‘ICT sector will need 400,000 people by next year’ | Sunday Observer

‘ICT sector will need 400,000 people by next year’

CEO, BoardPAC, Lakmini Wijesundera
CEO, BoardPAC, Lakmini Wijesundera

Sri Lanka needs to capitalise on the opportunities provided by the fourth industrial revolution. We should not miss this opportunity that will raise the bar for the country by harnessing emerging technologies, Chief Executive Officer, BoardPAC, Lakmini Wijesundera said.

“ICT (Information Communication Technology), is a profession where more women can benefit. Therefore, they should engage in the ICT sector in a big way for the country to progress rapidly. As there is a dearth in the ICT workforce, women can play a significant role in bridging this gap and contribute towards increased foreign exchange generation,” she said in an interview with Business Observer.

Excerpts:

Q. Give us an overview of your company

A. BoardPAC is a Sri Lankan company that has expanded globally with a footprint of 20 countries. It’s vision is to be the No. 1 global Board Management solution and to be a top 100 global brand. In an era where all countries in the world have similar opportunities when it comes to access to ICT, BoardPAC is positioned to pay a compelling global role while being a Sri Lankan company.

It provides board meeting automation to large corporations. With over 50,000+ users globally and presence in over 20 countries including, United States, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa, India, Australia, Hong Kong and Indonesia.

BoardPAC’s clientele include the top corporations across these countries and include many Forbes and Fortune ranked companies.

Q. Is there is a conducive environment for women to enter the commercial world on a big scale?

A. Yes. I believe the environment is much more conducive now. In Sri Lanka, there are a reasonable number of women who enter the commercial world to grow their organizations to SME category companies and the sectors are mostly in handicraft, food and such sectors while only a few venture further to grow the companies to a big scale. The Womens’ Chamber membership showcases many of the entrepreneurial women who have ventured to grow their companies. The number of startups we see starting up in ICT is not high yet. Therefore we are keen to encourage more young females to consider ICT startups. The environment is conducive.

Overseas, there is a even sharper growth seen. Even though the numbers are still relatively small, the growth is seen in the Asian region too in countries such as Singapore. There are many senior positions being held by females in larger corporations and therefore with such experience and exposure of growth business, females are in a good position to create ventures and become founders of growth companies.

There are many matters from the social mindset of parents and family members, infrastructure to support families and children (if both parents are in the workforce) and such matters needing further attention in Sri Lanka, which contribute to hold back females from embarking on startups.

When embarking on a commercial world in big scale this would certainly mean a high commitment of time and focus, which will be significantly higher than starting and growing a smaller commercial entity. Therefore, the limitations or constraints for a founder and female CEO for such is more internal, such as family and social constraints, needing her family and close society to support her and believe in such growth and the benefits.

I started in my parent’s garage with a few engineers, we worked hard to grow it from such a state and when we were approximately 20 in head count we moved to a larger premises in Colombo 4. We were engaged in local work and foreign work taking orders for IT work by companies while we self funded to grow innovative products.

Thereafter, we moved to Nawam Mawatha now to our present premises. Travel has become essential especially in the growth phase until there is a team that will be equipped to handle the travel and interactions which are related to selling, setting up partners, hiring new staff in foreign countries, setting up offices and administration functions in foreign countries and such a gamut of things. The growth has needed a lot of my time and focus as the founder and CEO and therefore it is a high commitment.

Therefore, the reason for the growth of more large scale female startups emerging has roots in the mindset, family and society. Even for a male growing global on a large scale means time away from family and home during the rapid growth. Therefore for a female it is more challenging due to social structures. Having said that the commercial world is conducive.

Founder of Apple Inc, Steve Jobs has said, “It is those crazy people who think they can change the world who go out and do so.” Therefore, I encourage females to break the mold and embark on interesting globally compelling commercial business entities.

Q. Is the intake of ICT students and skilled personal sufficient to meet the future demands of the sector?

A. The present statistics show the ICT workforce of Sri Lanka standing at 80,000 people. This also shows the female percentage standing at approximately 20 – 30%. The ICT workforce survey conducted by ICTA Sri Lanka has the latest figures from 2019 on this.

