A guide to byte – A LAcNet project brings the world to remote Lankan classrooms


This appeared in the Sunday Times Plus Section on September 10, 2000. By this time I was the computer instructor of this project launched by LAcNet.

By Kesara Ratnatunga (10th September 2000)

The computer screen was their window to the rest of the world and they were having a field day. Exploring with wide-eyed wonder what lay beyond their horizons, were the grade seven and eight students of Nivaththaka Chethiya Maha Vidyalaya, Anuradhapura, the first beneficiaries of the Lanka Academic Network’s (LAcNet) ‘Computers for Sri Lankan Schools’ project.

LAcNet, a virtual network of Sri Lankan academic professionals living here and abroad, implemented and funded this pilot project by which a computer lab with five computers as well as Internet facilities was set up at the school. The objective is “to provide an opportunity for rural children to gain competency in computer and Internet, proficiency that will enhance and broaden their academic and entrepreneur skills.”

“Nivaththaka Chethiya was selected because its principal and teachers were very keen and also because a tremendous amount of support was given by Sena Gonapinuwala, a businessman of the area,” says LAcNet’s vice-president Chulie de Silva who is also the coordinator for this project.

Since the lab became functional in January this year, the students of all classes have had the opportunity to become familiar with the computers and the Internet.

“We were scared at first that we might break the computers,” said one eighth grade student who was busily typing out an essay with a group of his friends, “but now we are quite comfortable with them,” said all of them grinning from ear to ear.

There are no periods specially dedicated to computer education due to administrative problems. However, the computers are used to supplement the other subjects such as science and environmental studies. Many of the teaching sessions are conducted with the kids seated on the floor around the teacher who uses electronic encyclopedias such as Encarta to teach them.

The students themselves get hands-on time on the PCs and are already capable of using word processors and graphics software with ease – very encouraging progress considering many of them had never seen or touched a computer before. The idea seems to be to expose the children to the technology and make it part and parcel of their thinking rather than teaching computers as a science. “I like to give the smaller children a chance because they are very keen and learn fast,” says Mr. Nandasiri Wanninayaka, an English teacher cum computer instructor at the school, who has worked tirelessly to make this project a success.

“Using the computers has helped the students improve their English as well,” says the Principal, Mr. Piyasena Ratnamalala.

The students have also been exposed to the Internet and email, which they have been using under the guidance of Mr. Wanninayaka. They have even made friends via email, with their contemporaries in Australia. Nuwan Prasad Wanninayaka, a year 13 student having taught himself by reading books on web programming, has designed the school webpage as his Advanced level project. He says that the school having received these computers was indeed a great help and incentive for him to learn. It has inspired him to go into an Information Technology related career.

Having access to computers seems to have sparked an interest in many of the younger students as well, who are very keen to pursue computer studies outside school. Many of them troop to school an hour early as well as during the holidays, to spend some extra time playing around with the computers. The students’ enthusiasm is further highlighted by the fact that they have pooled and bought several CD-ROMs for the school.

“Parents are also very keen that their children should learn how to use computers,” says Mr. Ratnamalala.”They even accompany their children when they come during the holidays.” An enthusiasm no doubt fueled by the knowledge that in this day and age, computer literacy is as vital as being able to read.

This venture owes much of its success to the commitment of Mr. Wanninayaka who spares no effort in facilitating the children’s learning. He has big plans for the computer lab and the students, including a magazine to be published by the students. “We need more computers, even old ones,” says Mr. Wanninayaka citing the primary problem they face. Niwaththaka Chethiya MV has around 4000 students on its roll, and many of the classes which use the lab comprise around 70 students making both teaching and learning on just five computers very difficult.


The paintings of two of the school’s students, Nadeeka Wijesingha and Anusha Nilminimala Ariyarathna which were taken abroad by Mr. Wanninayaka have been offered to be sold in the U.S. Any earnings from their sale would be used to buy PCs for the school. Everybody at Nivaththaka Chethiya anxiously awaits a favourable response from those in the United States who have volunteered to sell the paintings for them.

