Saturday, August 6, 2011

10 years since returning to Sri Lanka

Today marks the 10 year anniversary of our returning home to Sri Lanka.

I went to the US in 1985 where I lived for a total of nearly 16 years .. first arriving on August 18, 1985 to go to Kent State University for undergraduate studies. I lived in Kent, Ohio for 4 years, finishing both a BS and an MS, and then moved to West Lafayette, Indiana for 8 years where I was a PhD student at Purdue for 5 years and then visiting faculty for 3 more. Then I joined IBM Research in August 1997 (starting August 4th) and moved to Yorktown Heights, New York and finally left the US on August 4th 2001 and arrived back home on August 6th, 2001. That's 10 years ago today :-).

Wow, 10 years .. time flies when you are having fun!

I remember that there were pieces of airplanes on the ground at the Colombo Airport when we landed - the dreaded LTTE had brazenly attacked the airport just 10 days before that destroying 3 Sri Lankan Airlines planes and damaging 3 more as well as damaging or destroying 26 Airforce aircraft and killing a bunch of people.

What a difference 10 years makes; guns have been silent and peace reigns loudly in Sri Lanka for more than 2 years now. Whether you like the current leadership team in the country or not, we all owe them an incredible debt of gratitude for putting everything aside and destroying the LTTE menace and creating a stable nation so we have (another) chance at becoming what Sri Lanka is capable of becoming.

I was of course still working for IBM Research when I came back .. working remotely from Sri Lanka. I finally quit on April 15, 2005 and started WSO2 a few months later. I started encouraging Sri Lankan developers to contribute to open source projects in fall 2002 and ended up starting the Lanka Software Foundation in early 2003 (along with friend, colleague and mentor Jivaka Weeratunge). LSF was of course instrumental in many projects that ended up in Apache and for Sahana, the tsunami-inspired disaster management system we created. (BTW IBM recently highlighted Sahana in their 100 year celebrations .. very cool!) I also started teaching as a volunteer visiting lecturer at the Computer Science and Engineering Department of the University of Moratuwa from around 2002, where many of the brilliant brains that contributed to LSF's projects, and later WSO2, came from. (We of course get brilliant people from many sources now .. but MRT still dominates!)

One of the things I'm really proud of is that so many people have benefitted from the work done in LSF to help get them into grad school for further studies. Counting WSO2 too, there are now more than 25 people in various places doing PhD's in Computer Science. Three have finished so far.


Many people have asked me at various times: "Have you ever regretted coming back home?". I can honestly say: NOT EVEN ONCE!

Don't get me wrong- the US was a great country to live in and I will never forget the superb education nor the wonderful experiences and friends I made in my 16 years there. However, this is home and there's nothing like home (for me). I love the fact that I can have some small impact on young people who can help Sri Lanka get ahead in its journey. I love the fact that I am not second class in any way in my home country. I love the fact that my kids are growing up here with roots in their home country - where they end up as adults is their decision, not mine. But at least they have a firm footing here as their home.

Moving back to Sri Lanka is not without its challenges. Many things that are easy in the US are not so easy here. At the same time, many things that are hard in the US are quite easy here. So its always a mixed bag .. what matters is your mindset about the journey: if you are committed to moving back then you can come back. If you are half-hearted and look for problems instead of challenges then you will run back to wherever you attempted to move back from.

I am writing this because I am very very keen to attract Sri Lankans living in other countries to come back home. We need our educated, experienced, connected, knowledgable Lankans to come back home and help us rebuild after the 30 year nightmare that ended 2 years ago. The opportunities here are absolutely amazing and this is the start of a boom period .. now is as good as ever to come back home.

OF COURSE Sri Lanka is not a perfect place. Neither is the US (can you say "debt ceiling"?) nor any other place. The advantage Sri Lanka offers to Sri Lankans is that this is our home. Whatever hard work you do will have tremendous impact. Sri Lanka is a small country .. that means the impact of your work is much more direct and immediate too. Every problem is an opportunity if you take up the challenge!

