Alex Bornyakov, 34, is someone who knows Ukraine’s IT industry inside out. He’s saw how the country’s vibrant software outsourcing industry was born, and understands how quickly information technology has changed people’s lives over the last decade.
When Bornyakov started out in the business in the mid-2000s, working as a system administrator in an internet club in Ismail, a small town in Odesa Oblast, mainly installing computer games, he found it tough to explain to the average Ukrainian the difference between a programmer, a computer specialist and a simple computer geek. Nobody seemed to understand.
Now that he is among the most successful businesspeople in Ukraine, the co-founder of three lucrative IT companies, a managing partner of WannaBiz, one of country’s most active seed fund, and an Odesa deputy for the up-and-coming Samopomich party, there are more people who get his explanations – in just the last few years, IT has become a part of everyone’s daily life.
Computers have come from being magical and rarely seen, to being ubiquitous tools that most people cannot imagine living without.
“When I graduated from high school, there wasn’t a term like ‘IT’. No matter what you did – if you played computer games or wrote sophisticated code – you’d just be called a geek,” Bornyakov said in a Skype interview with the Kyiv Post.
Since then, the term “information technology” has also become ubiquitous in Ukraine. According to Bornyakov, it was the big software outsourcing companies that made it so. These companies introduced the public to new names for job positions, and as they grew, they started employing more people. The country’s top 25 largest IT companies alone employed over 32,000 people in 2016.
“I see a colossal forward dive into computer literacy,” he said. “When I started, people around were so much in the dark: they just saw the computer as its monitor. All the things going on inside a computer were pure magic.”
On the other hand, such is the sophistication and ease of use of modern computers and the applications they run, the current generation has lost awareness about the fundamental complexity of the underlying technology – everything has become so simple for them, he said.
“There was always a need to fix the old Windows 95 (operating system, or OS),” he said. “Today almost all OSs are fault-tolerant. At the same time, iPhones have just one button, and everything’s just a case of pressing this and installing that. The need to look into things more deeply has atrophied.”
Ukrainian techies must look deeper
With today’s fast internet speeds, downloading megabytes of data within seconds is easy, and for those with the knowhow, source code can easily be viewed, copied, modified and reused. As a result, Bornyakov said, the work that went into creating that source code can be copied without effort, as happened with Europe’s largest social media application VKontakte, which the developers “entirely ripped off” from Facebook, both in terms of its design and functionality.
“You see, the smart implementation of an idea is now much more significant than just the idea itself,” he said.
Couchsurfing service Airbnb, taxi company Uber, payment system PayPal and other famous companies like these have managed to find useful solutions to people’s problems using the technical possibilities that are open to anyone the world over – they were successful because they didn’t just have a good idea, they also had the means and abilities to bring it to life.
That’s what Ukrainian IT companies need more of, Bornyakov said.
“Basically, IT is a huge opportunity to make life easier,” he said. “There aren’t any technical differences between the foreign IT community and Ukraine’s, but ours still haven’t learned to independently apply IT to daily problems as freely as their colleagues from the West have done.”
Ukraine’s bank system doesn’t help
“There should be monuments to local (tech) entrepreneurs,” Bornyakov says of those who decide to run an IT business in Ukraine under the current broken banking system.
As banking has been “killed outright,” there’s no option but to develop capital investment firms in the country, Bornyakov said. There should be information campaigns to “enlighten local investors,” because even though the country’s richest and venture capital firms are still investing money in Ukraine, “their focus is not on the development of the IT industry.”
The country should also have more startups like facial recognition company Looksery, so that investors realize that the IT industry deserves more attention, Bornyakov said. Looksery, a company with roots in Odesa, was sold to U.S. smartphone messenger Snapchat in September of 2015, reportedly for $150 million.
Shortage of smart politicians
Bornyakov has been active in politics since 2007, the same year he launched his first company SoftTechnics. He served first as a deputy for Batkivshyna, and then switched to Samopomich in 2009.
He has been trying to lobby for entrepreneurs’ rights all this time, but confesses to having made little progress on issues of “real politics” over the years he’s served on Odesa Oblast Council. That’s because local deputies don’t have lawmaking initiative, he said: They act only within the framework of actual laws, and predominantly make decisions on supplies to local hospitals, replacing pipes for a city’s water supply, and tinkering with the budget . “These are invisible things to most people,” Bornyakov said.
Besides, decrees that come from central government usually run into obstruction at the regional level, he said. Many lawmakers have a very conservative point of view, and many will only toe the line of their political parties.
“In the city council, there are just redneck directors and those who are sick in the head,” Bornyakov said. “Smart people don’t go into politics, because it’s impossible to earn money there. Or even if it is, they have no choice but to become corrupted. The other deputies are the dregs of society, who can’t put two and two together.”
During his political career Bornyakov created the Odesa IT Cluster, which has focusing on developing the IT industry in the city, and an initiative called My City, which is aimed at developing Odesa’s infrastructure. But as he says he is soon going to get out of politics, it looks like this will be the final extent of his achievements in the sphere.
“True politicians have to be really dedicated,” he said. “Anyway, I believe the quality of the people running the country is improving. Yes, there are plenty of disappointments, but this is a natural process.”
He hopes more farmers, athletes, entrepreneurs – people from specific fields with specific expertise – will come into politics, including specialists from country’s budding IT industry, like Bornyakov himself.
“I’d like more IT guys to come to Ukraine’s political scene, but they shouldn’t be dominant,” he said. “There have to be professionals from every sphere of the economy to improve the country.”