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.
- 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.