“We would be more than happy to do more paintings,” say Nadeeka and Anusha, anxious to do their part for the school.

In Sri Lanka, Information Technology is restricted to a select urban community. Considering that much of the population reside in rural areas it seems grossly unfair that this should be the case. LAcNet’s project and any others to be initiated in the future by government or non-government organizations would be a key in linking these areas to the modern world. They will also have a major positive impact on the way future Sri Lankan generations think, the standard of their education and their global awareness. However, it is important that all attempts are made to ensure every child – regardless of economic standing or geographic location – gets this opportunity.

The enthusiasm of the staff and most of all of the students has been remarkable. LAcNet’s pilot project aimed at “creating a computer savvy student population in a rural school” seems to be in good hands and well on its way to achieving its goal. Hopefully it will lead to more people recognising the importance of educating children in Information Technology and coming forward to help and initiate forward-looking projects such as this. If the progress of the bright-eyed students of Nivaththaka Chethiya Maha Vidyalaya is anything to go by, the potential for the future is heartening indeed

You can read the original article at http://www.sundaytimes.lk/000910/plusm.html

MAS Holdings, My Favorite Sri Lankan Company

mas-holdings-logo.jpgI fell in love with three Sri Lankan companies ever since I had some experience with them. This is about the second company I admire a lot and recommend for other young people to work at. (This is not a paid advertisement but I write this on my own free will.) I am listing the three companies only in chronological order of me meeting with them, not according the order of my preferences.

Read about my other preference at this link.

  1. MAS Holdings www.masholdings.com

Slimline is one of the garment factories owned by the prestigious MAS Holdings chain of garments. I am here talking about Slimline as I have experiences working only  at that factory but my comments here are common to all subsidies of the MAS flag I guess. They have more or less the same management style and working conditions for the machine operators and the admin staff.

I had never heard of MAS Holdings till I got a message from Mr. and Mrs. Gaminitillake (first benefactors of Horizon Lanka) saying that a gentleman by the name of Dian Gomes was willing to extend some help to Horizon Lanka by donating some computers and also offer me a job after reading a short article I wrote to Horizon Newsletter! I never knew my writing ever had such an impact.

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Dian Gomes

I was taken from Colombo to Slimline, MAS Holdings’ flagship garment factory that produced world class lingerie such as high end brands like Victoria’s Secret, by the Assistant Manager of HR & Admin at Slimline, Sanjeewa Jayathilaka. We drove there by his car. We had a nice chat on the way to the factory that covered 70 km and Sanjeewa told me a lot about Slimline and Dian, the CEO of Slimline. So, I was highly taken up by the stories he told me and was looking forward to see Slimline and meet that amazing gentleman called Dian Gomes.

Sanjeewa took me to Slimline and then I was asked to be seated till the scheduled interview would take place. I was asked to sit till the interview took place and some might-be-colleagues of mine from the staff shared smiles with me and we had a talk. Then, a staff member named Menik took me on the trip around the factory.

Oh my! I was embarrassed big time,  when she took me to the factory floor,  where the young girls were making panties and bras in the thousands! Lingerie was everywhere and Menik was showing them to me  and  sharing ‘ small talk’ with the sewing girls. ( I was not in love with a girl except for the school  days  crush, which  did not take me that far during my teen years). I knew almost nothing about ladies undies. As Menik was showing me different brands, styles, etc., of lingerie,  I was hoping the ground would open up  an swallow me, as I was so embarrassed of this grand display of female intimate garments which I knew nothing about.

MAS lingerie

Menik also introduced me to the top level management of Slimline and most of them had sexy panties on their tables but by that time I was quite comfy with, well, panties (and bras.) She explained me that those lingerie were the Slimline’s main exports and there was nothing wrong in workforce being intimate with those intimate wear. (But I was still not fully comfortable with them, well, till I met my sweet little girlfriend in 2002. I bought her a good collection of MAS sexy lingerie only from the employees’ annual sales at the factory.)