ICT has become a key foreign investment generating export sector which stands at just above US$ 1 billion revenue to the country at present and having a target of achieving US$ 5billion by 2022. As ICT revenue has a dependency on the number of staff involved in such services, it is easy to see that in order to achieve such a target, the ICT workforce requires to grow five times. Therefore, be in the range of 400,000 people by 2020 approximately for such achievement. This accelerated growth of workforce in the industry will require special measures and an organic growth will not suffice.

First, it will be essential to encourage and create awareness with the female employable population of the country’s need for them to join the ICT workforce. This also requires ICT to be adopted by those who have graduated with non–ICT streams. Such migration and bridge programs are made available through initiatives by SLAASCOM, ICTA and other organizations in the ICT industry. There are further programs targeting industries including ICT by the IFC too for encouraging continued careers by females to continue to stay or return after childbirth.

Most rapidly developing countries and developed countries in the world focused on infrastructure and enabling and providing devices such as laptops or tabs to children during their school education in order for them to be digitally literate and ICT literate. Some of these mean not fearing the use of computers, or being able to use a computer for basic usage. These are statistics that are measured globally too and where Sri Lanka can take steps to improve such. Usage of computers and tabs in schools will enable such capabilities across the country including in the underprivileged areas where we find many talented smart children who can contribute significantly to the country’s economy.

For long term sustainability of a growth in the workforce of ICT, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Maths) programs are being introduced, to create more awareness and skills at school level.

If such measures overall for non-ICT people’s skill migration to ICT as well as the female ICT workforce building are not carried out, the required 400,000 workforce of ICT will not be a possibility.

Q. Your company has won many awards, both local and international. What is the formula behind this success?

A. BoardPAC has an ultimate vision of being the #1 Board Management solution globally and to be a top 100 Global Brand. These are high standards that are envisioned and worked towards. Therefore, through the ongoing achievements by the company, BoardPAC continues to be substantial even when we are benchmarked in the global arena on international awards such as the Stevies, Ernst & Young EY Winning Women programs.

As a company with our clear vision and goal, our whole team has aligned towards this goal and we somewhat see this as a national mission which will contribute to the goals of the ICT industry and enhance Sri Lanka’s brand identity and the tag of IOI, (Island of Ingenuity) which is formed by the EDB and export community.

Asia Pacific, South Asia, SAARC regions where Sri Lanka falls into, in these too BoardPAC is a comparably highly benchmarked company. Winning the most recent SAARC 2019 Entrepreneur of the year, being recognized by EY Winning Women, being the top 25 great places to work are accolades of this nature.

Therefore, the formula has come from a combination of clear vision where all employees rally, and the clientele is of the highest caliber showing that our results are outstanding, where even the Central Bank of India and largest banks and corporations of India use BoardPAC among clients in 56 countries.

Therefore, with outstanding innovation fused with focus on brand and a committed team it has been a great formula to perform excellently.

Q. How has the global recognition benefited the company?

A. BoardPAC providing Ernst & Young it’s services in 56 countries across the globe for its EY EOY programs is another recognition it has won which has been beneficial to BoardPAC’s growth and reputation.

The global recognition has opened doors to big client wins such as EY, RBI, Petron as and the list goes on. It validates the brand and product in the highly competitive global landscape.

Q. What are your global expansion plans in the future?

A. BoardPAC has a vision of being the #1 board management software and top 100 global brand. BoardPAC is present in 20 countries including Malaysia, USA, Singapore, South Africa, Indonesia, India among others with a strong presence in each of these regions. BoardPAC has setup it’s offices in each of these countries.

Q. The ICT sector aims at becoming a US $ 5 billion industry. What will be your contribution? What are the plans to increase revenue generation?

A. BoardPAC will continue to expand deeper into the existing markets to gain higher market share while adding more countries and regions to it’s coverage. Further expansion in Asia Pacific, US, African region, Middle east while entering the European market, Latin American markets and Chinese markets are in the plans.

