SRI LANKANS OVERSEAS
Ruwin Perera is upbeat about progress in the tech industry
Q: How do you perceive Sri Lanka today?
A: To me, Sri Lanka feels like a country of great opportunity. However, I do believe that there’s far more that we need to do to capture the opportunities that lie before of us.
While we were making progress in developing critical infrastructure, it doesn’t feel like we’re taking advantage of the facilities that have been built. Sri Lanka can be likened to a factory that has recently expanded its productive capacity but isn’t producing enough on the floor for the investment to be considered worthwhile.
Q: And how do your compatriots in Australia view Sri Lanka?
A: In Australia, people simply think of Sri Lanka in terms of tea, cricket and tourism. When I tell people that my company has a 12 person technical and engineering team in Sri Lanka, they’re surprised.
The first question they ask is: ‘Why not India?’ This needs to change.
Q: What were your impressions of Sri Lanka on your last visit here? And how much has it changed from the past?
A: It was changing quite rapidly. However, the pace of change has slowed in recent times. That said, good software engineers can command very high salaries – incomes that can lead to real social mobility.
Q: From afar, how do you perceive news about Sri Lanka?
A: The recent portrayal of the Sri Lankan government in the news media has been unfortunate and not in our best interests.
Sri Lanka has so much potential but when investors see such goings-on, many will simply conclude that there’s too much political risk to justify investing in Sri Lanka. It hamstrings our ability to attract foreign direct investment (FDI).
Q: How do you view the brain drain and why is there still no reversal of it, in your opinion?
A: We need to pay people properly and tax them fairly. As a wage earner in Sri Lanka, even as a senior executive, social mobility is very limited. People want a better life – and if we as a nation don’t provide those opportunities, they will leave.
The interesting outlier is the burgeoning technology industry where good and young software engineers can earn salaries commensurate with that of relatively senior executives in traditional sectors.
Q: What should Sri Lanka focus on most in the coming decade?
A: There is a huge opportunity for us in technology. We have one of the highest literacy rates in the English-speaking world and great universities such as Moratuwa producing strong software engineering candidates.
There is unlimited global demand for good English-speaking software engineers at US$ 2,000 a month. We can serve clients all over the world and because we’re paid in foreign currency (e.g. US Dollars), we can pay our people in Sri Lankan Rupees properly. This encourages them to stay here, and create new enterprises and jobs.
In our company, we ensure that a great deal of the engineering work is completed in Sri Lanka, and our Sri Lankan and Australian teams work together to build products for consumers in Australia. We use the time difference to our advantage and can be writing software for 18 hours a day. This helps us build better products much faster.
One thing that we need to address is the high degree of currency volatility. If it was up to me, given the volatility of the rupee, I’d consider additional mechanisms to simplify and facilitate tourism and business, between us and our largest trading partner India (accepting Indian Rupees for local transactions, subject to a movable pegged rate, for instance).
Q: And what are your hopes for the country in the next decade or so?
A: I hope that we move beyond the traditionally strong industries (tea, apparel, rubber and tourism) and see the great opportunity in our people. By focussing on nontraditional exports including technology, we have the opportunity to build billion dollar export industries without the need for roads, ports or loans.
Beyond technology, we’re squandering the underappreciated and unique opportunity that we have for tourism with the Indian market, which counts 1.2 billion people. Our geographic advantage makes travel from India quick, efficient and practical. We need more flight connections from subcontinental cities – and more tourist options catering to Indian tastes.