Freedom is essential

Senior Director & Head of Strategic Initiatives,Virtusa

Director, Sahana Foundation

-Chamindra de Silva

You are a winner of MIT Global Indus Technovator Award (GITA). What was this award about? What drove you to achieve this award?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology GITA award was organized by the Indian Business Club at MIT, which widely recognizes innovators from South Asian origin. When I received that award, I was leading the ‘Sahana’ project and contributing to Humanitarian Open Source in 2007. They recognized and nominated me for the award, for the contribution made to Humanitarian Open Source and Disaster Management.

How did you become enthused in cutting-edge technologies and R&D?

I think that in the IT engineering field, it will be wise to take interest and motivate by the cutting-edge technology. IT is a rapidly changing industry and if you are not passionate about the new and disruptive technology, you will be left behind. Personally as a child, I was interested in science fiction and the new ideas and thoughts it presents. I was curious about new ways of doing things and how those technologies are going to change our world and culture. Some of the technology that science fiction writers wrote, have become realistic today. A good example, Auther C. Clarke and his notion of a Geosyncronous Satelite. I am interested in cutting-edge technology not for the new features, but rather how it changes the way we think and do things.

You seem to be very passionate about Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). How and why did you find this area interesting?

I am in particularly interested in Free Open Source Software in humanitarian context. And essentially FOSS, is about software freedom. This freedom is very important in the critical moments of disaster response. If you do not have the freedom to modify the software to tailor it to the requirements during disasters, you are introducing quite a constraint that can reduce your ability to help with IT. That freedom is essential, not just in disaster management, also for working together to create new and radically innovative software. Open Source communities are melting pots for new ideas and it is a good oppotunity for Sri Lankans to take their ideas to an international stage. The Sahana project I lead for a few year grew an international community, simply with the interest and contribution of people around the work to contribute their IT, Academic and domain skills to a humanitarian cause.

Tell us about the importance of FOSS in current context in your organization

For VirtusaPolaris, Free and Open Source Software is something we try to promote. We are not a product company, but a service company. At the end of the day, VirtusaPolaris is in the business of delivering high quality source code to our clients. In most instances, the source code is owned by the clients. Open Source components helps us increase the pace of innovation. If we deliver mature Open Source components to our clients, that freedom is passed on to our clients, so it is beneficial for them as it helps them to reduce vendor lock-in. Additionally, we can do more with Open Source components to modify them as required in order to address the requirement or learn exactly how it works. Android is an example. You can actually modify the entire OS if you want and alter to create a customized version of your own for your phone. In Sri Lanka, we have an advantage, because we have a high density of Open Source project contributors in our country, and we have an unique brand and a lot of recognition as an Open Source hub in the IT world. We should continue applying that advantage as much as possible in promoting the Sri Lankan IT industry.


What is Software Intellectual Property Compliance?

Even with the Free and Open Source software, Intellectual Property Compliance is very important. It is simply protecting the property of a user. If a person stole something that you own or took credit for it, you will be disappointed about it. There is a similar context in software; if you steal somebody else’s hard work, it is not considered an ethical practice. At least you should give them the credit, which most FOSS software requires to. If this happens in a culture or environment, we can work to build something even greater. Also, from a business perspective, if we do not have the respect for the intellectual property of our clients, especially in large firms, they will be less reluctant to work with us. If they notice our employees stealing IP, they will not be doing business with us, and we will get a bad reputation as a country. From a business built-on context, we, at VirtusaPolaris, have a lot of rigor on how we manage intellectual property for this reason. We have trainings, processes, legal constructs and strong IT security controls to help convince clients they can trust us.

In Sri Lanka, are there any laws, acts or regulations regarding software intellectual property?

I think that there are laws in Sri Lanka to protect the intellectual property. But I don’t think that these laws are enforce much. There is a thriving piracy industry in Sri Lanka. So, I think at least in the IT context, companies have to be very protective of their client software. We have to encourage our people who work in these professional environment to understand the importance of protecting the software and client IP. And companies who work in an international context have to carry out their work to prove that there is no risk in regarding IP in such environment.

