Monday, May 19, 2014

Rethinking 42 with Cambodia's Channe Suy Lan, Innovation Leader

This interview was conducted by Mitty Steele, and originally posted on Banyan Blog. I am reproducing it here (with Mitty's permission), because it is a great interview with an inspiring leader, to which I am very lucky to be married :)

Channe Suy Lan, 33, manages the InSTEDD Innovation Lab, Southeast Asia, a technology non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to building local capacity and open source solutions to address development challenges such as health, safety and disaster management of vulnerable populations in the Mekong region. She is recognized as one of the few women leaders in Cambodia’s IT community.

Born in Kampong Cham Province in 1981, Channe went to Sisovat High School in Phnom Penh, earned a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Norton University and received her Masters degree in Computer Application from Bangalore University in India in 2006. In 2011 she spoke at the first TedX in Phnom Penh about Building the Future of Cambodia. In 2013 she was the co-organizer of Startup Weekend in Cambodia, which helps to foster entrepreneurship and connect technology and the private sector.

She is a co-founder of ShareVision Team, a grassroots team of Cambodian software developers sharing real world software engineering practices, skills, and technologies with the software developer community in Cambodia. She is also a Board member of the BarCamp of Cambodia, which brings together software developers, IT professionals, innovators and students from all sectors to network and learn about the latest technologies.

I interviewed Channe to get her thoughts on how she became interested in the IT world, how to get more women interested in the IT profession, how InSTEDD is leveraging technology to address challenging development issues, why it is important to build local capacity, and the future of technology’s role in Cambodia’s development.

Q. What was it like growing up in Cambodia? What were some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome to get to where you are today? 

A. I was born in a poor family but I am lucky that my parents highly valued the importance of education. My parents decided to move our family from our village in Kampong Cham province to Phnom Penh when I was at 4th grade because they believed Phnom Penh would be a better place for me and my siblings to get a good education.

Due to our challenging financial situation, it looked unlikely that I would be able to continue to university after finishing high school. However, my parents decided to let me continue the study despite our severe financial difficulties. I promised them that I will try my best to get a job by year 2. It was not year 2 but I got my first job as a programmer when I was in year 3.

Studying abroad was my big dream. I applied for an Indian Government scholarship to study in India in year 2002 and I was fortunate to have been selected. I must say, studying overseas contributed immensely to who I am today, not only the education itself but more importantly the life experience of living independently in a foreign country.

Q. Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?

A. My mum. She is the most hard working person I know and she is very smart. With her dedication to our family and her children’s education, she made the strategic decision to move our family to Phnom Penh even though we had no home in Phnom Penh and no money. She gave me and my siblings an incredible example that hope and working hard can make a dream come true.

Q. Which women leaders have influenced you the most and why

A. I love Mother Teresa for her kindness and spreading her love and compassion to the world. It is the core essence of being a human being, everything else follows.

Q. What sparked your interest in IT?

A. If we look at the major world ‘s revolutions, first came the agricultural revolution and after that the industrial revolution. We are now living in the age of Internet revolution. Technology creates the globalized world. Technology is a stepping stone for Cambodia and the country’s development.

Q. In your opinion, why is it important to have more women in the IT field and what will it take to attract more women to that profession? 

A. Cambodia, like many countries in the world, has low number of women in technology compared to men. This field, in particular software programming, is among the highest paid jobs and is in high demand worldwide. I think many Cambodian women still have a stereotypical view, that working in IT is to do with climbing on walls to install cables.

It is important to attract more women to study IT by reaching out to them and providing more information about this field when they are still in high school. Recently, I teamed up with Sikieng Sok, a teacher at Royal University of Phnom Penh to create a Google group “Cambodian Women in ICT”. The idea is to use this group as a platform to share and support women working in- or studying ICT. The group also conducted a recent visit to Sisovat high school to share with girl students what technology can do and sharing with them our experience of working as women in IT profession. We encourage our IT women network to conduct this kind of visits to their former high school. The resulting momentum would be to help to greatly encourage more women to become interested in studying IT related subjects.

