Sri Lanka’s recently unveiled “National Export Strategy 2018 -2022” places a special emphasis on building a globally competitive IT sector and a robust IT export business. The strategy aims to transform the country into a global IT/BPM destination and a preferred center of excellence in Asia.
The Sri Lanka Association of Software and Service Companies (SLASSCOM) foresees the industry achieving USD 5 billion in exports by 2022, creating 200,000 direct jobs and launching 1,000 start-ups. (SLASSCOM & PricewaterhouseCoopers (2016). Vision 2022: Sri Lanka IT-BPM Sector. Available from https://slasscom.lk/report/slasscom-strategydocument-2016). That is a nearly fivefold growth from the current export revenue of USD 1.2 billion, accounting for 12% of Sri Lankan service exports.
Speaking to economy.lk, senior IT professional Shanil Fernando stated that the recently launched branding campaign of “Island of Ingenuity” propagates a unified, coherent, and distinctive identity for the Sri Lankan IT sector. This campaign would be a significant contributor to achieve USD 5 billion export earnings by 2022.
Fernando holds the positions of Managing Director - Sri Lanka and Senior Vice President Engineering of Sysco LABS, which is a technology innovation company, with offices in Colombo, Silicon Valley, Austin and Houston. Sysco LABS is wholly owned by Sysco, the 50th largest Fortune 500 Company, and the global leader in the food service industry.
In the past, the Sri Lankan IT sector was promoted in the global marketplace through disparate messages by various stakeholders: individual companies, government agencies, and industry and professional bodies. The absence of a unified message resulted in a sub-optimal impact, Fernando further stated.
Sri Lanka failed to capitalize on the first wave of IT offshoring due to lack of scale and a very small pool of IT talent. Riding on low labor costs and the availability of a large pool of IT workers, Indian IT companies such as TATA, Wipro, and Infosys secured multi-billion dollar contracts to run back office operations and customer service centers for global companies. Fernando says that missing out on the first wave of the offshoring of IT services was a blessing for Sri Lanka.
A relatively late entrant into the global IT scene, the Sri Lankan IT sector focused on leveraging a small yet top quality IT workforce to build innovative, cutting edge, and high value IT products instead of chasing low-value, high volume business. Fernando says innovation doesn’t necessarily require large teams. Small is not just beautiful for Sri Lanka’s IT sector, but is also a strategic advantage, as a local IT sector creates small and agile teams which are ideal for innovation and rapidly responding to market needs.
Fernando stressed that the “Island of Ingenuity” campaign aptly reflects Sri Lanka’s unique capability to provide world class technology innovation, which has placed the Sri Lankan IT industry at a higher level in the global IT value chain. His own company, Sysco LABS, designs and develops cutting-edge advanced solutions to run the highly complex supply chain of the parent company, Sysco. Sysco LABS employs 450 IT professionals globally, the vast majority graduates from Sri Lankan universities.
Fernando believes that Indian IT giants, given their scale and legacy business models, are slow to realign themselves to capitalize on the emerging demand for advanced solutions based on Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotic process automation, cloud computing, big data analytics etc.
However, the edge the Sri Lankan IT industry presently enjoys may not last long, as big Indian IT companies re-allocate their resources towards building high-end solutions demanded by the global industry. Fernando thinks Sri Lanka has 2-3 years to move the industry up to the next notch in the value ladder.
To forge ahead, Fernando emphasized the need to create a single vision for the supply-side as well, in parallel to demand creation.
If the talent pool is not ramped up quickly, Sri Lanka may soon lose the competitive position it presently enjoys. The success of the University of Moratuwa in producing top IT talent should be replicated at all higher education institutions (both public and private) and professional institutions. Fernando feels that the sector should attract science graduates too, not just IT graduates.
Gender inclusion is yet another target the industry should strive to achieve.
Female presence in the IT workforce is disproportionately low. The sector is wrongly perceived as an exclusive space for male 'geeks'. The IT sector offers unique benefits such as telecommuting and flexible hours for working mothers. The IT sector provides pleasant working conditions unmatched by other industries. The industry could unlock the potential in women by making them aware of these benefits and correcting any misperceptions.
Fernando concluded by stressing that bridging the gender gap in the sector could quickly ramp up the full potential of Sri Lanka’s IT talent pool.