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The Island of Ingenuity Rises Again

Sri Lanka’s IT industry just added another feather to its cap.

Sri Lanka’s IT industry is dwarfed by that of its northern neighbour, but the island nation more than makes up for it by the imaginative solutions it is able to offer customers. The world-class talent pool available in the country has prompted firms such as the London Stock Exchange Group to acquire a Sri Lankan software company to run their core trading software platform. It is not surprising then, that Sri Lanka was crowned the “Outsourcing Destination Of The Year-2019” for the third time by the National Outsourcing Association of the UK. Previously, the country won the award in 2013, and 2014.

Sri Lankan software professionals are in high demand. A recent survey conducted by ICTA Sri Lanka has found that there is an annual demand of more than 20,000 software professionals. As the sector continues to grow, this demand for quality talent will only grow. And there is no sign of business slowing down. Day by day, more and more companies are flocking to Colombo in search of high quality IT expertise.

But why do customers prefer Sri Lanka for IT offshoring?

Culture

Sri Lankans are generally more in tune with cultural behaviours in the west. Sri Lanka lacks an outsized homegrown entertainment industry similar to Bollywood. As a result, Sri Lankans are exposed to western media and pop culture from an early age, which allows them to be comfortable with those from a different culture. Combine this with the legendary Sri Lankan hospitality, and you have the perfect ‘unfair advantage’. As a result, Sri Lankan software professionals find it easy to get along well with their Western counterparts, leading to faster execution and better collaboration.

Just ask the management of Nelly.com, a Scandinavian eCommerce player, who decided to deploy an extended development team at Calcey.

Flexibility

Except for a few large scale players who exclusively focus on multi-million dollar contracts for Fortune 50 or Fortune 100 companies, the bulk of Sri Lankan IT service providers are comfortable working with small to medium scale companies. Here at Calcey, we pride ourselves on our ability to work with both corporates and startups, even those trying to build an MVP.

Why?

Because we know that it is today’s small businesses that will grow into tomorrow’s large behemoths, and every elephant dominating the stock exchanges today was once a tiny ant.

Some of our large scale clients include CompareNetworks and Paypal, while some of the fast scaling tech companies that we work with such as FreshFitnessFood and Nutrifix, have gone on to shake up their respective markets in the UK.

Low Staff Turnover

Sri Lankan software professionals are well paid, and working conditions are world-class at many local software firms. The proof is in the details. Our friend Thomas Säld, Global Head of R&D at IFS AB, a Swedish software firm with offices in Sri Lanka, regularly tells the story of how nearly 20 years later, most members of the original Sri Lankan engineering team of 20 still work at IFS. This was one of the key reasons for IFS to expand their operations in Sri Lanka. Today, IFS’ global delivery center in Colombo houses nearly 1000 employees. 

Employers in Sri Lanka’s IT service industry don’t hesitate to invest in developing their people and as a result, tenures are long and turnover is very low.

Punching Above The Weight Class In Innovation

The team from the University of Sri Jayawardenepura which re-created Harry Potter’s sorting hat/ Credits: University of Sri Jayawardenepura

Then there is also Vega, Sri Lanka’s first homegrown electric supercar manufacturer. Their development center is located right next to our offices, and we consider ourselves lucky to be able to witness a dream to build a fully electric supercar become a reality.

It is truly astonishing how much potential Sri Lanka’s IT sector holds. Today, Sri Lankan software powers everything from stock exchanges to open banking platforms. Who knows what tomorrow holds?

But one thing is for sure. Sri Lanka fully deserves to be called the ‘Island of Ingenuity’!

Opinion

No Time To Ride: Uber Sri Lanka’s Automation Debacle

Learn from an unhelpful chatbot and build a better customer support system for your business

Uber Sri Lanka is in the news again, this time for turning a blind eye to the issue of an errant driver assaulting a customer over an innocent question about a cancelled trip. To make things worse, Uber Sri Lanka has done nothing to rectify the situation after the passengers took to social media, leaving its chatbots to spew pre-programmed messages instead. Understandably, this has infuriated many, and questions are being raised about the legality of Uber’s operation in Sri Lanka, where there is no formal channel for unsatisfied customers to raise their grievances.

Sri Lankan users have been voicing complaints regarding Uber, but to no avail/ Source: Twitter

Customer care has been hailed as an area which chatbots can excel, rendering customer support executives a thing of the past. However, as is visible with the Uber Sri Lanka debacle, a chatbot can sometimes do more harm than good.

In such a backdrop, what should you be aware of if you’re thinking about deploying a chatbot to solve your business problems?

