Author : Nick Krym

Oh, Those Russians

Am I dating myself? “Oh, those Russians” was the last line of “Rasputin”, ’78 hit by Germany-based pop and disco group Boney M. Well, of course that’s not what this post is about. A few days ago I talked with an old friend of mine once a VP of engineering for a s/w startup in the Bay Area and now a successful entrepreneur and owner of a small offshore outsourcing firm with a development center in St. Petersburg, Russia.

We started to chat about two sides of outsourcing, challenges of trying to do things right and make money in the process, and then found ourselves locking horns on a portrait of a Russian developer. Both of us are originally from Russia even though from two “competing” cities. Both of us have tons of experience working with outsourcing teams from all over the world. Both have been working with Russian developers for years. Yet with my friends’ past years of provider experience and my experience being mostly on consumer side we found ourselves on different sides of the barricade. Since we’ve known each other for years we could also take the gloves off and beat each other to pulp. At the same time there were not much difference in opinions and we could easily shift the sides. Well, I guess you would have to take my word for it. So, what makes Russians special, different, easy / hard work with? What to expect when you find yourself outsourcing with Russians?

First, let’s be clear when I talk Russian I mostly refer to ex-soviets. In terms of outsourcing it covers a very large and diverse ethnic community mostly of a Slavic origin – Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians. While there are other suppliers of development resources from ex-soviet union areas such as Armenia, Estonia and others they have distinctly different traits.

So, Russians…

  • harsh environment, bloody history, devastation, and hardships made Russia a fighter and survivor nation;
  • combination of diehard very conservative traditions and whirlpool of swiping political changes created the new generation of tough as nails business people;
  • historical appreciation for education and fascination with science developed a large community of top notch scholars;
  • historically low value for human life and recent wave of crime created a bizarre culture of admiration for criminals and pervasive wide spread disregard for laws and petty corruption;
  • history, traditions, culture, and 70 years of socialism create wide spread of work ethics ranging from non-existent to impressive but most of all unpredictable.

“West and East, Pacific and Atlantic, Arctic and tropics, extreme cold and extreme heat, prolonged sloth and sudden feats of energy, exaggerated cruelty and exaggerated kindness, ostentatious wealth and dismal squalor, violent xenophobia and uncontrollable yearning for contact with the foreign world, vast power and the most abject slavery, simultaneous love and hate for the same objects…the Russian does not reject these contradictions. He has learned to live with them, and in them. To him, they are the spice of life.”

— George F. Kennan, Memoirs

Now back to outsourcing with Russians, here are some traits to expect / not to be surprised with in no particular order:

  • Pessimism / Cynical view of things. Russians expect things to go poorly and sometimes even “happy” to see them do in “I told you so” manner.
  • Difficult negotiation processes – Russians do not typically seek compromise, dig in their heels and undertake significant effort to defend their original position.
  • Direct / in your face / border case rude communications. Most of Russian developers have very difficult time staying Politically Correct.
  • Bipolar attitude towards risk – either very conservative cautious approach or unjustified risk taking in every aspect of their activities.
  • Similar bipolar attitude towards laws, processes and regulations – full compliance or complete disregard, could exist within the same person.
  • “I know what you want” style of requirements gathering with huge potential for miscommunications.
  • Different position towards women position in society – from both male and females. Men will have difficult time getting direction / orders from women, especially in older generation.
  • High percentage of staff with advanced education degrees, masters and Ph.D. common. Don’t be surprised if some would leave well paying job to pursue a degree.
  • Not strongly motivated by money. Software developers are generally paid well and expect to be paid well. However, using money as a carrot doesn’t work well.
  • Hit or miss with work ethics. Ranging from exceptionally hardworking individuals to take money and run attitude.
  • Lifestyle over money motivation. Russians prefer long vacations, perks and creature comforts to pure financial compensation.
  • Stronger teams and more developed co-dependency of resources. Russians put a huge emphasis on interpersonal links, friendship and mutual help.
  • Durability, resilience and endurance in “mad dash marathon” projects.

