Every year the IESL Ray Wijewardene Memorial lecture is graced by speakers who embody many of the points on the wide spectrum that is innovation, and this year is no different with the Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of Virtusa Corporation Kris Canekeratne set to provide his insights into the culture of innovation that has been instilled at Virtusa.
As a company Virtusa’s aim has been to provide “end-to-end digital transformation and information technology (IT) outsourcing services” to its various customers, many of which are Global 2000 companies. It is fitting therefore that the man behind a company dedicated to the future speaks at an event honouring another such individual.
Philip Revatha (Ray) Wijewardene was of course an extraordinary Sri Lankan, who having been educated at two of the most prestigious universities in the world, Cambridge and Harvard, continued to excel in nearly every area he put his mind to, be it agriculture, aviation, engineering design, inventions, renewable energy technologies or water sports.
The Ray Wijewardene Charitable Trust (RWCT) was established in early 2011 to promote Ray’s vision and ideas in Sri Lanka. This is something that shares several of the underlying principles of Virtusa.
From a hiring process which evaluates core employee characteristics beyond that of paper qualifications, to ensuring the basic needs of an employee such as job security and mental wellbeing, to the more innovative facets of problem solving such as the ‘gamification’ of key processes and projects and the utilisation of an in-house social network, Virtusa has been at head of the pack throughout its journey.
“How a bold idea and an engaged global team ignited a firestorm of creative thought to build a billion dollar business” reads the tagline behind the Virtusa story, and in an exclusive interview with Daily FT, Canekeratne elaborated on the many tenets behind his company’s success, as well as what we can expect to hear during his lecture on 29 October. Following are excerpts:
By Madushka Balasuriya
Q: To start off, could you highlight some of the key touch points your Ray Wijewardene lecture will look to cover?
A: I intend to cover three areas: what Virtusa is today and how it reflects the dynamics of the global marketplace and the demand for digital transformation; how our culture of innovation has contributed towards building our platform and what it takes to create that kind of culture; and third, what the future holds for us and arguably all businesses. I also plan to acknowledge Ray and all his contributions to the world and encourage those in the audience to engage with Virtusa in order to do the same.
Q: On that note, could you elaborate on the nuts and bolts of the Virtusa culture that sets it apart from the rest?
A: I’ve described Virtusa as a people company inside a technology company. Our ability to innovate for our clients and ourselves is directly tied to our culture and how innovative and committed our people are. It is my primary responsibility and that of the management team to ensure that our culture aligns with and supports that outcome. And as we look to the future, that will become even more important. I would argue that it’s our prioritisation of innovation and daily commitment to it that sets us apart, along with a handful of other supporting approaches.
We have an explicit articulation of the values that support and align with innovation. Our values are captured in a simple acronym: PIRL. Passion, Innovation, Respect, and Leadership. We are seeking people at every level of the organisation that embrace those values as their own.
We work hard to build trust and transparency throughout the organisation. Two years ago, Google initiated Project Aristotle, a comprehensive internal research initiative to identify what makes certain teams more innovative, more high performing than other teams. The number one attribute: psychological safety. People are more willing to step forward with their ideas, more willing to engage openly and inventively, when they feel safe with the other people in the room.
In addition to Psychological Safety, we have found that transparency and gamification of best-in-class software engineering metrics drive higher productivity and fosters innovation. Specifically, our gamified Continuous Integration Continuous Deployment (CICD) software engineering platform provides a fun and challenging environment for engineers to push the contours of what is possible, greatly spurring innovation.
Finally, we use technology to facilitate and foster innovation, to achieve what I call innovation at scale. In addition to our gamified CICD engineering platform, we’ve invented the first of its kind workplace social engagement platform, called vPlus. It’s a proprietary platform that allows our team members to “work-as-they-live” and “live-as-they-work”, integrating social collaboration, video learning, advanced search, peer feedback and gamification. Alongside vPlus is vInnovate, a platform to encourage grassroots level innovation that is both client and company focused, and LDPs (Leadership Development Programs) that are made available to deserving team members across the company.
Q: What were some of the key challenges in creating and implementing such a culture?
A: You can’t decree an innovation culture. You can’t make people be innovative. And I’m not sure you can train them. What you can do is allow them, enable them, and celebrate them when they are innovative. Fundamentally, innovation organisations are the consequence of innovative cultures which are the result of innovative leadership. Which really means it starts with leaders. Since our inception the management team of Virtusa has been focused on fostering innovation at every level of the organisation, encouraging all employees not just to “do” but to “solve”.
“Solutioning” is a way of operating within Virtusa, serving as a force multiplier for sustained innovation and a highly-effective talent attractor. Also the gamified CICD platform has resulted in best-in-class engineers and engineering teams across the company constantly setting and resetting the bar of excellence, and effectively contributing to an ever-innovating meritocracy by leveraging the power of “engineer sourcing” to innovate and drive high-performance.
