“You have to be a yes person”


saman perera
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Capital Maharaja Organization, ever since its establishment, has risen to the level of being probably the largest group of private sector companies in Sri Lanka with their activities spanning in the fields of Manufacturing, FMCG, Marketing, Exports, Media and Information Technology. Maharaja has become a name familiar to almost everyone in the country. This expedition towards success has been the undeniable effort of not one but many. Amidst these pillars, stands CIO Saman Perera, bearing quarter the weight of the Capital Maharaja kingdom in his shoulders. This inspiring personality has started schooling at Mahanama Vidyalaya Colombo in 1981, and has had his secondary education completed at Nalanda College Colombo. His gateway to the field of Information Technology (IT) has been more of an unforeseen outcome of a second-year undergraduate’s decision to follow IT as a subsidiary subject. He completed his degree in Physical Science in 2000, from the University of Peradeniya and had entered the job market as an instructor at the University of Moratuwa.

Q:

What were the subjects that you followed under Physical Science stream at the university?

A:

Physics, Chemistry and Pure Maths were the components of my first year, and after the first year, instead of pure maths I took three subsidiary subjects, namely Management, Economics and Computer Science. I continued doing Computer Science throughout the degree. There was a transition course for the non-IT graduates in University of Colombo called ‘the Graduate Training Program’. After graduation I studied that for three months and thereby started my career. Then I followed a Master’s of Science at the University of Moratuwa in IT.

Q:

When you had so much background experience in managerial field, why did you choose the IT field to pursue your career?

A:

I never had an exact plan or an idea. This is not a planned career. I started off with production, and after taking part in the management trainee programme at JKH, I became a production executive. Meanwhile, there was a project for ERP selection in Elephant House where they evaluated project solutions. When I was in process documentation, being responsible for the processes of the organization, the person who was in charge of the ERP project left the company, and I was asked whether I was interested in getting into this area. I showed my interest and that’s how I was involved in the implementation of the project, where I learnt about SAP. I was a part of the SAP team and later I became a SAP consultant. Then I had this urge to proceed with my higher studies in IT and decided to start my Master’s in information technology at the University of Moratuwa. I learnt how important it is to have a proper education, and this motive kept me moving.

Q:

Can you take us through a timeline where you started your career as an IT professional?

A:

I was part of John Keells Holdings IT Group since the Implementation of ERP. SAP Consultancy is a techno-functional career. Graduate training program of the University of Colombo had equipped me with the basic knowledge in IT when I entered into field of co-operate IT. I was associated with ERP systems throughout my career and handled different modules, areas and functions as well. I started as a SAP consultant and became ractice manager for ERP at John Keells Holdings, up until I was employed here at Maharaja as the group CIO.

Q:

Could you elaborate for our readers what SAP is?

A:

SAP is an ERP software (Enterprise Resource Planning) tool, which is the market leader today. It has different modules. ERP is a tool which can be accessed by all the departments of an organization. It can be purchasing, HR, Finance, Marketing or Production. Every department will access the same system in which they will keep their information centrally. So that is what we call an ERP system and SAP consist of different modules. Different organizations adopt different mechanisms by configuring the system according to their requirements.

Q:

In 1990s only big companies adopted SAP systems. Do you think the situation is still the same in terms of adoption frequency and adoption patterns in Sri Lankan business community?

A:

In early 2000, as you said only big companies had this tendency to adopt SAP systems. MAS Holdings, John Keells Holding, Hemas Holdings were some of the big companies that used SAP. SAP and Oracle were the two leading ERPs back then and in addition to that certain other products like IFS, JD Edward, IBM BPICS were also in the market. Small and medium scale companies also started implementing ERPs. The main reason for difference in period of adoption was that the larger companies could afford it, but nowadays it has become a commodity to small and medium scale companies as well. They also have started embracing new technology to be competitive in the market.

Q:

Are there any ERP systems that are locally developed?

A:

There are, but they are not very popular in Sri Lanka. ERP is a very complex tool, because it involves lots of integration between the departments and so on. There are standalone applications for different areas that are available, but not that developed as to the level of ERP subsystems.

Q:

Even though we see a lot of developing IT firms in Sri Lanka, reputed Sri Lankan brands tend to import their software solutions. What could be the reason for this?

A:

It is a complex question. If you take IFS, it is a global software and we have a development centre in Sri Lanka. It is not that we are not involved in developing, but all those ERP companies are much matured. If you take SAP, which was originated in Germany has been there for the last few decades. If you take Oracle, it is USA based. Likewise, these ERPs are matured enough to handle bigger and complex scenarios, whereas if we try to do something from the scratch, it would not be easy and would not generate the same outcome. The other thing is the local software market is very small and maintaining complex ERPs to the detailed level would not be that easy since a huge cost is involved. Then the retention of good resources within the organization is also problematic. All Sri Lankan software development companies are facing the same challenge currently. Employees tend to leave once they complete a 3-5-year work period, either for career growth or for higher studies. The need to provide higher remuneration packages to retain the staff would obviously increase the cost of development, whereas SAP can easily afford the maintenance by developing it centrally. They are charging 22% as annual maintenance charges of the sales value every year formaintenance. We have a few Sri Lankan start-up companies that are coming up with different developments on different business process like HR, CRM but not as sophisticated as ERPs.

Q:

Nowadays, there is a trend in ERP systems where they include Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) devices in ERP systems, do you have any view regarding that?