I, along with Dulith Herath, Founder and CEO of, along with SL2College (another non-profit project I'm involved in - founded by Nayana Samaranayake) are launching a "come back to Sri Lanka" effort soon. The idea is to help dispel many myths (that traffic is a nighmare, that everything is corrupt, that nothing is easy etc. etc.), get info about jobs and other opportunities, provide accurate and direct information and eventually help people who want to come back make the move and settle down (including things like kids school etc.).

BTW if you're a hardcore passionate techie wanting to come back then I know at least one great place to work ;-).

The last 10 years have been amazingly fantastic for me. The last 6 years have been most special because I have helped create a company that now employees more than 125 people here (and soon more here as well as in the US, UK and some in Europe). Thank you Paul for much of that!

The move was made easier by many many people who helped get settled in, helped get connected to various places and helped in various other ways. You are too numerous to list (and I know I will screw up by missing some key people) but please know that I know you played a crucial role in how well the last 10 years have gone. From the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.


Unknown said...

Your return to home in 2001 definitely impacted lots of people in Sri Lanka in different ways. For example, In late 90s when the only option to get to higher studies was to work for pennies and beg for recommendations, your arrival and starting of Apache efforts encouraged people like me to re-think about grad school. Also, (better or worse :) ) without you Apache wouldn't have been able to get the brightest Sri Lankan minds to contribute to few major projects.
There are few of us following (or at least trying to follow) your foot steps here in US and have plans to come back. Still, after 5 yrs, I have an urge to run back to Sri Lanka and re-live our good lives.
I know things won't be the same for us when we come back or may its too early to think. But at least we have the urge and we WILL try.

Deepal Jayasinghe said...

Your return to Sri Lanka was a game change in different areas and benefitted many people.

afkham said...

I can remember seeing a Sri Lankan name in the author tag of some code we downloaded in 2002 when we were interns. We were thrilled! The author name was Sanjiva Weerawarana, and the code was that of Apache SOAP!

At that time, perhaps you were the only Sri Lankan contributor to the ASF and free & open source software. We could not even imagine becoming committers & major contributors to open source. You have really made a major difference in our thinking, and made us believe in ourselves. You have proved that even a single person can bring about a major change in society.

Thanks for coming back to SL, and inspiring us, and helping us change/shape our futures! Thanks for starting a great company, WSO2, and I'd also like to thank my friend Chinthaka for encouraging me to join this great company.

I really like your statement about being first class citizens in Sri Lanka. Contrary to the image some people try to portray, Sri Lanka is a great country where ethnically & religiously diverse communities live in harmony. As a Muslim, I feel much much safer in Sri Lanka, than when I'm in some countries which boast about being the greatest democracies in the world. We have all the religious freedom & this is truly one of the greatest countries on Earth. Let's all work hard towards taking Sri Lanka towards prosperity!

Prabath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Prabath said...

Your return back to Sri Lanka definitely made a huge difference in the positive direction in most of our lives.. And the rest who could follow you could make the same thing to the country and the people fed and built they up.. It wont be easy and soft at the start - but still its something worth everyone could try, at least...

Also - I could recall it was late 2001 or early 2002 - I was an under-graduate and also working as a freelance journalist to a sinhalese monthly published by Wijeya Newspapers - and I was asked to report an event took place in UCSC. It was the first time I listent to a speech of you - I guess it was one of your very first speeches you did in your return to SL. There you mentioned about spreading the word of open source in Sri Lanka and the launch of LSF. Now - after 10 years - you can truly be proud of you sir..

Also - its my pleasure and privilege to join WSO2 and work closely with you - and never thought I could ever do this when I was listening to you 10 years back at the UCSC auditorium..

Danushka Menikkumbura said...

As usual a Great post, in retrospect.

To be frank I have no words to say how much Sanjiva means to the IT industry in this country. In fact people who already know about his work, his contributions at different levels, those who read his blog posts as a habit, etc should really know how competent he is from a technical and business perspective.

But ... I do not think very many people know that he is a man of great humanity and compassion!. He is such a Wonderful person.

Asiri Rathnayake said...

Just wanted to say that your encouragement on participating in GSoC rippled through UoM and eventually many of us got involved. I think all of us benefited from your efforts one way or the other. Many many many thanks to you :)

Unknown said...