Dian Gomes

I was briefly interviewed by the HR manager who asked me to join Slimline immediately. I was still to meet Dian though. Then a very energetic man with pleasant broad smile came into the HR department and it was Dian. He asked me when I could start working for him. Then I told him that I was to go to the USA for a short visit and would have to wait till that trip was over. Then Dian said “මචං උඹට කැමති වෙලාවක වරෙන්.” (You may come when you want buddy.) I was pleasantly surprised when my boss-to-be called me මචං (a friendly Sri Lankan term that is similar to “buddy”) because prior to this, the only private sector establishment I had worked for was Asiri Hospitals, Colombo. We were treated quite poorly there, there during 1993-1995 period. It was pure feudal system management that was in place at Asiri and the employees were treated as garbage. I will state three examples where the employees were treated like rubbish by the management there.

  1. Once a female nurse had been slapped in the face by a consultant physician for her forgetting to add one of his visits in the bill. I heard there had been a protest and the management took the doctor’s side and the nurse was not given a fair deal.
  2. We worked full time during the worse part of 1993 parliamentary and presidential elections which were marred by terrorism and political violence which resulted in long lasting curfews. But we volunteered to work long hours as we wanted to give the nurses (who traveled  from long distances to have enough time),  to go  cast their votes. Since we could not go outside of the premises due to the curfews we were given food from the hospital kitchen. The food was so bad it was nearly inedible. Some nurses had complained the relevant authority who imparted the message to the top lady who oversaw the operation and her answer had been, reliably, “ගම්වල කරවල කටු කන එවුන්ට මේ කෑම හොඳ වැඩියි.” (For those nurses who eat dry fish bones in their villages, our food is too good.)
  3. A consultant surgeon had fondled a pretty nurse’s breasts in his consulting room and the nurse had cried and complained to her superior who reported the incident to the same top lady and you would  be surprised with her answer. “ඉතින් ඕක ටිකක් ඇල්ලුවා කියලා ගෙවෙනෙවයැ!” (A little feel of the  breasts does not wear it off ?) Imagine this coming from another lady!!!!!

Still there was nothing the staff could do. Once I lead a protest of my colleagues, when their one month’s salary was deducted for not being present to sing Christmas carols during our vacation. We all went home but the crazy nursing trainer lady had ordered us to come for the carols. She got the management to deprive us of our salary for a month for this sin of not being present to sing Christmas carols which was not in our religious beliefs. When I met the then Managing Director of the Asiri Hospitals with a colleague of mine to negotiate a settlement of our due pay, he said the salary was deducted as a punishment. I asked him if the punishment for such a simple thing were too much. Then he said, “It is me who decide if the punishment were too big or not, not you.” And the management was to get rid of me giving the whole batch a special and extraordinary test the nursing trainer was to hold (with the pure intention of failing me to fire me from the job which backfired to herself and at the end; all her bad schemes were revealed by the management and it was she who was fired and not allowed to enter Asiri premises to date. I did not do anything to that effect; it is only repercussions of bad intentions that landed her in that situation. Our deducted salary also was given.

In addition to all these, we were called by surnames and had to call each other by surnames. Just imagine calling your girlfriend by surname even within working hours!!!  How about that?

(It is said that the working conditioned were changed when a young doctor called Manjula Karunaratne took over Asiri Hospitals as the CEO and now it is a pretty good place to work.)

So, with all these negative experiences in the private sector, I was in the seventh heaven when my boss called me a buddy at Slimline. I joined MAS after my trip to the USA and I felt very comfortable in the establishment from the very first day. I was given a separate PC, unlimited access to the Internet, air-conditioned working space, free food and snacks, free access to gymnasium and ample opportunities to use the sporting field for team sports like cricket, free accommodation with a cook in a spacious house with few of my colleagues, free transport, and company paid medical insurance, ample opportunities to partying at staff houses. We were given company paid training whenever we wanted them. My public speaking abilities were sharpened by one such training that the MAS sponsored me at the British Council, Colombo. I am indebted to MAS just for that more than anything else. I had been a very shy guy till I completed that great training program. My colleagues who went to the training with me were from elite schools in Colombo and Kandy and I was the only one from a not-so-famous school in Anuradhapura. After the final round of speeches we made, the trainer came to me and said my speech was the best of all. I was over the moon, not for being the best but for being able to getting rid my fear of public speaking.