However such objectives are also to be a contributor to a global mindset in the ICT industry for further startup companies to grow and thereby be a vibrant community that contributes to the $5 billion by 2022 target of Sri Lanka. Quoting from SLAASCOM’s Startup report 2019 “Sri Lanka rose two places in the Global Innovation Index (GII) to rank at 88 out of 126 countries in 2018. In addition, Sri Lanka ranked 81 in both business sophistication and knowledge and technology outputs. Such statistics will improve with global brands emerging from Sri Lanka helping with such global indexes.”

Q. What sort of educational reforms are needed to accommodate the changes in the ICT arena?

A. ICT education needs to be more mainstream in education. There is also the need for lab and access to devices in order for such education to be truly practical and useful. There are programs been taken up for government schools to be equipped with computer labs for hands on access to computing. There is STEM education being incorporated.

As the whole, the globe is getting equipped with digitalization, it is important for the education system to expose children to it for them to have an equal opportunities with the rest of the world.

Q. Women’s contribution to the economy is huge, but there is no proper supportive structure for women to engage in work productively. What facilities do the companies should provide for women to gain optimal contribution to the country?

A. It is seen that although women have a high percentage of participation in undergraduate studies, the numbers continue to decrease when considering working ( specially in ICT) and thereafter continued tenure at work to senior levels.

These generally reduce with marriage, with children. Therefore, to continue to encourage women with children to continue their careers, certain support structures from the company and also from the society and family environment is required.

From a company perspective the IFC and certain private corporations have started initiatives to have childcare services in proximity to the offices. Maternity and Paternity leave policies allowing a higher role for fathers too, to participate in parenting are needed.

Q. Many male dominated fields are fast becoming open for females. What are your views on this change?

A. I agree that the ICT female workforce needs to increase and I also see such a trend taking place. The workforce has two key categories – founders and entrepreneurs who establish startups and the workforce from senior to junior who are employed in companies of ICT.

The numbers from the ICT workforce survey shows that females in the ICT workforce is at 20-30%. Therefore, there is a lot of potential to improve these numbers. ICT and specially the field of software is a suitable career for females. Software companies usually have comfortable environments and standard hours and they are not all related to shift work or night work. These jobs will allow young people to progress.

The number of females entering the Maths Advanced Level stream and thereafter, continuing into computer related engineering undergraduate courses continues to increase in Sri Lanka and this is one reason for the lower numbers seen in ICT.

Therefore, there are many drives by SLAADCOM, FITIS, ICTA Sri Lanka and other bodies related to ICT to encourage and create awareness in communities for more females to join ICT. For females who studied outside the Maths stream to participate in bridge programs to move from other fields such as Arts, Commerce, Science into ICT.

In terms of entrepreneurship for founders of startups, support structures in general which also will be beneficial for female startups, there are many initiatives in Sri Lanka in comparison to before. In my personal observation, there are very few females who even try to come forward while there are many males who do, who I personally see first failing and getting advice on how to improve and keep on returning until they get the funding or mentorship.

Most of the spiralation by ICTA sponsored companies or startups are emerging in this manner. It is dominated by males. This is mainly because the females have not even pitched or very few have pitched.

A startup is as per the definition in the Sri Lanka startup report by SLAASCOM 2019 “As per Steve Blank, who is considered the ‘Father of Innovation’ in Silicon Valley, “a start-up is a temporary organisation designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” Startups are known to disrupt markets with new products and services, or come up with radical changes to existing products. Most startups are technology driven, and are not restricted by geography as they aim for rapid growth.

Therefore, this is a calling to females who have dreams of starting up a company and possibly making it globally compelling by scaling, those who have an idea to startup, to take the time and courage to pitch at even spiralation or Disrupt Asia provided by the government for startups. It is important to take these opportunities given by our government. The males are doing so and the females are not coming forward in the required numbers so far.

