My name is Emil Nikolov. I am a 28 years old Bulgarian, software product consultant, and four years ago, in the summer of 2013, I’ve come to Tomsk as part of an exchange program from AIESEC. I joined a project of a software company (guess the name 🙂 ) – Tomsksoft that made the remote desktop tool Deskroll.com. I took part as a marketing intern, that just in a week turned also into something like product development and marketing. Four years later in the summer of 2017 it was even more interesting, but let me tell more about Tomsk, IT in Tomsk and then a bit about the life there.
Despite the cold weather and remote location in the middle point of Eurasia, Tomsk (in 3D) every year becomes the new home for thousands of university students from a number of “nearby” Siberian cities, Kazakhstan, China, India and even some African and European countries (I still remember the impressed Indian friend who saw snow for the first time here). Founded in 1604, located next to a big river called Tom, Tomsk has a population of 544,000 people, from which more than 72,000 are students (13.2 %). The city has 9 higher education institutes, 15 science research institutes, a tech economic zone and 6 business incubators. Even airspace technologies are developed and produced by some government-owned or co-owned companies, such as Polus and Roscosmos.
Software Development in Tomsk
Remote Desktop software
It was interesting to find out that in Tomsk, whose location many Europeans would call “ the end of the world”, apart from the product I worked on (Deskroll.com), yet another good remote support tool is being developed and supported. Its name is Tight VNC and it was developed by GlavSoft LLC. Actually, my exchange company Tomsksoft appeared to be a great place with very nice environment and kind people who would always help and support you and each other. Not surprised to see the majority of them still working there 4 years later in 2017. An internal sports tournament team building, being guest of my colleagues at their homes and a surprise bye-bye party for me at the end were also some of the best memories, that remain for entire life. And maybe that also helped to the great productivity we all had while developing Deskroll.com and setting a strategy for it.
Overall cluster analyses and companies
Taking a look at the IT cluster, according to Tomskii Obzor more than 100 IT companies are exporting their software products or services out of the region and 60 out of the Russian Federation. The website also shares data about the Tomsk IT in digits (it’s in Russian, let your browser help you with the translation). Unofficially, I know that over 150 software companies operate in Tomsk with small companies (~10 people) being the majority. And I saw a tendency – many of the software developers in several companies were developing technologies related to graphics, video and streaming. For example Tomsksoft made competitor products of Skype (but mainly for video) for their clients – ManyCam and CamFrog. Interesting to learn was that a German company MainConcept, “specialized in video codecs since 1995 with a focus on standards like H.264/AVC, MPEG, AVC-Intra”, has a development branch in the city and several more companies are doing video and codec related development. Aurigma offers a raster / vector processing .Net SDK – Graphics Mill. And yet another graphics software company.
In 2014 the office of Tomsksoft was in a business incubator of the university TUSUR (seems that almost each university there has one). I remember that on the 2nd floor, apart from a robo-soccer room, airplane and satellites technology contractors, I visited a startup crew of some ten people calling themselves 3DBin. Imagine 10 people working in a less than 20 square metres room. That didn’t seem to bother them much as they were so motivated and into their new product. They demonstrated to me in 2014 how they could visualize a 2D architectural drawing in 3D with their mobile app, which really amazed me. Currently the company is developing at a new location – the innovation center Skolkovo in Samara region. Another company Unigine has developed a globally successful 3D engine, video card benchmarks and professional solutions, while Rubius offers their visualization solutions as virtual reality, GIS, 3D as well as CAD (as well as IndorSoft) and CAM systems. Therefore, visualization technologies like video graphics, video streaming, visualization systems, remote desktop, broadcasting, codecs – all appeared to be a strong side of the IT cluster in Tomsk.
Talking about software and IT in Tomsk, we can’t skip the 2 largest companies (close to 1000 people), which are private, but actually working on government projects. MIKRAN and EleSy. MIKRAN manufactures radio electronics for the Russian military industry as well as solutions for the oil industry, while EleSy works on mainly government projects in the oil industry.
However, the IT expertise and the range of application domains are far broader than I mentioned above. Actually, the majority of companies have quite various specializations. Elcomplus develops and integrates telecommunication and automation systems. Palex specializes in localization and translation software. Aurigma also offers solutions related to printing preparation and web uploading. UTS makes terminal and information kiosk software. Some produce games, others – software products for project management, from which some are described only in Russian (obviously targeting the Russian-speaking market). Others are branches of foreign companies. Third are specializing in custom development for local clients (R70, Studio 15) or outsourcing (SibEDGE).
The IT cluster in the last years: coordination, cooperation, sanction issues, salaries
The cluster seemed to have its coordinating organization “Cluster Information Technology Tomsk region”. However in 2017 only some of the companies are participating in it. After talking to local experts, the opinion is that it’s not functioning as the cluster coordinator but more as coordinator with the Russian government. The two associations, which they see as performing the coordination they want, are RUSOFT and ISDEF. They are actually functioning on the country level.
To help the exports, a tax-exempt “Special Economic Zone” was launched in 2005. Its buildings host some of the local software companies, where land taxes for the first 5 years are 0% and also the rental rates are favorable.