We were paid a very decent salary. Working conditions were awesome. I was once asked by a colleague of mine what I liked most about MAS. My single-worded answer was “freedom.”

If I had chosen to stay with MAS, I am sure I would have easily become a top manager by now, but I chose to leave the establishment in 2002 to commit full time for my own organization, Horizon Lanka Foundation.

Slimline was situated in a very traditional village called Pannala in the outskirts of Kurunegala. But once you enter inside the factory, you feel like you are in an American state. People there were open minded and you could tell anything to anyone in the face than beating around the bush. They won’t have long faces for being cut and dry and they took the comments with a smile and changed themselves to the better. In addition to that, you’ve got five star facilities, American style management and, of course, American standard bathrooms that were super clean at any given time at the establishment.

Dian himself would pick up any litter himself if it were found anywhere inside the factory (which was extremely rare to find.) Once your boss himself does it with such humbleness, none of the coworkers need to be told to do that by the boss. Dian did it giving example and everybody got the message.

Dian also had this habit of getting mad (or pretending to be so) and shouting at his top management team on top of his voice, sometimes. I must have been the only one who was not being told off by him. I don’t know why though. I wasn’t a very good staff member as as my heart was in my village than in Slimline, something which Dian understood quite all right and made allowance for  that as much as he could. His own school alumni got earful but not me.

There was of course professional jealousy, slandering against the coworkers to the superiors to get more benefits or attention that were available just like at any other organizations. Yet for all that, especially when someone had a personal (or even official) challenge, everyone would come as a team and extend their generous help. I can remember how the coworkers and the management contributed when someone was terminally ill or was to go for a life threatening surgery. Everyone would chip in and offer help and you feel as if the company is more than your family.

I fell ill once with an acute fever and when I told my manager that I would love to go home for treatment, the manager asked me “Are you crazy Nanda? We will look after you.” And he immediately sent me to Asiri Hospitals, Colombo (the same private hospital I loved to hate for its appalling working conditions due to my bad experiences as an employee there seven years ago.) MAS paid all my bills and gave me access to the country’s best medical practitioners. My former colleagues at Asiri were highly taken up with the manner I was taken care of by MAS and I too did not expect even in my wildest dreams, that I would be able to enjoy the luxuries of a patient in this hospital would get. It was simply unaffordable for me to be treated here if I had to pay the bills myself.

Stories are too many to share about MAS. So, I would just take your attention as to what (or who rather) made Slimline a pleasant place to work. It was none other than Dian Gomes, a corporate giant who was voted many a time as Sri Lanka’s best CEO. He had a very simple way of managing this huge organization. It was merely just being friendly and let the workforce unleash their energy. Nobody was angry with the company like in the other places of work. Everybody knew honestly they would be taken care of. Everybody knew that the company would not dump them after taking the best out of them. Dian was a colleague, friend, brother, father and the Savior when you were in need. Dian did not worry much about the amount of monies spent on employees’ welfare as long as the workforce is productive and the company is meeting its targets. In most of the other garment factories, the sewing machine operator girls were treated like litter. But at Slimline, it was a different story. The staff was to call them with respect by their first name preceded by Miss, not the other way round like in most of the other places. We went to their department and distributed their salary with a lot of love and respect which they also appreciated a lot (till the salaries were transferred to their bank accounts due to fear of the salary truck being robbed by some goons. Then again, Slimline installed an ATM machine inside the company premises for the ease of the staff.)

The machine operators did not have a trade union that opposed every move of the company. Instead, they had this Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) where Dian himself was a fatherly figure rather than a corporate representative. The workforce never had to fight for a cause. The only thing they had to do was just increasing productivity. Dian would get the message and would come back to the next JCC with some more benefits that the girls didn’t fancy. Even the firebrand Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP,) the main Marxist party in Sri Lanka found no way to infiltrate Slimline for trade union actions. Why? Because Dian himself was Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro at Slimline. So, fake Che’s had no place, well, not at Slimline.

