Compiled by Savithri Rodrigo

Sanjay Mendis

Heminda Jayaweera

Q: How has the IT industry stepped up during the pandemic?

Sanjay Mendis (SM): IT has been the driving force that enabled society to stay connected, telecommute, continue education uninterrupted and execute daily activities. It offered a sense of community through video conferencing, social media and WhatsApp, which enabled uninterrupted supplies direct to homes.

Heminda Jayaweera (HJ): The opportunities in a constrained society have pushed companies to innovate. However, the IT industry’s scope
will only be fully optimised when it transforms from a service model to product design engineering solutions where the returns are far more lucrative.

Q: Which sectors have leveraged on their IT synergies? 

SM  Globally, e-retail, education, banking, medical services, online entertainment and data access providers experienced a surge in demand whilst some local industries that are usually slow to embrace digitisation forged ahead.

HJ  IT synergies emerged in healthcare, education, logistics and retail due to increased opportunities. IoT is a major area in which to leverage synergies especially in terms of logistics and transportation.

Q: Given this evolution, is there adequate regulatory and policy support for the local IT industry? 

SM  The Sri Lanka Association for Software and Services Companies (SLASSCOM), Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) and the government have worked closely on IT policies that have evolved in the last decade.

However, Sri Lanka must focus on making technology and internet affordable to facilitate new demand, ensure that education is accessible islandwide and improve delivery infrastructure for the masses. 

HJ  It is imperative that the whole picture is looked at when regulations are imposed. There’s little understanding of the value created by smaller companies and freelancers, who conduct offshore work and bring in foreign exchange. The entire startup sector is about taking risks; yet, the present regulations don’t support an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Q: What role will IT play in the sharing economy?

SM  A sharing economy won’t be possible without IT as the enabler although due to social factors, it may take time to successfully establish this in Asia.

Uber, which was initially a carpooling solution, expanded into e-hailing. Airbnb helped monetise unutilised space in homes. Couch-surfing, co-working spaces and peer-to-peer lending are popular in the West but Asian markets have been slow to adapt partly due to tech inaccessibility. 

HJ  IT will be the cornerstone of all sharing economy platforms. The world is moving towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Sri Lanka has a good chance of becoming a leader if it is astute.

It must concentrate on middleware (i.e. software that works between conventional software and electronics), which has huge potential for Sri Lanka. With the emergence of IoT, the opportunities are limitless.

Q: How has consumer technology changed? 

SM  The global transition to low touch interaction will expedite changes in consumer behaviour especially in the retail and services sectors. Smart cities, smart shops and human microchip implants are becoming a reality; and with 5G and IoT being the next revolution, we’re in for exciting times.

HJ  We’ve witnessed radical changes in terms of how consumers interact with product experiences such as introducing automated retail spaces. In this regard, the IT industry has immense potential to develop technology for offshore use, moving away from a service model and into an ecosystem that is product driven.

Q: What is your take of the IT talent available in the country?

SM  Sri Lanka has great IT talent but to evolve, it needs to adopt strategies for global exposure. China has invested heavily in increasing tech knowledge, and became a leader in AI and quantum computing. Sri Lanka requires long-term policies and road maps to grow

its human capital, and prevent a brain drain.

HJ  The present supply is totally inadequate to meet the goal of becoming a US$ 5 billion industry by 2022 powered by over 200,000 skilled professionals. So the prevailing 80,000 strong workforce and service model won’t bring about those numbers unless there’s a plan to increase the IT workforce in larger numbers, moving to a product engineering focus.

Q: And how can companies procure and harness this talent?

SM  Invest in the development of tech staff with technology enhancement embraced top-down, and focus on international training and development on a par with the latest developments. Most top IT graduates are snatched up by leading tech companies that focus on overseas markets or outsourced development centres with attractive remuneration packages. 

HJ  The education model must change to one that produces IT experts within six to 12 months, with compulsory internship and traineeship running simultaneously while continuing towards degree level studies. Indeed, the focus should be on areas that are the need of the hour, combining work experience while studying. 

Q: In which ways is IT shaping the office of the future? 

SM  IT alone can’t shape the office of the future; the mindset of leaders and managers should help drive this change as it did with working from home (WFH). Telecommuting will negate the need for physical office space, daily commutes and possibly overtime as most needs can be met without physical contact. 

HJ  Much of the non-value adding work will be shortcircuited and time-consuming areas automated. The labour force will reduce as repetitive work would no longer be the norm, which means that people must be retrained to use their skills and intellect. This will make Sri Lanka more competitive.

Q: Is there adequate technology use in the small business segment?

SM  This is an area that has sadly been neglected. Sri Lanka will need to identify and prioritise transformation into sectors that can increase the inflow of foreign exchange.

HJ  Traditional business models and SMEs remain below the required IT adoption levels. But newcomers and startups depend on IT platforms, and are launched by tech savvy young people.

Q: So what needs to happen to ensure a more optimistic future for tech firms?

SM  Organisations are looking to increase efficiencies by adopting technology to remain competitive and providing solutions to this new demand, which will ensure an optimistic future for tech firms. We must focus on a global playing field.

HJ  The country has to make a strategic move from its present service model to a product engineering one. This is the focus of the future with much larger revenue streams and more potential to harness talent.