Interview with the founder of Andersen for Radio Free Europe

Nov 04, 2019
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What does Аndersen IT-company want to achieve by organizing public meetings with Svetlana Alexievich, Artemiy Troitsky, Stanislav Shushkevich and other significant personalities? Why shouldn’t we ignore Greta Tunberg’s concerns? And is it true that IT specialists are afraid of getting familiar with ladies? This and many other things were discussed in a conversation between Radio Free Europe and Alexander Khomich, the founder of Andersen IT-company.

The Andersen company occupies several floors of the Royal Plaza skyscraper in the center of Minsk, and each window of the office shows a picturesque panorama of the capital. Alexander Khomich, a 42-year-old man, doesn’t have an office of his own, and our conversation takes place in the meeting room, where all the employees can see us through the glass walls.

Alexander Khomich was born in Polotsk, he finished local school, BSU lyceum, BSU physics faculty. He has specialty in nuclear physics. He founded Andersen IT-company in 2008 “in the garage”as the song goes. For more than ten years the Company has become an IT-outsourcing resident of the High Technology Park with branches in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus with nearly a thousand of employees. At the same time, Khomich calls his company modest and not so very famous for its economic exploits so far.

From the bodybuilding coach to Shushkevich, Alexievich and Troitsky

— Why did the Andersen company decide to invest in the organization of public meetings in Minsk with such iconic figures as Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, music critic and publicist Artemiy Troitsky, Russian musician and writer Petr Mamonov and others?

— All IT-companies organize interest meetings where certain tasks are discussed. We have regular corporate meetings, birthday parties on Fridays once a month. We thought: why should a programmer’s life be limited only by his professional or team’ s interest? Why can’t it be extended to ordinary human interest, for example, health. And the first person we invited was bodybuilding expert Vladimir Van Lee. He told the guys how to sit at the table correctly, how to hold hands, how not to “throw the back out”, and invited them to work out in the gym.

Forty people came to hear him. Then a co-worker said: “Look, you know Stanislav Shushkevich, an old man, can we invite Him? It seemed: we – just a company and Stanislav Shushkevich is the first head of the country, a respectable person.  By the way, he is a physicist, just like me. But he agreed at once. He told about his life path – his childhood, studentship, PhD candidate years, his work as a head of a university department, his steps in politics, political views, life after the end of his political career.

After Stanislav Stanislavovich we thought: Shouldn’t we dare to invite our William Shakespeare – Svetlana Alexievich? And we were also lucky – a miracle happened, she agreed, because she was also interested in IT- specialists.

In the “Forrest Gump” movie, when the hero had mental worries, he just ran. He reached one ocean, turned around and ran to the other. Everyone looked at him with bewilderment, and then began to find in his actions some kind of sign for themselves. They asked why was he running. Was it for the sake of peace? He would reply: “I’m just running because I’m running».

Answering this question, I will say that I am just interested in doing this because these people are interesting for me and for the audience. We are guided not only by their popularity, but above all by their life position, creativity and contribution that these people have made to the society.

The meeting with Svetlana Alexievich was one of the warmest. She was interesting as an interviewee and, as I felt it, she was quite an easy and friendly person to communicate with.

Censorship attempts.

— During the preparation for the meeting with Alexievich, there were some attempts of censorship by the organizers regarding the work of journalists at the event, but as a result there was no censorship. What conclusions did the organizers draw from this experience?

— It all started out pretty dramatic. As you have rightly noticed, there was no censorship. The first meetings were held in our cozy office and were attended by nearly 200 people. And when we announced that we would have Svetlana Alexievich, about 400 people registered through the website within 3-4 hours, about 50 of them were journalists. Such attention to our humble company has never been paid before.

To some extent, it seemed to us that if we are the organizers and ideologists of this event and we are guided primarily by the desire to make the world a better place, then we have in our hands the ability to control the texts that journalists could present at the end of the meeting. Many of Alexievich’s speeches end with some political slogans, to which I have a rather moderate attitude. Frankly speaking, I didn’t want the slogans to be thrown at my company’s sites.

When the marketing department issued a request to journalists to provide materials, it instantly made me a retrogressive person, a suppressor of freedom in a young country, and to some extent made me famous. As a result, the pendulum swung in the other direction. We said: if so, look what kind of democracy there should be – and we have arranged a live broadcast. As a result, we won, the meeting went peacefully. Censorship ended up with an online broadcast.