Dian retired from Slimline at the relatively young age of 55 and Suren Fernando, the former Financial Controller of the organization took up the reins as the new CEO. I am sure he would exercise all his knowledge and experiences in cutting costs in the establishment but with the Slimline culture I know, the company would spend what it takes to keep performing. Not even a hardcore financial controller like Suren would be able to resist that. Good luck Suren! You are going to need a lot of that.


Dian at MAS Holdings Farewell Ceremony


Inside MAS Factory


Inside MAS


Inside MAS



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Cornerman – Stories from the Life of Dian Gomes – Compiled by Vidhura Ralapanawe and Shevanthi Fernando

Cornerman Book Cover
Cornerman Book Cover

It was a fascinating experience to read ‘Cornerman – Stories from the life of Dian Gomes’ few weeks back. Dian Gomes wanted to do a book on his boxing journey to inspire a new generation of boxers and administrators.  However, the authors convinced him that the role of Cornerman that he played was not limited to boxing but also extended to his corporate life.  Therefore the book is a compilation of stories, of growth, leadership and working together towards a dream – of many of the people who Dian Gomes made.

The book says how ardently Dian grooms his team and sporting personalities, and also often gives some of them the freedom to move on from MAS for their career excellence in other establishments. Dian has equally given opportunities for those who came from affluent backgrounds and not-so-privileged backgrounds. If they perform and have the potential, Dian is there to take them to the next levels.

Winning the trust of the owners of MAS, the Amalean family, and winning respect of archrival to MAS, Brandix cannot be treated as mere luck but Dian’s hard work, commitment and his resilient personality.

Taking boxer Anuruddha Rathnayake to the Olympic Games in 2008, after a 40 year lapse of a Sri Lankan boxer representing Sri Lanka in boxing, must be the one of the highest achievements of Dian Gomes. Though he did not win a medal, but his story has inspired many in various sports.

When Manju Wanniarachchi was accused of taking performance enhancing drugs after winning a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, 2010 everyone raised eyebrows and looked at Dian more suspiciously than at the boxer himself. It is good that the book discloses the whole episode of how Manju fell prey to a quack doctor who administrated a doping injection on him and shattered the hopes of an entire country.

The chapter on Dian’s two daughters is full of love and affection towards the father who sacrificed more on other people’s sons and daughters instead of his own. But they do not have hard feelings and understand the bigger picture in relation to father’s larger than life figure in the corporate and sports arenas. It would have been nice if there was a chapter about how Dian’s wife sees him too.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the inclusion of a small paragraph about me and Horizon Lanka Foundation in the book. Both Horizon Lanka and I were immensely benefitted by Dian and MAS in the past. But I did not expect a mention about us in his book.

The design of the book has been done masterfully. My only complaint is the font. The font might look good in a website but not in a printed book. They should have gone for a rounder font. I also wish the book were lighter in weight as it was very difficult to read in bed.

A Place in the Sun : Stories To Uplift Your Soul

A Place in the Sun cover page

A Place in the Sun cover page

Dian Gomes, the CEO of Slimline Pvt. Ltd., a leading multinational garment factory in Sri Lanka sent me a copy of “A Place in the Sun” few years back. The stories in this book are written by Slimline employees, or better say “Team Slimline.” I read a few selected stories in the book written by some employees whom I admired most and kept the book in the bookshelf to read it fully at a later stage as I was more interested in ICT related books those days.

But when Dian Gomes sent me the newest book about him, “Cornerman” I felt guilty for not reading the first book he sent fully. So, without even opening the Cornerman, I finished reading the book “A Place in the Sun” at a stretch within a few days. It was a pleasing experience as I too have worked for Slimline briefly from December, 2000 to July, 2002. The Place in the Sun was published to commemorate Slimline’s 8th anniversary.

