Igar Mamonenka who is the founder and CEO of the BelHard group of companies, the author of the IT country concept and the chairman of the Republican Confederation of Entrepreneurship of Belarus visited ItStarts!
Passion for chemistry and computers
In the 80s, I graduated from BSTI and entered graduate school. The thesis was related to quantum chemistry and molecular dynamics. At this time, the first computers began to appear, and I fell in love with their capabilities! With the help of various programs, it was possible to count all sorts of quantum issues and molecular dynamics. So, I managed to calculate one reaction, while no one could understand for 100 years how and why such measurements appear. It all went into organic chemistry textbooks. Thanks to quantum mechanics, I explained the reaction of a physical substance. It surprised me very much. I realized that the more powerful computers were, the better models would be, many things can be rehashed even without experimenting.
In 1986 our rector Ivan Zharsky traveled to America, saw that computers were widely used there, returned to Minsk, and the Technological Institute began to buy computers. By 1988, the institute had about 2,000 personal computers.
The institute had more computers than in the whole city.
At the same time, the rector himself did not know how to use a computer, but he actively forced others to learn. The need to work on a computer was even written in the labor agreement. Elderly teachers were shocked by it. For me, the computer seemed to be a useful subject. I had to train about 200 people so that they simply did not lose their job by passing an exam on computer skills.
How a Hewlett-Packard dealer network was created for $200 in Belarus and how BelHard appeared
A bit later I saw the first laser printers printouts. I thought it was a printing house and could not believe that it was done by a printer. A dream to buy a laser printer appeared. At that time it cost $ 1200, and nobody wanted to buy it.
I thought that it was Hewlett-Packard who produced laser printers, and I realized that we will definitely have a printer if we become partners of this company.
The economic situation continued to deteriorate. There was not enough money for chemicals and utensils. The role of calculations increased. But it was still such a massive pampering.
In 1994, after graduate school, my salary was $ 6. My second son was born, and we needed to buy a stroller, which cost $ 50. I could spend a day at work on my computer, and my wife kept me grounded. Like, my passion was pretty nice but we needed a stroller yet.
And I decided to become a businessman.
In those days, people came to business from the Communist Party, from crime and other places, and I was one of the first to come from the scientific intelligentsia. And in 1994, I came up with BelHard. Then there was a company named BelSoft. Well, I decided, why not start BelHard?
The name was free, and we registered on January 13, 1994. Our first project was a network on LANtastiku. Our customer was Slonim Vodokanal. When this network started working, we were very surprised. But Slonim was struck by it even more.
We made our first money.
At that time, there were several Hewlett-Packard dealers in Moscow. We first started working with the company that was responsible for the chromatographs, and then we were told that in Kyiv there would be a representative in charge of computers.
Well, here was our laser printer just as we wanted. We went to Kyiv and agreed. And then, quite by accident, an interesting trick was applied.
We placed in “Sovetskaya Belorussia” an announcement that BelHard which had not yet been registered became an authorized partner of Hewlett-Packard, and that it was creating a dealer network in all regions of Belarus. And we also left our contact info.
There was no email but fax and telephone were. This small ad cost us $200 which was almost all of our money. But it worked! People living in hopes began to call us from all over the country.
As Vitaly Semyanyuk joked later, we formed a dealer network, although there was no company yet. There were about 200 dealers in our network. We printed a map with the names of companies and telephone numbers. With all this stuff, we went to Vienna. We looked terrible, I didn’t even have shoes without holes in them. We wanted to buy new ones in Poland but were short of money.
In the negotiations, in order not to seem completely poor, I dragged my foot behind me.
I showed the dealer network, explained what we needed and said that we wanted to sell HP. He looked at his map, and Belarus was a white spot on it. He said that they had no partners in Belarus.
Due to the inconsistency of the work of the Austrian and Moscow offices, Belarus belonged to the Austrian office but these were Moscow dealers who worked.
