Ask an Expert: Catching up with Sagara Gunathunga

Sagara Gunathunga, the product lead of the identity and access management (IAM) team at WSO2, has had one amazing career. Starting as a committer to Apache, he most recently led WSO2’s efforts to become GDPR compliant – using WSO2! In this interview, he tells why GDPR must be viewed as an opportunity to build closer relationships with customers and why we must always be curious to innovate.

1. Tell us about your introduction to open source and your journey at WSO2 so far.

Before I joined WSO2, I was a contributor to the Apache Software Foundation. In 2006 I attended various open source events like ApacheCon and I was highly motivated with the concept of contributing towards open source. So the motivation and some initial work towards it ended up with me being a committer in Apache. My first committer-ship was in an Apache project which was part of the Apache web service project and this also paved the way for my access to other projects.

During this time, I got a chance to join WSO2. Initially, I was driving WSO2’s contribution towards Apache. I started working on Axis2 and web services project during my own time and arranged various initiatives to review and mentor their work towards Apache. I also encouraged others to become committers. At present, I am part of the IAM team. It was quite challenging at the start, as none of my previous projects were on security and my knowledge was limited to the security aspects that I’ve been exposed to when working on Apache projects. Services, application development, and governance were my core focus areas back then but I used the knowledge I gathered as the base for career as an “identity guy”. There was lots to learn, going deep into the concepts of IAM – but it’s a been a rewarding journey.

2. What’s the most exciting project you’ve been a part of recently?

One of the main tasks I was assigned to was to work with the privacy standards given the emerging requirements in the EU/UK(GDPR) and Australia. As a technology company, it’s quite a task to keep up with all the privacy standards per country. Given that we have an identity product, it’s a priority for us.

We manage 50 mn+ identities, so in our case we store personal information and the main challenge is “how do we comply ourselves with the standard?” There are many known approaches like “Privacy by Design” but my architectural effort was to make WSO2 Identity Server comply with all the privacy standards, not just GDPR. Then we had to expand that exercise to all other WSO2 projects as all WSO2 products has some sense of personal data.

From a business perspective, WSO2 has data from customers and users that we need to protect and I was a part of that team that handled the privacy compliance/GDPR compliance. Meeting the deadline on the 25th May was daunting, but we did it!

From a business perspective, WSO2 has data from customers and users that we need to protect and I was a part of that team that handled the privacy compliance/GDPR compliance. Meeting the deadline on the 25th May was daunting, but we did it!”

4. You proudest moments at WSO2?

Not just one, but being a part of WSO2 alone is always something to be proud of. The reality is that on the surface, you don’t see a lot of technological innovations in this part of the world (South Asia) due to various reasons. At WSO2 we are able to innovate given these limitations, competing with leading and innovative tech companies around the world. Right now we are known as the largest OSS integration vendor in the world managing 50 mn identities through our identity server, and that’s truly special.

The reality is that on the surface, you don’t see a lot of technological innovations in this part of the world (South Asia) due to various reasons. At WSO2 we are able to innovate given these limitations competing with leading and innovative tech companies around the world.”

5. How do you see GDPR- is it an opportunity or a roadblock?

It depends on your individual perspective. Some think it’s a financial barrier/roadblock but many other people do not share this view. Last month I presented at the GDPR summit and at various meetups where GDPR was discussed. I learnt that most people think it’s an opportunity for them to demonstrate their commitment towards user privacy, how they respect it, and demonstrate the ways in which they have measures in place to provide data protection.

There are positive perceptions – including as an avenue for brand recognition and how you care about your customers. That’s great and I think it’s one of the best ways to prove to your customers that you respect their privacy and you have taken all measures to protect their data. Businesses are now moving away from being solely profit-oriented and to instead building relationships with their customers. That’s the most important aspect, and I believe this is how GDPR should be viewed.

6. Where do you think the future of IAM is heading and where does WSO2 Identity Server fit into that picture?

IAM is a broad term. We’ve noticed that authentication or how you verify the authenticity of a user is an evolving space and is a part of many privacy standards. For example, PSD2 and Open Banking in the UK requires enforcing Strong Customer Authentication (SCA). Financial institutions and banks used to have biometric and token devices for authentication. Yet, given the volume of cyber attacks and privacy violations, it is important that you provide maximum protection for your users. Therefore, authentication needs to become more agile and adaptive.

We’re hoping to provide adaptive authentication with WSO2 Identity Server, which is a very exciting direction for us!

7. WSO2 IS is an open source IAM product how does it stand as opposed to a regular IAM vendor or product?

At WSO2 the GA releases are under Apache 2.0 license which means you are free to do whatever you want.”

Open source is a loaded term. To ensure that what we offer is truly open source, we provide binary distributions that are freely accessible so you are able to customize, redistribute, and access the source code.

There are other “open source” IAM products where you can get the source code and run it, but you cannot run the officially binary release in production. At WSO2 the GA releases are under Apache 2.0 license which means you are free to do whatever you want. You can use the code and run it yourself or extend, customize or even resell. In case you need professional support and help, you can then engage with us.

8. From the point you started at WSO2, you have had an amazing professional journey. Any advice for budding developers or engineers who are beginning their careers?

Be curious. Always.

If you’re curious, the commitment and passion to what you do will come naturally. But if you settle, innovation becomes a battle.”

I have been in the field for more than 10 years and I’m more curious than ever given how much the technology landscape is evolving. If you are planning to have a fruitful career (which I’m sure you are), you have to be curious. I’m paraphrasing one of our greatest losses from recent times, Stephen Hawking, who said the key to his success was being curious. When people grow up they tend to settle with what they know but if you are curious, you grow with knowledge. It’s a guiding principle for me too.

As an identity guy, the key is to learn ideas and concepts thoroughly, so the application of the technology becomes easier. If you’re curious, the commitment and passion to what you do will come naturally. But if you settle, innovation becomes a battle.