A:

A lot of people talk about IoT nowadays, and it is a growing technology. I think it will take another couple of years to get into a more mature level. There are few IoT platforms in the market, but currently they are not being used in our organization. Just like any other software product, IoT will also take some time to be stabilized and become mature within the industry.

Q:

Regardless of the benefits of technologies, unless they are proven reliable for the company, some companies hesitate to adopt new technologies immediately. Why do you think that is?

A:

There are a few things that a company considers when adopting a new solution. The first one is the affordability. Any organization considers this fact first. Even if it is the best technology available in the market if your organization cannot afford it, you cannot adopt it. The second thing is the company’s processes which needs to be matured enough to adopt the solution that you are going to deal with. If those two factors are not there, it is going to be a very difficult task to adapt the new solution into the organisation.

Q:

There are times when IT and Management fields crash together. What is your position on this?

A:

IT is a part of management which cannot be separated. They go hand in hand in any organization. It is a matter of how management sees the value of IT for the organization. If they are not seeing the value, then the departments lose their integrity. IT professionals need to convince the management by showing them the benefits and importance of IT towards the sustainable growth of an organization. IT products are solutions for the organization and if you are going to justify their worth for the organization, then definitely the management would stand with you.

Q:

Can you give us a brief account of your role as a CIO?

A:

I manage the Information Technology division for the group. Starting from the selection of a software solution, the use of new technology, till the completion of the implementation, the CIO needs to monitor the processes. After the implementation, support also comes under his purview. Governance of IT is also a part of the role of the CIO.

Q:

When there is a new technological requirement within the organization, does it come from the lower level of the organization or are you the one who takes the decision?

A:

It differs; certain requirements can come from the lower level as well. For an example, if there is a need for a change to be done in the existing system, these requirements could come from both the middle level and the lower level employment. Also, the new requirements can come from the top management or else I get to decide. It depends on the nature of the requirement and the situation.

Q:

When an IT graduate passes out from the university, what do you expect from them, with regard to skills and attitudes?

A:

Basically, it is the attitude which matters the most for me. Because IT becomes more simple to the user with practice. For an example, if we take a purely developmental house sort of a working environment then obviously technical skills are important. But when it comes to user based IT environment, like what we do here which is customizing, training and performing small modifications then interpersonal skills are important. For that we need a good attitude, because IT is not an 8 to 5 job. Your involvement might be needed in the early mornings or even at midnight. You need to have the right mind set to adopt yourself round the clock. Due to these reasons I feel attitude is more important for the groups’ IT function.

Q:

Jobs like business analysts, software developers require knowledge about both Management and IT up to a certain extent these days. Our department offers students the background of both while giving them the chance to specialize in either IT or Management. Some specialize in IT but they go with business analysing that requires more management skills. Is that a good practice?

A:

It is again the skill set of that individual that matters; some IT specialists tend to have excellent people handling and interpersonal skills. They will climb up the career ladder and get into management easily, but then again, most technical personalities lacks of management skills. Most of them try to think inside a technical box where their perspectives are different. But when it comes to business, it is not always about technical skills but how a person deals with IT and management with the set of skills they possess. When it comes to IT in a business, you must see from the operational perspective and not entirely from the technical side of it.

Q:

So your advice for an undergraduate is to focus on their management skills as well, rather than going with IT alone?

A:

I believe that soft skills are mandatory too.

Q:

You mentioned earlier that the attitude matters the most, what kind of attitude do you expect from your employees?

A:

First thing is the learning attitude, because IT is not something that you learn overnight. It is all about how you learn from others or by yourself through reading. Nowadays you have access to a variety of platforms to improve your knowledge, because the technology is developing rapidly. You have to stay alert and keep upwith new trends. The second thing is the positive attitude, which is very important. If you have a mind-set full of restrictions and if you are worried about thinking out of the box, you have a minor chance of progressing further in your field. You have to be a ‘yes’ person. There is a solution to every problem, and you have to start looking at problems in that angle.

Q:

IT is a necessity for any organization nowadays. According to you, what are your opinions of a manager who has a pure academic background in management and a manager who had climbed the career ladder through holding positions related to IT?

A:

I think it is about experience and maturity. A certain amount of experience is needed, and experience earns you things that a degree would not get you. You might know the theory, but it is crucial to understand the practical aspects concerning organizational behaviour. Certain people inherit management qualities, whether they have a degree or not; it is in their blood. Doing a degree in management does not mean that you have the skills. I feel it is all about your experience and thinking. Sometimes we see top level leaders who do not have academic qualifications. I am not saying that education is not important, but I believe developing ones skill set is mandatory.

Q:

What do you think about entrepreneurs in the IT field?

A:

There are few IT entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka who are doing quite a decent job inside the country. I am expecting to see more of them with the start-up culture.

Q:

Management has been there since the start of civilization whereas IT wasn’t there 200 years ago. But now it has become a significant part of our lives and is evolving rapidly. The aim of our magazine is to bridge the gap between Management and IT. So how do you value a person with both IT and Management skills?

A:

IT is a tool to run a business better and, how you leverage it is up to you. A successful manager will use this tool to manage his work better. You could be having the best IT solutions, but if you do not know how to use it for the betterment of your organization, you will fail as a manager. It is all about how you use your given information and control resources to manage your scope better.

Exposition Magazine Issue 15

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