They said, that we needed to go through training, and in a couple of days, we would receive a dealer certificate. At that moment, there was a presentation of technology and a lot of promotional materials. We simply grabbed them from the exhibition counters to the horror of all the other European partners.
Well, what a dealer we were supposed to be without promotional materials?
Handing the certificate of the dealer, they reminded us that it would be necessary to show sales and turnover. It was May 1, 1994, and we became the first Hewlett-Packard distributors in Belarus.
BelHard business model spawned dozens of companies like Itransition, Qulix, and Oxagile
We realized that outsourcing was growing, and equipment trade was gradually taking a back seat. So, we started to sale equipment, then we added networks, then more professional software, then training, and then a newspaper appeared. We looked at what promising niches were still free and tried to occupy them.
We started developing software in 1998, and now this direction brings 95% of our revenue. But BelHard is a big business incubator.
Inside, we have self-accounting relationships.
There is a certain center and there are managers of self-accounting areas, which were actually different companies, but legally were different departments of BelHard. At our best, we had 42 different departments (telephony, printing house, and even a cafe) and 2 thousand people. Now, after the spin-off of Itransition, Qulix, Oxagile, and other companies, there are 500 of us. Theoretically, any person could come to us and develop his business within our company.
The issue was the following. A director of a company spends 80% of his time on non-production tasks, such as providing water, the Internet, cleaning, etc. But this is the most expensive employee, on whom much depend. And if the system removes all these loads from it, it will take him not 80 but 20% of the time to do business tasks.
He could devote 60% of his expensive time to improving the quality of work. That is, it was like a synergy effect. Such a self-supporting team is functioning now, but it is not that important anymore.
We had a principle of a submarine: if some directions caused losses, we analyzed why this had happened, evaluated the perspective of the direction and the corrective effect. If we saw that pagers were already leaving then we tried to redistribute smart people to other directions.
With the separation of departments in the company, there were three options. The first was that BelHard would earn after agreeing with the managers on the amount of money if we invested our money and connections there. The second was that BelHard did not earn money, because the teams came on time and we did not invest anything in them. But there is a third option when BelHard was ditched.
There was a direction in which we invested $ 200 thousand, and one bad person simply transferred it to his company.
IT education: how to prepare specialists for the industry?
BelHard IT Academy performs various functions. First of all, some companies really want to attract highly paid specialists. Some companies can do this, but we do not have such a system. It’s easier for us to grow our own staff which will be more loyal. There is a really existing lack of specialists.
We started the IT Academy in 1998. By 2015, we had trained about 6 thousand people. It was both a business and a source of replenishment. Now, this is just a professional scheme:
- Digital education must be continuous.
- This is a set of short-term courses.
- A break between courses can not exceed six months.
- Creation of a virtual study department. We decided not to retrain university graduates. CTO of partner companies broadcasted us their wishes, and the system inserted these wishes into the program within two weeks.
- Decent salary for teachers. The teacher must earn more than his students.
- Employment. I’ll tell you one secret: we ask the student where he wants to go after graduation, and we train him for a certain interview. Of course, this is bad, but from conscience, everything is clean as, after the probationary period, our graduates continue to work.
All our courses do not exceed 49 hours or 2 months. Testers are 100% in employment even after 2 months of courses. Our diploma is appreciated.
I do not urge to abandon higher education as it develops a person perfectly, but it does not take a thousand hours to work, 49 will be enough.
We basically do not get the status of an educational institution to avoid problems with all sorts of bureaucratic issues like depriving a license for the wrong type of paint on the windowsill.
The implementation of the Bologna process into the Belarusian education system
Somehow 7 years ago we tried to implement the Bologna process in Belarus. We then came with numbers that our Belarusian school education was stronger than German in general erudition and knowledge. But if we consider an IT specialist in Germany, then it turns out that he is stronger than ours. The bachelor’s program there is 1,500 hours and ours is 5,200 hours. For some reason, the German knows more after these courses.