Well timed Sir! Hope this inspires few of us to come back home in that crucial decision making point in their expat lives. I will bookmark this and keep it for that time.

Unknown said...

I can't agree more with Asiri.
Now GSoC has been a key event for UoM, Sri Lanka. I strongly believe Dr. Sanjiva is the one who started this trend.

Malinda Kaushalye Kapuruge said...

"Many things that are easy in the US are not so easy here. At the same time, many things that are hard in the US are quite easy here." - Thats some motivation. :-). As Uchitha said this post should be bookmarked.

Dasunpriya Anuradha said...

I remember once in 2005 or 2006 a bold headed dark guy :) came to one of the FOSS event organized by LKLUG (Lanka Linux User Group SL) who had a notebook running Red Hat Linux and gave an inspiring speech about Free and Open Source software. I was sitting behind his seat. That speech changed the way most of us thought about "Open Source" concept as a whole. I asked from a guy there, "Who is that guy?" He said, "It's Dr. Sanjiva from IBM Research".

Sanjiva, it was a great decision of yours to come to SL and also I wish all the best for your effort on the project "Come back to Sri Lanka".


Amila Paranawithana said...

As an undergraduate I feel that this post encourage the future software engineers who are willing to rise, not to go abroad and to work for the mother country. As a Srilankan who has benefited from free education service of Srilanka I'm willing to serve my country. I appreciate you for the encouragement you have given through this post.

coolchiran said...

Welcome to our "Mother Land".....GooD Luck......!!!

Suranga said...

Well done Sanjiva Ayya, we need more peoples like you for out mother land.


Senaka said...

Dr. Sanjiva,

Personally, it's hard to believe that you've made such a big difference in just 10 years. Open Source was not so popular in Sri Lanka before you came here. But today, we are one of the key contributors to Open Source. In fact (as you have blogged earlier), Sri Lanka is the largest contributor to Open Source per capita.

When I was in ApacheCon EU 2009, the success of Open Source in Sri Lanka was a hot topic during the BarCamp and even during the keynote speech by James Governor. I was proud to be seated in that audience (I'm most certain that Azeez, Ruwan, Lahiru and Hiranya felt the same). We even overheard that people from other countries from EU were taking Sri Lanka as an example to how you could popularize Open Source.

And, not just stopping there, you took another bold decision of starting a company that would produce world-class software. In 6 years, WSO2 has been able to compete head-to-head with the greatest names in the software industry, and produce software that outperforms them.

If you did not make this bold decision 10 years back, I don't think that we'd be where we are today. I wish you all success along the path on your quest of conquering the world of software.

Best Regards,

Aj said...

I would say your return home (and ultimately meeting you) had a domino effect on my life. Becoming part of Apache, going to grad school and all the good things that came after that in my life have been influenced by you, either directly or indirectly :) Thus it is extremely gratifying to see this note.

There are two distinct events I want to mention here.

Once in WSO2, we (myself and other peers - who are mostly in grad schools around the world right now) were in the conference room, waiting for you. The conversation went through the usual geek stuff and ultimately turned to 'what we would do when we (really) grow up' [ most of the guys were fresh out of college at that time]. Then you came in and asked
'what are you guys talking about ?'.

'oh we were wondering what we would be when we are your age :)'

without a blink, the answer came 'You all should have your own company by then'

The second was when I was leaving WSO2 to go to grad school. You called me to your room and said 'don't come back as soon as you finish. Get experienced, establish your self and *then* think of coming back, when you can make a difference. Never forget Sri Lanka'

These two events have been seared into my memory and my long term plans (long term plans are always up for a toss. Yet I believe there is atleast the principle that drive them) are based on the essense of these two events. I'm sure there are others who've had a similr influence from you.

Deepal Jayasinghe said...

I fully agree with Ajith, your return to Sri Lanka influenced a lot on my carrier path and future goals. If I did not meet you I would be a software developer in a conventional company writing software programs which only visible to bunch of people in a company (almost zero outside visibility). But, today I can so happy that we have developed open source projects used by thousands of people all around the world, including giant ecommerce sites. I know there are a lot feel the same way.

