Ukrainian IT specialists are now heading companies in Silicon Valley, and they are taking on the biggest and riskiest projects. We talked about the development of the tech industry in Ukraine at the presentation on Awesome Digital Ukraine. We have brought together the best bits from the talk with Andrii Kyrylenko, a professor of economics at Cambridge University and the man behind the idea of the book; Yurii Antoniuk, vice-president of EPAM; and Kira Rudik, a Ukrainian MP and previous director of Ring Ukraine.
Y: The IT industry makes up nearly 5% of our GDP, something like 4-5 billion dollars. It did not come from nowhere; there were already people in the last century who moved the industry forward. They developed computer programming languages and made the first computers. It was this foundation which later generations were able to use – those that in the ‘90s founded small companies and brought them up to the same level as their international competitors. This industry is the future. I see lots of young creative collectives, start-ups, and products. This is a new economy, and Ukraine has a unique chance to leap forward. This book shows the transition from the past – from what has happened over the last 20 years – to the future, which is already at hand. I want our readers to understand that it is impossible to build a new economy without putting in special effort, especially in education. Education is foundation of any economy.
K: If I remember what I learned as a businessman [Kira made a decisive contribution which lead to the start-up Ring Ukraine being bought by Amazon for $1 billion], then Awesome Digital Ukraine is a pitch. You can pitch this with investors at Davos at the World Economic Forum. You can pitch it to your start-up investor at Stanford. I can name at least three points which make Ukrainian IT cool. Firstly, we are a space nation – we have had and still have a space industry. Secondly, we have many universities and our education is developing. Thirdly, we have many people who want to take part in the IT industry. I actually have an interesting story about this. When I had to go through a due diligence process [aka a procedure during which investors check out their potential investment], Amazon sent a group of lawyers, economists, and an informational security team to Ukraine. We were pretty nervous about this, especially the latter group. And you know what? A group of seven people turned up, and all seven of them were Ukrainians!
Y: Ukraine is in the top ten countries in the world for education. There’s no other national indicator like this, beyond talent and education. This is the basis we have laid. For me, this isn’t just some book telling a story. It’s a story about how Ukraine has changed, how it can still change and the sort of country she will finally become. Pay attention though – we are not writing about Ukrainian IT, but Digital Ukraine. The book’s also about the space industry, rockets, and biotech. I don’t know a single sphere of activity that could do without digitalization. This is a book about the past, the present, and future generations. And I would like to pitch it to other people, so that they knew about what we have in this country.
Y: Our clients in other countries say that Ukrainians have a particular shortfall. We are a nation of ‘troubleshooters’, i.e. people who are just good at fixing problems. ERAM Ukraine is only a small part of a global company, which also has offices in Silicon Valley. I remember lots of times when clients were unhappy with something and just said: “Let’s just give it to the Ukrainians to sort out!”. I would interrupt by saying that there’s too much difficult work there, and they would just reply by saying something like, “oh well, your guys will sort it out, you do have a talent for it!”. That is a property of the Ukrainian character: we know how to do better, and we just do it.
Ukraine is one of the few countries in the post-Soviet landscape that is changing and isn’t just standing still. You can’t lead a business without any dynamism to it. If you stop developing and moving forward, it means you’ve lost. In the 1990s, very few countries [of the former Soviet Union] were as open to change and investment as Ukraine was. We have key components, that allow us to create such a unique environment: openness, talent, and a lot of people interested in IT.
А: I think that people who are involved in IT aren’t exactly revolutionaries. They’re not about to go out and protest on the Maidan square, but they promote their values in society through the decisions they make. IT specialists are globally integrated people.
K: These people are part of one of the most progressive strata in society, because it has such a global context. They are physically in Ukraine, although mentally they belong to a global community. They are the first to catch on to global trends and broadcast them on their own channels. They create a demand for a higher quality of services that they want to receive in their financial decisions. Therefore, the economy needs to change in order to meet this demand for ‘high-level’ services. Recently there has been a significant increase in people who are paying attention and are concerned with what is going on in the country; people who are prepared to work for its benefit, and who are willing to invest in it.
Y: It’s not oligarchs who are the independent ones nowadays, since they rely more on the authorities than the rest of us. The people who are independent are those who can find a decent job and can express their views without fear of losing that job. The people who work in the tech industry make up a class of independent people. Their new mentality is changing the whole landscape of countries all over. IT is a new property that has been created with people’s intellect.
А: I’m often asked to talk about Ukraine, and I think that if there is something to be proud about, then we ought to tell people about it. We should tell people that we were the first to make a prototype of the internet, that we came up with basic high-level programming language – then they’ll realise how cool we are!
Y: We diminish the value of Ukrainians because we have a low GDP and low salaries. Yet fifteen years ago we never thought that we’d be walking around with computers in our pockets. We don’t see the changes that are constantly happening around us. In ten years’ time, there will be great changes, that we are starting to see even now. We have somewhat lost our privacy, but that’s how the world works: in order to gain something, you have to lose something as well. This book should be a catalyst, not just a story – a catalyst to do something impulsive after reading it! You don’t have to go to America anymore to realise your dreams, because it’s come here instead. I would like for people to see Awesome Digital Ukraine as something that gives momentum for change and that’s a source of inspiration.