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Paco Sandejas on helping new tech talents and building a strong nation through tech – Manila Bulletin

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Published January 3, 2023, 10:33 AM
by Lionell Macahilig
The Philippines has a resilient tech landscape, but despite its impressive growth, the country still needs more talents, which is the lifeblood of a healthy tech ecosystem. “The whole world has the same challenge: we do not have enough engineers to build the digital infrastructure,” said Paco Sandejas, the founder chairman of Stratpoint Technologies, Narra Ventures, and Xepto Education. “Today, digital is the new sexy word for what we used to call ICT technologies. However, the new digital infrastructure that will empower all these self-driving cars and automated robots that deliver our goods need engineers.”
Foreseeing the potential of the country as a regional tech hub, Sandejas was one of the first who really promoted software outsourcing and business process outsourcing in the 1990s. With former President Joseph Estrada, Department of Trade and Industry Secretary Jose Pardo, Bureau of Internal Revenue Commissioner Dakila Fonacier, and, eventually, DTI Secretary Manuel Roxas II, Sandejas promoted the fact that Filipinos here can do the work for engineers around the world. Sandejas focused first on Silicon Valley in California, home to the world’s largest high-tech corporations.
“I started Stratpoint because our friends in Silicon Valley had asked me if we have technology talents in the Philippines to help them in their startups and software companies,” said Sandejas. “Prior to that, I was already a PhD in electrical engineering, moved to product marketing, then to investing in technology companies. Hence, I started Narra Venture Capital, along with Diosdado Banatao, the Ayala Group, and later the Lopez Group joined me to be investors. We were the first technology-focused venture capital firm in the Philippines. I had joined the first technology venture Capital Group Asia Pacific in 1997.”
By 2001, Sandejas and Banatao decided to focus on technology for the Philippines to empower smart Filipinos who wanted to help the country become more competitive, instead of just importing computers, mobile phones, and software from all over the world and giving their hard-earned money to other countries. They intended to give that economic output and keep it in the country and give exciting jobs to Filipinos. However, there was another challenge, brain drain, which is still plaguing the country until now and contributes to the lack of local tech talents.
“The smartest friends I met in the University of Philippines, they all went abroad and decided to stay there because that is the only place that will utilize their technology talents. They want to do research and development. They want to become inventors. They want to invent and create, but nobody wants to invest in them,” Sandejas lamented.
Taking IT to the next level
With the help of Sandejas, government officials realized the country’s potential to become a tech hub and decided support the IT-BPO sector. To sustain the initiative, the country needed more talents. The government initially targeted to produce about 300,000 IT and engineering-related graduates who could work in the IT-BPO industry. The target was achieved, but Sandejas eventually realized another concern.
“From that group, a subset could take higher order computer programming jobs. Today, there are more graduates of IT and computer science. These are popular degrees now but, sadly, there is not enough top-level computer science PhD teaching the subjects, so you will have people with master’s degrees and BS in computer science, electrical engineering, or IT teaching the materials. What we noticed at Stratpoint, there is a need to prepare people a little better than what we are doing today. Hence, we have a bunch of programs inside Stratpoint to do that,” he said.
Within, the company has Stratpoint University, which facilitates the process of onboarding new hires. The new employees train to learn modern methodologies and technologies that they probably did not acquire when they were in the school. Stratpoint University is similar to being at UP, Ateneo, or other schools. Learners, however, have active mentors and senior architects who are helping in mentoring new graduate developers and hires from other companies.
“Within the Stratpoint University, we have an architect academy where we teach expert programmers to become system architects and help them understand how to build a large system in various modules. In addition, we provide technical and career mentorship in the company. These are very important for us to ensure that you inspire and motivate your talents. Many companies might be doing the same thing. We make it a religious event that we always have regular brown bag sessions for career development, personal development, and technical talks,” Sandejas added.
Resilience amid the pandemic
As one of the first proponents of IT-BPO outsourcing, Sandejas and his team know that employees could perform work for companies overseas from the Philippines. The companies Sandejas founded are among the pioneers in the country in enabling high-technology work, which includes remote work. This setup helped his companies remain resilient amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Today, we believe in using technology to make our human lives and professional lives happier. Our meeting rooms come with the technology for hybrid meetings. We use tools like Slack and others to make communication efficient, robust, and complete. Of course, we try to make our offices nice and fit them out. We encourage people who want to come to the office, collaborate, and hang out with each other. Remote work is good and efficient. We can avoid Philippine traffic,” said Sandejas.
However, Sandejas added that interpersonal connection remains essential at the workplace. “The pandemic showed that we are still hungry for human interaction. Even at work, everyone recognizes now that you can only develop so much on your own. You really need to be interacting with others. Even in Xepto Education, we recognize that learning is a social activity. You learn from others. We encourage people to come to work. We are also proponents of flexible work schedules to allow our workers to adjust and not waste time in traffic or other things they could bypass. We also use technology, for example, to automate tasks like project reporting, time scheduling, and other things that we do at work. We also try to focus on being an output-based management group. We utilize the Xepto Education platform for several things, such as onboarding hundreds of new employees through the Stratpoint University,” he explained.