Let me mention just a few things that fall in “Beware: Russians Inside” category:

  • Government supported and infused by on-going brainwashing across multiple channels antipathy towards Americans is settling in stronger with every year.
  • Office romance, infidelity and other behaviors inappropriate by American standards are quite common and are not particularly frowned upon. I’ve seen too many American families fall apart when one of the family members (more often males) finds themselves managing resources on site or frequently traveling to Russia.
  • IP laws and regulations are in their infancy stage in Russia and have zero support at a grass root level.

11 thoughts on “Oh, Those Russians”

  1. Fascinating post, Nick!

    Re: “unjustified risk taking”, a frequent (and positive) characteristic of the Russians that I’ve worked with has been an eager willingness to take on really difficult, challenging tasks that no one else wants to do. The ego-gratification motivation can be extremely strong, especially when given a chance to achieve something where others have failed. You just have to make sure to thank them and give them lots of recognition. In summary, give a Russian something impossibly difficult, and you may be very happy with the results!

  2. Please see below a discussion with my friend mentioned in the post; I edited the thread slightly to protect the guilty and make it a bit more PC :)

    ————————————
    From: Krym, Nick
    Sent: Friday, April 23, 2010 7:35 PM
    To: ‘Boris Veksler’
    Subject: RE: comments?

    Some of my comments inside in blue; thanks!

    ————————————
    From: Boris Veksler
    Sent: Friday, April 23, 2010 5:19 PM
    To: Krym, Nick
    Subject: Re: comments?

    ok, as you said gloves are off…..

    First reaction
    I think you are tooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo negative, have serious misconceptions, miss number of important points and more importantly don’t give any practical advice on how to deal with Russian team.

    a few more points:
    – A lot of things depends if you are dealing with a Russian based company or an American company with Russian development office.
    – Default answer to any question for a Russian guy is NO. [NK: not in my experience, everyone agrees with me… just kidding – a very good point Boris] Once you send weeks in training him that this is impolite, the answer become: “yes, BUT”. Just watch yourself and note what and how you say it )). More on this subject: The answer it’s impossible, very often is invitation to challenge them to get it done and typically, Russian are going to try as hard as they can to proof to you that they can do the impossible… [NK: that’s not a Russian trait but a trait of typical people YOU would hire and people YOU gravitate to (birds of feather) :)]

    – Loyalty matters. Developers stay with the same company for years. Everyone, I’ve hired when I’ve started 3 years ago – is still with the company, exceptions are a few people we’ve lost because of the downtime and people that we’ve let go for other reasons.
    – I am strong believer that you should use different countries to do different type of work. Russia is not good for maintenance projects or anything where a strict process with no provision for creativity is allowed. If that’s the objective – use India and you get great results. Russia is great for new and interesting development. Algorithmic work, complex problems, dealing with huge amounts or data or something that needs to run with a small footprint on a substandard hardware… Russians need a challenge to be productive. If you can create it — you’ll have great results. [NK: that was true about ten years ago and still true with boutique small shops; there are plenty of Russian outsourcers doing mainframe and other maintenance projects, check out IBA, Luxsoft, ePam; on the other hand there are now very solid and large product development companies in India that would beat Russians by a large margin in scope / volume of complex true R&D development activities.]

    Now point by point in RED –
    • Pessimism / Cynical view of things. Russians expect things to go poorly and sometimes even “happy

  3. Ha, ha! I was interviewed by blog author few years ago :-)
    From my experience all said is slightly outdated. Probably you just have picked wrong outsorcing people?

    1. Hi Denis, if i am not mistaken you are from DataArt and that sends me ~4 years back… That was a fun trip – I met lots of great people… Well, talking about being outdated… It’s been about 2 years since my last round of interviews in my ex-motherland. Very similar experience – in both Pros and Cons categories. Pros outweighed the Cons and I ended up hiring a small team and it did quite well. BTW, I’m now working on a book on outsourcing and definitely do not want to put any archaic info in it, so if there anything specific you’d like to share please do let me know. Thanks and best of luck!

