IFS Supporting Sri Lanka’s Talent and Innovation for 20 Years

As IFS Sri Lanka celebrates 20 years of business, its Senior Vice President and Head of World Operations Ranil Rajapakse looks back on its journey of growth, speaks about its extremely successful university partnerships and explains how such partnerships can impact the future of the IT industry in Sri Lanka

Can you reflect on IFS’s 20-year journey in Sri Lanka?
A: IFS came to Sri Lanka at the end of 1997, an early time for the software industry in the country. We started with 28 staff in a two-room office. In early 1998, we started our first software development projects that reached customers by the end of the year. At that time, we were tasked with an ambitious plan to expand the company to 200 staff in 2 years. So, we launched an active programme with universities aimed at capacity building and recruitment. By the end of 1998, we had over 100 staff. We have expanded at a rapid pace since then, and today we are one of the leading software development companies in the country. Out of 3,500 IFS staff globally, over 1,000 are now based in Sri Lanka.

What role does IFS Sri Lanka play within the global IFS Group?
A: IFS Sri Lanka is now an integral part of the IFS Group, and the biggest product development and support centre within IFS. We also have a sales and implementation organization that serves the Sri Lankan and South Asian markets. Speaking of our product development and support operations, about 60% of IFS’s product R&D happens in Sri Lanka, including innovation and ideation. This includes an innovation hub called IFS Labs, a unit that looks at new trends and technologies, and how they can be used in our products. The technologies that IFS Labs is researching and working on right now include IoT, wearables, augmented reality, software bots and drones. Today, we have over 500 of our staff in Sri Lanka working on the development of our enterprise applications software products.

We also provide almost 80% of global product support for our customers. Our product support includes a 24/7 emergency operation, which handles critical customer issues. That is a huge plus for the whole organisation because customers know that if they run into any difficulties at any time of the day, anywhere in the world, they will get support.

We have a training organization here that trains IFS staff globally. I trained most of the first 300 staff myself, and established the training organization back then. IFS staff from overseas started coming to Sri Lanka to follow our training programmes and we sent our trainers abroad to other IFS offices to train staff. It became so successful that, a few years ago, we formalised it as the IFS Academy.

What are the success factors that helped IFS Sri Lanka grow?
A: First, we are an equal part of the global organisation. We do not operate as an “offshoring centre” for global IFS. From the beginning, we have had integrated teams with colleagues from different countries working together to develop, deliver and support our products. This is something that we do until today.

Second, we have built an organization culture of freedom and responsibility. We give people a lot of freedom to be creative and innovative, but at the same time, they need to be responsible for their deliveries. We are a casual company with a flat structure. Across the organisation, we put a lot of emphasis on analytical thinking, creativity and innovation competencies.

We are also working with several key initiatives aimed at creating a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship among students

We also focus a lot on diversity and facilitate a good work-life balance. We provide our staff with global exposure to both business processes and technology. We facilitate travels abroad to experience new trends and work with different people. This helps us improve communication and cross-cultural understanding in a distributed software development setup.

Third, we have built a close and fruitful relationship with universities in the country, which has helped us expand over the years. Among many other activities, we have been working together with universities to produce industry-ready graduates.

IFS has a long history of collaborating with universities in Sri Lanka. How does this partnership enrich students and universities?
A: Our collaboration with universities dates back to the inception of the company in Sri Lanka. Every year, we award six month internships to many students. We also help students with their final-year projects by providing a thesis idea, exposing them to new trends and technologies, and making their projects relevant to real-world situations. We have a mentorship programme for first- and second-year students, as well as many programmes to develop their soft-skills. We work together with universities on curriculum development and teach full semester courses. We have also donated several computer laboratories to support students. We are also working with several key initiatives aimed at creating a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship among students. Most recently, we established an endowed chair for innovation and entrepreneurship and an innovation and entrepreneurship incubator at one of the top universities in the country.

We have an interesting scholarship programme for students after their A/Levels to follow a part-time degree. We fully sponsor the degree programme, cover their expenses, and they work for us four days a week; so by the time they graduate, they have four-five years of industry experience combined with a degree.

Our university collaboration has been a way of “giving back” to the system. We want to see more top talent coming out of universities who think out-of-the-box and step out of their comfort zones. This is important if we want to envision for ourselves a knowledge-based economic future. This also cultivates an entrepreneurial mindset and develops industry-ready graduates. Over the past two decades, we have contributed over Rs500 million towards university-centred activities.

What are your immediate priorities?
A: Increasingly, we see the world is becoming intelligent. Artificial intelligence and machine learning, software bots, robots, drones, autonomous vehicles, virtual and augmented reality, and Blockchain will have an impact on how we develop and use business applications.

At IFS, together with a next generation user interface and user experience, we are looking at how we can bring these trends and technologies into our products. We want to train our staff and expose them not only to new technologies and trends, but also give them more exposure to the business application domain. It will be interesting times for us as we look towards the next decade of IFS operations in Sri Lanka.