All Eyes on Value
Thushara Wijewardena, Chief Project Officer, Exilesoft, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Thushara Wijewardena, chief project officer, Exilesoft, Colombo, Sri Lanka
ILLUSTRATION BY JOEL KIMMEL
If we don't keep feeding the product, a competitor with better features will come along and eat it.
Exilesoft knows it better deliver value—or else. “If we don't keep feeding the product, a competitor with better features will come along and eat it,” says Thushara Wijewardena. She has over 15 years of experience as a software engineer and project professional. At Exilesoft, which has offices in Australia, Norway, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Sweden, Ms. Wijewardena oversees the project management office (PMO) and its program managers as they execute more than two dozen projects at a time.
What kinds of software does Exilesoft develop?
Our very diverse portfolio contains everything from transactional business systems to sensors to robotics. We serve customers in multiple geographies with multiple business needs. For example, we've delivered software development projects for Sweden's PocketMobile and e-government projects for Asia Digital Corp. in Vietnam.
How does a constantly changing technological environment affect your project portfolio?
Our clients' business needs are always changing. So our projects don't really end; development always continues. The value chain should continue, too. Our clients continuously have to bring new features to market—and we have to keep delivering value to them. That's why our PMO refers to projects as continuous delivery engagements. We see project delivery as client engagement.
How do you develop client engagement from the start?
We always start engagements with a series of workshops. All our projects are different: Some are highly technical, some are highly research-based and some are very transactional. So we have to find the suitable project execution process for each scenario. My delivery managers work closely with the customer to determine the best way to execute.
With PocketMobile's mobile platform development, for instance, we first conducted a workshop to collaboratively think about their business goals for the next six months and then one year. We then mapped out the product deliveries they'll release over that time period. Then we started prioritizing those projects—we can't do them all at once. Working alongside the customer, we came up with the best practice to deliver value based on their expectations.
How do you ensure your customers stay engaged throughout the project?
We show them deliveries in very short time intervals. Typically, every month we have a release to the testing environment. We get all the stakeholders involved, and they see what we're delivering before we deliver the final product to the market. It's very transparent. After that, we keep adding new features to the product and continuously deliver value to it. To keep on adding value, we have to be agile.
Did you introduce that agility to Exilesoft?
When I joined the organization, I found the project delivery team reported to operational management. But I thought we needed to restructure this and make value delivery the main engine of the organization. So I created an agile PMO with small teams that are more productive and communicate better than large teams. I was fortunate because our CEO, Finn Worm-Petersen, was really positive about businesses becoming more agile. I report directly to him and align with his and the rest of the board's vision. The PMO is now the heart of the organization because it's about delivering value.
How do you ensure your team's skills stay up-to-date with changing technology?
My biggest challenge now is the versatility of our engineers' technology skills. To avoid having to constantly recruit new developers for new projects, we started an initiative called Exilesoft Academy last year. It's made by and for our own developers. It enables them to try a new technology and get hands-on training. We use different techniques, such as gamification, to keep the sessions fun and motivating.
How do you measure the success of your teams—and your projects?
Too often, software companies have old-school measurements, like the volume of code a developer develops or time reporting, that just kill innovation. As a result, teams give you just what you ask for. So we use value-driven measurements based on how successful the product we deliver is in the marketplace. Let's say it's a web-based or cloud-based application: How many are using it today? What else can we do to broaden the user base?
You're based in Sri Lanka but constantly travel to other Exilesoft locations. How do you navigate cultural differences?
I learned earlier in my career that cultural differences are overrated. When I worked as a project officer for the New Zealand software company Kandysoft, I traveled to Pakistan to implement a secondary sales application for Pakistan Tobacco Co. It was tough for me as a woman because there are so few women in Pakistani corporations. Still, I cooperated well with all the stakeholders, and we implemented the system successfully. If you have respect for differences and you're willing to listen and adapt, then culture is never a problem. You just have to focus on your work—and nothing else. PM
What's the one skill every project manager should have?
Emotional intelligence. If you have that, you can understand how people think and communicate.
What's the best professional advice you ever received?
“Do the right thing. The rest will follow.” That's why we need project managers who can understand that what's right in one context may not be in another.
What book has special meaning for you?
Good Enough for the 'Bastards' by Anita Krohn Traaseth, the CEO of the Norwegian government's innovation agency. Her book inspires female corporate leaders to be courageous.