Xepto Education
Sandejas and his team believe in the holistic development of each human being, emphasizing wellness, physical and mental, and reliance on technology-enabled learning and development initiatives. On that aspect, Stratpoint partnered with another Narra company, Xepto Education, founded by Sandejas in 2008. Xepto focuses on developing the most modern digital education platforms to make learning possible for all Filipinos regardless of economic background and provide access to quality education. Stratpoint uses Xepto platforms.
“Right now, we are trying to access more talents. We work with various universities. The mentorship we give our recent hires can go down the stream. Students can go to the universities and the professors in our partner universities and have the training there and become more mature in understanding the software lifecycle and the development process,” said Sandejas.
Xepto was founded when the Department of Education asked to help in the computerization of schools. Sandejas was already part of other similar efforts for the last 30 years, donating computers and providing internet connection to schools. However, he and his team noticed that they invested in technology for the mere sake of modernizing. Instead of helping the teachers and students, the technology sometimes becomes the problem. The teachers have no idea of what to do with the computers. Today, Xepto goes beyond the concept of technology for technology’s sake.
“At Xepto, we make it a point that we identify the root cause first and do not propose solutions until we really understand the root cause of the problem. After that, we can architect and build the best system solutions that truly satisfy the customer needs. We have built IT platforms, the infrastructure, the software, and data tools that benefit the students and the teachers whether it is a remote, face-to-face, or hybrid setup,” Sandejas explained.
“In these circumstances, we tried to figure out what is effective. Education should focus on pedagogy. The focus is not to sell a new computer or a new software. More than the technology, the heart of Xepto Education solutions is pedagogy. Hence, we point out to clients what is important and what is not, even if it means not buying the technology. We end up training and supporting our client schools. Training is about the human being, the teachers and the administrators. We train them to use our technology or, sometimes, other people’s technology so that they are more efficient and more effective as educators,” he continued.
“The fuel of the Xepto Education platform is data. With data, we know the students and the teachers are using the platform properly. We know if they are learning or wasting their time doing other things. We help them become more efficient then we can improve on those systems and even the educational processes. Luckily, we are quite successful doing that,” he added.
Building infrastructures for nation-building
Marc Andreessen, one of the world’s top venture capitalists, wrote a blog in which he said software is eating the world. In other words, software and other digital or ICT technologies are really the essential infrastructure of the modern world. In the same vein, Stratpoint continues to envision to become the most trusted engineering advisory firm. The company claims that it can build software and infrastructure to help other companies create their own digital infrastructure regardless of the industry.
“Our first clients were the industries that digitized first, equipped with the budget, and had the ambition to digitize first. Of course, these include the telecommunications companies, such as Globe Telecom and Smart Communications. Aside from them, we also have the financial industry. Banks, because they move money, you can see them now becoming digital finance. The marketing industry also is becoming digital very quickly. Those three industries asked us to help them build their digital infrastructure,” said Sandejas.
“We believe that with our skills, we are stewards of resources for the common good that would help the Philippines. Therefore, we want to help build a digital infrastructure for the entire country, the national digital infrastructure, not just for telecom and finance but also for health and education. In fact, from the Narra and the Stratpoint synergies, we spun off Xepto Education because we can help the digital infrastructure for education of the country,” he continued.
Sandejas and his team have partnered with private educational institutions to address the gaps between what is taught at the tertiary level and prepare students for what the industry requires. As part of the PhilDev, Sandejas is trying to help schools prepare themselves with all these technological know-hows and innovate based on that.
“If you are trained to be innovative, you know how to connect the dots. If you can connect the dots between the infrastructure and the application and build something, you are prepared to work in startups or solve government needs. I want computer science and engineering graduates to prepare for the rigor of globally competitive software engineering at internet speeds. Do not just get the technology but know how to deploy it, use it, and you must work fast. It is not enough that you know it,” said Sandejas
“Our mission is to make education affordable for everyone. We are applying all our brains to figure out and give the best content, tools, and resources for our beloved hero teachers. At Xepto, our job is to figure out how to make the education process effective yet affordable. We feel fulfilled when Stratpoint and Xepto Education can help in this area,” he added.
A shared vision
The one byline that Stratpoint strongly use today is cloud. Everyone is moving to the cloud; it stopped from becoming the nice new thing. It is now becoming the minimum requirement. For Stratpoint, cloud is the springboard for digital transformation as it allows organizations to have a distributed workforce, launch projects fast, innovate much faster, and lower costs. With 2022 closing, Sandejas shared his vision for his companies in the future.
“We want to be recognized not just as the digital infrastructure builders for the Philippines but also to become one of the best teams in Asia for digital engineering consulting. Whether you are in the U.S. or anywhere, we can build your digital products. That is what we hope for Stratpoint. We want to be top of mind as one of the Asia top engineering and digital consulting firms. For Stratpoint and Xepto Education, we want them to become a breeding ground that nurtures the highest quality young technology professionals. It is my goal that when we train them, we give them the opportunities to grow and, eventually, empower them to contribute to solving the digital problems of the world and grow the tech industry in the Philippines,” Sandejas concluded.
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