Women can do IT – Shehani Seneviratne

Shehani Seneviratne – Chief Operating Officer at 99X Technology.

99X Technology is an award-winning software solutions provider, a regional leader in software product engineering and technology innovation. Leading from the forefront is the indomitable Shehani as its Chief Operating Officer and Director. With over two decades worth of experience in the IT industry, Shehani’s journey in IT has seen her work with disciplines such as software engineering, pioneering agile, project delivery, process transformation and consulting, operations, resource planning, talent management and more. She is a member of the SLASSCOM General Council and heads the SLASSCOM Quality Forum. Shehani is also a Board Member of the Women’s Chamber for Digital and actively promotes the participation of more women in the IT industry. 

Despite being eligible to study Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Shehani followed her passion for IT and pursued a BSc degree in Information Systems at the Informatics Institute of Technology, which was known as the Informatics Institute of Computer Studies at the time. “At a time when most universities did not offer degree programs in IT, IIT enabled me to fulfill my dream, and I thoroughly enjoyed my years at the institute,” said Shehani.

Following her graduation, Shehani was employed at Millennium IT as a Software Engineer and was later promoted to a Team Lead. In 2003, Shehani joined Eurocenter DDC, now known as 99X Technology, as a Project Manager and worked her way up the ladder to her current position as COO. “I have been a part of the management team for more than 10 years, and I believe I have been able to contribute to the success and growth of the company.”

Speaking of the current position of the Sri Lankan IT industry and its status gender equality, Shehani stated, “Sri Lanka has captured the attention of global industry analysts as a preferred destination for the ICT and BPM industries. Among other accolades, Sri Lanka won the Delivery Destination of the Year Award 2019 at the Global Sourcing Association Awards in London. The ICT sector has emerged as an important source of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka during the last decade. The sector has grown by 120% over the past five years, becoming the fifth largest source of foreign earnings in the economy. The industry has set ambitious targets of becoming a US$ 5 billion industry creating 200,000 direct jobs and enabling the launch of 1,000 start-ups by 2022.

“52% of the Sri Lankan population is made up of women. However, only 29% of the Sri Lankan ICT workforce are women and of the total number of senior staff in ICT companies, only 21.7% are females. This is quite similar to the composition of graduates at the universities, which indicates that we need to increase the percentage of females at a school/university level. The total demand for IT graduates in 2019 stood at 21,000 while the supply of IT graduates is just 9,000. These statistics reemphasize that we need to get as many females as possible into the IT work cadre.”

According to Shehani, societal and parental perceptions of gender-based norms, particularly in relation to IT, is one of the main impediments to a woman’s pursuit of an IT-related career, which often leads to a low uptake of science and technology (STEM) subjects by female students. “Secondly, even if they do pursue an IT degree, they may decide to either join the academia, work in another field or not work at all. Some give up work when family commitments overtake their work-life priorities. This has a serious impact on the supply issue,” said Shehani, who is a mother of two teenage daughters.

“I value the support of my husband and parents in taking care of my kids and household affairs. It would have been impossible to build a career and balance affairs at home, if not for the support they have given me over the years,” she added.  

When asked why most women opt not to climb the hierarchy of the IT sector, the COO replied, “I feel it’s a perception that it will be tough and they might not be able to cope, especially as it’s a male dominated industry.”

On the steps necessary to encourage more women to pursue a career in IT, Shehani recommended, “This needs to start at the school level, more girls should be encouraged to pursue IT as a major subject, and they need to be provided with the facilities to do so. If their strengths and passion lie in IT, then nothing should stand in the way of them pursuing it as a career. I would also recommend setting up career guidance units in girls’ schools to provide advice on the options available to women aside from the traditional lines of work. Companies should also provide flexible working arrangements such as work from home, flexi work hours and onsite daycare facilities to better accommodate female employees with family commitments etc.”

Shehani also had some words of wisdom to aspiring female IT professionals: “IT is one of the fastest growing industries in Sri Lanka. Make use of the numerous opportunities available to carve out a career in IT based on your strengths. Never give up your career, more flexible work arrangements will be introduced in the future.”

She went on to add, “Many international customers now request gender-balanced teams. Also, women are known to be loyal and productive, and contribute to lower turnover. They also promote ethics and values, balance risk-taking in organizations, multi-task and bring in the caring aspect to companies. I do not believe in positive discrimination either. It should be an equal ground for everyone, where everyone is respected and the most suitable/competent should win and succeed. 99X Technology is an equal opportunity employer, where there are many women in leadership roles. Personally, I’ve never felt discriminated being in a male-dominated management team. We all support each other and work together as a team.”

“Sri Lanka has a lot of potential and has been internationally recognized for its capabilities. But I feel in terms of our local policy implementation, systems and processes, we really need to step up. We see private businesses actively moving towards digitization; however, it would be good to see the public sector following suit and taking the lead as well,” Shehani noted, of the current status of the digital revolution in Sri Lanka.