Belarus Drives IT Services Value

Peter Ryan

Technology is inherently democratic in nature.  There are very few countries in which a person cannot take an interest in IT from a hobby all the way to a prosperous career.  However, the global technology services market has never been more competitive, and standing out in a crowded field is challenging at best.  This is where forward-looking stakeholders in Belarus are coming to the forefront, in the provision of various technology offerings that are definitively oriented to export markets across the globe.  The Belarusian economy is steadily being moved toward technology, and there is a quiet confidence among its players that it will be successful in this modernizing agenda.

What immediately strikes any business visitor coming to Belarus is that the country is truly connected.  It should be remembered that Minsk was designated as the USSR’s technology hub in the 1970s by the then-Soviet government, and this culture continues to permeate.  With an estimated 100,000 IT experts living in Belarus, there is a vibrancy in the country’s atmosphere. Conference rooms and cafes bristle with lively discussions that take on both tech and entrepreneurial flavors.  And, forward-looking leaders in this space have laid the groundwork for both ongoing development and profit.

Consider the recently completed Hi-Tech Park Belarus, a modern facility that acts as a strategic incubator for entrepreneurs across the IT value chain. Current tenants include application developers, hardware manufacturers, and prospective disruptors, many of the latter focusing on crypto-currencies, an area in which Belarus’ IT sector is targeting for future growth. Each takes advantage of recently-passed tax abatements designed to help boost Belarus’ IT space.  Housed on the outskirts of Minsk, such a development would easily fit into Silicon Valley or Austin’s technology hub. But despite being uniquely East European in its flavor, the aim of the majority of this initiative’s members is to firmly implant their products and services in western markets.  And, based on historic precedent, there is reason to believe that they will achieve this end.

The ongoing success of Belarus-based IBA Group is testament to the opportunity that technology players from this country can find overseas.  With a list of services ranging from transportation management solutions through to RPA for leading financial services providers in South Africa, this company (which incidentally recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary) has become an example of how IT services can be successfully exported from an emerging European location.  That IBA Group has recently opened a brand new campus in Minsk’s technology hub speaks to its success.

Read the full article at Ryan Strategic Advisory.

Peter Ryan visits High-Tech Park

GSA Shortlists Belarus For Best Outsourcing Location Award

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

I blogged several encouraging reports from my visit to Belarus a couple of months ago including an interview with Valery Tsepkalo from the Minsk Hi-Tech Park (HTP) and Sergei Levteev, the IBA Group Chairman, however there is now some exciting news that verifies what these experts have been saying for years – Belarus has been noticed and recognised by the Global Sourcing Association (GSA), previously known as the European Outsourcing Association (EOA).

GSA Awards

Specifically, Belarus has been shortlisted as one of the best outsourcing destinations in Europe and IBA Group is shortlisted for the best European Corporate Social Responsibility programme.

The final decision will be announced at the awards ceremony in Bulgaria tonight. Whatever happens at the awards ceremony it’s a big boost for Belarus to be noticed in two important awards categories in this way. The best location and the company that is most responsible – all important, but given the information supplied by Valery and Sergei in those earlier interviews I’m sure that Belarus has a serious chance of winning the best location in Europe category.

Belarus has big local companies offering complete end-to-end solutions and expertise in systems integration, but the local startup scene is also extremely strong too. Companies like Viber and Wargaming are innovative and are defining the markets where they operate. Many services are now distributed via the app store for Apple and Android users and therefore the country of origin is noticed less than before – local players can quickly become global in this environment.

Government tax breaks and services such as the HTP are showing that even smaller nations can make a big impact in the global technology marketplace. Shortlisting Belarus as the best place in Europe for IT outsourcing is just one more step towards a more general recognition that this is a great place for running technology projects – good luck to everyone in the Global Leagership Summit & Awards tonight!

New Reality: Technology Trends for Belarus to Apply

IBA Group
Daria Kovalevskaya

On September 30 and October 1, the IPM Business School organized a technology conference in Minsk, Belarus. The conference titled A New Reality: Challenges for Belarus explored the modern trends in technology and how they are applied in the world and, particularly, in Belarus.

