Code for Sri Lanka: Blue Sky Coding

It is interesting to view the billboard as you take the Maradana road towards the Elphinstone theater. That an outfit serving the world’s largest foodservice company is here in Sri Lanka and one which originated from Sri Lanka too.

The proud advertisement in a magazine extols the Sri Lankan ingenuity impacting a trillion-dollar industry. SLASSCOM, the umbrella organization for the IT industry in Sri Lanka, uses the tagline The Island of Ingenuity in its positioning of Sri Lanka as driving exports from the IT sector. Sysco LABS which formally started as Cake LABS is now part of the Sysco Corporation and serves as its captive innovation center. Now what Sysco is known for is as a global leader in selling, marketing, and distributing food products to restaurants, educational facilities, and any customer who prepares meals away from home. Well, it serves customers and connects them to distribution facilities worldwide.

For 2021 Sysco had a sales revenue of $ 51 billion – I am sure the Central Bank can salivate on that. However, come to think of it, a perennial problem for Sri Lanka had been managing foods to move from Dambulla to Pettah and I am stating that lightly. For 74 years we have endured this inefficiency with a terrible impact on the economy and still, no concrete measures are being taken. 30-50% food loss in movement is a disgrace. As I pass this billboard, I ask myself why this dichotomy exists. How can one speak of ingenuity when we are such a miserable failure?

My mind identifies that Sri Lankan ingenuity indeed flourishes outside but not inside. Of course, that today we are in deep trouble has become a kind of stale news. How we are tackling the issue definitely must be making raised eyebrows in many quarters. Some are gleefully taking us for longer rides happily in the absence of plans as well as the presence of trying to still eke out a way forward through following exactly the ways we have done before.

Take Millennium Systems and the best billboard on that is as you move into Sri Lanka after arriving at the Katunayake airport. Now the former Millennium IT has been taken over by the London Stock Exchange Group (LSEG) and operates more than 40 stock exchanges in various countries from its Sri Lankan base. Another trailblazer is WSO2 which champions middleware and powers nearly 800 businesses globally including many governments and large enterprises. WSO2 is eyeing a listing on the New York stock exchange which of course is what Virtusa has already achieved.

Microimage is a pioneering startup that gives HR solutions to the world and operates in Silicon Valley but with its feet firmly in Sri Lanka with a mindset of Sri Lankan too. Few software product houses with their origin outside operate in Sri Lanka respecting the local talent and IFS is an example that comes to my mind. The list can go on. Specialized software such as Sahana – in use with disaster management – is in use across the world from the USA has had its birth in Sri Lanka and it is interesting to see its use as a case study by the WIPO Academy.

Yet IT brings to the national coffers barely $ 1 billion and that too happened recently. With the dollar crunch on some are keenly looking at the sector to give some decent dollar revenue quickly. Dollars are by servicing the external demand.

Putting the house in digital order is slow and unsteady. There is no visible digitization of public systems and the national public procurement system has no real understanding of procuring IT services originating from the island of ingenuity. Stuck in old procurement methods means that such organizations are simply not interested in providing a service to Sri Lanka. With one of the largest per capita public sectors in the world, we are happily moving file after file from table to table while a group of Sri Lankans is powering many parts of the world to realize even more of a distance between us and them.

The procurement process is a bane that we as researchers hate in this country and I must hasten to add this is not because it is so strict to prevent corruption but because it is so messy that it stops researchers in their tracks from doing anything. If one thinks such a meticulous process is ensuring zero corruption to be stopped, please think again. The process today in some places may have moved on to e-procurement yet the methods and conditions are still archaic and not conducive to the selection of emerging talent in a fast-moving field like this. Archaic comes from the process of simply not being relevant to an area like this. This fact needs to be

understood.

None of the frontrunners usually subscribe to local calls for products or services in any digitization projects. I am sure that the lack of interest and participation is not because they do not want to but they have realized the futility of the task. The country has giants with the ability to contribute and talent with definite skills yet they would fail in procurement on technicalities – how many prior installations of this type, how many years of service, etc. The usual preference then is to source from outside. Again, the penchant is to develop projects and seek donor assistance. The donors see well the opportunity only to extend one’s abilities.

We all agree on the value and importance of digitization. This is especially for the Sri Lankan administration and regulatory system. With a system that carries a global record, the opportunities are many for the integration of technology to take the value of the system to a new level. We can calculate that for every 15 citizens there is one public servant. Now with such a ratio that there still exists any meaningful problem is a question to answer. Yet we know that the ratio is a problem in itself. It is easy to quote from Dr. WA Wijewardena – Imagine the predicament of a first-class graduate joining the government service but should drown himself in a heap of files and papers day in day out. No need to imagine, Dr. Wijewardena, that exactly is the experience! In this day and age with technology, this situation is simply unacceptable. The country’s public sector needs to change and thereby the institutions with them. Sooner the change is brought about faster the recovery of the country.

In digitization and digitization and especially at this time, it is not possible to think of the usual methods but calls out for an innovative approach. Coding today is fast becoming a life skill and acquiring its primary level position of an entry in education. The earlier one gets to know this new language so much it is going to be better for the child. It is adding to the basic form of literacy required. It is really important to understand the need for the country to change and this is not all about increasing exports.

Many in decision-making positions require reverse mentoring – the young teaching the old! While pushing these changes to happen, the question begs – why can’t simultaneously make use of these resources who are doing projects and submissions to realize their diploma or degree. However, these projects are merely focused on degree or learning completion requirements. Running with your educational mission with fulfilling such requirements uppermost in one’s mind the process is not going to make an individual of value to the economy.

Why not start crowdsourcing to accelerate digitization – Code for Sri Lanka! If one is to articulate the deeper necessity of the country, I am sure Code for Sri Lanka happening is a certainty. Why not simply transform needs – a collection of requirements that can come from all organizations – into projects and get them realized through such learning exercises? Perform coding time through Blue Sky Coding from the professionals. Software and coding perhaps stand with this unique ability to do a lot more with a lot less. There is the need to have a communication and an implementation strategy attracting the youth and the professionals but should not be in a manner of mass incitement.

IT is a sector that can really flourish under these circumstances and what is recommended is to ensure that this service is realized as quickly as possible without much vacillation over action. Remember the present education system is solely to realize the degree and certificate and now turning out to be an investment with not much returns to the nation as per the way the system has been structured.

Even with the limited knowledge and experience, I have witnessed a significant brain drain and even entrepreneurial drain as the young depart with the knowledge due to lack of opportunities and the intolerance of the system for new ideas and ways. Australia and Singapore are common destinations and now Europe too is included. Estonia as we know has open-door policies with extremely smart infrastructure to enable talent to flourish.

The differentiator between a system and a SMART system is the integration of ICT and it is this required talent that we are losing and primarily due to our system rigidity. Some may see we are doing great by enabling the talent to be developed and observing the demand placed on them by the outside. Though there is some validity in that understanding, from a life cycle perspective the system is not benefitting. We are merely teaching well.

As time passes for Sri Lanka at crossroads doing differently is imperative. There is a need for some quick demonstration by becoming innovative to restore trust. The trust quotient has seriously eroded and not many restorative efforts are visible. A call for restructuring is being heard. Do not simply respond in the usual manner. Am I stating a dream? Not exactly – winners after all do things differently. Sri Lanka’s singular failure had not been using its talent within.

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