On the 18th of February, 1996, the Sunday Times ran an article about a strange new tech company where even the CEO’s driver had shares and turnover was expected to be in the hundreds of millions. In it, CEO Tony Weerasinghe flamboyantly challenged the readers: “What’s wrong with being a leader? If we say we have to wait and see how it’s going, we cannot go forward.”
The company was MillenniumIT. It was barely a month old at the time. Today, almost two decades later, it’s one of the biggest software companies in Sri Lanka.They employ hundreds of the best software engineers in the country; they have a whopping 21-acre office in Malabe; their software runs some of the world’s biggest stock exchanges – from London to Italy to Singapore.
And they’re almost invisible. They don’t speak at the Colombo-based conferences we frequent. They don’t do social media. They made the news in when their founder and CEO, Tony Weerasinghe, resigned in June: other than that, there’s scarcely been a beep out of this place. They’re the proverbial Monolith of Sri Lanka’s software industry – MillenniumIT.
MillenniumIT has two offices: one near Glass House on Marcus Fernando Road, and the other in Malabe. Glass House is what they call their ESP division. (We’d like to believe that they’re experimenting with psychic weapons in there, but reality is much less violent). Malabe is the nexus of things, and it was this nexus that we drove to.
The journey there immediately explains why folk from MillenniumIT don’t often show up for events: they’re too far away. After running into traffic in Colombo, Borella, Malabe, Battaramulla and Koswatta, we eventually rolled into a long road that curved up to the horizon, empty save for the occasional three-wheeler puttering along. This took us to Millenium Drive, which is something like Sri Lanka’s answer to One, Microsoft Way, Redmond.
Millenium Drive split, went past a gate, a security hut and continued, forking off into a car park and a rising curve that steadily ascended a hill and vanished over the top. Before us stretched what people at MillenniumIT call “the Campus” – a massive expanse of hills and snaking roads peppered with offices, recreational studios, even a cricket pitch. (photos by Ushan Gunasekara)
Now, twenty-odd acres of land is no joke. In fact, we’d go out on a limb and say this is perhaps the only true Silicon Valley-esque “corporate campus” in Sri Lanka – very few Sri Lankan companies are large enough to require roads with speed bumps between the entrance and the canteen. So, the big question:
“All this happened later,” said Lalin Dias, VP of Platform Development, gesturing at the buildings outside the window. We were in the Turing building – a yellow-cream concrete and glass concoction inhabited by neat-looking workspaces: lots of computers, white tables, Herman Miller chairs.
We had walked in expecting men in black suits, and possibly Will Smith lounging in a corner trash-talking the aliens, but instead, we’d introduced to Shanaka Abeywickrama, Head of Marketing, and Lalin Dias, VP of Platform Development, both of them in Tshirts and showing no signs of extraterrestrial combat training. It was a slight disappointment, but we took consolation in the fact that Lalin looked slightly terrified by the cameras trained on his face. As I jotted down notes, he answered the big question: why Malabe?
“This might come as a surprise, but Malabe was supposed to be the IT park of Sri Lanka. So we got this land….and nobody else moved in.” He laughed. “I think it worked out for us. A lot of people are trying to achieve a Silicon Valley culture, but this is the only Silicon Valley-type campus.
“When we started – we started thinking about this in ’98 – we wanted to get really smart guys and create a culture different to the usual cubicle farm. For these guys, greenery, cricket grounds, the whole nine yards – that’s better. Tony was very passionate about this. It wasn’t that easy – we weren’t swimming in cash. It stretched us to build this place, but it paid off. By 2003 we’d all moved here.“
Indeed, it’s hard not to be passionate about such a place. To our eyes, the campus seemed more school than office. Just beyond the Turing Building was the cricket ground, with floodlights for night cricket. A large, unfinished building next door held what appears to be a tennis / basketball court, decorated with the banners of MillenniumIT’s four in-house factions – very much like school Houses themselves.