The first part of the conference was dedicated to crowdfunding. Speakers highlighted the advantages of crowd economy not only for small businesses and startups but for bigger companies and enterprises as well.

Crowdfunding allows for shaping the entire industries according to what consumers want to see and buy. If they want to read a book by a particular author, see a play with a particular cast of actors, or even buy a chewable ice maker, it’s up to them now to finance it. At the same time, campaign creators are able to validate their ideas (to see if the world is actually interested in what they have to offer) and create relationship with potential clients.

Indiegogo Co-Founder Slava Rubin Talks About Crowdfunding

At the second part of the conference, speakers presented the Internet of Things, drones, and chat bots. The most exciting part was the presentation of Smart Cities, a project by Philips, which uses recent advances in communication and data analysis to make big cities more livable and sustainable. Small sensors and devices work together to collect information that can be used later to save energy and help citizens feel safer.

Advantages of drones and chat bots were also mentioned. The potential of drones cannot be underestimated, as the drone market has recently hit $127 billion. While mostly used in the entertainment area (photography and video shooting), drones operate in construction, agriculture, transport, and security. They can cover areas that are either unreachable or unsafe for humans and substantially reduce the human factor risks. The only stepping stumbling block for drones is the government and rigid drone registration policies.

Chat bots are presented as alternatives to mobile apps. Similar to AI assistants like Siri or Allo, bots provide instant information. The main advantages of bots are multiplatform usage (opposed to mobile apps, bots don’t require different coding for each operating system) and low prices for their development.

The last trend discussed at the conference was Blockchain, a technology that allows for making and verifying transactions instantaneously without a central authority. A great example of Mycella, a company created by singer Imogene Heap, shows benefits of using the blockchain technology. Artists could release their music themselves, gaining control over their earnings and additional information about their songs.

Countries like Belarus may easily adapt to these technologies if they accept them and introduce changes to their institutes.  Crowdfunding is already a triumph here, with the biggest Belarusian platform, Ulej, funding over 40% of successful campaigns since its launch in 2015.

New reality has already made its way into the modern life. Customers, creators, and mechanisms of interaction between them are changing, and those who will be the first to embrace these changes will gain the biggest benefit.

Interview: Valery Tsepkalo, Director of Hi-Tech Park in Minsk

Mark Hillary

I recently visited Minsk in Belarus as a guest of IBA Group. They were opening a major new facility in the city to expand their capacity and to boost their cloud capabilities globally. The new IBA Group facility is located inside the Belarus Hi-Tech Park (HTP), a venture partially funded by both the public and private sector to help boost the wider IT industry in Belarus.

I met up with the HTP director Valery Tsepkalo to ask him about the technology industry in Belarus and how the park fits into the wider development of an industry that is rapidly changing and expanding. Initially I asked about the park itself and what can be found at the HTP in Minsk. He explained: “We have been operating for a decade now, but it’s not just IT park facilities, it is also a wider concept of the companies and the park – like a representation of the entire IT industry. It’s like a club. Belarus is quite a small country and Minsk has most of the national IT industry so this park pulls everyone together and offers some physical infrastructure. We have the administration of the park here and our offices, but also a business incubator, education centre, and the individual company offices.”

After we talked, Valery gave me a tour of the incubator. It was an impressive area where the HTP offers office infrastructure to startups at a very low rate to help get them started and potentially become full-price HTP customers.

“We have 153 companies in the HTP with 24,000 software engineers. All of the companies are independent and all are privately owned, the government has no stake in them. We [the HTP] are an agency of the government and have an agreement with the member companies so they can take advantage of a special tax regime. We do demand an annual audit and an update on the companies every three months so our members are very open with their information. It’s important for potential clients to see this level of transparency in the IT industry. Big companies like Epam or IBA have their own international reputation, but being here helps the smaller member companies to build trust,” Valery explained.

