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“Belarus is full of surprises”. EPAM consultant from Sri Lanka about Minsk and teaching coding to children

Shamilka Samarasinha was born in Sri Lanka, studied in the USA and UK, and has been living in Belarus for the past three years. She works as a Corporate Responsibility Consultant for EPAM, one of the giants of the Belarusian IT sector. Shamilka shared her life experience of life in Belarus, and explained why EPAM is excited to support the Belarusian High-Tech Park in launching coding into the National Curriculum.

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“I carry a bottle of of Chilli paste and add it to draniki”

Shamilka is originally from Sri Lanka, but received her undergraduate degree and Master degree in the USA and UK respectively.

“I didn’t actually know anything about Belarus when we were assigned here (Shamilka arrived together with her husband, who is posted with the United Nations office in Belarus – note).”

“Belarus is full of surprises. You come here expecting nothing. I was not very familiar with the region and I came expecting it be very challenging. I arrived here having only learned the Cyrillic alphabet at the Russian Center in Colombo Sri Lanka.”

Shamilka says she had no expectations upon arrival but was pleasantly surprised.

“It’s a fantastic place.  I find it very calming. Extremely clean, child friendly, and extremely safe. Having lived in very challenging countries, I was pleasantly surprised with what an easy place it is for families with children.”

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Apart from that, the People of Belarus have also added to making the country very livable Shamilka notes.

Being Sri Lankan at heart, what she misses most in Belarus is access to the ocean — lakes can’t replace ocean water to Shamilka — and, of course, spicy food. Although over the past three years she notes that food options in Minsk have improved dramatically.

“But I do carry a bottle of Chilli paste around and make sure I have it with me when eating draniki or other local food.”

 “I took on the challenge”

She was hired by EPAM, which she believes to be an incredible company with an inspiring story for Belarus, to develop the company’s global corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy.

The concept of CSR in Belarusian companies is very new and hence not common, so it wasn’t easy for Shamilka to find a job when she arrived. But it worked out that at the time Shamilka when arrived EPAM was looking for someone to help them create a CSR program.

“When EPAM approached me, I took on the challenge – I didn’t have any IT background – and decided that it would be very interesting. And, to be honest, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.”

“EPAM has strong ties with Belarus but it also has very strong ties in the global context. EPAM is a success story. The time was also right for the company to develop its global CSR strategy and expand to other locations. There were many socially responsible activities going on within EPAM, but the company never talked about them publicly.”

At present EPAM’s CSR is focused in two core areas – education and environment.

“When we looked at the IT sector and CSR we found education was one of the areas many global companies in IT were working on. It made sense to us, because we already had a broad program with universities in the CIS region. So we wanted to capitalize on that experience and we were confident that education beginning at an early age was an area where we could make a significant impact.”

“As an IT company, we also consume a lot of energy. Based on this we decided to also focus on the Environment and develop programs around this to create awareness and encourage recycling.”

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“You don’t learn to code because you want to become a coder”

Since 2004 about 10,000 university students have gone through EPAM’s educational programs.

EPAM e-kids (EPAM’s coding program aimed at primary-aged children – note) has evolved from our commitment to education. The company decided to use its internal capabilities and knowledge to prepare our children for the future.

“We believe that coding is going to become the third language in future. But it is not because we want to hire those kids.”

“I must share this very interesting comment someone shared with me recently: You learn to write not because you want to become a writer. Similarly, you learn to code not because you want to become a programmer. It is because it’s going to become a way of life for the future.”

Recently EPAM was invited by the Hi-Tech Park Belarus to support the launch of coding into the national curriculum. The program started with the Hi-Tech Park Belarus and the Ministry of Education. EPAM employees, affectionately known as EPAMers, volunteer their time with the EPAM e-kids program and will carry out teacher training on Scratch. The program will be launched in 14 schools in September and additional schools will continue to be added throughout the year.

So far 25 teachers have been trained by EPAM volunteer trainers, and the program will continue to grow and evolve into a national program. The plan is to expand it to the entire country and EPAM will continue to support the program throughout its expansion

“Coding as part of a school curriculum exists in very few countries – no more than 18 or 19 countries globally have introduced some aspect of coding in their national local or regional curriculums. I think for us, in Belarus, it is very commendable to be a part of this very small and unique group of countries focusing on the future of our children and this in itself is a very big deal.”

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“They hope to be a next EPAM, Viber or MSQRD founder”

The project around coding is aimed at children from 7 to 15 years old. Programs are adapted for every age and the curriculum has been developed to make coding fun and not overload children with boring information. The curriculum will use Scratch program which comes in 40+ languages and has over 10 million users worldwide.

“Children can only learn based on their school year and what their curriculum entails. The concepts they learn in Math will allow them to learn comparable skills in coding. An eight-year-old will not be able to learn what a 10-year-old learns. Coding is like any other subject where you learn as much as your school curriculum allows you to.”

Shamilka believes it’s a lot easier to start learning to code at a younger age than trying to learn everything after graduation. She says that Belarus has an incredible strength in the IT sector.

“Children and youth are very engaged in IT here.” 

This is also proved by the number of children participating in kids hackathon events hosted by EPAM in Minsk.

“I think IT is popular in Belarus because of the many success stories. EPAM was founded in Belarus and we all know Viber was also created here. A Belarusian flag hoisted in Wall Street (in 2012, when EPAM announced the launch of an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange – note) is definitely one of the most inspirational stories for this country. It really says something about the value of the space created for this sector here in Belarus.”

“Everybody aspires to be the next founder of “a” EPAM, Viber or Masquerade perhaps, and with so many great success stories behind us I think the opportunities are limitless.”