Aleš Hojka: We can offer a solution for any company

Aleš HojkaIn an interview to the TTG magazine, Aleš Hojka, CEO of IBA CZ and IBA Slovakia, speaks about solutions and services that any company can benefit from.
When I look at your business card, IBA strongly resembles IBM, doesn’t it?
You are right. Originally, IBA was founded in Minsk in 1993 as a joint venture with IBM. The brand and logos of the company are deliberately similar and as IBA was growing, it shifted to a direction different from IBM. New branches emerged, the first one was created in the Czech Republic, and the product portfolio has changed considerably. Although today IBM does not own any of the IBA Group branches, a very close cooperation continues.
For IBM, we implement both internal projects, for example one of the most remarkable is the Learning Portal, as well as other within our core expertise in portals and mainframe. In cooperation with IBM, we work for the end customers and bring them the best of both companies. Anyway, now we operate as two separate entities in the Czech Republic being even competitors to some extent.
Worldwide, IBA has over 2,500 employees with about 120 in the Czech Republic and still expanding. We have our own development centers in Prague, Brno, and Ostrava. The entire IBA Group is headquartered in Prague and now has offices in 11 countries, including the United States and South Africa, with IBA Slovakia among the youngest.
So what is the crucial area of your activity?
We dominate in portals, document management, mobile applications, and more. Most often, we use Java and .NET, though not avoiding enterprise and open source solutions, but mainly listen to our customers and assist them while providing deployment and maintenance of our solutions in their environment.
Whom do you mostly supply the solutions and what can we expect from them?
Our customers are large financial institutions, telecom operators, and government institutions, as well as manufacturers and distribution companies. Primarily due to our own development, we can offer advanced solutions for a company of any size.
For example, for Česká pojišťovna, we have developed a part of a mobile application that helps people deal quicker with car accidents. To be more specific, it finds the nearest service station, facilitates provision of all data that the insurance company may need, and etc. For T-Mobile, we have created an intelligent contact form with a prompter that allows for self-servicing in most cases. As soon as the user has finished typing a request, an answer is suggested, as well as other information that might be of interest. With our solution, T-Mobile receives roughly by 30% of emails less, which is a huge number and great cost savings on their call center operations. For the Generali insurance company, we provided a secure online consolidation of insurance with suggestions throughout the process. For Moneta, we created a fully responsive loyalty portal Bene +. The content adapts to the screen size of a device, either a mobile, tablet or desktop, with no need of development for each platform separately.
And what is your activity in the tourism sector? Do you have any customers in this area?
Not yet, though indirectly, we actually operate there as well, for example, within the projects for the regional authorities or the National Heritage Institute. But as I say, we are capable of meeting the requirements of any customer. Document management is used almost everywhere. Let’s say, a solution intended for invoice workflow covers the whole lifecycle from scanning a document to the data entry via processing, approval only after payment, and archiving, with all the stages automated and transparent.
Or the so-called Big Data, which is the processing of large volumes of data and keeping track of customer behavior. When a user logs into a social network where there’s a lot of personal data and then visits some other website, these tools recognize the user and offer him or her an advertisement of related products, for example, on news portals. For travel agencies and rental companies, we can offer the integration of their systems into a large retrieval system like Booking.com or TripAdvisor. Identity Management may also be of great necessity, thus providing security system and preventing unauthorized user access.
This system facilitates the work of administrators and also makes personal client data safe from leakage.
For the customers engaged in tourism, we can offer the services where we are truly the market leaders. From simpler websites and intranets with e.g. a review of attendance through complex client loyalty portals where each user sees different data, to the solutions like an anti-corruption subportal that we have created for the Department of Defense and that guarantees absolute anonymity. A portal may also serve as a planner of human resources, which could be useful especially for companies with a large or frequently changing number of permanent or temporary employees.
Integration with social networks may also be of interest. Our expertise on how to use the information that people make available on a variety of networks for targeted advertising may be useful everywhere, including the tourist sector.

 

Belarus: Old Masters of IT in Europe

Mark Hillary

Last month, I visited Minsk in Belarus. It’s not a place that too many Europeans visit because a visa is required to enter the country and at this time of year it is bitterly cold. But I wanted to see what was happening in the technology industry in Belarus so I went as a guest of IBA Group along with Peter Ryan, an analyst from Ovum.

My first impression on arriving in Minsk was astonishment. I have been to many countries in Eastern Europe and several that were behind the old Soviet Iron Curtain, so I had a preconception of what I might see, but the first thing I noticed was that the road from the airport into the city was so smooth and new, it would be a skateboarders dream surface.

I had expected to see an environment similar to that in Moscow, plenty of historic buildings and many examples of the old communist architecture – big concrete blocks in my non-architect view. However, my first thoughts on seeing the buildings in Minsk were that it resembles East Berlin. The city is felt very European and very modern.

