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City news, 11.11.2004 13:54

The Legend of Programmers

russian_programmers Izvestia Science

Anna Maiorova

Talented engineers come from Russia. Russia has an excellent system of higher education in technical branches of science. This system supplies the West with the best brains of the world. One can prove the point by citing a well-known case of the programmers from St. Petersburg who scored a few times at the world programming championship. Then why the national IT industry lacks personnel and lags behind the world’s leaders on the market of program software if the above is a true picture?

According to the World Bank, there were more than 2 million of engineers in Russia in 1997, that’s more than anywhere else in the world. Professor Grigory Gromov, a well-known IT specialist, believes that a similar situation existed in the former Soviet Union the mid-1980s with regard to the number of specialists who held top-notch qualifications. Soviet Union had the top number of candidates and doctors of science.

Still, the quantity has yet to turn into the quality. The domestic numbers for doctors of science (and the number of academicians with the Russian Academy of Sciences, by the bye) have no effect whatsoever on the number of the Nobel prize winners. And the U.S. is the world’s top IT industry player while Russia isn’t on the list. However, the above circumstances don’t make a dent in the Soviet and post-Soviet mythology which keeps claiming that Russian-born engineers are the most talented and ingenious engineers in the world (those who don’t share the view can check the specs and performance of Kalashikov against those of M-16). The mythology has been given support by the Western media that published articles about the invincible hackers from St. Petersburg, for example. Though rather poorly written at times, those articles sold invariably well.

The thing is, our domestic IT market is understaffed with qualified specialists. According to some estimates, Russian IT market’s annual growth is between 20-25%. First and foremost, there’s a lack of staff for the universities. The situation could be critical in the near future. Professor Anatoly Shalyto who teaches at the St. Petersburg institute of fine mechanics and optics (that’s where the world champions in programming are educated), doesn’t beat about the bush while talking to an Izvestia correspondent of the present situation. He’s confident that today the institute still has no decent salaries to offer to the best graduates with the potential for teaching. He believes that the traditions of training programmers of the world class are likely to become history very soon unless urgent steps are taken.

The above viewpoint is a rare case of an opinion on issues relating to personnel training made public by a representative of the higher school. Opinions on the subject are mostly expressed by the IT community and bureaucrats. According to the Russian ministry of economic development and trade, as at November 2003, the Russian IT sector including telecommunications employed 540 thousand persons. The number met the demand for IT specialists only by 70%.

A survey aimed at finding out the number of IT specialists educated annually in the Russian institutions of higher education was conducted in May this year by Auriga company headed by professor Alexei Sukharev. The company specializes in custom-made software. The survey showed that the number of newly-trained IT specialists in Russia was 68,126 persons in 2004 (a 6.9% increase on year ago). 76,435 engineering graduates of the Russian universities have degrees suitable for the employment in IT sector. (Academic major courses ranging between 340 to 1770 hours include information science and technologies, programming, computer simulation, Internet technologies etc.) Besides, those who majored in “economy and corporate governance” or “mathematical methods and economic operations research” or a few other courses outside engineering can also work in the field of IT. The number of graduates educated in the above trades this year amounted to 81,270 persons. The total number of graduates good for IT sector in the 2003/04 academic year is 225,831 persons, a 11.2% rise on year ago.

In other words, each year Russia produces more IT specialists than India. According to the report published by NASSCOM, an Indian association of computer companies, the number of personnel which started making career in Indian IT sector totaled 165 thousand in the year 2003/04. The number includes those who specialized in computer sciences, trained in engineering or other branches. However, the number of Russian IT personnel doesn’t translate into Russia’s economic advantages over India. On the contrary, India holds a leading position in the world programming industry. Indian companies even seek to be contracted by Microsoft for the development of some components of the brand-new Longhorn operating system. These days programming business is starting to look more like the manufacture of sneakers somewhere in Indochina where famous American brands are sewn in a cost-effective environment.

It would be great if computer software similar to Longhorn system could be “sewn” in Russia too. But it’s just useless to wage war on this market using large numbers of personnel as a weapon. It takes more than ordinary skills of an average teacher of the Russian university or training taken by the university graduates. A domestic IT company today has to provide an additional 6-month training to newly-employed university graduates even if the latter majored in computer sciences. The procedure results from the situation in the Russian university system where the majority of professors have now crossed the age of retirement. Students are taught the program languages like Pascal and Cu created more than 30 years ago while in most cases a young engineer has to master Java and .NET on his own after earning his degree. Things have to be changed or the legend of the Russian programmers is going to fade away in a short while.

A hand-to-mouth scenario for IT specialists working in Russia is out of the question for a lengthy period of time. They’re expected to be in great demand for the next 10 years at least, especially in IT consulting business, therefore the cost of services rendered is going to rise steadily. Andrei Morozov, a president of CBOSS, one of the largest Russian software manufactures, says that “IT specialists are in high demand on the labor market. I’d say that different countries are competing one another in order to recruit qualified IT personnel. The IT guys are easy to move abroad, that’s a downbeat of the trend. The migration has recently slowed down due to a crisis in the Western IT industry. But Russian IT specialists who’re much sought after on the domestic market will be leaving the country in larger numbers when the crisis is eventually followed by an upturn.”

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