So the HTP offers physical infrastructure, but also offers a chance for many people in the same industry to work in close proximity, creating opportunities for networking and sharing information on business trends. I asked Valery if the HTP is involved in the global promotion of the technology industry. He said: “Yes, but we don’t usually promote the HTP alone, we create delegations with our companies so other business owners can see the companies that are using the HTP. Often we work with chambers of commerce or our embassies internationally to create events that promote cooperation. When you are one part of the wider industry it gives everyone more clout than just promoting the HTP alone.”

This is an interesting point because many IT associations find it hard to get companies to cooperate when promoting their national industry overseas. Naturally every individual company is pitching for business, so the harmony they need to promote a region together can be hard to find.

Valery explained that when they talk to overseas customers there is a requirement to sell both the capabilities of the IT companies and Belarus itself: “We need to sell both the country and company. When we had quite strained relations with the US and Europe we asked clients to come and visit. Even if their view is not favourable based on the media then they quickly found that the reality is very different. It’s a normal country with no real difference to Greece or Slovakia. Clients that come here see a normal European country with hard working people. The best marketing is just to do a good job for your customers.”

The political image problem is something that cannot be ignored in Belarus. The nation has famously been called “the last dictatorship in Europe” by many commentators in the European and American media, so how can the companies in Belarus deal with such a negative media portrayal? I asked Valery if the general problem of how Belarus is perceived has been reduced now there are several important companies from Belarus working internationally. He said: “It’s one reason yes, but politically most western countries realise that this political situation is better than our neighbours, like Ukraine. At the end of the day whatever you like or dislike about the way that countries are run, at least if you have people there that you can negotiate with and you know that there will be good outcomes then it is better [for everyone]. In our part of the world the legal system is not quite like it is in the UK; it was basically just criminal law after the Soviet Union ended, but we are well on the way to improving this.”

It’s true that the IT market in Belarus is growing fast. Valery described some of the latest statistics from the HTP: “[In recent years] we were growing 30-40% a year, but it’s a bit less at present with about 20% growth in revenue. The latest figure was about $800m (USD) which is 46 times the entire IT industry here in 2005. So after just nine years of activity we have made an enormous difference – we plan to pass the $1bn figure this year.” He added: “The park is growing at about 3,000 new people each year and this has been a consistent level of growth for about the past five years. It’s a really good growth rate because [the industry analyst] Gartner suggests that most IT markets are growing 3,4, or 5% and in the last year the global IT industry actually declined by about 1.5%, yet here we are still growing at over 20%.”

Traditionally the IT outsourcing market in Central and Eastern Europe was all about serving companies in Western Europe, such as the UK and Germany, and being able to offer lower prices, but with a highly-skilled workforce. However the entire IT and IT services market is changing at present. I asked Valery what changes he is seeing from Belarus: “The service companies are moving to offer sophisticated complete business solutions. One of our companies is building the front office for eCommerce companies because many traditional retailers need to fight experts like Amazon – if you can’t match this kind of online service then you are lost.” He added: “The startup culture is an interesting trend too, like Viber [phone app similar to Whatsapp] for example or World of Tanks [battle game produced by Wargaming], one of the most popular games in the world right now. These companies start up and build a product rather than working for clients. Many companies like IBA Group have created start-up garages so their own employees can test out new ideas too. I remember when some of these products launched and they were very local, but many of these products have gone completely global.”

I asked if the app store business model had changed how IT companies in Belarus are delivering their services. Naturally the Apple and Android app stores have created an opportunity for IT companies to develop services anywhere and immediately have a global distribution platform available.

Valery said: “The app store model has definitely changed the market and allowed some of these companies to go global quickly. Even ten years ago I couldn’t expect results like this. When Wargaming entered the HTP they had about 30 developers and now they have over 2000. But now they are not just located here, they have teams all over the world.”

The HTP in Minsk, Belarus is a mix of trade association with physical infrastructure and some government support, but it is clearly supporting a young, vibrant, and fast growing industry in Belarus. What is really interesting though is that companies you might just think of as ‘European’, like Wargaming or Viber, have their origins in Belarus. It’s certainly a market that’s still growing because there is a local culture that is supportive of seeing every ship rise on the same tide.

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