Then why do we need such a higher education? It takes people and time resources…
An attempt was made to take the best European programs, methods, but we are still not in the process. The bottom line is that our higher education system has turned out to be so inert for dynamic disciplines that it has become a real brake. And what we are doing is perhaps the only way people can quickly learn their specialty.
When our universities in such a huge volume of hours will give real knowledge that a person is eager to get, then everything will be fine. But for now, short-term courses are enough for people’s abilities and capabilities to meet the needs of the market.
How did the concept of an IT-country appear in 2008, and why accountants were to become the major driving force 10 years ago?
In 2003, the state gave the first benefits to the information park. Then came the HTP, the benefits were deepened. It all was achieved by Valery Tsepkalo who is a very competent person. But we came up against the fact that our education system gave 2,500 graduates. We watched that year after year, the IT industry grew by exactly 2,500 specialists. It didn’t matter if they got there or not, but the correlation was direct. We understood that this was simply not serious, all the more it all was paid well.
A very simple theory has arisen: the introduction of digital technologies in our lives frees people who need to be transferred to the IT specialty.
It was accountants who were available at that time. I then read that there were 300,000 accountants in Belarus. In the 90s, when new firms were created, the state introduced heavy fines for errors in taxation, so the specialty of an accountant was in demand. And a lot of people came to this industry, having mastered 1 °C and learned to work on a computer. This was an example of mass retraining. But let’s calculate that with an average salary of $ 500, taxes on them and the price of a job, they cost us 5 billion a year. These are people who do not bring money but spend it.
For example, in Sweden, there are 20,000 accountants for the same population as ours. That is, 1 accountant serves approximately 20 firms. There is a cloud where primary documents fall, everything is considered by the state, and the businessman agrees or not.
It turned out cool: there are 20,000, we have 300,000, 280,000 extra so we will save almost 5 billion, plus they will still earn 5 billion.
Informatization should free people from irrational areas where they are not used very effectively. Freed up due to the introduction of information technology, we must retrain, employ in IT, and no one suffers.*
In 2016, the version of the IT country by Igor Mamonenko was almost launched, but everything ended up with HTP 2.0
The IT country was discussed in detail with Vsevolod Yanchevsky in 2016. Several documents were prepared, which implied the launch of the IT “mini-council” which was supposed to be a special working body.
The President’s directive on the IT country’s start was agreed upon. It was supposed to become a new economic direction in Belarus, capable of bringing currency and employing people.
The appearance of this crypto decree was a complete surprise for me. It was developed in secret or at least I did not know anything about it. But then I openly opposed the creation of a game on cryptocurrency courses as income items of our country. I was excommunicated from any work on the project.
The state did not understand me, and I transferred this project to the business.
We do not know the level of state support for this project, but it certainly supports. There are still echoes of this pseudo-scientific, pseudo-economic idea in the government. It’s a pity because a lot of time was wasted on this.
How many IT firms in Belarus? According to the State Statistics Service, 4996. Of these, 563 are in the HTP. There are 90 thousand of outsourcers in Belarus. According to my estimates, now there are about 200 thousand people in the field of ICT.
Now the scale and content of the IT country have changed and there are three areas of action:
- Digitalization of all areas of our lives (from the government to smartphones);
- Ecosystem (legislative changes, infrastructure development, staff training). The purpose was to create better conditions than in Silicon Valley;
- Employment of new personnel.
World economic genocide
Employment has come first. In Portugal, 300,000 Ukrainians have already become citizens. Gradually, families moved there, and very few returned. 67% of the working-age population left Lithuania.
We are faced with the economic egoism of countries. VW used to be assembled in Germany, and the headlights were made in Lithuania: the German received 3,000 euros, the Lithuanian 1,000 euros. But the Lithuanian had money to buy this car. Now everything has changed: it’s more profitable for a German to have a Lithuanian work for him in Germany for the same 3,000 euros. And those who remained in Lithuania were lent money, like Greece. First, there are wagons with euros, and then wagons with Mercedes come. All of Europe now owes Germany. The Germans have increased labor productivity in mechanical engineering since 2000 by 2.5 times: robots, IT and the most interesting things — all the country’s factories have turned into the shops of one factory called "Germany". When an order arrives, the system sees who is busy, who is free, where are the warehouses and what kind of logistics is needed. It is the planned economy in its best condition.
