Vladimir Kuzmenko is Director of Business Development at NIX Solutions, a Ukraine-based software development company which has grown from a garage start-up in 1994 to become one of the leading players in the region, with over 1,500 developers providing services to clients worldwide. We got together with Vladimir to discuss the opportunities and challenges facing the sector in Ukraine and beyond, and to get his thoughts on where his industry’s going – and how to get there…
GSA: Vladimir, thank you for joining us today. Let’s get straight to it: what do you see as being the biggest challenges facing the software development sector in Ukraine today?
Vladimir Kuzmenko: We’re playing within a growing market – growth is over 20% annually in Ukraine – so the biggest challenge is getting more and more talented engineers while maintaining the highest quality standards, satisfying our clients and of course getting new projects. Hiring and training processes become a huge part of an outsourcing business.
A second big challenge – which incidentally makes the first one even harder – is the growing speed of technological change. Nowadays major updates and even profound shifts in certain areas of tech happen yearly or even faster. We work with various technologies and they’re developed faster and faster – so we have to learn new developments just as fast, just to stay current. And, all the while, we have to hire new engineers and train them at that very fast pace to become productive.
These two challenges result in a third: management overhead. A growing company, which has to keep all its staff continuously learning new developments, has a huge need for bright leaders and technical gurus – but the quantity of such talent available in the market (and indeed in the population generally) is quite limited.
GSA: How are you at NIX Solutions specifically working to overcome these challenges – and to leverage the advantages that Ukraine possesses in a fairly competitive region?
VK: We at NIX Solutions have always understood that the IT outsourcing market will grow rapidly over the next decades, and that tech development will keep accelerating. So we started our preparations years ago. From at least ten years ago we’ve built great collaboration with major local universities and colleges, where we help them to bring curricula up to modern standards, train teachers and professors, and bring onboard young talent for their diploma projects – and most of them stay with us after that.
We’ve also established R&D and educational departments, which share the most recent tech developments both inside and outside the company. We support a number of tech conferences and meetings in Ukraine – and we’re proud to say that we help not only ourselves but the whole Ukrainian IT industry to stay right on the cutting edge.
Finally, we have established practices for talent detection and evolution inside the company. This is a mix of psychology, HR, management and educational tools, which highlights people who can – and want to – do even more, and helps them to develop very quickly. In this way we’re delighted to be able to cover all our management and tech leadership positions, and to say that over 90% of our management board has come from within the company and perform at the top of industry standards.
GSA: Going back briefly to that collaboration with educational establishments you mentioned: can you give any examples of that kind of partnership? How does it work?
VK: It starts from simple things, like reviewing curricula by our tech experts, and updating training programs with recent tech developments. Or inviting teachers to spend some real time within the company, where they could participate in real projects and see how software is really done today.
And it goes up to collaborative research projects in data science and AI, which are done together by our engineers and university professors and Doctors of Science from the world-renowned NTU KhPI (Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute).
GSA: You operate in an incredibly dynamic space. How can a leader in your position work to ensure your organisation is best placed to survive and thrive in such a rapidly evolving landscape?
VK: In such a dynamic environment a leader has to be a true example for the team and the company, and show them the way to go by going on his/her own. S/he has to learn new things and tricks all the time; keep mind, eyes and ears open; listen to people without displaying supremacy; make decisions fast, but reasonably; and take the whole responsibility, all the time, for everything that’s happening in and with the company. Having such leaders onboard is the first and major key to success.
Organisations need to establish continuous learning practices inside the company, and make sure they are effective - especially for leaders. Don’t be too wedded to established processes; each and any process in the company will become outdated and ineffective, if not updated regularly.
GSA: What kind of team do you need around you to maximize the benefits of that leadership?
VK: Nowadays an open mind and great eagerness to learn may be even more valuable than long-term experience and standardised approaches. Mix the team into the right proportion of young people greedy for knowledge, and more mature and balanced professionals.
GSA: How do you know when you’ve got that mix right?
VK: We do have statistics, guides for new teams building, and performance measurements. Showing few cards, I can say that the mix should be about 25/60/15 where 25% are talented juniors eager to excel, 60% are medium-level engineers and 15% are bright technical and team leaders.