In our early days at WSO2 and LSF, we had a big dream. That time Sri Lanka was world popular for three things first Sri Lankan tea (no other country beats the taste), second cricket, and third ethnic conflict (a.k.a 3o years of war). Yet, our dream was to make something different and something big in good way; we wanted Sri Lanka to be popular destination for software development (of course not for software out sourcing). After about seven years I believe that we were able to make our dream come true, needless to say, your are (were) the driving.

Go to and big IT conferences (OSCON, QCon, ApacheCon) and say you are from Sri Lanka, there will be one obvious question that they usually ask “Are you from WSO2”. In early days, Sri Lankan IT professional went to conference as delegates, but now we go as speakers (I am not sure how many realized this).

If you were continued to stay where you were at late 90’s, I would not probably be there today.

Srinath Perera said...

I just have to echo Devaka ... "I am what I am today because of this person....always have heart in what you want to do and you will do great things".

Also let me echo something I said when we become Axis commiters .. who would have dared to take on Apache Axis if not for you..

I cannot believe so much time has passed ..

Tharindu Buddhika Adhikari said...

Congratulations !!!! Your return to Sri Lanka in 2001 definitely made a remarkable turning point in many different areas in different ways and benefitted many Sri Lankans. Keep it up your good work !!!! Wish you all the best and Success !!!!

Rajith Attapattu said...

Thanks for the start you gave me - I will never forget that. Your move to SL have benefited a lot of folks. Had you stayed in the US, then a lot folks would not be where there are today (including me).

Wish you the very best with your work and may you get the strength and blessings to continue your service in SL.

Rasika Amarasiri said...

Hi Sanjiva,

Great post. I can remember the first few days of your time at CSE and your great enthusiasm that has not seen any diminishing.

It was an honour to have worked with you even for a short while before I left for my higher studies. Your hard work and inspiration to the younger generation (especially at CSE) has made the name CSE Moratuwa come to the peak of fame through the Google summer of code, WSO2, LSF and other initiatives.

As someone mentioned in a post, I can still remember your IBM Thinkpad running Redhat Linux. I can also remember your effort in registering using your own money which we eventually managed to do through LKLUG due to the LKNIC policy on generic names and which eventually came to light through LSF.

The list of things I can mention here are limited as I only get to know of things from either your blog or through other contacts, but I know that the list is much longer than one would imagine.

Keep up the good work and hope that I might be able to join you again with an interesting project.

Sampath Sri Ranawaka said...

Hmm, I am still remember. It is autumn semester in 2004. A new lecturer came to old fashion lecture room at CSE, suppose to discussed about web, but talked about web-services instead. It was a few of interesting lecture hours in my life. It changed everything. 10 years is equal to 100 of years to me.

Good luck sir!

Chanaka Rupasinghe said...

It is a great risk that someone to return from "Land of Opportunity" to "Land like no other". Specially after 10 days of LTTE attack on the airport. My age group (1985 born) is the luckiest when the 'Probability of Death' is concerned. Because we passed out from university exactly a week after defeating terrorism. Therefore from the first day, I came to work by bus without any fear in heart. (Most of us were in boarding places close to university and just walked in the war period). So I am thankful for these people as you've said for reducing most Sri Lankan's "probability of death". However that doesn't imply that they can do anything. Thanks for sharing your story and there is a lot to learn from it. Specially to be optimistic and take risks (smartly). Wish you success in all your business and it is not impossible make Sri Lanka a "Land of opportunity like no other" if we had 10 Sanjivas

Pushpalanka said...

This is a great inspiration to undergraduates like me who are planning what to do after graduation. This is a legend of ten years that gathers lot of facts to consider in going abroad or staying in mother land. It is not only a inspiration to people out there to come back. But also for people here to go abroad just to learn, with determination to come back and serve motherland. I like this phrase 'Every problem is an opportunity if you take up the challenge!' which links to this, that I have once heard 'A nation is poor only if they are poor in ideas'. Hopefully the Sri Lankan talent out there will come back to join your path to contribute the rising of their motherland.
All the best Sir!!!

nadix said...

Simply awesome.. there's no place like home..

Nishanthe said...

