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Starting up Cambodia’s ICT sector

Suy Channe, product manager at Instedd iLab South East Asia
Suy Channe, product manager at Instedd iLab South East Asia, is one of the few Cambodian women who stand out in the IT sector. Heng Chivoan

Starting up Cambodia’s ICT sector

INSTEDD, a US-based firm located in California’s start-up capital Silicon Valley, is on a mission to improve communications and knowledge sharing technologies in Cambodia with the help of Google. In 2008, the pair set up the first iLab in Phnom Penh, which provides information and communication technologies (ICT) assistance to the Cambodia Communicable Disease Control (CDC) and the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD (NCHADS).

With few graduates and professionals in Cambodia’s ICT sector, the industry is now urging tertiary education institutions and the Cambodian government to encourage students to enter the field.

Suy Channe, product manager at InSTEDD iLab South East Asia, is among the very few Cambodian women who stand out in the ICT sector. Channe sat down with the Post’s Chan Muyhong to discuss reasons for entering the industry, and what opportunities are truly available for young entrepreneurs to enter the technology business.

Why did you choose to enter the ICT industry?
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in information technology in Cambodia in 1998. In 1998, IT was something very new for Cambodia and I saw it as a very good opportunity. Also, there were not many female students who chose to pursue IT as a major. Then I received a scholarship to study for a master’s in Computer Applications in India and we all know that India is the biggest outsource country for IT services. So the opportunity to study in India allowed me to compare both markets and identify the best opportunities.

Tell us about what exactly iLab does?
iLab works with the government, NGOs and mobile companies to design technology solutions. We also focus on capacity building for IT professionals. I work to build skills in the IT industry and help partners take advantage of those abilities. For example, we help companies to gather information/data on health issues, which they can then use to make their reports quickly. We design technology solutions for NGOs and the Ministry of Health.

What is the situation for women in the IT field?
The concept that the job is only for men is still there. In the past 10 years, there have only been three female students in total in all the IT classes. There have been small changes, but I think what has changed is the growing opportunity for women in the IT field. For example, there is a small but supportive group for women in the field. Meanwhile, the community of industry experts is getting bigger despite the fact that human resources are still low.

The challenge for women in the IT industry is the concept that the jobs in IT are only for men. The common concept is that someone who graduates with an IT degree will be climbing up the wall linking wires, fixing computers and dealing with network cables and stuff. Actually there is more. They can be a software developer or programmer, neither of which involve troubleshooting computers. They really need to stop thinking like this.

I think opportunities in this field are quite equal for man and woman as it is really based on their ability to work. I still think there are vast opportunities out there for students in IT field and particularly for women.

The challenge maybe the traditional concept that women’s work performance is not as good as or better than men’s. But I think once they have the chance to work with women, they will change their mindset about women’s work performance.

I with another friend have started an outreach program to high school students to show them the opportunities for women in the sector, and to change female students’ perception about the job, which is very important to encourage them to take up career in IT field.

And the industry as a whole, is finding qualified staff still a big issue?
Human resources in IT in Cambodia is increasing I think. But what is being taught at school does not respond to the practical experience at the workplace. They are not parallel to each other. This is one of the challenges for us to move the sector forward. There are many students who study IT, but not many graduate with the ability to work, to meet the expectations of employers. We can see there is still gap between real work requirements and the theory being taught at schools.

The gap can be filled if students work harder to connect themselves to the real working environment by doing internships or joining events where IT experts gather, expand their network and start looking out for real life working experience. The demand for IT skills is rising everywhere around the globe, not specifically in Cambodia. Once you are qualified, your work has no boundaries.

How do you see Cambodia’s IT sector improving, then?
I see a positive growth for small businesses, started by young entrepreneurs over the last few years. I see the change of attitude of young people who dream and put a step forward to the realisation of their dream.

More and more start-ups are emerging using social media as their marketing strategies – they understand how technology can actually help their business to grow. Both technology and non-technology start-up require technology to operate nowadays. Through this we see that the demand for people with IT skill is rising at the same time of the increasing of small or big business.

However, the domestic market for IT industry is still small compared to neighbouring countries like Thailand and Vietnam where the population is huge. Those countries are already occupied by huge IT companies who provide software. While young companies would not be able to compete with them, those big companies are not interested in investing in Cambodia.

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