Apart from government initiatives for startups, private corporations too have several accelerators with companies such as John Keells Holdings PLC and Dialog Axiata PLC launching accelerators and innovation funds. Support from Companies of this scale portrays confidence in the potential of the startup ecosystem. Again these would welcome female founders and the domination by males founders is due to females not coming forward to pitch.

Q. What is the 4th IR and how does it impact Sri Lanka

A.The 4th Industrial revolution involves the technologies such as AI, Blockchain, Bigdata, Drones, IOT, Robotics. While the prior industrial revolutions from the first with steam, second with electricity, third with computing in the 90s, did not provide an equal opportunity for a country like Sri Lanka to take advantage of it fully, the fourth is a great equaliser.

All countries including the US or EU has very similar access to internet across the world. The technologies are emerging and therefore it is possible for companies and startups in Sri Lanka to have equal success to those of the US and Silicon Valley.

Typically an Industrial revolution leaves the world split between the privileged and underprivileged countries and it gives the opportunity for those underprivileged to leapfrog to a privileged status through the significant impact of such an Industrial revolution and its advancement. This is such a time. Therefore, a country such as Sri Lanka is able to do so if we take the opportunity. This involves people to embrace such technologies, gain patents and intellectual property, implement such and offer such to other nations thereby gaining foreign revenue through such transactions.

Countries such as Switzerland have legalized blockchain to encourage the usage of such technologies. Some countries have enabled laws for AI and drones so that commercial institutions can start implementing commercial usage of such technologies with minimal conflict. In AI in the world there are patents applied, and India has a growing number of such.

A country such as Sri Lanka requires to embrace and start along with educating and placing priority to these technologies. While many countries even in the Western world have not caught up and are not decisive in their laws, it is a time for a country such as Sri Lanka to take such decisive steps and be recognised globally and take an opportunity for leapfrogging.

This again is a great opportunity for females, female ICT workforce professionals, ICT founders to take up such assignments in the 4th IR topics.

Q. What are your suggestions for an improved ICT skills supported environment?

A. ICT skills support in a sustainable point of view starts with education for the children. This is children across the country to have access to ICT infrastructure laptops, tablets to some extent and then the curriculum and so on.

Most countries including Singapore had phased out plans where each plan strengthened the one before so that over a time of 5-10 years the fundamentals were in place so that the curriculum and content and thereafter, innovation was focused on.

The other area is awareness from a social context of the importance of ICT for the country as an emerging top foreign exchange earner and possibly brand enabler for Sri Lanka. For those who did not follow ICT streams to consider moving and using bridge programs available to move to ICT field even as young adults or even mature adults.

There are many areas that are not mathematical that need talented committed people, these are from technical writing, business analysis, quality assurance testing to others outside the actual software coding and architecture. Lots of opportunities exist in the ICT workforce.

The other is the entrepreneur startup support to build and grow the ecosystem.

The budding eco system has many companies that have matured such as Microimage HRM Pickme, Bhasha, Wow.lk, Yoho etc while there are many more such as Ideal Six for council waste management, Frammix for Virtual reality of cultural locations such as Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Gendo for medical innovation of diagnosis of cardiac problems ahead seamlessly and many more such interesting startups in the ecosystem grown by Disrupt Asia and Spiralation etc.

Q. What is your message for the young generation where we are at a juncture where ICT is the thrust area for business?

A. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is a tremendous opportunity to that Sri Lankan ICT sector needs to embrace. The 4IR includes a key set of emerging technologies such as AI, Bigdata, Blockchain, Drones, Robotics, IOT ICT is a thrust area for business in many ways. Therefore for the young generation my advice is to use ICT as an enabler for global opportunities.

Recently at the ‘Disrupt Asia’ the keynote speaker Casey Lau raised the topic that it is critical for the world for all countries to have a significant startup ecosystem in order to compete and be ahead economically.

This applies to Sri Lanka too. The existing number of companies will not suffice to grow the country’s economy. Also new technology will wipe us out if we do not continue to innovate this being said with the 4th IR at our doorstep.

My message is for the youth to consider the startup eco system if you have a dream and a vision, to try it. This is especially for the females since there needs to be more participation in this ecosystem. 

Comments