I am neither active person of Open Source nor I know about Dr. Sanjiva Weerawansa before this, but frankly I feel this article is touching and inspiring.

Hats-Off for you :)

Anonymous said...

This great post reminds me this song..

"සරුංගලේ වරල් සැලේ
නිසංසලේ ගුවන් තලේ
අපෙන් මිදී වෙන රටකට යන්න හදන්නේ
උපන් බිමට වැඩිය තැනක් කොහිද තියෙන්නේ...."

Supun Rathnayake said...

Hi Sanjeewa,

It is really inspiring ....

I wish you all the best for your future endeavors,


මයියා said...

just add rythem to your lovely thoghts, I thought of adding this link to your post

geekaholic said...

I still remember the day Deep and I were the once to go & setup Linux on some of the machines at LSF lab. Anuradha R was out of the country and so were you.

LKLUG was helping LSF out and there was no one available. This was before we met in person but we had discussed kernel compiling and what not online [].

Anyway, Deep and I went to the LSF lab and I met my future wife. Thanks Sanjiva for hooking us up even though you didn't mean to (or did you?) (Sorry Deep wasn't meant to be in this parallel universe :P).

I remember when you called me about Thinkcube the day after I joined Virtusa and I'm sure we handn't properly met even then. But I didn't want to drop the ball on Virtusa and so it had to wait but unfortunately the Tsunami happened and fortunately Sahana happened.

Its funny how the little things you'd never expect and have no control of ends up making a huge difference and changing your life. I'm spinning in the direction you set me off 5 years+ ago.

Looking back I'd swear it was luck. For you it was risk. After all we hadn't really met till Sahana happened. Coming to Sri Lanka was an even higher risk and without jinxing anything I'd like think it all worked out.

So I hope you continue to take risks, especially with people and inspire them as you have inspired me. Here's to 10 more good years in Sri Lanka!

kanchi said...

That was very early days of LSF, when Axis C++ 1.0 was developing in one of the labs at UCSC in 2004.

I met Sanjiva through Pro.Sam and Kapila Malligaspe to get involved in "Open source" which was just a hot topic in Asia.

I was lucky enough to grow up as an IT professional under the shade of this role model who always encouraged us,inspired us and gave opportunities for young ones.

Every one amazed about your gifted leadership,vast knowledge, simple ways and the humanity. You could bring together more than 500 of young force together to organize the 1st open source conference in Asia in 2004,1000 of them in 2005,2000 of them in 2006 and by the year of 2011(over 10 years) it is more than 100000 fossified young minds in SL. They really get benefited with this magical software development methodology and believed in you. Obviously I'm one of them.
I never believed that you can do much in this country.But you were a great example for us to think about it differently.

Hard to believe that you had to go through a hardship to challenge the process of software industry in SL, among non believers of "open source". During my stay in LSF, I was witnessing that you bravely over came so much obstacles,proved the power of open source and how much that is needed in the industry in short time.

Many IT companies are currently fully or partially used our home made open source software.You own the great honor of bringing up such a team of expertise who are internationally recognized. I believe it was a golden milestone in SL Software industry that you returned to SL.

For me personally, LSF and open source made vital milestones in my life.Both staring my career in open source and finding my life partner were happened because of LSF :). If you never returned to SL I would not know open source or Bud.

With in 10 years you did so much.Wishing you all the best, courage and success to do more for another 10 in to 10 years!.We all were lucky to have you in SL.Thank you for returning home "Father of Open Source in Asia!"

Just Wondering said...

Very touching and inspiring BUT just wondering on one fact that states " I love the fact that my kids are growing up here with roots in their home country - where they end up as adults is their decision, not mine." Do we have to read between the lines in this statement? A person who's feeling doubtful whether to inspire his kids or not to remain in the mother land urging other kids to do so!

prasadgc said...


You are a very inspiring person and I'm proud to be able to say I know you. Very few people have achieved what you have, and changed so many lives for the better. I can see from the way people at WSO2 behave towards you that you truly live your humanistic and egalitarian values. I know you will achieve much more in the next 10 years.

Ganesh Prasad

Kamal said...