I got what I wanted: people talked to each other, discussed Alexievich’s books. The book “The Unwomanly Face of War” impressed me personally, and afterwards I read all her other books.

What’s your favorite book ?

— “Second-hand time” – memories of people who experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union. I relate to it, because I have witnessed these events myself. Later, we invited Artem Drapkin to a public meeting, who collects memories not only of Soviet veterans, but also of Germans. I was interested to see how and why German soldiers fought during that War.

«If we were selling tickets, it would shift the emphasis to commerce»

— Public meetings were held at prestigious sites in Minsk and cost a lot for the company. As I see it, this is probably the first successful attempt in Belarus to connect a rather closed IT-community with civil society. What long-term goal do you set?

— This question adds meaning to my work. If we were selling tickets, it would shift the emphasis to commerce, and we want a true bond. No matter how much a ticket costs, one ruble or 100 rubles. The reason of lack of tickets is to make people understand that there is no intention to earn money from these meetings.

— Or is this your personal initiative?

— Yeah. I’m the ideologist for the whole process. I do not think my colleagues would support further development of this direction. The money is relatively small. We cannot invite people who charge a large fee for a visit without selling tickets. The major financial burden is renting a hall, coffee and so on. For now we can afford it.

— Weren’t you guided by the experience of arrangement of the intellectual club of Svetlana Alexievich? She was often blamed for having guests, mostly from Russia. Didn’t you think about inviting iconic, significant personalities from countries other than Russia in the future?

— While preparing for the meeting with Alexievich, I found out that she has an intellectual club. I have lived a significant part of my life in Russia. My parents are Russians. Russian culture is close to me, as well as to the majority of our fellow countrymen. Russia never stops to produce such people as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky ones. These names are very popular, and it is more convenient and easier to invite such people than to try to find someone in Western Europe or the USA.

As for the Belarusian guests, if the political leaders, high-level leaders agree to come to our site and talk to young people, IT specialists, then it might be interesting for them as well. We are very interested in Vladimir Makei, head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Perhaps we will offer him to visit us.

«I don’t share Stanislav Stanislavovich’s views, at least because he’s an idealist»

— You arranged a meeting for the employees with the first head of independent Belarus Stanislav Shushkevich. You emphasized that the political views of the guest and the organizers may differ. Why do you keep distance from politics?

— Stanislav Stanislavovich is a wonderful person with a agile mind. He immediately asked me about all the teachers of the Department of Nuclear Physics. Why do I try to stay away from politics? Probably because I don’t share Stanislav Stanislavovich’s views, at least because he is an idealist.

I felt him as a person who believes in democracy, believes that, thanks to the fact that people organize themselves, in a short period of time there will be economic and foreign policy progress. Unfortunately, we are not so good to make it happen in the short time.

«I cannot adopt this type of dismissal from the current president of America»

— Aren’t you an idealist?

— No. I have to run the Company, make it successful, develop it, so sometimes I have to make unpopular, tough decisions. Total efficiency is often shaped by the efficiency of each unit. And sometimes good relationships come into conflict with the fact that this person is not useful for the Company, and you have to say goodbye to him. Relationships can recover over time, but usually they don’t.

— We’ ve gone over the office of the company, and the care for the employees here is easily noticeable, starting with a beautiful panorama, ending with places where they can eat, relax, lie down, play tennis. And how do you say goodbye to your employees? Do you take security out with you, using the so-called American method of dismissal?

— The American president was known for his rather outstanding manner of parting with the employees of the Trump Organization corporation. If a boss in the heat of the moment shouts “you’re fired” to a subordinate in Trump’s style, he, in fact, signs his own non-professionalism. I cannot adopt this type of dismissal from the current president of America.

In our company, people leave on their own initiative. There are competitors who do their best to lure our best employees, but we in turn try to lure their employees. Anyway, we don’t get bored.

World-class salaries

— What is the average salary in the company?

— Pretty high. The IT-miracle doesn’t happen right away. It happens when you prove your effectiveness. A young specialist joins us for 600 Belarusian rubles (≈$300). Within a fairly short period of time, the salary increases by three times. A young specialist, who has worked a year, can get about 1500-2000 (≈$750-1000) rubles. Afterwards the career develops in accordance with the talent and hard work.

