It all began with a kid taking apart his family radio. His parents thought he was crazy. But his love for technology would convince him to build a company one day. This company would go on to have a global presence. But now inside a brand new office, he points to a logo on a bright yellow wall and says, “There’s a grand vision here. That’s why there are six sides to this hexagon.” This is the story of Rootcode Labs.
The crazy inventor behind Rootcode Labs
The man that uttered those words and behind Rootcode Labs is Alagan Mahalingam – its Founder, CEO, and Chief Software Architect. From a young age, he was fascinated by technology. So much that he ripped apart radios lying around his childhood home. “I used to think there was a person inside it. When I realized it was coming from somewhere else it used to fascinate me,” said Alagan describing his early childhood as a tinkerer.
Like many future techies, he too went to his father begging for a Pentium 2 computer. In response, he got a lecture on how it was too expensive and a waste of money. But his father still bought him that Pentium 2 computer. Alagan’s love for technology continued to blossom and was shaped by two key moments. The first was seeing the Internet take off in 2000. The second was when Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone in 2007.
This love for technology led him to pursue a degree in software engineering at SLIIT. “I knew I was in the right industry at the right time. I knew I couldn’t let this opportunity go to waste,” says Alagan describing his thoughts at the time. As such, he began hunting for every possible opportunity to try new things and learn as much as he could.
So in his very first year at SLIIT, Alagan begged Prof. Lal Samarakoon for an internship at the Geoinformatics Centre attached to the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand. “I annoyed him so much, he said to take a flight and go to work. All I asked him was for a place to sleep.” Prof. Lal agreed and Alagan invested all his savings into a flight ticket to Thailand.
Once there, despite not knowing much, he worked hard. After 2 months, Alagan returned to Sri Lanka and felt like his life changed. “I was a kid in college, in his first semester, that successfully annoyed a director into giving me a free internship,” said Alagan. So on his next vacation, Alagan once again did another internship with Prof. Lal. He also got another internship later, which saw him travel to Japan to work as a research assistant at the University of Tokyo. Here he helped write an algorithm that helped optimize solar panels.
The inventor becomes an entrepreneur
These internships gave Alagan a reputation, which could be described as, “You’re trying something. You may not be good at it but you’re trying something.” So by the time he entered his third year in university, Alagan had a string of many more internships on his CV. Furthermore, he also had a bunch of other experiences under his belt, including a stint with Google as one of its student ambassadors.
But one day a different opportunity knocked on his door. One of Alagan’s friends pitched the idea for an AI-based Karaoke App to him. His friend added, “If you can build it then I’ll pay you.” These words kept ringing in Alagan’s despite the many doubts he had.
“I don’t come from an entrepreneurial background. I would maybe take risks when it comes to things like small finance choices. When it comes to running a business, I was not a person who would take that risk. You might have a project, but you can also lose that project. So if you have employed 5 or 10 people, you are responsible for them. So that thought made me very nervous,” said Alagan describing his initial doubts.
But at the same time, Alagan didn’t want to lose this opportunity either. Despite his doubts, he came to a realization. Leading a team, he could create a greater impact with technology rather than being a single software engineer inside an organization. Additionally, he wanted to use technology to build great products. An AI-based karaoke app wasn’t going to change the world. But Alagan viewed it as a stepping stone to learning how to build great products.
So he decided to take the plunge and build a company. This company would become 01 Tech and its original office was a small house in Longden Place. Alagan spent a month building the office running between furniture shops, light shops in Pettah, and more to build a makeshift office space. After a month, he began hiring developers to build a company.
The origins of 01 Tech
As with all young companies, the early days were some of the hardest. Alagan admits he made some bad hires initially before he learned what to expect from a great team member. Even after the right team was in place, there was a lot of work to be done.
Describing these early days Alagan said, “I would work with the team till 11 in the night and there weren’t any busses at that time. That meant I’d have to take 2 buses or pay Rs. 300 for a tuk, which wasn’t affordable at the time. I don’t think a lot of people know this. But I’d finish work, put a bed sheet and sleep on the floor. Then I’d wake up early and take a shower and be at my desk before anyone came to office.”
There were many days like this for over a year. But finally, they had built their AI-based Karaoke App. It was called Singifiy. This was their first app and it would bring the young startup much recognition. 01 Tech would win the Gold Award at the National Best Quality Software Awards and by extension were nominated for the APICTA awards as well. Eventually, Singify was acquired by a European company in 2017.
Going mobile-first beyond Sri Lanka
For Alagan, Singify was a success story. But he wasn’t looking at it as the only success story of 01 Tech. Therefore, 01 Tech became a software development company that developed mobile-first solutions. Today, it’s essential for developers to ensure they adopt a mobile-first approach. But 5 years ago, when 01 Tech started, this wasn’t the case.