For those curious about job openings, hiring companies or level of salaries in the software area in Tomsk. Head Hunter Ru (hh.ru for Tomsk) is the main platform where local companies and experts find each other. Monthly salary ranges are often publicly stated in the JDs (have seen offers starting from €427 for a junior C++ or PHP developer, through €470-€712 for a QA, to €2136 for a senior Python dev or development Team Leader and a highest of €2564 for a Senior React Dev) and €2856 for Senior PHP dev. My feel for the average salary range in the software area is like €1068. Actually, the fall of the Russian ruble (mainly because of sanctions and drop of petrol prices) was about 60% in relation to Euro since 2013 till Aug 2017. Therefore the salaries have also fallen over those 4 years. Even in the IT (still less than in other sectors), regardless of the fact that many of the companies have been paid by their clients in US dollars, Euros or other foreign currency. In fact, there were also companies who disbanded their Tomsk office, such as the Canadian F5, following the events in the last years or cancelled their common projects with some of the local companies. Still, the cluster develops and Tomsk continues to be a place where good developers are working and gaining expertise, and even a number of good designers nowadays (East Europe and Russia has been known for some of the best developers and yet less for the design expertise). Marketing expertise and external market knowledge seems to be still in demand.
If we consider individuals who work as freelancers – there are few. One (26 years old) I met was part of a western company consisting of remote personnel and another 26 years old dev was remotely working, doing medical device software for a German company.
IT Conferences and Events
I’ve also seen some networking and knowledge exchange events to take place in the city. Hackathons (not real Russian hacking 🙂 ) and IT conferences, same as we have in Sofia. Events for exchanging experience and developing skills. The most popular and neutral conference, an IT expert here stated, is Gorod-IT. The Internet Initiatives Development Fund (IIDF) is another event organizer focused on startups and IT. Actually that’s a startup accelerator in Russia with an office in Tomsk. Just yesterday there was an event for Start-up sales. Mobi Fest takes place in Novosibirsk and Tomsk. ISDEF, that usually takes place in Moscow can also gather a number of CEOs and CTOs for experience exchange.
There are also events organized by local companies: Rubius is also co-organizing DevPro 2017. CFT also organizes a conference in Tomsk.
But how did the cluster form? It all started back on May 28, 1878. Emperor Alexander II signed a decree to establish the first and only higher education institution between the Russian Urals and the Pacific Ocean – the Siberian Imperial University in Tomsk, Russia. In 1888 the Tomsk State University was opened. Then Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU) was founded in 1896 to become the oldest technical university in Russia east of the Urals. Then in 1962 (USSR times) the Institute for Radio Electronics and Electronic Technologies was founded, based on two former faculties of TPU. In 1997 the university was renamed to Tomsk State University of System Controls and Radioelectronics (TUSUR). TPU nowadays is also offering IT specialties and so do colleges, such as Tomsk College of Information Technology. More than 1000 students enroll in IT specialties in Tomsk higher education institutions each year.
Life in Tomsk and initial impressions
Well, when I landed in Novosibirsk (264 km from Tomsk) in 2014, I reached Tomsk by bus and all was quite different from what I expected – and it was interesting. Different vehicles and architecture of buildings, people of different ethnicity. Reaching Tomsk, I realized that many buses were local Russian production and the majority of the cars were right-hand drive second-hand – import from Japan (usually cars that can survive the tough cold winters) as well as some new Lada models. First of all, my Bulgarian mother tongue didn’t help me that much in the communication with the local people, even though we always think that it’s so close to the Russian language. Ok, I knew no Russian, but I know English, right? Yes, but who speaks English here?! Not so many people. Actually, many of the developers here have good reading and writing skills, but practicing spoken English is a rare opportunity for them. And when you ask most Bulgarians about Siberia, they can relate it only to “far away”, “vodka”, “exiles”, “cold” and “bears”. Ah, and endless “taiga”. Well, it appeared to be much more. I spent 2 great months, meeting awesome people, everyday being an adventure exploring the city and the cultural differences and similarities.
Actually, in terms of living standards it was similar to the second largest city Plovdiv in my home country. Normal city, well-developed transport network (with cheap tariffs), many private and also military enterprises, good facilities. Similar to Bulgaria, but still so different. Food…oh that was so tasty – tasty cuisine, fishes, chavier, сedar walnut (never thought that I could find a nut in a cone). I wish to share more of my impressions, funny stories, and nice talks to people in Tomsk, but maybe in another article as here I chose to talk more about the IT cluster and especially software.
Being in Siberian Tomsk and working in Tomsksoft’s Deskroll team appeared to be a great experience and one of the best experiences I’ve had. Life in the city was calm and the various holidays (local and national), nice colleagues and friends made the stay quite interesting. The Tomsk software cluster, which is in its growth phase, offers various expertise, such as computer graphics, remote desktop tools, CAD and CAM systems, management and document products, terminal and kiosks, web and mobile development, military software, market data and custom development of any kind.
Pictures: Emil Nikolov
Emil Nikolov is a 28-year-old software product and project management professional. He lives in Sofia, Bulgaria maintaining private and professionals ties to Tomsk. Emil is socially active in his spear time, initating and organizing local projects to change our world for better. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/enikolov