Uki offers an alternate route from the Northern Province into the tech industry

Author Jekhan Aruliah

Jekhan Aruliah

By Jekhan Aruliah

Does Sri Lanka need more university graduates? Sri Lanka has tens of thousands of unemployed graduates. Every now and then the government brings thousands more of them into the Public Service, further bloating an already bloated service. In December 2019 a government minister promised jobs for all 64,000 (his figures) unemployed graduates! More public sector bureaucrats needing more bureaucracy to keep them busy and the rest of us waiting! According to the Bureau of Census & Statistics the Public Sector in Sri Lanka grew over 30% between 2006 and 2016, while in the same period the population of Sri Lanka grew by only 7.5%. Have public servants increasing four times faster than the public improved public service?

Students chase A’s in their A Levels hoping to get into university. However the three A’s an employer really needs are not in academic subjects. The three key A’s are Attitude, Aptitude, and Application. Having a degree provides a small though unreliable clue that these A’s are present in a person. But these A’s can be found regardless of degree status, if you know how to look.

Yarl IT Hub knows how to look.

Yarl IT Hub is a group of IT professionals with roots in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, though many are now based in Colombo and overseas. Their stated aim is “To Make Jaffna The Next Silicon Valley”. The organisation’s members include senior managers in IT firms in Sri Lanka and overseas who between them have run and built companies and recruited thousands of staff. These aren’t people theorising about what makes a good employee, these are people whose companies depend on them knowing what makes a good employee. Yarl IT Hub brainstormed the problem of access to the IT Profession for those who didn’t get into a government university and couldn’t afford to go to a private college or overseas. They designed a training programme and setup an organisation to deliver it called Uki (Uki = Catalyst, in Tamil). Uki is supported by the ITEE Foundation (Pioneer Partner), GiZ (Innovation Partner) and the LBR Foundation formerly known as the Lebara Foundation (Platinum Partner). This programme has run continuously in Jaffna since April 2017, and started in Killinochchi in March 2019.

The head of Uki in Killinochchi

I spoke with Sayanthini Selvarasa, the Head of Uki in Killinochchi. Sayanthini was brought up in Killinochchi, going to Colombo to take a degree at one of the private colleges affiliated to a British university. She joined an IT company based in Colombo’s Orion City as a software engineer, and she also joined Yarl IT Hub. When the role of Head of Uki in Killinochchi came up last year she successfully applied.

Sayanthini told me the entry requirements for Uki are: Successfully completed A Levels regardless of the grades; Not admitted to government university, and unable to afford the private colleges; Have a passion for IT and technology; Can demonstrate community and other extracurricular activities. The demand for places is greater than Uki’s current capacity, with 45 applicants competing for 20 places in the most recent Killinochchi batch. The course is free for the successful applicants.

As well as employing a permanent cadre of lecturers, Uki uses the Yarl IT Hub network to get experienced visiting IT, marketing and business professionals to conduct workshops. Uki puts a high priority on the English language, employing visiting lecturers to conduct these courses. English is the link language in the IT industry, bridging the linguistic divide between Tamil and Sinhala speaking staff and is the key communication channel to Sri Lanka’s fast growing number of international clients. In addition to IT and English, Uki brings lecturers to educate the students in soft skills as well as starting up and running a business.

Uki students are placed as interns in several companies including Kale Systems, 99X Technologies, Idea Factory and Cookoo Eats one of whose founders himself came through Uki.  To prove what great talent is being rescued by Uki, Sayanthini told me that Uki teams regularly get to the final of the Yarl Geek Challenge competing with and beating teams from Sri Lanka’s universities. This year Yathusha Kulenthiran, who recently came out of Uki Kilinochchi, will represent Sri Lanka to pitch her start up Olai at the Global Entrepreneur Students Award in South Africa, again having beaten off competition from regular university students.

Global Student Entrepreneur Award

An Uki Graduate

Sriram Jegatheesan cheerfully told me how he had slacked at school. Privileged to go to one of Jaffna’s top establishments, Hartley College in Point Pedro, Sriram admitted he spent his time playing with his friends and watching TV. He only saw his books when he was in school in a lesson supervised by a teacher. His form master said if he put in the extra studies he had the talent to be a doctor. As I interviewed him for this article, impressed by his excellent English, eloquence and self confidence, I am sure his teacher was right. Here I was with a could-be-doctor. If things had gone differently I could have been his patient, he could have been interviewing me about my blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar (all good thanks to the tablets). Knowing he was going to crash Sriram didn’t take his A’Levels on schedule in 2014. He gave himself some extra time to catchup, but again spent his time on cricket and TV and crashed in 2015 and again in 2016. It took falling flat on his face twice to kick-start Sriram’s ambition.