Salaries can be pretty high, they’re world-class. A Belarusian programmer can afford the same level of purchasing power as German or French. Visually, salaries, paid in Western Europe or the United States, are higher. In California, specialists of the same level can earn up to 10 000 dollars per month, 120 000 dollars per year. But the cost of goods and services there is much higher, the taxes are higher, and, having such a salary, he might live rather modestly.

The IT has established equal salaries for work around the globe according to economic development, taxes and prices in the domestic market of goods and services in the country where the development is located.

If we have a look at other sectors of the economy, many of them seem a little out of date. Products are consumed in the east – in Russia and Kazakhstan – and it is very difficult to sell it on the western market. And in the IT sector, 96 percent of exports in our country goes to the EU and the US. In the first case, the results of the work (no offense to other industries) do not look fashionable and modern, and in our sphere, there is a big queue to buy the intelligence and services of our guys. It is not surprising that the IT in our country develops successfully and to the envy of all.

We can say that this industry is subsidized in a certain way. Participation in the High Technologies Park gives tax breaks to the companies located there. This is an opportunity for companies that do not have a representative office in Belarus to come here and have a higher income than in their respective countries. Thanks to these conditions, Belarus is being highlighted among the former Soviet Union countries as a country that has a better representation and development of the IT industry. If this hadn’t happened, the situation wouldn’t have been so great, but still it would have happened.

 

«In the event of a worldwide crisis, there will be less need for the IT resources»

— In one of the interviews you mentioned that the best IT-specialists are staying in Belarus. What conditions are needed to keep it that way?

— It’s not about the conditions, it’s about the demand. The demand may decrease, and the conditions won’t help. There was a situation in 2008 and 2014 when the market had a large number of IT specialists, available specialists and not so many projects to work on.

It is necessary to understand that this market is very risky, and, focusing only on the IT, without diversifying the areas of work, you may face a high risk. In the event of a worldwide crisis, there will be less need for the IT resources. Many people may become unemployed. This must be understood. Forewarned is forearmed.

— Nowadays, almost every Belarusian teenager dreams of becoming an IT specialist, so fashionable and prestigious it has become. In fact, is there such a need for so many specialists in this field? Or will it be the most popular profession in the future?

— Recently, I’ve visited majority of Belarusian technical universities. I met students, offered to participate in our skill competition, talked to heads of universities and saw children, who looked at me like I was a “Celestial Father” who owns a big company and who could become their employer.

Many people want to work in the IT industry, because there is a high opportunity to make a lot of money. But they forget that this profession is not suitable for everyone. It requires mathematical logic. Programmers sit all day and think about how to make an algorithm, to take into account all peculiarities of the algorithm, how to make it work with other parts.

To be honest, when I used to work as a programmer, I sliped down under the table after the 5-th hour of the working day and couldn’t think anymore. That’s why for those who have a humanitarian state of mind, it will be very difficult, they won’t succeed in the career, and therefore, they won’t earn a living.

So, when choosing the profession, I would recommend to ask yourself whether you liked math at school. If you liked it, then you will definitely succeed, but if you liked literature, songs and dancing, you can also find a profession in the IT industry, but a little different one, for example, marketing, sales, design, etc.

«English is a must»

— How do you rate the preparation of today’s children in technical subjects?

— The mental abilities of Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians who come to work with us are quite high by nature. If a good education is given from above, a person will make a career in any case, he won’t be left without a bite to eat.

I finished high school in Polotsk, the last two grades studied at BSU Lyceum (I still help my alma mater). Those who studied there were incredibly smart, unordinary people.

After the first two courses of study, students usually have a rather basic level of knowledge in the programming languages we need. Universities cannot keep up with the speed of innovation. Two months of traineeship, three months of laboratory training make from a graduate more or less of a young professional, who can be involved in projects and start working with tasks.

I would like to pay special attention to the fact that English is a must. It should be at the same level as Russian and Belarusian. I am speaking Russian to you now, but I can also speak English even if I have some peculiarities and an accent. Unability to speak English significantly limits the opportunities, therefore, the only market left is Russia.

«Guys – programmers, ladies – testers»

— We have about 20% of women employees in our company. Guys are mostly programmers, ladies are mainly testers. Women are more punctual, scrupulous and systematic than men during software testing. There are more women among testers. However, in business analytics the proportion of men and women is 50/50.