Q. You are a Board member of BarCamp and a founder Sharevision, both of which bring together different communities to share ideas around the topic of technology and innovation. Why is it important to bring different communities together? 

A. Technology-focused community events like the Barcamp and Sharevision events bring the community together to share experience and knowledge, improve skills as well as provide an important professional networking opportunity. The ecosystem and momentum of the technology community is very important. It not only benefits the local members but also attracts the international technology community and multinational companies as well.

Q. Technology can be leveraged to create powerful tools for development. How is InSTEDD Lab utilizing technology to create innovative solutions to address development challenges. What are some success stories and what interesting and innovative projects are you working on?

A. InSTEDD iLab South East Asia is a local team in Phnom Penh that designs and develops software systems to address important social needs.

Some success stories include our work with The National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD Control (NCHADS). We built an information system for Community Health Workers, so they can provide home-based care into a workflow to remind patients of treatment and testing appointments using text messages as well as mobile phone applications.

One of our widely used platforms is Verboice. Verboice is an interactive voice response technology. It is open source and customizable, and can serve organisations of all sizes for social good. For example, using our system, Cambodia's National Election Committee (NEC) can provide necessary information to voters using voice messages. Verboice also helps health organisations like Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC) and Marie Stopes International deliver health tips and advice to their target groups. This mobile technology also plays a vital role in labor rights. The International Labor Organisation (ILO), through its Better Factory Cambodia (BFC), utilizes our platform to help educate garment factory workers in a very entertaining way, through interactive questions and answers.

Q. In your TedEx talk in 2011, you stressed the importance of building local capacity in development to build a better future for Cambodia. In your opinion, why is this important? Has it improved since you gave that talk, and what can the development community in Cambodia and abroad do to improve this?

A. Universities in Cambodia graduate many students every year. Somehow there is still a big gap between the academy and material taught in academia and the knowledge needed for real work in the industry. Cambodia’s development depends on the skills of its people. Communities play very important roles in contributing to building up the skills in the local market. Starting from the first Phnom Penh Barcamp in 2008, the technology community ecosystem started to move forward. Many specialized communities have been created, which contribute to the skills of Cambodian people through knowledge sharing and supporting each other. This page lists many of the existing technology communities in Cambodia.

Nowadays it is easy for the technology professionals outside of Cambodia to contribute to the knowledge sharing or training. They can do this from overseas using video calls or even in person if they travel to our country. One example that comes to mind, is this experienced trainer and software developer from Singapore who attended Barcamp Phnom Penh in person. Ever since, he has kept in contact with the ShareVision team and organized a series of trainings via video calls to our students and software developer community.

Q. How do you think the relationship between technology and development will change in Cambodia in 10 years and where do you hope it will be?

A. I believe technology is a stepping stone for the development of Cambodia and many other developing countries. Today, the technology startup scene is still nascent in Cambodia, but still the technology ecosystem has been growing in a positive direction. There are also more and more entrepreneurial programs and competitions in the country. In 10 years time, I believe there will be more technology startups in Cambodia that will result in the improvement of the skills in the market and also contribute to the economic development of the country. I hope to see by that time, all young Cambodians - not only urban but also in the countryside - having access to the Internet and as a result their life will change for the better.

Q. You’ve been able to build a successful career at a young age. What advice would you have for young people who may be struggling but want to follow a similar path?

A. I love Cambodia but I must admit that growing up in the Cambodian society, it is sometimes hard for children to develop self confidence. The barriers are in school, family and of course the society around as well. My advice to young people is to dare to dream and work hard for your dream no matter what. Hope is always there for those who work hard. Embrace the opportunity of the growing technology community around, by joining one of the many groups. It will help you accelerate your learning, getting the support you need and building up your confidence and opportunity for you is bound to show up.

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