Can Offshore Programming Thrive in Russia?
By Alexander Osipovich, Russia Profile
Every weekday morning, Tatyana Burtseva flashes her ID to the guards at the entrance of the Kurchatov Institute, where the Soviet Union developed its first nuclear bomb. But after walking through the institute's wooded grounds and entering the modern, corporate office building where she works, what she does is not top-secret. Burtseva is currently working on a project for a U.S. client - Boeing, America's largest maker of commercial aircraft. The 26-year-old software tester is one of over 850 employees at Luxoft, one of Russia's leading companies in the field of offshore programming. Besides Boeing, Luxoft has tackled software projects for major corporations like IBM, Microsoft and Deutsche Bank.
In 2003, the Russian offshore programming industry earned total revenues of $546 million, according to figures compiled by CNews Analytics and Fort-Ross, an association of Russian software companies. The same report projected growth rates of 30 to 40 percent for the next few years, meaning that the industry could cross the $1 billion mark by 2006.
These rapid growth rates, and the prestigious nature of the industry, have not gone unnoticed. President Vladimir Putin has mentioned offshore programming as a promising agent of economic diversification, while Leonid Reiman, the minister of information technologies and communications, has touted the industry in public appearances. "We have a tremendous number of highly qualified professionals," he said during a recent address to the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia. "Our task is to convert this human potential into a new source of national income."
But the Russian offshore programming industry faces some daunting challenges. Above all, it pales in comparison to its better-developed cousin in India. According to NASSCOM, an association of Indian software companies, India now earns $12.5 billion a year by exporting high-tech services. This represents close to one-fifth of the developing nation's total exports. For many Western executives, the term "offshore programming" is virtually synonymous with outsourcing work to India, while Russia remains an obscure, second-tier competitor. This has led to a great deal of soul-searching in the Russian press about whether Russia can catch up to India.
Can Russia Catch Up?
In the eyes of many experts, the greatest asset of the Russian offshore programming industry is the high quality of its technical specialists. The Soviet Union left behind a world-class system of science education. As a result, Russia now has up to 40 percent more scientists per capita than Germany, France or the United Kingdom, and 20 times more scientists per capita than India, according to Forrester Research. Russians have won numerous gold medals at international programming competitions. At this year's ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest, the best-known event of its kind, the winning team was from the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics.
This pool of scientific talent has led several Western companies to open wholly-owned offshore development centers in Russia. Such companies include technology leaders like Intel, Sun, Motorola and Siemens. Intel alone has over 800 Russian employees, mostly based in Nizhny Novgorod and the former closed city of Sarov. According to Alexander Palladin, a spokesman for Intel in Russia, they solve difficult problems for the company's research and development wing. "In the eyes of Intel's management, Russian specialists are very highly regarded for their scientific knowledge," he said.
Unfortunately, Russia is not so blessed when it comes to business skills. A frequent complaint is the lack of English, although this has improved in recent years. When it comes to project management, Russian firms have a reputation for letting their programmers' creativity take precedence over good business sense. In some cases, programmers have been known to delay a project until they can achieve technical perfection. Other problems stem from a culture clash between Russian firms and their Western clients. "The biggest difference is that Americans devote more time to communication," said Alexander Sambuk, quality director at Luxoft. "Russian project managers need to learn to communicate more with clients, and not just stew in their own juices."
Another obstacle to acquiring new clients is the small size of Russian firms. Russia's largest offshore programming companies, Epam Systems and Luxoft, have less than 1,000 employees each. This is small potatoes compared to the largest Indian firms, such as IT giant Wipro, which employs over 27,000 people worldwide and has annual revenues of $1.2 billion. Smaller companies have a hard time marketing themselves and are less attractive to large corporate clients. Given this situation, it might seem that the market is ripe for consolidation. But firms have been reluctant to merge, says Kirill Dmitriev, managing director of Delta Private Equity Partners. "Each one hopes to develop by itself, but economic logic mandates that they need to consolidate," he said.