GSA: There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the challenges of working with millennials; have you found yourself having to adjust your ways of working, or expectations, to cater for the needs of that latest generation of employees?
VK: Even with 24 years of experience we’re still quite a young company. The average age of our top managers is just 36, and we feel young enough to be on the same page with even junior engineers. And, our business forces us to keep our collective mind open, feel the changes going in the world, and be fast to accept and even lead them.
In short, millenials are different, but this difference is not so essential for us.
GSA: How have client demands and expectations changed during your time in the business: are you being asked nowadays to do too much with too little?
VK: Today clients expect a very deep involvement into their business, sharing their values and working as a part of their core team from any place in the world. This means more value is expected to be added to the project by outsourcers - fitting requirements and meeting deadlines are not enough to be a good partner. And we at NIX Solutions are completely OK with this - as sharing clients’ values and goals has been our major point of success over the years.
GSA: What are the growth geographies that are most exciting for NIX Solutions right now?
VK: Our positions in the US market are strong and bold, so we’re expanding more and more into the UK and Scandinavia. We’ve already got perfect recognition and a stable presence, and we’re at work to close a couple of new huge deals this year.
GSA: Do you have any concerns about how Brexit might affect the UK market? Are you doing any specific planning around this?
VK: We see that Brexit damages a lot of established partnerships between the UK and the European Union. However, we’re not in the EU (at least not yet), and we’re quite flexible in following UK and/or EU regulations. So for us Brexit provides more new opportunities than damage.
Regarding specific planning: nothing specific. We’ve already learned UK regulations and business rules, and are proud to have positive feedback from current clients as well as a lot of new UK leads in our sales pipeline.
GSA: What sectors are offering you the biggest growth opportunities?
VK: The healthcare and insurance sector has been our growth driver for years; homecare is a new opportunity today. The manufacturing and real business automation sectors are being disrupted with IoT, and may be drivers for future growth for years. Fintech is disrupted with cryptocurrencies and blockchain, which will also lead the industry changes for years also - even if some bubbles will blow out soon. In terms of specific technologies, AI, ML and big data are not just very popular words, but real challenges for most business sectors. We invest a lot into data science and AI, and foresee bright things in these areas.
GSA: Ukraine’s famous for developing very skilled talent: why do you think this is? And what do you look for specifically when hiring?
VK: Ukraine has had well-established fundamental and engineering education sectors since the days of the USSR. Fundamental maths and physics techniques, as well as a strong engineering education, shapes the human brain into the form IT needs. As I said, major Ukrainian IT companies such as ours work with local universities and colleges, helping them to update curricula with modern software development skills. Finally, it is the Slavic nature: our land has been famous for many years for producing a lot of brilliant scientists and engineers.
What do we look for specifically? The talent. An open mind, eager for knowledge, and questioning. Self-drive. Nothing very specific – haha!
GSA: Are you finding it a challenge to keep very talented Ukrainians in the country when there are many firms in higher-wage locations looking to recruit such people?
VK: A little bit. Young professionals may dream of working overseas. However, we give them a lot of opportunities to travel and to work for world-famous corporations without moving to new countries. Having those opportunities, they are able to see the world, and to make decisions based on real knowledge, not just dreams. Most of them stay with us, especially after getting married and starting to plan a family life. Looking at some statistics I can say that just one or two per cent decide to move, and half of those return back to Ukraine after a couple of years abroad.
GSA: If you could give the world one message about Ukraine’s software sector right now, what would it be?
VK: Your team, your tech partner, your staff, capable for more.
GSA: What are you most proud of from your career thus far? And what’s your biggest regret?
VK: I’m most proud of the teams I’ve built and the talented managers I’ve helped to grow. As project manager and business development I’ve started our work with Thomson Reuters and Yandex LLC, and those great starts resulted not only in profitable long-term co-operations, but also in a couple of new VPs in NIX. However, a couple of six-zero deals could be mentioned also.
My biggest regret: several good guys who left NIX just because I didn’t have enough time to show them the new horizons. Most of them rose quite well, and we stay connected, but I’m sure that “if things had been done in the right way” we could have achieved even more together.
The IT business is all about people, you know. You win when you get good guys onboard, and you lose when you they go out.