Since his recent appointment as the new Chairman of SLASSCOM, (Sri Lanka Association of Software and Services Companies), Jeevan Gnanam has wasted no time commencing his tenure with the announcement of an ambitious vision to rapidly grow the country’s IT industry to Rs. 5 billion by 2022.
Speaking to a gathering of Sri Lanka’s most successful IT professionals, Jeevan commended the vital efforts of SLASSCOM and its leadership in laying out a strong foundation for the industry to commence a rapid acceleration in its growth momentum.
“I am fortunate to stand on the shoulders of great men and women who have come before me – from Madu Ratnayake to Mano Sekaram and Arul Sivagananathan to Ruwindhu Peiris, Chris Canekeratne to Tony Weerasinghe. All of them have contributed significantly in their own rights and dared to make a difference. So it is with cautious apprehension that I take over as Chairman full well knowing that these are big shoes to fill, knowing the decisions I make will have reverberations over industries and generations henceforth.
Jeevan went on to say that he promises to carry this important legacy forward and explore every opportunity for SLASSCOM and the nation to grow. “We are fortunate to have some of the brightest and most progressive minds in the country behind SLASSCOM. As a nation, I think we can see that the opportunities are almost palpable, and I believe in my core that our Rs. 5 billion target is achievable by 2022,” he stated.
Moving forward, Jeevan called for the industry to rally around a 5-point agenda. This agenda would focus on developing local capacity for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence and building a culture of innovation across the industry, economy, and society. Further, it would also be about supporting start-ups and the promotion of regional integration both internationally and locally. Lastly, they would also focus on the commencement of selective skilled employment immigration programmes in order to facilitate invaluable knowledge transfers.
Sri Lanka’s services industry has relied on two main areas: Software Development and Finance & Accounting. This was primarily possible because of a large number of software developers and finance and accounting graduates who were in Sri Lanka. According to Jeevan, however, the time has come to shift our mindset to focus on tomorrow’s jobs.
With some upskilling, Jeevan explained that we can create our third pillar of Data Scientists and AI engineers. Similarly, as a chamber, we also need to go beyond IT and focus on becoming a chamber of innovation.
As such, for 2018, SLASSCOM is not only paying attention to Tech or IT related companies but also to companies that have a thirst for Innovation. Jeevan explained that due to the efforts of the outgoing Chairman Ruwindhu Peiris and his team, SLASSCOM has already reached out to huge corporates like JKH, MAS, and Brandix, and are creating an Innovation Forum within SLASSCOM to take this forward.
Elaborating further on his key priorities to take the industry to Rs. 5 billion, Jeevan called for the re-branding of Sri Lanka as a start-up nation. This would be through the implementation of policy reforms to facilitate a more start-up friendly culture. As such small tech and fintech companies would be incentivized to experiment in a sandbox environment while encouraging innovations like crowd funding to drive micro investments into the sector.
Jeevan also called for greater utilization of existing and future Free-Trade Agreements (FTA) to build bridges and deepen regional integration between public and private sectors. Similarly, he also called for greater regional integration within Sri Lanka by encouraging local companies to set up satellite operations in Tier 2 cities or towns like Negombo and Ja-ela while also exploring the possibility of selective skilled employment migration.
“While I believe this might make me unpopular, I’m not worried because I’m not here to win a popularity contest. I truly believe if we want to become Singapore we need to think like Singaporeans. In many cases, we simply do not have the skill sets necessary to make this transition within the country, and in such cases when necessary, we must look to importing quality personnel from neighboring countries to help fill these gaps.
The topic of importing skilled migrants has been subject to a few controversies. A number of companies have to even pass up attractive contracts because they just can’t find the right talent. Sri Lanka has a limited talent pool and an even lesser number of employees for high-end work.
On the other hand trade unions and other groups argue that if foreign workers are brought in to cover up labor gaps, that would mean cheap labor from countries such as India and Singapore would snatch up opportunities that could have been taken by Sr Lankans.
Subsequently, according to what Dammika Ganegama, Managing Director at Mitra said in an interview with Echelon Magazine, “There shouldn’t be concerns of substandard labor flooding the market if companies have good screening processes in place”.
To this Jeevan also added that “There must, of course, be clear and defined policies to ensure that such processes occur without disadvantaging local talent, but we also need to ensure that we are open to new, global thinking”. He went on to say that If managed correctly, he is confident that we can strike an optimal balance that will power this industry and the economy forward.