In the beginning, we had a small company that consisted only of men. After a while, when the resources allowed us to employ HR specialists, I said: “Let’s hire a girl so we can at least smile when we come to work, not just sit with such faces”. HR Department is staffed only by women. No one can make you feel better, have a heart to heart talk, or direct you to efficient work better than they do.

Myths about the IT-specialists

— The IT industry, which is privileged in Belarus, has become much mythologized. What is the most widespread myth about the IT-specialists? And what myths are you trying to destroy, in particular, through meetings with iconic personalities?

— The most common myths are: the IT specialists are not interested in anything but their job, they have pale faces, they spend all the time they have in front of the computer, and as a result there is a sort of asociality. This is more of a problem not of programmers but of our century. It would be wrong to say that it is not true, that we have fresh-faced athletes who are good both at writing programs and in the fighter ring. The profession leaves its mark. This also applies to other professions. If auditors, accountants, brokers, technologists, etc. were brought together in one place, they would mostly look the same. All day long, they look at the computer display without losing sight of it.

Another myth or truth about the IT specialists – shyness when meeting a girl, but this problem can be solved by appropriate mobile apps (hello, Tinder) or proper drinks in bars.

The average age of our employees is 28 years. I am 42 years old and I perfectly fit for my company. There is a myth that programmers should be young, that people over 35 are less effective in programming. This is a biased attitude. However, it is actually difficult to find a grayish programmer in the office.

Since more and more people are being hired, those “dinosaurs” who still remember perfalent or IBM computers with huge screens are disappearing against this backdrop. They usually do not like open space offices. Many of them open their own directions. The quality of their work does not decrease. These are still young people by all standards.

Of course, some fineness of intellect decreases with the years, dogmatism and conjuncture arise, which is not always good when it is necessary to make creative decisions. But experience and knowledge, however, usually dominate. Perhaps they feel uncomfortable being surrounded by 25-year-old guys, but such people are needed in our company and other companies, it is easy enough for them to find a job.

« The monument to my great-grandfather — Belomorkanal »

— On your Facebook page I noted the critical post on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, as well as its consequences for Belarus. Are there any victims of communists and Stalin repressions in your family? Have you been to Kuropaty?

— The families of both my parents are from Russia. Kuropaty have no relation to my family, but the monument to my great-grandfather on the mother’s side is Belomorkanal. My relatives on my father’s side were under de-kulakization in Karelia. In the house where my great-grandfathers lived, now there is some school. It was a bloody, difficult period in history. On the other hand, I am interested in the Soviet Union as a social experiment set up on a large territory, the results of which are achivements in space by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and millions of the repressed, including members of my family.

Who should we unite with

— There’s a lot of talk about the integration of Belarus and Russia nowadays. How do you feel about it?

— John Lennon wrote a song called “Imagine” in 1971 that said the following:

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do…

You may say that I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one

Maybe one day there will be no states on the planet and everyone will live like John Lennon used to sing. If you look at the successful options for unification, the united countries seem to feel better than separated ones. When you travel in the European Union from one country to another, you can be only occasionally stopped and checked by looking at the car license plate numbers. It’s not good when you’re waiting at the border in Poland for three hours to get a stamp on your passport and to let a dog smell your luggage. This is an example of unification and separation.

In the modern world, before getting united, I would think carefully with whom to do this. To unite with the country where the shaman travels to the main body of administrative power to help this power to change… I do not think it is necessary to aspire to such an alliance. But if the queues in Brest were reduced, it would be a significant step towards some next association.

Greta as a modern Jeanne d’Arc

— The presentation of the Swedish teenager Greta Tunberg at the United Nations criticizing the current ecological situation still remains the subject of heated discussion in the Internet. How do you and your company feel about this?

— I find Greta Tunberg’s performance to be extremely passionate. Jeanne d’Arc could have spoken with roughly the same face about the necessity of war with England. I was surprised by the public reaction to her speech. Perhaps in our place and among people of my age, this is due to the fact that Samantha Smith and other children, “peace activists”, are still remembered. So that is why Greta was presented in the same way.

Gentlemen, if you disagree with Greta, then what do you agree with? It is reasonable to look at what is happening now, to guess: is it global warming or an anthropogenic fact? What next step will you take? My son and I were driving through the desert near Dubai and witnessed plastic bags sticking out of the sand. This kills both the mood and desire to see the world.