Another challenge involves the global scale and distributed nature of our business. We have over 22,000 employees located in 50 different cities. Building a uniform, consistent culture when you’re dealing with geo-cultural differences, time differences and at times conflicting priorities is not easy. We’ve tried to reduce the disconnects by over-communicating and establishing next level leadership that really is charged with reinforcing the key messages on a daily basis. We also have a top-down to bottom-up strategic planning process that really helps achieve alignment across the globe.
Q: What are some projects that Virtusa is currently working on that you’re particularly excited about?
A: Virtusa Digital Engineering teams are engaged with many of the world’s best known brands on their most transformative digital 2.0 programs. Virtusa has been enlisted, for instance, by one of the top five US-based global banks to build an all-digital, mobile only banking platform to service US consumers. This advanced Digital 2.0 platform, ushers in a new era of US banking that is akin to how Millennials, Gen Zs and other digital consumers open and operate accounts with high-tech internet companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Uber, etc.
In these examples, digital consumers open accounts through their digital/mobile device as opposed to going to a branch office, meeting with a customer rep and filling out paperwork. In a short period of 10 months, Virtusa developed and deployed the leading all-digital, mobile only bank for our client. Digital consumers across the US can now open a bank account on their digital device and enjoy a true Digital 2.0 banking experience.
In yet another example, Virtusa Digital engineering was chosen by a leading US insurance company to build a cloud-based Global Sales and Service Platform, which our client plans to deploy in several countries. Virtusa has been engaged by this client to provide end-to-end services related to the design and development of this core platform including consulting, design, build, testing and implementation.
The development of this platform is part of a broad strategic partnership we have with our client to help them reimagine their customer experience through digital omni-channel transformation, with an objective to improve customer experience and increase speed to market over a multiyear timeframe. We are very enthusiastic about our partnership and our ability to bring our Digital 2.0 solutions and services towards a strategic transformation at one of the largest global insurance companies.
Q: You spoke of ‘gamification’ within Virtusa, could you possibly provide some examples of this?
A: Virtusa’s gamified CICD platform (Insight Live), equips our engineers with the skills and knowledge to compete with the best in the world. It does that by providing real-time and fine-grained feedback on all software engineering activities that will lead to individual and team success. For example, the moment developer’s check-in their code, they are immediately shown areas for improvement, and are instantaneously rewarded with points through our gamification engine. That real-time feedback serves both as an active educator and as a profound, peer pressure based motivator. The result is an engineering environment that is fundamentally a high performance meritocracy where self-improvement and personal development are the central tenet of performance.
Insight Live also provides our engineers with an AIML based Virtual Digital Engineering Expert armed with knowledge and best-practices available 24x7 to provide guidance and recommendations. Every engineer effectively has a real-time coach and trainer standing by to help them maximise their strengths, improve on their weaknesses, and make steady progress with their engineering capabilities and career path.
Q: You also said you were looking to touch on what the future holds for many businesses including Virtusa. Care to elaborate?
A: Virtusa and the industries we serve are at a seminal moment. The digitisation of businesses and the world will only accelerate. The task to innovate will only grow in consequence. Virtusa is incredibly well positioned to help our clients envision and usher in transformative digital futures, creating competitive differentiation for them and for us.
The central tenet of IT in the 21st century is Integration and Digitisation, and that is our central value proposition. More and more global companies realise that the next phase of productivity and competitive advantage lies in the integration and synthesis of historically discrete systems, data and the supporting technologies, and building the connective tissue to support an engaging digital experience. The technology platform companies are quickly demonstrating the power of building businesses that are exclusively Digital. You cannot go to an Amazon customer centre, sales office or call an Amazon call centre to buy or return anything from/to Amazon; the only way you can transact is through an omni-channel Digital experience. Most industries in the US are rapidly embracing what technology platform companies are doing by building Digital first and, in some cases, digital only businesses.
Q: Finally, you mention that Virtusa reflects the dynamics of the global marketplace. Without giving away too much of your lecture, could you possibly point out some key similarities and – if any – concerns?
A: Our focus on integration and digitisation reflects the next stage of IT evolution, or what Klaus Schwab – the Head of the World Economic Forum – calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Virtually every major company in the world is realising that scalable competitive advantage and material productivity improvements lie in how they bring together heretofore discrete infrastructural systems that support the delivery of effective and efficient digital interfaces.
What we do is what the world must do to not just compete but survive. Interestingly, we are practicing what we preach in our own efforts to integrate our systems and build both internal and external stakeholder interfaces that yield tangible value in multiple forms. The other similarity lies in the fundamental truth that in today’s hyper-competitive, ever changing world, the most critical capacity is innovation. As Virtusa is helping our clients to innovate what and how they do what they do, we are doing the same. The only concern we have is how to innovate faster.