Minsk Independence Square
A local described to me how Minsk has been completely renovated over the past twenty years. Naturally this is the period since the end of the Soviet Union. Many churches that are hundreds of years old, but fell into disrepair during the Soviet era, have been beautifully restored and there is an enormous resurgence in worship. The Orthodox and Catholic churches that I took a look at were all busy even during daytime in mid-week.

During our stay, Peter and I visited one of the development centres of IBA Group. This company was born in Belarus in 1993 and now has almost 3,000 people all over the world and customers in 40 countries. They are now headquartered in the Czech Republic, which means that they are based inside the EU, but they maintained a software development facility in Minsk – a team that is growing so fast they have commissioned an entirely new building that is under construction now.

IBA Group is an interesting company because they are focused on complete solutions, rather than software development alone. A good example is the public transport ticketing system they developed for use in Minsk – it’s very similar to the Oyster card system in London. However, they put together all the card readers, terminals, and software needed to make it work. They are also able to earn from the knowledge the system provides on how people move around the city – sometimes this data can be more valuable that the IT system itself.
Minsk Central Post Office

Minsk does have some distinct advantages for the technology industry that are not obvious unless you have explored Belarus in person. During the Soviet era, Belarus was the IT and technology hub for the entire USSR. Belarus supplied over 60% of all the IT and technology systems used in the Soviet Union meaning that there is a long heritage of technology knowledge as well as deep expertise in a variety of technologies.

This heritage of working with technology may also explain an important cultural difference with other technology hubs, such as India. When teams of techies are assigned to a project in Belarus they usually feature a range of ages, experience, and knowledge of many technologies. The culture of being an engineer or technician remains strong in Belarus, so an expert programmer doesn’t feel shame in remaining ‘just’ a programmer and not pushing for promotion to systems analyst or project manager.

This is a big difference in my opinion. I have worked with many software development teams and trying to maintain some stability was always a challenge with people quitting for a few bucks extra at a competitor down the road or angling for promotion just because their family believe it’s time they had a ‘better’ job title.

The autocratic nature of the Belarus government counts against the international image of the country – this cannot be denied. However, I asked several people about the reality of living there and everyone I talked to dismissed the ‘last dictatorship of Europe’ mantra as a cliché.

The government doesn’t like political opposition very much, but is extremely supportive of international business and it struck me that it would be hard to criticise Belarus and then feel comfortable doing business in China, Singapore, or Vietnam. All countries where the government is far more controlling than Western Europeans are used to and yet it cannot be argued that the regular man on the street is oppressed in any way in Belarus.

I went to Belarus to learn more about the IT industry there, and I learned far more than I expected to. It is certainly a place worth considering for any organisation that needs expertise with a few knowledgeable “grey beards” on the same team as the young technology wizards.

I also reinforced the experience I have had in the past of prejudice and preconception about places. Places that I have worked in the past include Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Sri Lanka. Countries that often suffer negative stereotyping and yet were ready for business when I visited.

Belarus is the same. I’d love to return and perhaps take the train from Minsk to Moscow. I believe that anyone involved in IT, or the services supported by technology, should take a look. But maybe go and visit in the summer because that cold wind doesn’t care how many jackets you are wearing!
Minsk Yakub Kolas Monument
Minsk, November 25, 2014

Attrition returns to bite the unwary

IBA Group

Mark Kobayashi-Hillary

I remember talking to Dr Phanish Puraman at London Business School some time ago about the ‘war for talent’ – the need to search the world for hard-to-find skills. This applied particularly in such fast-growing industries as IT.

The tremendous economic crash over the past couple of years changed all of that. The big IT firms over in India went from hiring tens of thousands of people a year to layoffs. It was an immense shock to the entire industry.

But there is now a double-whammy taking place. Most developed economies are recovering, somewhat slowly, but they are growing.

This means that companies across many sectors and industries are freeing up budget again. They are entering a growth cycle and investing to help sustain that growth and also releasing frozen projects that could not be worked on during the slowdown.

So there is a large amount of IT work coming through in the form of RFPs, and new contract wins being announced in the media.

For those of us working in the IT industry that’s all really positive, but are we going to learn from the lessons of the past?

The IT players in Eastern Europe have started maturing, including Czech Republic, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Brazil is becoming a serious player, and other nearshore (to Europe) destinations such as Malta and Egypt are marketing their regions to decision-makers in the IT industry.

I hope that we do see regions developing centres of excellence and an end to the tendency to just lob all projects over to India. The IT firms there are already witnessing a decrease in employee loyalty as people start jumping ship in a more positive market, leading to the same old attrition and wage hike issues that existed before the crash.