Friday, 01 November 2013 11:02
By Channa Fernandopulle
A product of the early stage development of Sri Lanka’s ICT Industry, Microsoft’s new Country Manager for Sri Lanka, Imran Vilcassim started his career with Microsoft a decade ago as a technology engineer.
In an interview with Mirror Business, Vilcassim discussed the issues and challenges surrounding the development of the IT industry in Sri Lanka and Microsoft’s role in improving access to fresh opportunities for Sri Lankans through the spread of IT knowledge and services beyond urban centers into the island’s rural heartland. Excerpts:
Q: Can you tell me about the history of Microsoft’s involvement in Sri Lanka?
Microsoft Sri Lanka has been in operation in Sri Lanka for almost 10 years now, started operations in 2004 January. I have been in the company for almost 10 years, and was one of the early employees, so on a personal level I’m very happy to be part of the Company and do great things which have such a positive impact on people’s lives.
Microsoft made the decision to come to Sri Lanka well before the war had finished and this was because we saw great potential I n Sri Lanka. All the investments that we made in terms of empowering people through technology were made even before the war was over, so very clearly Microsoft was in it for the long term.
Q: Taking into consideration all of the post-war development that has taken place until now, what is Microsoft’s outlook for Sri Lanka?
Both Sri Lanka and Microsoft have faced some difficult challenges even in the more recent past but now Sri Lanka is one of the fastest growing countries in this region and that itself is something that we are proud of firstly as a Sri Lankan and also as a company. Now when I see this country we are very happy to note that ICT is being targeted as one of the core pillars of economic development, this is very well documented in the Mahinda Chinthanaya as well and we also see this in terms of numerous initiatives that the government has embarked on in terms of spreading the use of IT into all parts of the island.
Microsoft has also been able to play a role in terms of partnering government and the various government institutions to take technology to these areas.
The recent government IT programme which we did in partnership with Tharunyata Hetak is one such initiative and we have been able to partner with much of what the government has done and we look forward to partnering with them and other institutions as well in terms of making a strong contribution in terms of ICT development in the country.
Q: What has been Microsoft’s focus in terms of partnering ICT industry development in Sri Lanka?
Some of our focus areas would be around empowering the youth and empowering students and teachers. We’ll obviously make more emphasis around the rural segment because those people need a lot of opportunity from companies like us in terms of really uplifting their ICT skills so I think the youth segment and the student population is a very important focus area for us.
What we feel is that if we find a way to empower the youth and the student population, then through that they will be able to make a much larger impact in terms of their contribution to the country so that is obviously a big focus area for us.
We’ve been privileged and fortunate enough to touch the lives of almost 2 million students either through training or through competitions or work seminars and so on.
We’ve also been able to train about 15,000 teachers. I’m also very proud to say that we have two schools in this country which are recognized as world class in terms of usage of ICT for modern education. Namely Royal College and another lesser known school called Sri Rahula Balika Madyamaha Vidyalaya, in Malabe.
Q: I understand that Microsoft also provides software to Sri Lankan universities?
Yes, we provide free software to all the major universities in Sri Lanka. Our goal is to make software very affordable and easily accessible for the student population and that is the main reason we provide software through universities free-of-charge so that any student who enrolls in any of the universities is gaining access to the software.
Q: Is there a figure on how much software has been donated so far?
We don’t really keep track of the exact amount of units that are donated, any amount that is required, we give and we don’t really keep track of how many but all the major universities in this country have access to it.
Q: What about Microsoft’s projects in Sri Lanka’s rural sector?
Rural empowerment is also a big focus area for us. We’ve picked a few schools in the rural areas and equipped them with special systems to facilitate classroom training using IT facilities and equipment so that they can use IT in the education process.
We also use technology called Multipoint which connects all the consoles in the classroom together so all the students can participate and it’s a much more interactive training experience.
Q: Is there an estimate as to how much Microsoft has invested in Sri Lanka and what plans for future investment in the country?
On all the different initiatives that we are currently operating in Sri Lanka we would have spent a minimum of Rs.200 million in direct and indirect contributions over the last few years,
Q: Are there any global progammes that Microsoft runs that could be opened here?
