From Minsk to Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg -- Russian Developers Have Their Say

Saint Petersburg, with its immense intellectual resources, has in recent years taken serious steps to develop its IT sector and is now a strategic city in IT politics in Russia. Tech Days 2007, which was held here last year, was the biggest software developer conference in Russia up to that time. While the number count is not in, it's clear this year's Saint Petersburg's Tech Days is bigger, in keeping with the developer boom that is taking place.
I had the pleasure of spending some time talking with developers here, who appear mostly young (males in their 20s and 30s) and very intense and energetic. Many are university students in the IT department at the state university here in Saint Petersburg. I spoke to a couple from Minsk in Belarus who work for computer firms – one of them explicitly thanked Sun for creating Java and said that without it, he would not have his job. Another expressed surprise at what he could do with JavaFX. One of the few women developers, a local student who was here last time, said, "I have a small wish – I want to someday work for Sun and do something great for the company!"
None of the students I talked to seems to have the luxury of being casual about their future in the way that many American young people seem to be. Economic necessity seemed to dictate their technology preferences more than anything else. When I asked about application or language preferences, the requirements of the markets inevitably determined their answers – I had to probe to get beyond that. I got the impression that their likes and dislikes of technology were not something they spent a lot of time thinking about.
A Student from Vladivostok
Of great interest was a conversation with an impressive and thoughtful young man from Vladivostok, on the Eastern coast of Russia, next to China and North Korea where the Trans-Siberian railway stops at the Sea of Japan. It's Russia's largest port city on the Pacific. He had paid his way and had flown 10 hours to get to Saint Petersburg and was speaking with people at Sun about possibly working as a Sun Campus Ambassador at his university. These are paid positions in which students build campus communities around Sun's open source platforms and developer tools. He was also trying to set up Java master classes at Vladivostok. He worked as a developer, and was finishing his degree. He said that students studying math or physics at his university wanted to be developers both because that is where they could get secure compensation and to contribute something to the world.
When I asked about the technologies he studied, he said "The current technologies that are most important to me are the development of C++ and applications for mobile devices. These areas are supported by different companies, like Google with Android, Motorola with cell phones, and many others. So currently I work in these fields. A huge number of my classmates are working on software for operating systems – Windows, Linux and Solaris. I am currently moving to Java, which is why I am here. The market situation is such that you need to know more than C++ -- you need to know Java, JavaScript, JavaFX and more, to be employed."
When I asked him what technologies he liked, he said it was not a question of what he liked but what technologies are needed for a given project. What is the best part of programming for him? "The best part," he said, "is the teamwork that is essential to coding. Working in a team requires cooperation and helping each other. If we fail to help each other the whole project will fail and be canceled and we will fail in the market."
And the most difficult part? "Finding the best algorithm, the best mathematical rules, and calling upon your background from your university. Sometimes people who are fresh from university know the solution to a problem but don't know how to implement it. This is also where teamwork is essential. Developers have to work together."
I asked why he had focused on C++. "At my university we study the basics of C++ programming and each student needs to define whether they need this or not. If you say yes, it's up to you and you must learn it by yourself. Teachers will not influence you or push you and tell you what is important for a future job. I know a huge number of students who don't like this and quit."
His comment made it clear that he was being forced as a student to be his own advocate and an entrepreneur who had to figure out on his own what skills he could develop and sell to the world. He said that 60% of his class of 50 computer science students had dropped out of the program in the last two years.
When I asked why he wanted to become a Sun Campus Ambassador, he said, "The best way to learn something is to teach it to others." He has traveled all over the world, from Europe to China to the US, and feels that something unique is happening in Russia as big companies hire Russian developers.
And why had he traveled here when most of what he wanted to learn could be found online? "I wanted to make sure my understanding was right," he said. 
Sun and Microsoft
I had another interesting conversation with a man in his 30s who worked for a big American company in Russia. I asked him why Russians make good developers. "Maybe something in our national character makes it possible for us to dig deeper into some things," he observed. "We have a lot of intellectual curiosity in Russia. For me, it's interesting to learn new technologies and play with new programming languages."
When I asked about his software interests, he said, "I am working in Java EE specializing in servlets and JSP. I am mostly interested in today's sessions on JRuby and Ruby because it's syntactic sugar -- it's very beautiful and powerful. I am very impressed with it. I am working for a big US company in Russia and developing some applications for it."
When I asked what he looked forward to in the future, he said, "In Java SE 7, I would like closures and meta-programming generalization, but not generics, which is quite restricting. I want meta-programming like we have in C++. I'm looking forward to Java SE 7 and a battle between Sun and Microsoft. The competition between Java and .Net is good for developers because it brings new features in languages, new algorithms, and new architectural design. It's a really interesting time to live in."
It's been a while since I've heard someone bring up the battle between Sun and Microsoft. With that, he got back in a long line of people eager for the free beer. 
Learn more about Sun Tech Days.
Janice J. Heiss

What an interesting article! A wonderful word picture of our fellow developers in Russia. Thank you.

Posted by christine dorffi on April 07, 2008 at 12:37 PM PDT #

Wow, it's quite an eye opener to get the viewpoint of those outside the US. Thank you so much, Jan, for this fascinating look into the life of buddying Russian developers!


Posted by Dana Nourie on April 11, 2008 at 04:20 AM PDT #

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