I was amazed to see the extracts about Slimline in “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” (published in 1999) written by Thomas L. Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize winning author. He had not written “The World is Flat” by then but was famous enough as a journalist. He says Slimline looks like it had descended from Mars with its modernity despite being in a tropical rainforest-like surrounding. He further says that he would let his daughters work there (if they get an American salary.) Such positive remarks coming from someone like Friedman tells it all about Slimline.

There are scores of inspirational stories throughout the book and what my eyes caught most at the very beginning was how the pistol shooter Ruwani Abeymanne was invited by Dian to work and train at Slimline while she was in a dejected state after failing to hit the bull’s eye at the Sydney Olympics.  Shehan Abeygunawardene’s story on a young girl who finished last in a cycle race yet proved her mettle by finishing what she started is fascinating. There are other stories of Slimliners coming forward to help their colleagues at dire straits, teamwork shown in meeting impossible deadlines, collective spirit shown at a serious operation of a colleague’s wife or a child, etc. There were several articles written about a poor machine operator who was killed by her own husband. It was appalling to read that she and the family had not tasted a chicken curry for months and the very night she had been planning to cook a chicken curry for the family! Life is like that.

There are few articles in appreciating the cooks and maids of staff houses of the Slimline staff members and it is heartening to see that those small people are treated courteously by the Slimliners.  Quite a few stories are there about staff members helping juniors to further their education by going an extra nine yards.

There are a lot of stories to appreciate Dian’s humility but what inspired me most was the one that he had to climb a 50 feet high coconut tree at an outward-bound training program. The CEO has acted like Tarzan according to Hemali Suriyapperuma. Dian is a person who never takes defeat. That I know.

Compilation of a book with employees’ stories is a fantastic idea. Employees are given freedom to write about what really interest and inspire them. Not many companies embark on such schemes. I wish I were at Slimline long enough to contribute to A Place in the Sun.

I don’t think you can buy the book from the bookshops unless you have someone related to Slimline to borrow a copy. While searching on the Net I found 2 copies available on Amazon.

Linchpin – Seth Godin

Linchpin - Seth Godin

Linchpin – Seth Godin

Linchpin is written by Seth Godin. It became an instant bestseller. The book brings all of Seth’s ideas together. Linchpin is his 12th book.

The linchpin is indispensable. In the same way one has to be a linchpin in a workplace to be successful professionally. The book is about how one can become indispensable in a work environment.

During the era after the Industrial Revolution the workers were dispensable. They could be replaced easily as they were not linchpins. The factories could run without them as they could be replaced with workers who were hired at lower wages.

But things started changing by the 20th century. Organizations understood the value of linchpins. This is why the budgets for training and development were increased. The companies looked at the workers as treasure that helps their organizations.

With this change the workers also had to be indispensable. The weaker ones did not have a secured place in organizations. They had to be either linchpins or get fired. Companies invested a lot on increasing the performances of their workers. Those who could show results survived and the rest had to be laid off.

Companies need linchpins to solve their problems, keep them connected, and inspire them with art. People who are linchpins are creative, good at connecting with others, and able to see solutions like no one else. They truly are indispensable.

Earlier there were only the management and the labor to run a company. But now the third force called linchpins have emerged. They handle inventing new things, leading from the front, connecting others, making things happen and create order out of chaos. They love challenges. They are proactive. They work extra hours voluntarily for the betterment of the company. As a result they get better pay and promotions. So, it is a win-win situation for the linchpins and the companies.

The linchpins are artists. They are creative. They value freedom within the organization. They don’t wait till they get orders. They think beforehand. They foresee impending issues. They propose new ideas to the management. They encourage the workers. They strengthen the link between the management and the lower layers of workers.

Godin tells us the importance of bettering ourselves in the corporate world by being proactive and energetic members of the organization. It is no easy task in highly competitive business world. But there is no other option except being a linchpin. You add value to your organization by being a linchpin.

I have worked in MAS Holdings and Dialog Axiata. Both of them are leading companies in Sri Lankan corporate world. I saw a lot of linchpins in both the places. It is amazing how they put their maximum to the companies. Young ladies and gentlemen there sacrifice a lot to become linchpins. I learnt a lot from them while I was there.