Yes, we are planning a few around the education sector and how we can support tech start-up companies in terms of tech facilities and software. The biggest issue for startup companies as you know is finance or capital, so we are looking to see how we can in our own way provide some assistance to these companies.
We have a few programmes like Biz Park which is about providing the necessary tools and technologies for startup companies to start developing software and we provide that software free for three years, so that during that time they can build a product, go to market and start creating value for the company and also for the country.
Q: Is the current target of reaching US$ 1 billion in IT exports by 2016 achievable and what are the challenges in reaching this target in terms of education, infrastructure, etc?
I think the answer is yes given where we are now, attaining the billion dollar target is definitely an attainable target.
One requirement is to have as many people working in the industry as possible in order to expand capacity. When we expand capacity the ability for us to take on that many projects becomes much larger so one of the things we do is to see if we can create more employable people in the industry. This is something that SLASSCOM and ICTA is also doing and we will also work to support them in this endeavor.
Secondly, Microsoft is a global company, we operate in many countries as there is in the world and given that, some of the best software in the world is created by local companies so we also can do our part in terms of promoting the great wealth of talent in this country.
Q: At the end of the day, Sri Lanka is very small in terms of the retail contribution we can offer Microsoft. It’s a very small market compared to India, so what benefit does Microsoft get out of its operations in Sri Lanka?
Microsoft has a presence in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and many others but for us it’s not necessarily about a financial contribution.
Our former Chairman’s vision was to get a PC on everyone’s desktop and that, especially for its time was a very broad vision and still is today.
Microsoft is one of the only companies that can touch people’s lives and our intention is to contribute to the economy directly and through our different programmes. We do have a certain business interest but our presence here is not purely based on that.
If you look at the money we’ve invested it’s much more than we’ve earned so it’s not about what we take out but more about what we give back and that is the real interest.
Q: I understand that Microsoft has local app developers looking to develop apps for Windows 8. What kind of progress has been made on this front since the launch of Windows 8 last year?
So I have 5 developers sitting in my office right now and all they do is build apps every day. Even some of our marketing material features only Sri Lankan apps.
Q: Is there a figure on how many apps?
We have got to almost 400+ apps that have been built locally, not only by these students but also by our partners as well. We have some great apps for example: if someone wants to learn about Colombo, the history or wildlife, tourist attractions, all they have to do is download that app and that information is directly fed.
Very recently we launched a Radio app, so now anyone with a Windows 8 machine can download an app and listen to Sri Lankan radio and I believe there is a huge following for this sort of app among Sri Lankans overseas.
Q: What are some of the results of your investments in Sri Lanka and what does Microsoft project going forward particularly in Cloud services?
In terms of ROI I can’t disclose a figure since we’re a private company but overall we’re happy with the levels of growth that we’ve seen. The uptake of our products with our customers is quite positive
As soon as we launched it, our Cloud business went through the roof and we’ve had one of the biggest corporates in John Keells Holdings endorsing us. Another encouraging thing that I saw was that even among smaller companies there is no longer this myth that only the big companies can afford great technology. Today even the smallest companies can afford to run powerful technology. This leveling of the technology playing field is another potentially huge impact of Cloud services.
Our Cloud service targets were exceeded by 3x and while I can’t disclose the numbers, we’ve been given a very aggressive target for cloud services this year as well and I’m quite confident that we achieve it.
Overall we’re off to a great start and we expect that cloud will grow by 40-50 percent within the next 2-3 years.
Q: That’s quite big statement isn’t it?
Yes, it would mean a significant change but Sri Lankan companies are very sophisticated, today I can go to any part of this world and showcase how some Sri Lankan companies are using technology to drive business.
Q: Capacity is clearly the biggest challenge but what are some of the other issues concerning the development of ICT?
I think that the mindset of our people is another challenge. Even today you ask a parent what they want their child to be educated and specialize in and it’s still the standard answers of doctor, lawyer, account or engineer. While there is nothing wrong with these professions, we had to do a lot of education as an industry in general around why ICT is also a very good profession to undertake.
Today with the advent of the internet and mobile phone penetration to all corners of the country, people are a lot more tech savvy.
With the proliferation of technology I think the capacity issues will get resolved. If you look at the number of graduates we produce now versus a couple of years ago it has certainly increased,
Q: How much of a role does infrastructure play?