It is really nice to read such an inspirational post by a genius like you. The contribution you made to the Sri Lankan IT industry is immense, and rarely one or two of these great MRT brains will be in these stages if they did not get the prestige opportunity of working with you.

And I think the timing is perfect, as there should be a plenty of educated and established Sri Lankans around the world on the fence whether to return back or not.


Chamayne said...

+1 for this: "Many things that are easy in the US are not so easy here. At the same time, many things that are hard in the US are quite easy here. So its always a mixed bag .. "

Not only to US, but this applies to any country that "some" Sri Lankans are keen to migrate.

It is sad most who depart realize SL is better little late but then they are rooted else where. So there is this inertia to return!

So those who have left already, make up your mind to return before you get rooted. And those who are thinking to fly away, better think twice.

Very timely article from Dr. Sanjiva

Rajitha said...

"Every problem is an opportunity if you take up the challenge!"

Great and i dont have words to explain what you meant to software industry in Sri Lanka.

I am not a Apache ( or Open Source) Committer yet. But i remember we talk about you while we worked on some java web services with Apache Axis. I downloaded source and look in to that and suddenly i shouted "Guys here a Sri Lankans name is there can you imagine... "

You are great Thank you for all of your hard work to our software industry.

Eranga said...

I really appreciate Sanjiva's contribution to the country and the IT industry. He is great leader - no wonder he has become a great mentor to many.

However I am trying to be the bad guy here by pointing out some flaws of the idea of returning home.

We don't won't any expat to come back home and whine about the mistake they did for the rest of their life.

Best outcome is, get settled overseas first. This may mean PR, Citizen, or Greencard; what ever it is..

Try to actively network with people back home and create good connections.

Sri Lanka has talent, but lacks Capital (Venture Cap. in this instance). Try to work in that space or try to contribute towards that area.

There is no need to physically be in Sri Lanka to actively engage with the industry.

American Jews live in NY, but they all have great connections to Israel.

This suggestion may sound harsh or at least not aligned with Dr.Sanjiva's view on the same matter.

Many people who stayed back in SL in our times had great regrets later on..

Sri Lanka has only a handful of good companies to work for (Eg: IFS, MIT, WSO2, Zone24x7, Vitusa, etc..).. But has over 1000's of IT grads coming out every year.

It is simple Supply-and-Demand!!

Nisal said...

Dear Sanjeewa
You have been inspirational for a little island like Sri lanka to bloom in technology global landscape, keeping some of the international mad remarks a side

looking at your first generation of followers who is out there doing PHds i strongly think Sri lanka is a place to be and we can go to the next level

Its no long before few more of us get together and make our country proud.

All the very best to you and your team and keep up the good work

Nisal Kooragoda
Surrey UK

nuwan said...

Yep, this kind of article is definitively what I am looking for. I have stayed in the UK for past five years. Studied 3 years and worked two years. And looking forward to move back to Sri Lanka in September.

Thank you
Thusitha Nuwan

Unknown said...

Great post.. You have been an inspiration to me and I am sure to many others. One of the reasons to select Purdue for grad studies is you. I cannot express enough how much impact you have had in my career so far.. I hope I can follow at least some of your footsteps.

I still remember, before starting grad school, I wanted to get involved in Apache projects and be part of the awesome company.. I came to your house in Dehiwala in my motor bike (my main mode of travel during those days :) for a chat and the following month I was working at WSO2.

I definitely plan to come back to Sri Lanka.

Sathish Meda said...

Great post! Hopefully every person in Sri Lanka gets the "first class" citizen feeling regardless of race, ethnicity, or origin. An inclusive society is the best medicine for all social issues. Best of luck!

Sathish Meda said...
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Bandara Gajanayake said...

Hi Dr. Sanjiva

What a great post. Its one of the best I have seen for my life. I love to read every word on it even though it was posted in year 2001.
Also this encourage me to come back to Sri Lanka as soon as possible after my studies and serve to mother Lanka.
Thanks for posting your valuable words in your interesting Blog.

afkham said...

1.5 years later, I am reading the comment I posted here, and boy, there are major changes! I as a Muslim, no longer feel safe in Sri Lanka :(

Anonymous said...

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pasha said...
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pasha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.