Understand The Different Types of Chatbots

Chatbots can be categorised into two primary categories: ‘Transactional Chatbots’ and ‘Knowledge Chatbots. Before you deploy a chatbot in your business, make sure you understand what each type of chatbot can and can’t do. Deploying a transactional chatbot in a place which needs a knowledge chatbot is a recipe for disaster.

Transactional Chatbots are built and optimised to execute a limited amount of specialised processes which eliminate the need to talk to an expert or use more complicated UIs such as mobile apps or websites. In contrast, knowledge chatbot support thousands of processes and in some cases, can even make decisions for you.

Transactional chatbots are trained on top of structured data and can do a set of limited operations. Think of what a bank operator can do for you over the phone: verify your identity, block your stolen credit card, give you the working hours of nearby branches and confirm an outgoing transfer. The exact same functionality can be imparted to a transactional chatbot, which can then be deployed via Facebook Messenger, for instance.

On the other hand, knowledge bots are helping you both make a decision and execute it. In order to be able to “make a decision” the chatbot is usually trained with a vast amount of unstructured and structured data, and is trying to produce a response as an expert. Though not exactly bots, IBM Watson (and Deep Blue before it) are good examples of knowledge systems.

A matrix showing the differences between knowledge chatbots and transactional chatbots / Source: progress.com

Simple, But Not Stupid

For a chatbot to truly deliver value, it must simultaneously be simple to use, while not being too simplistic a.k.a. ‘stupid’ to turn away and/or frustrate users. This is a problem Uber Sri Lanka has to deal with. Remember that a chatbot is not sentient, and is only as good as its bank of pre-programmed scenarios. When a query doesn’t match a pre-programmed scenario, the bot gets stuck in a loop and users get frustrated.

When a chatbot gets stuck in a loop, user frustration is not too far away / Credits: progress.com

A casual scroll on Twitter is enough to get a sense of how quickly the average Sri Lankan Uber rider is frustrated by the misplaced efforts of the chatbot.

Disgruntled Uber users are not hard to find in Sri Lanka / Source: Twitter

This is where sophisticated Natural Language Processing systems come in. Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook already provide state of the art Natural Language Processing (NLP) developer tools to help your bot understand user intents, so whenever you deploy a chatbot, make sure the chatbot is built to benefit from these powerful NLP engines.

Know What You Will Pay

Nobody likes hefty bills of eye-popping amounts. It pays (in this case, literally) to understand how your chatbot vendor will charge you for your chatbot.

Generally, enterprise-level chatbot platforms use one of the following pricing models:

Subscription: Build limited or unlimited bots for a flat monthly or annual fee. This is probably the most suitable model for an enterprise.

Pay per usage: The platform cost is based on chatbot usage and the number of API calls. This model can provide you with a higher degree of flexibility allowing you to scale gradually.

Pay based on performance: The platform cost is based on how the chatbot performs against goals agreed between the customer and vendor. For example, a successful interaction between the bot and the client, which leads to a signup, is considered as a paid conversation, regardless of the length of the chat. Under this model, enterprises will be charged accordingly to the goals achieved.

Don’t Underestimate Humans

Chatbots may be better and more efficient at a range of things, but they cannot beat a human at one thing: displaying empathy. Therefore, depending on the function of a chatbot, it becomes important to ensure that a human is available to step in and takes over a user interaction if things get out of hand. After all, even the most experienced support agent often requires a second opinion and your chatbot is no different. That is why it is recommended to follow a bot-human hybrid model, which allows a human to takeover an interaction depending on the complexity and criticality of the issue.

To understand this issue in detail, take a look at the two screenshots below. In both cases, the triggering keyword is “server failure”. In the first case, the user simply wants information about the precautionary measures in case of a server failure, while in the second case the user wants to report the occurrence of a server failure.

Same keywords, but different questions entirely. How the chatbots responds is important /Credits: Kommunicate.io

What are your views on chatbots? Who has deployed chatbots well and who hasn’t? Let us know your thoughts below!

Cover image credits: COPREUS

Opinion

Lessons From The ‘Skype Way’

Image credits: TechBeat

Skype, at one time the favourite Peer-2-Peer (P2P) calling service of a generation raised on MSN Messenger, can be termed the precursor to the myriad social messaging and networking apps we have on our phones today. First released in 2003, Skype eventually went on to upend the international call market. By 2014, Skype accounted for nearly 40% of the international call market. In other words, by 2014, nearly 214 billion minutes of calls were being made through Skype.

What helped Skype morph into the behemoth it became? And what can others learn from their story? Read on to find out.

