Fortude’s Arjuna Sirinanda weighs in on a decade of resilience

The Founder CEO and Managing Director of Fortude, a global enterprise and digital solutions provider, shares insights into his journey of growth and building a global company out of Sri Lanka.

Echelon’s Portraits of Leadership features Arjuna Sirinanda, Founder CEO and Managing Director of Fortude, who shares insights into building a global tech solutions company, his formula for success, and his strategy for energising and motivating people to drive growth in challenging and stressful economic conditions. He begins from where he returned to Sri Lanka after graduating with a Master’s degree from Exeter University, UK at 23, having lived most of his life in Malaysia, Brunei and the UK.

What inspired your return to Sri Lanka, and what has your journey been like?

I turned down a job offer in Singapore and returned to Sri Lanka in 1996. I really needed to figure out who I was, nationality-wise, and see whether I could make an impact here. My dream was to find a good job, build a house by the beach and enjoy life.

My first job was with LOLC to support their business reengineering effort. A year and a half later, I moved to MAS, where I spent the next 13 years focused on their SAP rollouts and helping build their global ERP consulting businesses. During that time, I travelled extensively to work with customers and lived and worked for a while in the US, UK and Hong Kong.

In 2010, I joined Brandix to structure their ERP journey and then focus on building a new tech company. My vision was to leverage the talent within the Brandix Group to build a business that would compete in the global tech space. In 2012, I set up Fortude to build a globally scalable tech company specialising in enterprise solutions. We started the venture with about 50 people, and our first project was with an apparel company in Russia, followed swiftly by projects in Australia and the US. Ten years later, we have over 60 active customers, 500+ in our global team and have established operations in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, Sri Lanka and India. We continue to focus on global expansion and have our eyes set on Singapore followed by a location in Europe.

To be honest, my journey over the last 26 years has been great. I wouldn’t change a single thing even if I had a chance. I have learnt so much. I have had the opportunity to be an integral part of building three global businesses, been exposed to many global customers, developed great talent, explored many countries, and I did all of it while being predominantly based in Sri Lanka.

Looking back over the last two years, what have been the key drivers of your personal growth and the organisation’s growth?

Several drivers have been relevant throughout my career, and these have also prevailed over the last two years.

Firstly, I have always been open to change. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this ability to change was critical. We had to reset our expectations and focus on the short term with agility while ensuring that we kept an eye on future opportunities. Building resilience and agility in our people was very important to ensure that the organisation could survive and then grow. In addition, we also kept looking for ways to support our customers and give them flexibility in terms of delivery and payment models.

The second driver was to ensure a growth mindset. I am an optimist, and despite the unprecedented challenges and uncertainties over the last two years, I have always believed that we would survive and then grow the business. It was imperative to inspire our teams to adopt the same outlook and have them look even harder for opportunities. Throughout the pandemic, we kept pushing for new customer acquisitions.

Being focused on long-term partnerships was the third. We have not disengaged from a single customer for the last five years, and our relationships have gone beyond being transactional to true partnerships. There is nothing quite like weathering a storm together to support long-term thinking: our customers know that we are always there to support their businesses.

The fourth driver has been a continuous focus on talent acquisition and growth. We never stopped looking for great people to add to our global talent pool. I am a firm believer that I am only as good as the quality of the team around me. This focus also ensured that our training and development kept going, switching to online platforms for both behavioural and technical training.

The last driver is about instilling a focus on work-life integration among everyone at Fortude. We all know about work-life balance, but my theory is that work-life integration is the only way forward. Work-life balance suggests that you can have balance, but the pandemic proved otherwise. Integrating your work and life is the only thing that could carry you through stressful situations, and I practice what I preach. I may work long hours, but I always take time off to ensure that I am healthy (I am very passionate about fitness) and spend time with my family for fun and leisure activities. I want Fortude to have a great global culture that facilitates work-life integration, which in turn is a catalyst for its growth.

So, those are the five drivers I focused on personally, and they are also intrinsically linked to how Fortude operates.

