Discount Super-Geeks Fuel Ukraine IT Boom

KIEV, Ukraine -- With its Soviet-era institutes processing thousands of top-class programmers each year, Ukraine is using its low wages and proximity to Europe to carve a niche in the hyper-competitive software industry.

"Our work is more creative, it's less like a conveyor belt than in the West," said Ruslan Didenko, 27, a programmer at GSC Game World, a company based in a grey block near Kiev city centre.

GSC was set up in 1997 and has now produced three games that have sold well on European markets, including Stalker, a shoot-em-up set in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster zone.

Industry experts say thousands of companies like GSC are sprouting up in Ukraine, favoured because of its location on the border of the European Union and its large pool of skilled, and relatively cheap, programmers.

"This is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the Ukrainian economy," said Viktor Maznyuk, head of Hi-Tech Initiative, an industry group of 39 Ukrainian companies specialised in IT outsourcing.

Citing analyst estimates, Maznyuk said the IT sector in Ukraine is worth around $600-million (about R4,2-billion) per year. It employs about 25 000 people and is expected to grow by up to 25 percent this year alone.

"More and more European companies are looking at Ukraine - some are disillusioned with India and China. Ukraine can compete on more complicated programming," Maznyuk said.

Programmers often come from prestigious Soviet-era mathematics and technology institutes in Kiev, as well as in Kharkiv in the east of this country of 47-million, and Lviv in the west.

Depending on skill level, the average salaries range between $300 and $1 000 per month - far lower than in most European countries and the United States.

Companies tapping in

Although many firms are wary of selling software in Ukraine itself because of widespread piracy, the big foreign players, including IBM and Intel, have set up shop here, while others are tapping the country's outsourcing potential.

"We're in the same time zone as Europe - that makes contacts with clients easier," said Alexei Sigov, CEO of Infopulse Ukraine, one of the biggest software companies in Ukraine.

"When you need pro-active participation by a team - that's where we have the biggest advantage," said Sigov, whose company has grown around 30 percent in the past four years and employs about 340 programmers.

Among Infopulse's clients are firms in Denmark, France and the Netherlands.

For the industry, the main boost from the government was a decision by President Viktor Yushchenko in 2005 to scrap visas for EU, Japanese and US nationals.

But for all the Western feel of Ukraine's computer sector - including the ping-pong table and gym at GSC headquarters - the business manages to retain a Ukrainian identity.

At GSC, Oleg Yavorsky, a long-haired 28-year-old manager in black cycling shoes and capri trousers, said players in Europe liked the "exotic" themes in Ukrainian games - Chernobyl, for instance.

Programmers for Stalker actually left their computer screens and travelled to the 1986 disaster zone in northern Ukraine for research, speaking to survivors and researching archives.

"We had to be pretty careful where we walked. Not to step on any moss. I think we managed to create the same atmosphere in the game," said Didenko - a computer programmer far from California.

Source: AFP