It’s All About The Team

The success of an early stage startup is very much down to its founding team and the dynamics between them. The founding team behind Skype looked nothing like the typical MacBook toting, ‘Silicon Valley Startup Guy’ types we’ve come to know and recognise in recent years. Instead, Skype’s founders were..rather ordinary, but a well functioning unit with complementary skills. First there was Niklas Zennström, a Swede who was employee No.23 at Swedish telco Tele2. Then there was Janus Friis, a Dane who worked his way up in customer service for a Danish telecom operator. Programming was the responsibility of Jaan Tallinn, Ahti Heinla, and Priit Kasesalu, Estonian schoolmates who once learned PHP over a weekend in order to win a coding assignment for Tele2 (where Niklas also worked). Rounding out this team was Toivo Annus, who was well versed in project management.

The perfect combination of skills to build a product!

The Skype team from its early days/ Credits: https://heureka-conference.com/

Just Because You Fail, Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater

Not many know that Skype was actually born out of the remnants of a previous product– Kazaa, which was built by this founding sextet. A P2P file sharing platform similar to Napster, but without the requirement for an intermediary server, the founding team envisioned Kazaa to be everything Napster was not. This meant staying on the right side of the law, and creating a better, faster backend.

It didn’t take long for Kazaa to succeed. Within a very short time after its launch in September 2000, Kazaa became the most downloaded program on the internet, picking up users at the rate of one per second.

Then came trouble.

Like Napster before it, Kazaa also found itself on the wrong side of the law. But not for lack of trying. Zennström and Friis tried, and failed, to seal a deal with US film and music companies. Lawsuits started raining on them, and the team found itself hiding from an army of ferocious US lawyers. Some of the attempts to haul the Kazaa team in front of the law are so mind-boggling that they deserve to be included in a Hollywood movie. Take for instance the time when Zennström went to see a play at a Stockholm theater and was approached by a stranger. The individual is said to have handed Zennström’s wife a bunch of flowers and held out an envelope containing a summons for Zennström. The Swede made a run for it; the summons failed to be duly delivered. He was similarly pursued in London, this time by a motorcycle, but Zennström managed to give the messenger the slip.

Having eventually made peace with the film companies and music labels, the Kazaa team looked at a new, but less legally fraught outlet for their new P2P technology. The founders had been smart enough to isolate Kazaa’s intellectual property in a shell company based in the British Virgin Islands. As they toyed with various ideas at a local bar, Annus and Friis had their “eureka!” moment—they could make voice calls cheap and easy by sharing data peer to peer just as Kazaa did. They even talked about creating Wi-Fi phones, an idea that would later be implemented in Skype. In the spring of 2003, an early alpha was coded and shared for testing with about 20 people.

The Skype team preparing to launch Skype 1.0/ Credits: heureka-conference.com

The name of the project originated from the words “sky” and “peer.” Following the example of Napster and others, the name was shortened to “Skyper.” But because the domain Skyper.com was already taken, the ‘r’ was shaved off. “Skype” it was.

Beta Testers Can Be Wrong Too

To a devout follower of the ‘Lean Startup’ methodology, there is no way forward except through MVPs and beta testing. In principle, this is not a bad idea at all. But sometimes, the initial feedback you receive can be worthless. Just ask the Skype team.

When Skype was first released, talking to a computer was seen as an extremely silly thing to do— as silly as talking to your hand did when mobile phones first appeared. Feedback on the initial version of Skype was not exactly enthusiastic. The sound was glitchy, for instance. But when testers realized that they could now speak via computer to people on the other side of the world for free, attitudes change. The key however, is to make sure customers understand your entire value proposition.

Simple Is Beautiful

One of the biggest drivers of Skype’s early success was the simplicity of the app. The team did a fine job of making the technology easy to use, and the friendly, soothing UI didn’t scare away anyone. Careful attention was paid to ensure that unlike other services, Skype slipped easily through firewalls. The program left no footprints on the Internet, call quality was great, and the service worked like a charm. Right from the beginning, Skype’s product managers were clear in their vision to make sure Skype remained usable to everyone. “Right from the start we set out to write a program simple enough to be installed and used by a soccer mom with no knowledge of firewalls, IP addresses, or other technological terms,” proclaimed one of the early Skype employees, Lauri Tepandi.

Skype shipped with a friendly, easy to use UI /Credits: afterdawn.com

Embrace Constraints

From the time it launched, Skype captured the attention of investors thanks to its ability to scale fast and ship new features at astonishing speed, with a small team of around 20 employees. On its first day of launch, Skype was downloaded by 10,000 people. Within a couple of months, it already had one million users. Throughout this time, Skype rarely faced a service outage. The key to this solid performance was Skype’s tech team, who weren’t in the habit of flinching in the face of adversity. Even though they lacked many resources, Skype’s tech team was forever confident of their skills and creativity in deploying code.