The role of tech leaders has significantly evolved in this post-pandemic era. What new approaches to strategic decision-making can help bridge the digital talent gap, digital workplace, and digital experience?

Despite all the disruptions and upheavals, the pandemic did bring technology to the fore for every business. It became a critical part of running every business during the pandemic and helped pivot the role of tech leaders into the business mainstream. Almost all businesses I talk to today are now much keener to invest in digital. They have realised that digital solutions are critical for strategic growth and that any strategic transformation must be planned with tech leaders at the table. In addition, business users are now keen on better digital solutions and user experience to manage their jobs more efficiently.

From a Fortude perspective, I believe that it is critical to focus on a clear purpose that is meaningful to our digital talent pool. Our aim is to ‘deliver solutions that matter to our customers. Our teams understand the importance of our purpose and ensure that the solutions they deliver surpass expectations and are sustainable.

Secondly, the pandemic taught us that we can deliver digital solutions from any part of the world. I believe that most tech companies are realising that their workplaces can no longer be completely physical or virtual; they must consider hybrid approaches and be cognizant that “one size” no longer fits all, it will depend on each employee’s preference. Tech leaders must think strategically about how they get the best out of their digital talent pools and ensure that they retain them too.

The last approach that will be critical from a strategic perspective is each leader’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). Historically, the tech sector has been male-dominated, but that must change. Even at Fortude, despite a strategic focus to improve gender diversity, only 29% of our employees are women, so we have a lot more to do. Our strategy is clear, and we hope to become a preferred employer for women who aspire to become leaders in the tech industry, over the next few years.

Organisations are venturing into transformations of their technology infrastructure to set up for future growth. Resistance to digital technologies is a key reason why so many transformation projects fail. How can the C-suite manage this transition?

Digital transformations mostly fail because they are viewed as digital rather than business transformations. To succeed, top leadership must believe that digital solutions are catalysts of change for business processes and business structures. They must first have clarity on the appropriate business outcomes they hope to achieve by leveraging digital.

The C-suite should understand that digital transformation must be run as a programme with the necessary business process reviews, structural reviews, and appropriate change management initiatives to support the implementation of digital technologies. This approach is imperative to drive cultural change, process standardisation, and structural realignment.

As we step into 2023, what enterprise and digital technology trends do you think await us?

Cybersecurity will continue to be a key focus area. The growing variety and frequency of security threats are disconcerting. Encouragingly, several new developments are advancing the fight against this threat. For instance, the concept of a Digital Immune System has taken form. This new development in the cyber security space combines multiple practices and technologies from software design and development to operations and analytics, to deal with cyber threats in the same way the human immune system detects and combats viruses.

The evolution of the Cloud will also be interesting. From an adoption perspective, many organisations are moving to the cloud but there is a discussion of the possibility of Industry Cloud platforms which essentially refers to cloud solutions that have the functionality to meet the specific needs of a particular industry. Organisations would have access to this functionality and be able to adapt to the constant change in their industry.

Adaptive AI is one other. The thinking is that real-time feedback will be used to continuously retrain models, so they essentially adapt faster to changes in the real world. AI will trend significantly in Retail, especially vis-a-vis complex inventory management processes that support consumer requirements.

My final callout is the Metaverse. Experts are predicting that more and more businesses will leverage the Metaverse to have a more immersive meeting and collaboration area. It will be used for onboarding and training. The possibilities are endless.

While progressive tech companies will always generate new technology every year my viewpoint is that there continues to be a significant lag in adoption by the majority of businesses. My observation is that many businesses are still trying to figure out how to extract value from their existing digital systems. Most businesses have data in their systems that they haven’t leveraged fully yet. BI tools are still being used predominantly for reporting and some dashboards, but many businesses don’t have enough insights, let alone predictive analytics. Automation is also an area that lots of businesses are only looking at now.

And that is where Fortude comes in; we focus on supporting our customers to simplify their core systems, unlock their data, automate their processes, and then we partner with them to look at new digital tools.