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Sunday June 20th, 2021

Lackshmindra Fernando on building a world-class tech company

Lackshmindra Fernando, Executive Director at Engenuity

With a proven track record in leadership positions for several multinational corporations—for which he was often headhunted, Lackshmindra Fernando could have migrated to another country, but he decided to stay back to build Engenuity into a world-class tech company.

Can you tell us about your career and notable achievements?

I started my career in the Tech Industry in 1992, selling IBM systems with EastWest Information Systems (known as EWIS today), and quickly grew in the organization to lead a team. In 2002, I joined Hewlett-Packard as Country Manager for Personal Systems Group and helped secure the number one position and retained it for eight consecutive years. The business grew 58-fold during my time, which was eight times faster than the market. In 2012 I joined Dell as Country Manager and engineered one of the most dramatic turnarounds. Within just three quarters, Dell’s business grew 4-fold and rose to the number one position and sustained it. Effie recognised Dell as the most valued brand outperforming every other brand across all industries. Thereafter, I was elevated to a leadership position for Dell’s South Asia Business, based in Singapore. In 2018, while preparing to migrate overseas with my family, I was offered a position at Engenuity to establish its business in this part of the world: so I put my migration plans on hold to take up this exciting new challenge.

“Be passionate about what you do. We spend eight hours or more of our day at work, so you need to be confident that you are doing something you enjoy”

How has Engenuity performed under your leadership?

In our first year, we met our shareholder expectations, but the second year was tough. The business acquired two companies, and as a result, haemorrhaged resources, but we bounced back stronger than ever the very next year after re-engineering our business model. Today, under the Engenuity brand, we have three companies focused on three areas in technology. Engenuity AI is a software practice that offers a suite of products developed based on artificial intelligence and data science that enjoys encouraging new customer acquisitions in Europe and the South Pacific. Engenuity Telco provides infrastructure building for all the telecom operators, where we build towers, do technical migrations, fibre roll-outs, and provide IOT/SMART solutions and more. The third company in the group is the systems integration arm, which is the traditional IT business centred on solutions offered across key industry verticals. Engenuity AI and Engenuity Telco are performing extremely well, and the systems integration business is gaining traction fast. We continue to invest in these businesses to improve capabilities so that we can fast track growth.

What is your vision for Engenuity?

I continue to develop Engenuity’s founding vision to build a world-class tech brand by attracting the best talent the academia and industry here have to offer: an approach that emulates the Silicon Valley model. The main pillars of Engenuity are based on integrity and carrying out an ethical practice. I ensure that we always play by the rules and maintain these pillars in our day to day business activities. My other priority is to invest in an agile and diverse customer-centric team that believes in working smart.

In Sri Lanka, everyone is talking about digital transformation. What does it mean to you, and how can we fast track this?

Before embarking on digital transformation, we need to understand Sri Lanka’s digital competency scope and where the country ranks compared to peer economies. Also, the digital transformation road map of a startup, as opposed to a large government institution, is very different, which is why we need to look at each industry separately, on a case by case basis.

A study conducted by Cisco in 2019 places Sri Lanka with a digital score of 10.3, which ranks us 90th out of 140 countries. The digital score determines a country’s digital readiness based on basic needs, human capital development, ease of doing business, business and government investment, startup environment, technology infrastructure and technology adoption. The overall digital readiness score ranges between 4.32 and 20.26, which places Sri Lanka at an acceleration stage. Digital readiness is a critical pillar for a country to grow: the development needle will not move without it. All stakeholders looking at a digital transformation in this country will have to work much harder if we are to improve our score. If I were to pick the most important priority in this regard, that would be Human Capital Development. The rejuvenated ICTA Sri Lanka roadmap presents a very promising strategy, and if we could reach some of those milestones, Sri Lanka will make great strides forward. We need to compliment the telecom operators who are doing a great job improving digital tech’s penetration rate. Engenuity as a company will play its part and facilitate digital services to all stakeholders and thus enable the digital transformation journey of the country.

What is one leadership lesson you learned the hard way?

Setting yourself ambitious targets are good, but you need to avoid being over-ambitious because falling short of goals or hitting an obstacle can push you to become too defensive, and that can negatively impact your enterprising spirit. There have been times where being over-ambitious got the better of me. Achieving hypergrowth is difficult, but sustaining growth is harder. I learnt that you need to evaluate your options and market condition with care and plan for incremental and sustainable growth. At Engenuity, the acquisition-led growth model nearly cost us much more than we anticipated. However, we were flexible enough to re-set and re-strategise faster, and turned around all our business quickly, and today they are delivering sustainable growth.

“I continue to develop Engenuity’s founding vision to build a world-class tech brand by attracting the best talent the academia and industry here have to offer: an approach that emulates the silicon valley model”

What is the boldest thing you ever did as a business leader?

My shift from HP to Dell was extremely bold. I had been with HP for 10 years and was very secure and stable when I was approached by Dell. They were very clear with what they wanted: Dell wanted to triple the size of their business and gain market leadership status. I was told that I had one year to make this happen, if not, Dell would pull out of Sri Lanka. Many of my friends and even family advised against the move, as HP was well-positioned and Dell had just one-fourth of HP’s market share at that time. It was an intimidating challenge, but I knew it was possible. So I took up Dell’s offer against the advice of family and friends. Looking back, I am so happy that I made that bold move, not just because I was able to achieve a dramatic turnaround in less than nine months, but more importantly, the opportunity to do that and have exposure to a brand like Dell were more important to me.

Having said that, my boldest decision yet was postponing my migration plans to join Engenuity. My family and friends were more intense in their objections this time around but the founder’s vision for Engenuity held me!

Getting into a new venture like this posed a lot of questions and risks. I had to think hard about long term value, commitment from shareholders and sustainability. This was a new experience for me as my previous experience was from a multinational corporation where everything is well structured, where the only thing you had to do is go out there and perform. So for me, Engenuity was a challenge because I had to start from scratch, put in the structure, build the culture and set the strategy.

What are your thoughts on your leadership and creating purpose-driven talent?

Grooming talent is not an easy task. The availability of good human capital is a massive challenge in this country. With many career options available at present, youngsters and seniors alike can get lost by making the wrong career decisions. We as leaders must guide them and help them stay focused on a career path that showcases their strengths and help them develop these strengths to become productive. We have lots of youngsters in our team at Engenuity, and having them is a great experience! They have the energy, the ideas and they understand market requirements and trends: all they need is a nudge in the right direction and a good support system.

What advice do you have for young people to reach the pinnacle of their careers?

Be passionate about what you do. We spend eight hours or more of our day at work, so you need to be confident that you are doing something you enjoy. However, in reality, there will be highs and lows and you need to remember to enjoy the journey than the destination. You need to embrace failures and losses and learn from them and grow. Do what you love to do: don’t pursue a career for the sake of pleasing those around you. That would be a big mistake.

“Engenuity as a company will play its part and facilitate digital services to all stakeholders and thus enable the digital transformation journey of the country.”