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January 3, 2011

Q&A with Krishan A. Canekeratne, Virtusa Corp.

Photo/Christina H. Davis Krishan A. Canekeratne, co-founder and CEO, Virtusa Corp.

Westborough-based Virtusa Corp. may be the poster child for a global IT enterprise. The company has about 150 employees stateside, but the bulk of its workers — 4,500 — are software engineers working in India and Sri Lanka. The firm provides highly customized programming solutions for large global companies. If you’ve done any online banking for example, chances are you’ve benefited from some Virtusa code. In this issue’s Shop Talk, we sat down with Krishan A. Canekeratne, a co-founder of the company and its current CEO.

>> Can you tell me a little about how and why Virtusa was founded?

The founders were my wife and I, close friends of ours from Westborough John and Sandy Gillis, and my parents. Six of us. The experiment that we started back in 1996, which eventually became Virtusa, was to see if we could innovate using a global team. We wanted to see if we could actually build, create, innovate and bring things to market faster by using a global team where team members were in an office park here in Massachusetts and an office park in Asia. We demonstrated that we could indeed innovate a lot faster, better and more cost effectively with a global team.

>> Having strong software engineers is obviously important to your business. How is recruitment going? Is it getting harder?

We let our engineers be creative. They can innovate and come up with their own solutions and that’s very appealing to them. We have very close relationships with some of the best universities and engineering institutes in India and Sri Lanka. We are well known in those communities for our core competency around innovation. When we interview engineers, we clearly expect that they have a great foundation. But from there what we are really looking for are their creative skills, including how expansive and holistic they are. Once they join, they go through an on-boarding process that basically crystallizes what life at Virtusa is like.

>> And what is life at Virtusa like?

It’s certainly challenging. People don’t join Virtusa because they think that it’s a job that they can do without putting their heart and soul into it. They’ve joined Virtusa because they’ve gone to great universities and they really like challenges. I think the easiest way for me to explain our culture is based on four very clear values that define what Virtusa is all about. The first is we want our teams to pursue excellence, we won’t stand for mediocrity. The second value is integrity. Third is respect, and the last is leadership.

>> What do you mean by leadership?

We’re a company where we let our teams set and reset the bar of excellence. I don’t have anyone on my team saying that next quarter you will improve this metric and you will have these number of defects improved. Instead, we pick the teams at Virtusa who are best in class and celebrate what their metrics are. By celebrating the achievements of one team, all the other teams naturally start aspiring to be better.

>> How has Virtusa been able to stay ahead of the rapid changes in technology?

Two reasons. One is that we’ve developed the ability to listen very well. We have a very strong consulting sense at Virtusa, so we listen very, very well to our customers and their needs and we ask good questions to get a sense from them on where they’re going. But I think the more intriguing part for me is the whole area of innovation that exists within the company. I may worry about a lot of things when I go to sleep, but I never every worry about Virtusa becoming technologically obsolete. We have 4,500 engineers that walk into the office with the freedom to innovate. Clearly we set guardrails up so they can’t go off track, but in their areas, we give them the freedom to try new things.

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>> How do you celebrate a team's achievements?
We've gone through the whole spectrum. When we started out, we'd recognize high performers by getting in front of the whole Virtusa community and giving out dinner vouchers. Then we moved to providing the high achievers with a certificate. What turns out to be more important than anything else is being recognized in front of their peers.

>> What struggles did you have in managing such a global workforce?
When you have a global workforce, especially when you work with innovation and creativity, you've got to be able to provide the teams with autonomy and ownership if you want them to do their best. That was a very early learning for us. The second was that when you have such a dispersed organization, it is very important to instill your core values with new employees.

>> Do you see tablet computers like the iPad as the future?
Just think about the next generation that's coming along very soon - the millennials. They're not that crazy about using the laptop. To my kids, who are 14 and 15 now, if they can't do what they need to do on their iPad or on their iPhone or on their Android device, it ain't happening. They are loath to go in and write a paper on the laptop. They'd much rather write their paper on the iPad. So I believe that there's a whole generation that's coming up that their demands are going to be different. They're probably going to look at e-mail and say, "How passé."

>> What's been the toughest management lesson you've had to learn?
We've gone through our own trials and tribulations. But if I was to really distill it, it's around empowerment. The whole idea that you've got to transition, hopefully early in your career, from wanting to be at the center of everything to realizing that others are as capable if not more capable than you in those areas. How do you really leverage that for the benefit of the entire entity? I guess you call that empowerment. Being able to derive gratification from other's empowerment was a very important lesson for me personally.

Krishan A. Canekeratne on what he likes most about his job:


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