Let’s consider the example of Belarus. You can find $ 4-10 billion, invest them in MAZ and create a “super vehicle". Money for this can be borrowed, people still work there, technologies can be bought, but not a market. MAZ must produce at least 50,000 cars to earn, but preferably 100,000 cars. The domestic market needs at most 20,000. There is nowhere else to go: Europe got Germans, Russia got KAMAZ and their own tractors. And the Germans invite experts to Germany. Poles shout that Belarusian programmers will be given cottages.
This is economic genocide.
Since 2000, 6.5 million Schengen visas have been issued, and 2 thousand have asked for political asylum. Most still come back. About 80,000 Belarusians work in Poland.
And what is an IT country? You emigrate from Belarus, working for Western employers, without leaving Belarus. 36% of Americans work remotely, and the rate is constantly growing. The average American works 120 miles from home and spends 4 hours on the road. The average salary in the United States is $ 3,920. A remote worker agrees to a lower salary so as not to waste his time and gasoline. And this is how an employer saves money. And if the remote worker is located in another country, then you can save on the social package. In Japan, 32% work remotely as this is now an all-in-one trend.
What prevents Belarus from working for Microsoft? If you know English, know business processes and know the specialty you are applying for, then you can absolutely legally participate in the competition.
The average salary of the Russians who accompany the sites was $ 650. Belarusians can do the same, even from small cities. Most Belarusian performers are not ready to change their lifestyle and profession.
IT country 3.0: 2 million jobs in the digital economy for non-programmers
IT country 3.0 involves the creation of 2,000,000 remote jobs for people who can become confident computer users or already are.
If a business takes on the function of organizing training and searching for orders, then it can make good money on it. Now there are tens of millions of jobs in the world, but now we correspond to the cheapest jobs in the Russian language. In the Orsha district, 30% work in Russia, and they would not go anywhere if they received $ 250 on a remote site. In Europe, salaries are completely different.
First, you need to teach a person how to use a computer. For this, the business is ready to give money for computer classes, we are negotiating about school computer classes, gradually increasing the difficulty of learning new things. For example, to accompany a site, you need to study WordPress. It requires 2 days of study, a maximum of 7. So a person can earn $ 500 from any area where people left to work in other countries.
The ideal option is to consider Belarus as dormitory: there is not a single plant in the country, everyone drives electric cars and works for a foreign customer.
We will create a solvent segment of the population where people live. We will solve the social problem, economic, etc. Our joint study with the Ministry of Economics suggests that by 2035 these people can earn $ 200 billion.
What is the difference between the vision of the IT country by Mamonenko and Prakapenya?
The idea of an IT university belongs not to Prakapenya, but Alexander Kurbatsky. Such a university should be like Stanford: a set of short-term courses, the salary of teachers should be like the salary of programmers and higher. There must be a dynamic change in the content of the courses.
If the situation requires, then 90% of the courses should change in at least a week so education should keep abreast.
The Prokopeni project can be evaluated from two sides:
- Mass IT country;
- IT country for smart people.
An IT country does not exclude elite education and high-paying specialties, but this must be introduced in stages. We create first a mass movement, and then an elite one.
First comes the outsourcing business process, for example, it is 100 people. The second step is programming, we teach 10 people. The third step which is the most difficult is artificial intelligence, 1 person is needed. But everyone works! The number of these elites will be greater if we launch a mass system.
Critics of the IT country say that if we breed IT-vocational schools, then there will be more specialists, but their salary will be less.
Belarus may cease to exist due to sudden emigration.
Probably next year they will give us a visa-free regime, and this is not about 35 euros. Poland is lobbying this issue strongly, though it has its own plans in this regard. Our state will agree, and there is nothing wrong with that. Belarusians are not immigrants in essence, but if the country is empty, then who will help us?