I like the trends of Californian or European teenagers who collect plastic or carry bread and drinks in their hands without buying bags. Greta Tumberg has gathered 1.5 million young followers around the world. I find it a struggle against windmills. A Chinese factory will produce as many bags as no teenager or student will ever collect. First of all, it is necessary to fight with the plant, not with its products.

Uber and other companies that are changing the world

— You’re a representative of a young generation of businessmen. How does the economy of the 21st century differ from the economy of the 20th century?

— The 21st century is distinguished by the fact that companies such as Uber, food delivery companies and many messengers have emerged. Most of them have a common feature: in the classical sense of the economy they are unprofitable. The amount of money invested in a company cannot be compensated by its profit. We see the capitalization of Uber, while its income is rather questionable.

There are founders who launch a startup that, once it has reached a certain scale, receives funding, then venture capitalists withdraw their capital or expand their presence. One way or another, day after day, it is still an abscess, without which it is impossible to imagine our lives.

Uber has shown to a wide range of people all over the world that they have an asset from which they can earn money. In Moscow, half of the Uber taxi drivers will tell their business story how he used to be an outstanding entrepreneur, then something went wrong, and now he doesn’t obey anyone and works like a freelancer in his car. Often these are people of my age dressed in suits, with ties, and white shirts.

These companies are changing the world. It’s impossible to imagine modern world with just a regular taxi. If you want a pizza, you open an application and here’s your pizza. Walking for a pizza looks old-school. The companies of the last century were focused on profit. Companies of this century are growing by means of capitalization. It’s interesting and at the same time scary to look at that. We are facing a new economic paradigm.

Brief questionnaire of Radio Free Europe

Q: Why is the company called Andersen?
A: It’s a Scandinavian word that begins with an A. Most of the A ratings are in the lead. Hans Christian Andersen is famous for his bright and instructive fairy tales. I came up with the name when I was still dreaming of my company. But we are not fairy tellers, we are responsible for our own words.

Q: What kind of books do you read?
A: I am interested in social phenomena. Now I read Gustav Lebon’s Psychology of the Masses. Mikhail Zygar’s “Empire Must Die” left a mark on me, after reading it I can say that everything in Russia can change tomorrow, and nothing in a hundred years. Among the Belarusian ones – “On the crossroads” by Jakub Kolas, the best classic book of the Silver Age period, which in general is unfairly unpopular.

Q: What kind of music plays in your car?
A: I remain loyal to the Russian rock. DDT, Yuri Yulianovich Shevchuk – two thirds of my music collection.

Q: Who is your example to follow?
A: I guess I should say that it’s Steve Jobs and Bill Gates or Ilon Mask, but I’m partly guided by a jealousy for these individuals to reach their level and do more in our humble company. As for the classic ones – Peter Arkadievich Stolypin. A solid man, the example of how to focus on your work.

Q: Do you find Steve Jobs’ tough management effective?
A: Jobs managed a lot despite his efforts. He was extremely inspired, energetic, charismatic, passionate person, and as a result, he achieved his goals, but there were moments when his own company excluded him. If Apple hadn’t taken him back by buying the NeXT operating system, it’s possible that we wouldn’t have known about Jobs. I think that on 9 wrong decisions, he was making one brilliant decision that pushed him forward. According to the book he had written about him and the myths that came to us, his cruelty was excessive.

Q: How can you be offended?
A: Everything that concerns emotions can cost a lot of money at a professional level. If you are motivated by offense, personal sympathies and even love, you can do a lot of harm to the company. In a professional sense, I try to keep a cold, calm, thoughtful calculation. Personally, I may be offended by unfaithfulness, as well as by the words behind my back, which will not apply to the point.

Q: By how much of your potential did you unlock?
A: At first, men compete with their competitors, live market participants, and, having defeated the alive ones, they compete with those who have already died. There is still room for improvement. We have achieved much. The company is developing, we have opened branches in France and Germany. Every day we challenge ourselves, we have to find the nearest hard ground on marshy soil to lean on it. You have to keep your ear to the ground to realize that you are taking the right step.

Q: How would you explain to an average person what your company does?
A: Our company makes the world a better place. It makes programms and applications for mobile phones and computers, which he uses every day, and control elements for his car. Belarusians use Andersen products while ordering tickets from the largest providers of these services, and in Russia these are the programs of Sberbank, Tinkoff. The greatest home appliances retailer MediaMarket is also our contribution.

Photo: svaboda.org (RFE/RL)
Text: Hanna Sous

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