3 and as the coordinator of the Olympiad I was scheduled to talk to professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury on the morning of April 28—a talk that will never take place. On March 30 he was thrilled to address nearly 500 students online who had registered for the maiden blockchain competition during a blockchain webinar arranged by the Olympiad organisers.
His memory is everywhere he ventured and his golden touch will be long felt by all institutions and initiatives he helped guide or shape during his illustrious life. In his death the country has lost an academic icon and I have lost a mentor.
Habibullah N Karim is CEO of Technohaven Company Ltd and former President of BASIS.