Could you please explain what the Sahana Foundation is? As a Board Director, how do you contribute to accomplish the mission of ‘Sahana’ foundation?

The ‘Sahana Foundation’ is 501(c)3 nonprofit entity, setup in the state of California to promote the development and adoption of Free and Open Source Disaster Management software. What we carry out is build FOSS software to help ensure organizations like the Red Cross or Governments, prepare for disasters. In countries like Pakistan, China, even in New York City, they have installed ‘Sahana’ software for their disaster response. It helps to manage large scale disasters effectively. First, my role was a volunteer, helping the Asian Tsunami in which triggered the development of this software. Then I took the leadership in a project for the new platform, which we rebuilt and was the architect for that. Then I moved on to be the CTO of the foundation. We took it from country to country, responding to disaster after disaster, helping especially the governments, and it was improved and refined in the disaster environment. Finally, right now, I’m on the board which may not be so involved as it used to be, but still providing the strategic leadership on the ‘Sahana project’. I am also working to contribute the call center management solution that VirtusaPolaris built for the flooding disaster in Sri Lanka this year that helped in the response. VirtusaPolaris has also contributed a lot to the Sahana Foundation.


. Today you are a researcher, an expert, an enthusiast of technologies and also a humanitarian who is very passionate about what you do. How did this journey begin? Tell us about your early days.

My dad got me into IT, very early. When I was eight, he put me to a class to learn on logo. It all started there. Then I was fascinated by moving this on screen turtle with programing commands. As I went through schooling, I was always into computing, reading even MS excel manuals for fun! Then I got interested in computer games. I am still a gamer. I was greatly into PC games. I even started hacking game codes. I also created my own games too. That is where my love for programming started. I did a general Engineering and Computer Science degree at Oxford University, though my passion was for Computer Science. And then, naturally I fell into the IT profession, because it was something I was passionate about, loved to do and allowed me to try new things and technologies. I joined VirtusaPolaris as an intern when there were only 18 people and had an opportunity to grow within this company in many different roles. Now we have over 19,000 employees working around the globe. I got involved in Humanitarian software, when Tsunami struck Sri Lanka, it created a big impact on me. It made me want to drop everything for contributing to the Sahana project. So, I took a Sabbitical for a few years and worked on that. That was the most important thing to do at the time.

Sri Lanka is rich with young innovators who possess big ideas. As industry leaders, how can you help to get them moving?

I think, Sri Lanka has a high density of potential innovators. We need to create more opportunities for these jewels and find to shine within the country, rather than let them go out of Sri Lanka to shine. So we have to create the platforms that enable young students and entrepreneurs to take their ideas to a world stage. I’ve seen fantastic, innovative, world-class ideas in some of their 4th student year projects, but they just don’t go beyond that. There is a very little opportunity for them to take it to the next level, and few teach them how to do it. I think we fall a bit short as a culture that actively promotes each other and is proud of our Nation. I think that holds us back greatly. So, at least I want to do something at VirtusaPolaris to create one platform for this. VirtusaPolaris is a fantastic platform due to its large international client base, but available only for insiders. If we can create opportunities for students and entrepreneurs and partner with them, it’ll help taking that idea to the next level. That is something that I will like to work on. I think that large companies have to be open to partnering with smaller startups, to allow these new ideas to emerge. Only in such harmony we will be able to really make an impact in the world stage, and it will create and give more benefits for all of us if we manage to do it.

What is the piece of message which you’ll give out to them?

In the IT context, today it does not matter where you live, in terms of what you can learn. The opportunities today are a lot more than it was for earlier generation. Everything is on the internet. You have MIT courses, Harvard courses, all in the internet. All the materials are there for you. All you have to do is to find an internet connection and learn from it. The trick is how to learn by yourself and not to wait for someone to spoon feed you. Everything is at your fingertips, so make use of what is available. Keep learning and seek to become an expert in that area. The pace of the industry today is such that we can’t just rest on our laurels and say that we are experts. So, my recommendation is to capitalize what you have on the internet, learn as much as possible, become an expert in some area, become a speaker in that area, and start participating in International communities. I think Sri Lankans have a lot of potential, and we just need to believe in ourselves and also each other.

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