Working With IBA: No Client Had To Worry
Germany Meets the Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe
Excerpts from the webinar
I used to work for IBM for almost 38 years and since 1993, we explored almost the whole world and looked for suitable software suppliers, which IBM could use. Speaking of Belarus, for example, we first worked together with IBA Group, later on we had SaM Solutions, as well as Astoria in the portfolio, and again, the whole world was explored.
I started with IBA in 1993 and the first project we ran was Custom Pack with four headcounts. Amazing enough, that project is still existing and still running with a larger team. That shows how long-term business could be over there.
The small group I belonged to inside IBM was testing suppliers, which we found through pilot projects to be on the safe side, to make sure we are not selling black boxes. We sold suppliers, which really have been tested and we found them absolutely suitable for whatever type of business we built. We worked with them together in the area of security, which is extremely important for IBM, to make sure that security as well as quality like ISO or CMMI, and data privacy were completely in place. No client had to worry about what they are giving away or when they allowed the supplier to work on their systems and so on.
One point, which I still think is extremely important, is connection to the universities. IBA introduced us from the very beginning to the universities and we all worked together with the universities. They even asked us, what is the future in software, what we can teach. It was for us like paradise, because we could say: “Hey, we might need this and that for programmers later on”. IBA was even installing some labs at the universities. They invested into the universities to train the people on their equipment with their software, and they even brought teachers over there.
For example, the university in Minsk had a lab for Lotus Notes. Lotus Notes and databases were really important. And again – like paradise in 1999 or 2000. IBA and IBM decided together to have the headquarters of IBA Group located in the Czech Republic. That was very important because data privacy became more and more important, and a couple of customers didn’t allow to give their software out of the European Union. So that became one of the key points why the headquarters was relocated to Prague but nevertheless the main development centers stayed in Minsk.
Another very important thing was also the human factor and the stability of that company. At IBA, for example, the management team, which I was introduced to in 1993, is still almost the same. Nothing changed, and that’s something, which I was not used to at IBM, because every second to fourth year the management changed completely.
Another point to mention is the very, very low turnover. That means, if we are running projects with IBA, these projects, these teams are staying together. The turnover rate during my time was between three and four percent, which is extremely low, if you compare that to India or China. And that’s helping us to keep the investment, because if you train a team, and the trained team is up and running, you don’t want the situation when somebody is moving for an extra dollar to another company, and you start training all over again. Also, because of the IBA size and the connections they had, it turned out to be a one-stop shop for IBM. That means that they had all the varieties of software skills available for us. With smaller companies, that’s always a problem because they are specialized on one area, other companies specialize on another area, and so on. IBA could handle everything we needed.
Another point is cost, which I think is very important, because a lot of people are just discussing cost, but how to measure quality? We have been running, I don’t know how many thousands of projects with IBA, and if we compare that with a lot of other even really big software suppliers in the world, quality is the most important part. We have seen a lot of projects where the cost picture of this another supplier was much better at the beginning, but they had to redo that stuff, they had to enlarge the team, so finally it ended up to be much more costly from these suppliers. And IBA never had this situation at all. So, cost – quality, I would say, for IBM purposes was ideal.
Questions & Answers
- How many people at IBA Group have been working for IBM?
As I stepped out in April 2020, we had close to 900 headcounts just for IBM. That’s for IBM. That’s a huge number and in that respect IBA was one of the really biggest software suppliers for IBM.
- Did you have any critical points in this period of time? Which are the points one should take care of?
We thought very often that the political situation could kill the business, but all clients understood that extremely well, what’s cooking over there. They all stayed together, nobody wanted to move out because of the political situation. Because the suppliers can work. Even due to corona, for example, we had this SARS crisis, we had all plans in place already, pandemic plans, and we reused them for COVID, and everybody went home and we just continued, as is, but from home. That was no problem. The suppliers have been prepared for that. It’s easy, easy going.
- How did you take care of the GDPR and data protection?
Let’s say this way. Banks are very often saying: Wow, that’s so critical, so we better do that with IBA Group from the Czech Republic, because that’s European Union. On the other hand, there is a way of filling in certain paperwork from Belarus. That’s possible. It takes a little longer but it depends on the client. We always have to listen to the clients, to their needs, and then figure out what is the best way for us to do it.
- IBM is a global distributing company. Did you face anything around 24×7 operations?
No problem at all, we had a lot of customers which really needed 24×7 support, and IBA was easily delivering that to us for many, many years and I’m sure they still do it. Plenty of customers around the world, especially out of the US, needed that hardly, and for them it was easy because of the time zone shift. To answer your question, there are no restrictions. IBA can manage all that stuff.
- Does IBA Group have enough skill sets available for full stack?
During my times, they had a waiting list of potential programmers, who wanted to apply to IBA, but they hired them only on demand. That waiting list was, to my knowledge, 1500 candidates, something like that. There’s still plenty of opportunities for every new thing, which is coming up. Also, IBA, for example, opened new facilities a couple of years ago. They have a huge IT center, and they are investing extremely into Artificial Intelligence, and things like that, so they’re extremely well prepared. If it comes to legacy systems, it’s anybody’s paradise because you won’t find any other country, where they still have mainframe programmers. So that’s another key factor because we still have enough old legacy systems out in the world and somebody needs to support that stuff, and the good part is that the university in Minsk is still cranking out mainframe programmers.
- Do they have language capabilities like English and German?
We handled that on a team base in the past. For example, if there was a French project for a huge French insurance company, IBA always managed to have people with the French language in there. The same thing is for Italian projects, for speaking the Italian language and in German projects German speaking people. Not all of them, but at least keep people to make it as easy as possible for the clients. We have to look into it depending on the projects.
- What model of operation has been successful with IBA?
We can do almost everything. The point here is what a customer needs. Usually, a project starts when they are not so trustful, so they are not throwing the complete package over. After a while, they transfer complete packages. The management model is also completely different. We had all kinds of versions. For example, for some US projects we even had a so-called ‘liaison person’, in the US, to work directly with the clients together. Or we had one huge German project in the past, where Germany sent a guy over to IBA. He was sitting there for two weeks in the IBA’s office, and coaching his team, and two weeks later came back home, brought up new tasks, and went over to Minsk another time for another two weeks, and that continued for nearly 20 years, like this. So, that’s another system of management, and everything also worked extremely well.
- What is the major difference compared to India, apart from the attrition?
Cost and quality. The bean counters, the procurement guys, deciding on where to go are just looking at the rates. How much does a programmer cost, in what field, how expensive is that guy. And then they are making a decision. But nobody is really counting quality and counting quality is extremely difficult. You need a test task. You have to check the delivery – was it done on time, was it done in cost, was it done in this and that, so how happy was the client. That’s extremely hard to measure. For many clients at the beginning, IBA looks a little bit more expensive than a lot of other suppliers, but at the very end they are the winners, always. We even have seen projects, which we really had to give away to other countries, and after a year they came back.