  4. Yes, it is DataArt. Believe me or not but Nick Krym is a legend of Voronezh DataArt office. When office was very small – “This strange Russian who was hiring in a strange way”. Actually we all were 100% sure that you was not hiring people, but doing something different, e.g. exploring the market or doing some other research :-)

    Back to ground. Let’s walkthough:
    – Pessimism – definitely not about us :-) We have problem sometimes developers are too optimistic.
    – difficult negotiation process – for me it is difficult to judge – I am PM currently so of course I think that I am 200% OK at negotiation, but who knows.
    – Direct / in your face / border case rude communications – in my >10 years experience there was not any case of rude communications. For me the big problem is that developers are very shy and afraid of customer, so I need to push them to ask direct questions.
    – bipolar attitude – may be. But I believe such way of thinking is mostly an advantage, especially in comparison with Indian brothers.
    – “I know what you want

    1. Denis, that’s phenomenal – thank you so much! I think you offer a few profound points that i must take a very serious look into, in particular something that you mentioned in the initial note – my views are dated and plus geo bound; you are correct my view on outsourcing to Russia are primarily based on working with limited number of locations (St Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Minsk and Novosibirsk). pessimism – i think i speak through the eyes of my generation, need to do a bit more thinking on it; in your face style – that’s a more complex discussion; probably, if you’d spent a few years in the states and then look back to russia, you would’ve agreed with me. i know what you want – i’ve seen it way too often; maybe it’s not the case any longer / the best practices are settling in, i certainly hope so. btw, my team in San Francisco is half russian and i see that attitude all the time. high % of advance degrees – i bet you are correct with regards to my geo bias here; i’ll need to make a note in the book; diff position for women – i bet it’s changing from what i grew up with, i also believe that old habits die hard; btw, i am not saying that good or bad – just different; about the money note – i got most of my friends laughing at me about this one; and the last note – the dataart was the vendor of choice for the deal i was working at that time; it got screwed up last moment on some contracting points… that was not a research by no means… i ended up working with my second choice company that did not do nearly as well as i was hoping for.

      thank you again for taking the time – the book i am writing for http://www.pragprog.com will have a few pages on russia and this discussion will help me to deal with my own biases. i’m planning on reaching out to alexei miller to get his feedback as well to a couple more guys i know from russian outsourcing industry. hopefully that will get me closer to the current realities…

  5. Hi Nick!
    I see you have great experience working with offshore teams but think you should extend it anyway to have more positive expertise. Can’t agree with your point about “Russians”.
    I run the company of 60 engineers, we serve offshore services in Kiev, Ukraine, average age of people is 24-26 y.o.

    I think I know some special trick for you to be successful of outsourcing with “Russians”.

    You are right that money is not good motivation factor you can use. Not good as you can’t propose “big” salaries, if you come to offshore idea you already have limits.
    To get the best from Russian offshore you need to share with team as much information as you have.
    Be open, update each time you visit offshore side with company state, say goals and problems, success and failures. Show expectations from people to contribute in company success (ask find specialists, propose architect ideas, propose business ideas). And you will get the contributors to your company not just an offshore team.

    It is easy if you know Russian language (of course if can you still speak on it:)?).

    I think the main advantage of outsourcing with Russians is that you can build the team spirit you need, spread your company style offshore, and get a “partner”. Then you will be successful.

    Regards,
    Alexey

    1. Thanks Alexey,

      Interesting perspective, and i agree with you 100%. In large degree it applies to many other geographies, not as much as to Russia I bet. My attempts of setting up partnerships with companies in other countries fall short in many cases.

      My congrats to you – looks like you’ve been pretty successful in building your team – 60 people is impressive. BTW, the asset management system you built ~5 years ago is still in operations :)

      Thanks again,

      nick

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