“At the time, companies didn’t want to go mobile. There were a few mobile developers. In the last 5 years, the shift I see in the ecosystem is that we have a lot of companies doing mobile. This is because businesses require their technology to be mobile-first. So it was a challenge. But we built a product that was nominated among the best in Asia and it was bought over. So we had some confidence to do something more,” said Alagan describing life after Singify.
Having the fame of building a successful app, 01 Tech was able to secure more clients. For each of these clients, Alagan and the team always worked hard and made sure to go the extra mile. It was grueling with some clients making challenging requests that required coding deep into the night.
Thankfully this hard work paid off with many of their clients refer them to others. Additionally, the company had also taken part in various conferences like Techcrunch Disrupt SF. Further, it had also formed strategic partnerships, such as with Gogodoc in the United Kingdom. Thanks to these efforts, 01 Tech had secured a number of clients all across the globe. The company has come a long way from its humble origins and had to undergo a transformation.
Rootcode Labs: The beginning of the future
01 Tech had reached the point where it was doing many things. So to help it focus while maintaining its growth, the decision was made to restructure the company create a spin-off. This spin-off would have a laser focus on providing digital product engineering services to businesses worldwide. This was the birth of Rootcode Labs.
The company moved into a new office with Alagan continuing to serve as its CEO and Chief Software Architect. Describing its vision he said, “The focus of Rootcode Labs is to build world-class software products by being the technology partner for organizations.” Already, Rootcode Labs is working towards building products for companies both large and small across the world.
With this success, Alagan shared that the company is now looking at expanding into the US and Europe. Elaborating on this, he said, “We already have clients in the US and Europe. So we’re looking at setting up offices in California and Tallinn, Estonia to serve them better.” But this is merely the surface.
Alagan points to the Rootcode logo and explains, “There are six sides to the Rootcode Hexagon. The first one is Rootcode Labs, which will be focused on technology and product engineering. But we have five other areas, which we will be gradually expanding into.” These five other areas are as follows:
- Rootcode Analytics: Enabling businesses, governments, or any organization passionate about making data driven decisions and derive conclusions from millions of data records.
- Rootcode AI: This is already functional to a degree. But the vision for Rootcode AI is to operate as a pure research arm that explores the possibilities of AI by partnering with Universities and research institutes worldwide while also collaborating with Rootcode Labs to inject AI into the products they build.
- Rootcode Studio: Alagan describes this part of the hexagon saying, “Everything you build is going to be used by an end-user. So how you maximize that experience is going to make or break that product.” That’s why Rootcode Studio will focus on user interactions and experiences.
- Rootcode Enterprise: This would be a pure B2B arm of the company. It would focus on working with large corporates with hundreds of employees. Its focus would be to simplify the core processes of these corporates and making sure these processes are properly managed.
- Rootcode Investments: Explaining this part of the Rootcode hexagon, Alagan said, “A big part of the profits we make we want to invest in the ecosystem. I know that I am who I am today because of the support I got from the people in the startup ecosystem. I believe investors enable great ideas. I think Sri Lanka needs great investors that enable ideas, without looking for short term returns, to help take the country to the next level.”
Lessons from the past and looking toward the future
As he looks towards an ambitious future with Rootcode, Alagan hasn’t forgotten the lessons he’s learned over the past 5 years as an entrepreneur. One key learning he highlights is, “The first 20 hires you make are the most important ones. These 20 people will eventually lead departments and shape your culture. That’s why it’s so important that you pick the right people.”
Elaborating on this, Alagan shares that back when he was leading a tiny startup, all he wanted was people that could write good code. While this hasn’t changed, he learned that merely writing good code isn’t enough. It doesn’t make an employee an asset to the company.
“But you know, no dream is too big. We understand that we have to take one step at a time.” – Alagan Mahalingam
“Because they can replace you with another person who is good at coding. So what makes you special?” explains Alagan. So what makes a great employee an asset to the company? Over the past 5 years, Alagan found that the best people that stay and add value have one thing in common. They absolutely enjoy what they do.
As such, they don’t mind going through tough situations because they’re focused. Based on this Alagan created a formula to identify great employees. The first part of this equation is their talent. The second part of this equation is how they approach work and life. Yet, this is merely a guideline during the detailed hiring process Rootcode has.
Ultimately, in Alagan’s eyes, great employees are the ones willing to take on challenges because they have a grander vision for themselves. Similarly, he admits that Rootcode as a company has a very grand and ambitious vision for itself.
But with a smile, Alagan says, “I know it’s a grand vision. But you know, no dream is too big. We understand that we have to take one step at a time. It’s going to take a long time. It’s going to take many years. But we’re going to take careful steps as we expand and get the absolute best people to work with us. And if we keep the momentum going, I’m sure this grand vision will be possible.”