Opportunities of the Future
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
Sri Lanka’s IT industry is one that many would agree, has become a major part of our economy. With the advent of COVID-19, many industries have struggled to stay afloat, yet the country’s IT sector has managed to brave the troubled waters we are navigating through with great ability.
One such company is 99x Technology, a specialist in product engineering based in Sri Lanka with offices in Oslo, Norway. They have been named as one of Asia’s best workplaces and a global leader in their field.
One of the leading personalities behind 99x is Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Director Shehani Seneviratne, who has been in the company for nearly a decade in its journey to becoming the massive success it is today. She is also a board director and founding member of the Women’s Chamber for Digital Sri Lanka and Director of Sri Lanka Association for Software and Services Companies (SLASSCOM) and actively promotes the participation of women in the IT sector from the school level onwards.
Ceylon Today spoke with Shehani to learn more about her journey as an IT professional in Sri Lanka as well as what may lie in the future for the country’s IT industry for both men and women.
A choice-driven by passion
For anyone to succeed in the field they are in, it is essential to have the drive and passion for the subject. Shehani, who studied at Bishop›s College, declined the opportunity to study Engineering at the University of Moratuwa to pursue a degree in IT instead and had plenty of that from the get-go.
“I’m not really sure where it began,” she told us while reminiscing her early years, “But it was the inner passion I had that I wanted to pursue a career in IT, I can’t explain it.” She shared.
Graduating from the Informatics Institute of Technology (which was then known as the Informatics Institute of Computer Studies) with a Bachelor’s degree in Information Systems, she joined Millennium IT, one of Sri Lanka’s leading companies in the IT sector, becoming a senior software engineer and team lead in her time there.
Later in 2003, Shehani left Millennium IT and joined Eurocenter DDC, the company that we would come to know now as 99x, taking on the responsibility as a Project Manager, working her way until where she is today as COO.
Women in IT
We learned from Shehani that there is a massive void when it comes to female participation in the Sri Lankan IT sector, with only about 34 per cent female representation in 2018. Ten years before, in 2010, there was only 21 per cent.
When asked about her own experience as an IT professional in such a background, Shehani said, “Personally, I never felt any different from the men in the industry, mainly because 99x is an equal opportunity employer so everyone is treated equally and given the same opportunities.”
She pointed out that although there has been an improvement, there is much that is needed to be done.
The source of the problem
“If you go to the universities, you will see a more balanced distribution between men and women, so the question is why there is a drop in female representation when it comes to the industry?”, Shehani said.
Many factors can be given that influence this drop. Shehani notes that the social norms we have and family responsibilities are major factors behind this. Additionally, there may be worry that it would be difficult to cope with the lifestyle that comes with working in the IT sector and drop out as well. Others may pursue a career in academia instead of joining the industry.
A booming industry in need
The lack of female representation within the sector is a major cause for concern, mainly because of the massive demand for IT professionals in this booming industry. Shehani told Ceylon Today that in a survey in 2019, it was revealed that there was a need for up to 21,000 graduates within the IT sector, while only 9,000 were available to supply that demand from both state and private universities. Meaning that every graduate that doesn’t enter the industry is a loss for what Shehani said is Sri Lanka’s fourth-largest source of foreign income for the country.
“The IT industry has really grown. When I started my career, there were only limited opportunities available. Now, in terms of the range of jobs available in the sector and the numbers in which it comes is vast.”
Shehani chalks that up to Sri Lanka’s flourishing IT sector, with about 600 IT companies operating in Sri Lanka. Needless to say, this means that the opportunity is ripe for IT graduates who enter the industry.
“Sri Lanka is known as a great outsourcing destination, is famous for the quality we produce. We have even won awards for this, such as the Delivery Destination of the Year Award 2019 at the Global Sourcing Association Awards in London.”
With Sri Lanka being home to such a booming industry that is limited in growth mainly because of the lack of graduates to fill in vacancies, special attention has to be given to not only encourage students (especially women) to pursue a career in IT but also to encourage the women who do graduate to continue being a part of the industry instead of dropping out, a task that Shehani is very involved in.
“I think the industry really needs to identify the value that women can bring to the table in the IT sector. They balance the risk-taking, contribute to lower turnover, promote ethics and values as well as bring a caring aspect to companies.”
Shehani spoke of how there is an increasing demand for gender-balanced teams from overseas customers as well. Since the presence of female IT professionals is an important aspect of the field of ICT in Sri Lanka, we inquired what actions employers could take in order to facilitate and enable more women to participate in the industry.
“I think employers need to be more mindful in arranging flexible work conditions both for mothers and fathers. That way both parties can share responsibilities at home while balancing their work. Another thing is having proper day-care centres to help female employees continue to work while balancing family commitments.”
To encourage stay-at-home mothers who are IT graduates to also contribute, Shehani believes that part-time work opportunities can be a positive influence. She mentioned that while Sri Lanka has been moving in a positive direction, there is still the need to move forward and set up policies and implementations that enable these changes.
While the ongoing pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have been an economic catastrophe for the country, it has shown the validity that the changes that Shehani speaks of are achievable and effective.
Many companies have transitioned or are transitioning to a work-from-home model where employees can continue to fulfill their career responsibilities with minimal need to work at an office, giving greater flexibility to employees as they can easily manage work and home responsibilities at the same time this way. This shift also has given the opportunity to develop new software and systems, thus generating even more business for the IT sector. In fact, Shehani told us that companies such as 99x are still hiring employees with little sign of slowing even amidst the current pandemic.
Support for opportunity
In an industry ripe with opportunity, organisations such as Women’s Chamber for Digital Sri Lanka and SLASSCOM have stepped into play, encouraging more students to pursue careers in IT (especially women) and also supporting local startups including female tech entrepreneurs, providing guidance, funding and mentoring, building up new businesses to contribute to Sri Lanka’s economy. This is why SLASSCOM has made a goal to create 5 Billion dollars of revenue, 200,000 new jobs, and also launch 1,000 startups by 2025.
99x also contributes to promoting entrepreneurship through their StartupX Foundry programme, a startup accelerator, and incubator in Sri Lanka. We learned that 99x employees are also encouraged to pitch their startup ideas, which the company will give the resources and guidance to take those ideas to market.
Because the opportunity is ripe and the IT sector will continue to increase in momentum within Sri Lanka, Shehani believes that each individual must discover their strengths and passion, then carve a career path that suits them without giving in to distractions that may appear along the way.