Perhaps a more intractable problem is Russia's negative image in the West. Russia's reputation as an unstable, crime-ridden society makes it a hard sell to wary customers. "This is a country where there's a war going on, where [former Yukos CEO Mikhail] Khodorkovsky is in prison, where terrorists are killing children in Beslan," said Dmitry Loschinin, CEO of Luxoft. "Obviously, this affects us negatively."
Loschinin also believes that Russia's education system could be better suited to today's IT market. Although it churns out an impressive number of physicists and mathematicians, it rarely teaches them the most up-to-date technology skills. "What we receive is a half-finished product that we need to spend some time finishing," said Loschinin.
Another problem is that Russia's education system produces programmers in all the wrong places. Thanks to the legacy of Soviet central planning, some of the nation's top scientific talent resides in far-flung cities like Tomsk and Novosibirsk. Less than a quarter of Russia's programmers live in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the offshore programming industry is concentrated. The result is that wages are high and jobs are plentiful in the two capitals, while out in the regions, programmers are underpaid or jobless. The logical conclusion is that programmers should move to where the jobs are. But Russians - for a variety of legal, economic and cultural reasons - are often reluctant to move.
A City Of Programmers
The offshore programming industry is taking steps to attract them. IBS, the holding company which owns Luxoft, is planning to open a "technopark" in the town of Dubna, a one-hour drive from Moscow. According to Loschinin, programmers will be enticed to move to Dubna by a package that includes jobs, mortgages and a pleasant, academic living environment. "We want to create a city of programmers," he said.
The Dubna technopark will not be alone. The IT and Communications Ministry will soon launch technoparks in St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk, with tax breaks and an up-to-date communications infrastructure, says Reiman. These ideas are not new. A decade ago, India used similar policies to stimulate the IT industry in Bangalore. Today Bangalore is the center of India's offshore programming industry; the city is often called the "Silicon Valley of India."
The Russian offshore programming industry is emulating India in other ways. It recently formed an analogue to NASSCOM, the Indian software association founded in 1988 to promote the nation's IT industry. RUSSOFT, which recently merged with Fort-Ross to become the predominant association of Russian software companies, has been following a path blazed by NASSCOM in the 1990s. It puts on "road shows" in the West to promote Russian firms, holds training events and lobbies for improvements in government policy.
There is clearly a need for lobbying, because government policy is unfriendly - if not hostile - to offshore programming companies. Valentin Makarov, president of RUSSOFT, says that companies face a crippling burden from taxes and regulations. For example, to export $50 worth of software, companies spend an additional $30 on paperwork and taxes. This drives up their prices, making them less competitive, and keeps many in the "gray" zone. Makarov argues that this is bad for everyone. "Our task is to make companies go white," he said. "Companies want this, because you can't live under the constant threat of tax investigations. This prevents you from signing deals with foreign corporations."
Yet Makarov insists that he is not looking for tax breaks, which are controversial due to their widespread misuse in the 1990s. Instead, he wants the government to adopt a more streamlined and rational tax structure. So far, however, RUSSOFT's lobbying efforts have produced few results. "Our government isn't used to dealing with associations - just with oligarchs and individual companies," he said. Nonetheless, Makarov is optimistic. He believes that the industry will gain more influence as it grows in size. In terms of the total value of its exports, it has already surpassed the Russian automobile industry. Soon, Russia will earn more money by exporting software than by exporting nuclear technology.
Makarov predicts that the Russian offshore programming industry will grow until it reaches annual revenues of $2 billion but, from then on, growth will level off unless the government provides substantial support. He points out that the governments of India and China (another up-and-coming offshore service provider) are extremely proactive in boosting their nations' IT sectors. For example, they pay for companies to participate in international trade shows - something that the Russian government has never done.
So can Russia catch up to India?
Most experts doubt that Russia can beat India in terms of volume. But in terms of quality, Russia already presents a strong competitor. According to a 2001 report from the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, Russian programmers are well suited for complex projects. "Indian programmers... do not have such wide experience with different technologies," said the report. "Their experience is typically limited to working in large software development factories." Makarov thinks that Russia cannot compete with India or China on cost, but in the niche of high-end solutions, it could become a world leader - as long as the industry gets government support.
"We can't do it ourselves," he said.
Oct 27, 2004