Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Madura Kulatunga reflects

The first thing that strikes you about Madura Kulatunga is that he’s open and friendly.  That almost puts you off, and it takes some time to realise that the person you’re talking to made quite an important contribution to our “techno-scape” in his day.

But then you realise, as you go on talking with him, that he doesn’t underestimate his achievements, hasn’t marginalised them, and has come to realise how much more he could do for others with them.

Madura was born on March 23, 1980 in Matara. He was educated at Royal College, where he developed an interest in computing. “The problem was that we were from a generation which wasn’t conversant in IT. Yes, Royal had a Computer Society, but for the most those who became members came from affluent backgrounds and knew reasonably well how to use a computer.” On the other hand, he and his friends would jaunt off to Union Place almost every day: “There was an internet café there and, being the eager little boy I was, I revelled in surfing the web.”

Those who think he envisioned a career in IT or Science at school might be a little surprised, though. “I didn’t even choose Science for my A/Levels, but opted for Commerce!” he laughs. Having passed out in 1999, he began his journey in computing only after he’d left Royal.

A few years later he pursued a Diploma in Computing at the National Youth Centre in Maharagama. It was there that he came to terms with his biggest problem. “My teachers taught us in English. I found that hard. On the other hand, they taught us so well that I took in everything they said. None of them came and taught with the intention to earn. We could see they loved what they did.”

Soon after completing his course at the Youth Centre, he got himself enrolled in Abacus Computers. “I didn’t come from a very affluent background. My parents were civil servants. But they knew how much I’d grown to love the subject, and for that reason, hard as it was on their pockets, they bought me a computer. I remember the specifications of it even now: a Pentium III 733 MHz PC, which may seem like a dinosaur by today’s standards but which cost 55,000 rupees and was certainly worth its weight in gold back then!”

At Abacus Computers, Madura studied for a Special Diploma in Information Technology, which (by his own confession) wasn’t as well recognised as the qualification he’d obtained before. But if the previous course had inculcated an interest in software in young Madura, the Abacus course inculcated it even more. It was also there that he realised how much of a problem his deficiency in English was, particularly since he began reading on an area he felt his course wasn’t teaching in full: Visual Basic.

“I remember going to Sarasavi and buying a book on VB. Back then we were recommended ‘Sam’s Teach Yourself’ tutorial books. In fact that is what I tried to get that day. But my eyes fell on another book, which name I don’t remember now, and for some reason, after quickly going through it, I found it much more interesting. Yes, it was in English. But based on all those illustrations and on what I was learning at class then, I found it interesting. That is why I bought it.”

Apparently Madura hadn’t found it easy to read the entire book. Nevertheless, he’d been determined to read it, and read it from page one he did. “The book, even in the first few chapters, went through the logic behind programming and coding. We weren’t really taught that at class. There were also those grey areas our teachers didn’t look into that much. The book explained those as well.”

Because of his language-deficiency, however, he’d been forced to resort to the Malalasekera English-Sinhala Dictionary, which would aid him in his lectures. It had apparently been at Abacus when he’d realised the full value of the book, a point reinforced by the fact that he came from a generation still unused to the internet: “Frankly, not all of us could afford to have our own connection, since in our day we had to use Dial-Up and that was pretty expensive. Naturally, therefore, we didn’t have the luxury of quick reference guides people today use online.”

After teaching himself the untaught aspects to Visual Basic, Madura then decided to design his own program. Having groped around with various ideas, he decided to give back with what he’d used: the dictionary. And so he set about designing a dictionary as a computer program. “I admit I had to resort to Malalasekera almost all the time, but at the end of the day the idea was mine and mine alone. In later years I felt guilty for having used Malalasekera so much, and I’ve come to realise how important copyrights are.”

Not surprisingly it took time for him to develop his program. “I tested it on several of my friends’ computers for about a month. After the trial period was over, I called my friends up and asked them as to what they thought of it. They loved it. That’s when I decided to release it.”

He launched his (virtual) dictionary on November 23, 2002. He has quite a knack for remembering numbers, which I realise as he explains to me the cost-and-price structure for his product. “For printing the CD cover at Seya Colour and later packaging it, I had to spend about 75 rupees. I sold the program for 200 rupees to a retailer who’d then sell it for 300. Overall I got a profit of 125 rupees, but that wasn’t all: I had to also spend on capital equipment, including a CD writer which cost 10,000 rupees.” Was his product successful in its initial run? “Yes, it was,” Madura sighs.

He didn’t abandon his higher education, however, and something I’ve noticed at this point is that no matter how much he’s achieved, he wants to keep his avenues as open as possible. He passed out as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer in 2005. He obtained an MSc in Information Technology from Sikkim Manipal University (through ICBT Campus) five years later.

During this time took his next big step: in 2008, by which time more and more Sri Lankans were taking to the internet, he made a website out of his program (maduraonline.com) and unveiled it to the entire world. It continues to gobble up users even now: as of June 27 it’s the 29,566th most visited website in the world and the 59th in Sri Lanka on alexa.com, which as Madura explains takes into account websites visited, not created, in a country: “So when it ranks websites in Sri Lanka it includes users who visit Facebook, Google, YouTube, and the like.”

When his product began soaring in popularity, he was recognised by the University of Moratuwa when he was invited to address a Symposium in 2009. He was invited by Professor Gihan Dias, who was instrumental in founding Sri Lanka’s first email system and later the Information and Technology Agency (ICTA).

“Professor Dias told me to come and present my website. But I wanted to do more. Instead of merely unveiling it, I made a presentation and explained to the audience the entire backdrop to my program. In other words I talked about the nuts and bolts of my program, from scratch. It was hard, but I’m a person who wants to go through everything.”

He adds moreover that several deals came to him from companies which wanted to buy his program away from him. His idealism shows here: “I know people think I should have given the program up and earned big bucks, but that’s not my way. This is my program, even if I don’t earn that much from it, and as long as what’s in it is mine, it remains mine. No one can change that.”

Madura isn’t exactly young, but he bristles with a kind of optimism I haven’t come across people his age. He’s achieved more than those who’re older than him by a decade or two have, and I’m not just talking about qualifications. Part of the reason for his success must be his openness, which makes him a firm believer in individual effort.

He has one thing to say to all this: “I have no regrets for what I did. Not yesterday, not today, and certainly not tomorrow.”

Written for: Scribe Project, July 10 2016