With admission to a government university out of the question, Sriram thought about joining one of the private degree awarding colleges in Sri Lanka. As a schoolboy Sriram provided free phone and hardware repair services to his friends and relatives. His passion for gadgets led him to think of applying to one of the technical institutes to do a degree in information technology. However, a friend of the family who held a senior position in a software company advised Sriram to look at Uki. A degree would take 4-5 years, while Uki would provide education and training to get him into an internship in 6 months. So Sriram applied to and was accepted at Uki to start in early 2018. Sriram said Uki wasn’t like a college, it was like a family. The days passed quickly and enjoyably with half the time spent learning coding. During the other half of the time the students learned soft skills including presentation; interview; how to dress; how to start a business; how to keep fit; and English. Uki has its own Gavel Club meeting twice a week, to build the students’ confidence standing up and talking in English. Sriram’s performance in this interview was proof how successful the programme had been.

Uki Jaffna Coding Class

In August 2018 Sriram started his internship at Arima, a Jaffna based software company of which I wrote about earlier. In January 2019 Arima offered him a full time job, where he has since been promoted from Associate Software Engineer to Software Engineer. Since then Sriram moved to the core engineering team of Arima’s sister company Arogya.life. Arogya produces critical hospital management systems installed in hospitals including the Hemas Hospital Thalawatugoda in Colombo and the Singhe Hospital in Ratnapura as well as the Moolai Hospital in Jaffna. Arima has offices in Jaffna and Colombo, and uses English as the link language for business communications.

Sriram’s contemporaries at Hartley College took their A’Levels in 2014, entered university late in 2015, completed their internships and received their degrees end of 2019. Sriram messed up his A’Levels repeatedly until 2016, entered Uki in 2018, and by January 2020 had already received his first promotion in his permanent job at Arima.

The Employer

Srikaran Ariyakumar, like Sriram, went to Hartley College but now lives in Colombo. In 2008 he graduated from Moratuwa University arguably the premier technology and engineering university in Sri Lanka. He is an excellent example of a technology entrepreneur. After graduating Srikaran worked for two UK based software companies, before joining a family owned construction company operating in Sri Lanka. Here he developed an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system and in 2015 Srikaran setup a company Techorin to continue development and marketing of the product. His clients included a North American company for whom he developed a Warehouse Management System. Techorin specialises in Web and Mobile Apps.

Srikaran is a member of the Yarl IT Hub, and has mentored teams in the Yarl Geek Challenge. Arima was one of the teams he mentored back in 2012 which is now a successful Jaffna based company developing hospital and other systems. I asked Srikaran what his experience with Uki interns has been. He has had three interns so far. He told me of one, Dimoshan, who he took to be an Intern Support Engineer in February 2019. New recruits are given the challenge of setting up their own development environments. Normally, including some from top universities, they take 3-4 days to complete this. Dimoshan had it done in one day, showing exceptional aptitude, attitude and application. Impressed by this achievement instead of the support team, Srikaran put his new recruit straight into product development. Mastering the system within 3 months, Srikaran moved Dimoshan on to mobile apps. This too he picked up within weeks. By October Dimoshan was promoted to Senior Software Engineer, ahead of university graduates who had joined with him who at that time remained Software Engineers.

The Future

It is undeniable that a lot of talent is lost in the race for university entrance. Particularly those without the means to pay for private university. Government data for 2018 shows 167,907 students did well enough in their A’Levels to qualify to enter a government university, but only 31,451 were admitted. Over 130,000 young people good enough for university were left behind to find their own way. That’s about 130,000 young people EACH YEAR!

Uki and Yarl IT Hub have set themselves challenging goals. In 2017 they set a 5 year target to create infrastructure for 10,000 students learning via Digital Education, 1,000 students getting jobs in the Tech Sector, and 100 Startups and Enterprises to be borne out of the Northern Province. Uki and YarlIT are both entirely privately funded, and generously supported with the time, talent and networks of professionals around the World.  

Uki regularly call for applications to join their programme. If you or someone you know would like to apply, keep an eye on their website http://uki.life/

To find out more about Uki and Yarl IT Hub contact Balathasan Sayanthan: sayanthan@yarlithub.org

( — The writer Jekhan Aruliah was born in Sri Lanka and moved with his family to the UK when he was two years of age. Brought up in London, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1986 with a degree in Natural Sciences. Jekhan then spent over two decades in the IT industry, for half of which he was managing offshore software development for British companies in Colombo and in Gurgaon (India). In 2015 Jekhan decided to move to Jaffna where he is now involved in social and economic projects. He can be contacted at jekhanaruliah@gmail.com — )