“We tournaments for practically everything, including gokarting,” explained Shanaka. “Sometimes the guys like to go out to the cricket ground for a game of rugby. Oh no, we don’t really have a timecard system. People get work done.“
Outside, a pool’s being built: a few meters away from that is a cosy-looking daycare center, all brick and glass, where they care for not just employees’ children, but also their elderly, should they so require. The lobby, where we headed to next, turned out to be a building half the size of Majestic City, large enough to make a decent wedding hall. And indeed, people have gotten married there.
To understand how this gargantuan building happened, one step back and turn to the history books. The story of this place begins almost a decade ago, in the Open Systems division of ComputerLand, a Sun Microsystems reseller. The division won a contract to set up the automated trading system of the Colombo Stock Exchange – and the Central Depository System at Mauritus. Open Systems needed capital. ComputerLand told them to find new people to invest – or, failing that, they would sell the division off.
So in 1996, in an orchestrated buyout, the Open Systems division spun off and became MillenniumIT, a systems integrator and Sun Microsystems reseller. They had 12 people, each with a stake in the company.
Next year, they landed a contract from the Colombo Stock Exchange: in it was cached an opportunity to design and implement a straight-through processing system – basically, a system to carry out the entire trade process electronically. MillenniumIT took the shot. The CSE project became the basis of what they would become famous for – capital-markets software.
From then on, business wins accumulated. In that same year, they also built software for Dialog, which at that time operated under the shadow of the much larger Celltell. Overseas contracts worked out. By 2000, Millenium IT had a regional distributor for Sun Microsystems; a year later, they’d unlocked their first US contract and were setting up operations there. Computerland had seemingly dropped off the map. The division was a success. By 2002 they’d set up their Monolith.
The journey was difficult. Part of what they had to deal with was a cultural struggle – the sense that they were literally competing with giants like NASDAQ in America, and that brought a lot of pressure onto some people.
The other part was brand-building. MillenniumIT ran into this not so long ago, before the massively publicized sale to the London Stock Exchange. The trouble began when stock, bond and derivate exchanges began to build their own software. Tony Weerasinghe, himself having seen industry giants fall to change, realized that they were running into trouble.
“I realized that we were not going to win any significant exchange,” he is quoted as having said in an article in Echelon Magazine. The article goes on: He pointed out that ‘even a Colombo Stock Exchange automation tender would be beyond the firm’s ability to win, despite its track record and presence here. “Even if we were far cheaper and had better technology they will still like to be associated with one of the big names.” Under fire from the NASDAQ-run OMX, he realized that MillenniumIT needed a partner with the brand to match.
First on the list was the London Stock Exchange, which hadn’t yet stepped into writing their own software. MillenniumIT had the software: in fact, Millenium Exchange – the stock trading platform – was arguably the fastest trading platform at the time. LSE bought the company in 2009, and by 2011 had turned it into one of the fastest trading stock exchanges in the world.
But soon the order came through: make it faster. In an industry obsessed with latency, LSE wanted a system that could operate at a 100 microseconds. Manoj Bandara, the chief architect of Millenium Exchange, commandeered a meeting room on the second floor of the lobby with his team and literally lived in there for months, refusing to stop until the system was complete.
“We were obsessed with that number, 100 microseconds,” recalled Lalin. “People used to go there and ask: what’s the number now? What’s the number now? And they got so fed up of it that they wrote the latency on a piece of paper and stuck it outside. Every morning they’d update the paper.”
The system worked. In fact, the history of the company is peppered with such instances: high-risk moments where great engineers would just bury their heads and plough through what seemed to be an impossible task.
“We’re pretty good at what we do,” said Lalin. “We got here by focusing on one thing, being at it for a long while and having really, really smart people with us. A lot of software companies here say ‘Come to us, we’re in Sri Lanka, it’s pretty cheap.’ We’re like ‘Hi, our stuff is pretty cool. And by the way, we’re from Sri Lanka.’ We’re not saying we’re cheap. We’re saying we’re better.”