Interview with Riccardo Corrado, AUPP professor and MPTC advisor

This week, we sat down with Riccardo Corrado, Chair of the ICT Programme at the American University Phnom Penh (AUPP) and advisor to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and discussed HR issues, education, and technology.

Brian: What brought you to Cambodia and what's made you stay here?

Riccardo: I originally came from Trieste, Italy, in the north east part of the country, right on the border with Slovenia. That’s where I got my bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees (University of Trieste), after which I applied for jobs in Italy. Working as a software tester, after a beginning period where I got to learn new things, my job duties became somehow repetitive, with no space for personal improvement, and it didn’t feel like I was contributing with my skills and mindset. I wanted to return to academia and thus sent my CV in many academic institution around the world. I was drawn to SE Asia, particularly Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The offers from Thai universities I received, were not competitive at that time, with instead Vietnam and Cambodia offering similar wages. I had a good feeling about Cambodia at the time, so I decided to try it, and as the story goes for many, you stay one more year, then another year, and now I’ve been here five years.

There are lots of opportunities here, it’s a great environment and an exciting ecosystem. When you’re younger, you want something that is new, you want to explore and challenge yourself, and for me, Cambodia represented a new challenge.

I really found a home at AUPP and at the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, where I work as an advisor. At AUPP, I am chair of the ICT Program.

While Cambodia doesn’t have the highest salaries, there are more important things than money. The good thing about Cambodia is that it is open to foreigners as long as they are talented and committed.

Brian: What are your thoughts on the skill gap/skills development conversation?

Riccardo: There’s a skills gap across the world, not just Cambodia. In Italy and the US, there is not a high enough supply of workers compared to what companies are asking for in the IT sector. They are demanding technical skills, people with expertise and skills in software development, cloud, data science, and cybersecurity. You need real experts with hands-on practice and experience.

This skill gap is present everywhere and of course, in Cambodia as well, being a developing country. From a technical perspective, we are a little bit behind some of the other ASEAN members. The private sector and the government are pushing forward, however.

This concept of leapfrogging comes to mind, but to be honest, I don’t like this concept. It puts the idea that you want to jump over and achieve what others have done with hard work and experience. It doesn’t work like that. You can learn from others’ mistakes to avoid them instead.

You can train a lot of people with certification programs, it’s a booster, but it takes time. But you can’t do a few months training and be at the same level as experts in more developed and IT-ready countries. It is important to keep working and practicing.

We have a clear need for experts in cybersecurity, software development, data analytics, and some aspects of telecommunications. The government understands that, and they’ve created a framework that they also boost with scholarships for drawing Cambodians to study IT related projects. AUPP is surely on the frontline of this.

Brian: What have you noticed at schools here over the years, our students shifting their priorities/interests?

Riccardo: It’s slowly changing. I would say the average student is into social sciences or creative fields, as well as accounting, and business management. I read a study that during the past French influence, many Cambodians were trained in service roles, so the concept of following instead of leading may have been partly inherited from that. But that is just a component, from the historical perspective. And there is also a cultural component that is different from the western world. Collectivism versus individualism.

Additionally, students used to see IT as just a small slice of a business, something that is completely wrong nowadays. Information Technology is business. But this attitude toward IT is changing as well in Cambodia. Many students focus on starting a business because they can work for themselves and have a chance to make their own money. But now they are realizing IT is a game-changer, it’s an industry itself, and the government has raised awareness about this.

There’s not only a skills gap but also a lack of basic IT knowledge among the average Cambodian. This is dangerous because when you do everything as a citizen online and you don’t know what you are risking, you are walking blind. If you don’t know how communications work, the basic aspects of cryptography, security, data ownership, and privacy, you put yourself at risk as an individual. The government knows it, but the solution is not easy. It takes time and effort.

So we are seeing a slight shift in the willingness to jump into the technical side of things because the incentive is there and there is so much demand.

Brian: How is AUPP emblematic of refocused efforts to better prepare students for Cambodia's rapidly changing economic future?

Riccardo: Universities should prepare students on how to learn. In AUPP we follow the American system, which is effective in a lot of ways. The American system works well because companies realize the importance of education and invest in universities. Universities work in close collaboration with companies and both prioritize research and development, something that is still lacking in Cambodia. This is something very important for our IT faculty in AUPP. Universities cannot work alone. And mostly not in IT. In general, if you don’t develop research and development, and don’t have a strong interconnection between universities, and the private sector, fostered by the public sector, your options are limited to sales departments.

On top of training hard skills, we teach general courses and align our curriculum with company certifications, like EC Council for cybersecurity, Huawei, and cloud computing with AWS.

But it can not only be practice. The theory is important as well because software and applications change, but if you know the underlying framework, you can adapt quickly. It is like building a skyscraper. Deeper foundations you have, the more floors you can build. Foundations take time to be built but are necessary if you want to grow.

So we would like to prepare our students to have both the technical and theoretical knowledge to help them succeed and seek opportunities, with an open mind and the right attitude. We do need more research and development here because this attracts talent and grows industries.

Brian: You once called Cambodia "little USA", what a great quote! Could you expand on that?

Riccardo: Post World War II, there were a lot of opportunities, there were fewer regulations, and fewer restrictions in the USA, and there was less competition. The same goes for Europe. Speaking about the competition, if you go to Europe, and want to found an IT startup, there’s a crazy amount of regulation and tax documents, and you need to come up with a new idea no one has thought of, it’s very complicated. It’s different here, there is demand, and as long as you have some ideas and a bit of investment, you can start. That’s why it’s a land of opportunities, there’s room for entrepreneurs to excel, and it’s a wonderful place for investing.

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