Infrastructure plays a very significant role. I think it’s the biggest enabler particularly in terms of bandwidth and connectivity. Bandwidth is becoming much more broadly available and improved connectivity will be the essence of spreading IT across the country. This will make more people employable in their home-towns as opposed to having to come to Colombo or the other urban centers.
Q: What role does technology play improving their ability to work in the areas that they were born and raised in and what are some of the changes that we can expect as a result of this feature of technology?
At the moment technology is slowly spreading into the rural areas and in time this will open up unprecedented opportunities for these people, and we can already see that it is starting to have a visible impact. As we develop, this whole digital divide between urban and rural areas will start to even out and we will see a lot more rural empowerment taking place where those people will also start gaining a lot of knowledge in terms of ICT as a way to progress in their own lives so that’s what I see for the future and that’s what we’re very bullish about.
Q: Can you tell me about the new direction that Microsoft is taking with the acquisition of Nokia and the launch of Windows 8.1? Can we expect a stronger Windows presence in the smart phone category?
The acquisition is pending regulatory approval but yes Microsoft as a company is transforming, we’ve always been a software company and today we call ourselves a devices and services company. That doesn’t mean that we’re not a software company anymore, we still do software but software packaged as a service and delivered differently to customers.
Q: It seems that Windows 8 is more on the cutting edge, it’s for people of the next generation, people who started early with technology like touch-screens etc.
Its best of both worlds; the traditional desktop option is there with just a click but we are also trying to be relevant to new consumer demands.
We want to be on par with this new wave of tech. The concept of touch is no longer new, it’s been there for a while and lots of new customers when they make a new acquisition of a PC or a device, they think to go for those kind of enhancements because of the productivity gains but at the same time we don’t forget about our consumers we’ve had from the start who are used to a certain way of working.
I think today we’ve gotten to the point where the whole ecosystem is now moving into a more consumer based or app based ecosystem. No longer looking at installing software but consuming software and that is what we also have with the Windows 8 platform .
The other thing is some of the new phones, the Nokia and Huawei and other phones run Windows so if I’m a consumer who runs Windows 8 across multiple devicesI will have a consistent interface and experience across all the devices.
It becomes a natural transition, so I can open a document on my Windows phone and viewing it as if it were on my tablet or PC and that’s the consistent value system that we try to provide across all our products to make life easier for our consumer and that’s a lot.
Q: Many have termed Windows 8.1 as a compromise in this sense, what has the response been so far?
Windows 8 was a big change to how many were used to working with Windows. Obviously we made the change with the right intentions but as a part of any change there will be things that you need to learn.
Windows 8 was already a great product and Windows 8.1 only enhances the experience. Of course it is a learning process and a lot of people were willing to go through because they saw tremendous value in the product.
Q: How long do you think that this kind of touch-based technology will take to proliferate more widely outside of Colombo?
I think it will happen much faster than it did in the last few years. The cost is coming down and we now have a manufacturer in Sri Lanka who will be manufacturing touch systems and this will likely bring the cost down even further.
Q: Is there something that we can gather from you experience leading up to your appointment as Country Manager of Microsoft Sri Lanka?
I’m 33 years now and my education has always been in this country, I was a student of Wesley College and all the IT programmes I studied were also in Sri Lanka. My Masters is from Sri Jayawardenapura University, so I’ve very much home-grown.
When I joined, I was a technology guy and then I became a business manager then a people manager and now the country representative for this company and I think the most important thing that can be gathered from all this my experience so far is that I acquired all the skills I needed to do these jobs locally, I did not have to travel overseas to get this knowledge
In the case of Sri Lankan universities I think we have some of the best, most competent people. The depth of knowledge that they are able to provide is quite impressive.
We have some great talent and so it really is only a question of how do we harness this talent and this is a matter of building more capacity and building numbers and that is the way to go.
Given my experience and how I progressed I have an understanding of how the IT industry here has progressed and I know what the younger generation has to go through in terms of challenges, so it is a huge opportunity take that back to Microsoft and show them what the real situation is with ICT development in Sri Lanka and what the impact can be from Microsoft’s contribution.