Steve Jurvetson, an early investor in Skype remarked “I remember wondering: how can they be so good? How can such a small group can do so much so quickly, compared to typical development efforts in, for example, Microsoft? I had the impression that maybe coming out of a time of Soviet occupation, when computers were underpowered, you had to know how to really program, effectively, parsimoniously, being very elegant in sculpting the programming code to be tight, effective, and fast. [That’s] not like in Microsoft, which has a very lazy programming environment, where programs are created that have memory leaks and all sorts of problems, that crash all the time and no one really cares—because it’s Microsoft!”

Skype surpasses 10 million users much faster than any service before it /Credits: Steve Jurvetson

Jurvetson was right about the Skype team’s talent. Priit Kasesalu, one of the tech whiz’s in the Skype Six (as they are now referred to), is just one example of how talented Skype’s tech team were. A high school friend of Jaan Tallinn, Kasesalu hacked modems as early as the Soviet era at the House of Young Technicians, and is a game fanatic whose home is ‘filled with servers’. According to a famous anecdote often heard in the Skype offices, when Tallinn and others argue about the technological feasibility of some kind of mechanism, Kasesalu usually comes to them and says, “Stop, I’ve figured it out.”

Do Away With The B.S.

Skype’s founding culture, one which did away with the superfluous in favour of practicality and straightforwardness, was another key driver of growth for the company. New ideas were welcomed with open arms, and there were countless instances where ideas were programmed into a product the moment they popped into someone’s mind. Some coder would have an idea in the morning and by the same evening it might already have 10,000 users.

When the price list was being drafted for Skype Out, a service which would allow users to make Skype calls to telephone networks, the Skype team didn’t bother with market research. After all, they were launching something completely new. There was no precedent, and nowhere to go look for data on how much people would be willing to pay. Instead, two Skype employees devised the list in one night, using nothing but Excel. This may not be the best approach to follow at all times. But the point is that you don’t have to overcomplicate things (and beware of analysis paralysis).

Skype’s ‘No B.S. approach’ (which we at Calcey also love and preach) permeated throughout the company. Every week, five to ten 10 employees joined the company. The screening system was simple and very much the product of Toivo Annus, one of the founders who was incharge of global development. You were hired if you passed the test assignment. Wage negotiations were often redundant—if you deserved to be in the company, you’d be paid what you needed.

Skype’s culture attracted employees from far and wide. Eileen Burbidge, an American, ditched Yahoo and Silicon Valley to come and work for Skype. Burbidge was taken aback by the Skype culture, but in a good way. “Having just come from 11 straight years of working in Silicon Valley, I was super impressed and actually amazed that these technical leaders seemed not to have any ego at all, didn’t care about titles, didn’t care about roles or pointing fingers and were all insanely committed to seeing the ‘project which had turned into a company succeed,” said Burbidge. “They had a sense of responsibility and discipline that I had never witnessed before.”

Eileen Burbidge at a TechCrunch Disrupt event in London /Credits: fortune.com

Used to American small talk, Burbidge quickly realized it would not work in this environment.

“I was used to greeting people with a ‘ping’ or a ‘you there?’ followed by a ‘how are you?,’ ‘having a good day?,’ ‘am I interrupting?,’ or ‘can I ask you a question?’ But for Toivo all of this was superfluous and simply needless cycles. He would just reply with one word: ‘Ask.’” Burbidge told VentureBeat. Of course, Toivo and the rest of the Skype team were not being rude towards Burbidge. It was just that with English being a second language for most employees in Skype’s Tallinn headquarters, many didn’t possess the vocabulary to engage in pointless small talk. According to Burbidge, now a partner at London-based Passion Capital, this was a coincidence that ended up being very good for Skype’s culture.

Thanks in large part to its culture, and scrappy, ‘never say die’ attitude, Skype’s success paid off handsomely for most of the company’s initial employees and investors. In 2005, eBay agreed to acquire Skype for USD 2.5 billion in cash and eBay stock. Then in 2009, eBay divested Skype to a consortium of investors including Silver Lake, Andreessen Horowtiz, and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board for US$1.9 billion, valuing Skype at US$2.75 billion.

Then came the announcement to top them all.

In 2011, Microsoft acquired Skype for USD 8.5 billion…in CASH. At the time, the deal was perhaps the largest carried out by Microsoft, and rightfully turned many a head. But how Skype has fared since then is a story for another day.

Today, Skype may be a shadow of its former self, a company in decline even. But that’s very much part and parcel of a company’s lifecycle. However, the lessons startups and founders can learn from Skype’s early days, will forever remain invaluable.