THE RISE OF BULGARIAN IT INDUSTRY

by Bozhidara Georgieva

The sector turned the country into an European leader in the field of high technologies

Recently Google announced a breakthrough in development of a technology that until not that long ago sounded as science fiction – a quantum computer. Using principles from quantum mechanics, which even Nobel prize winners in physics define as beyond ordinary human logic, quantum computers will increase exponentially the capability for information processing and storage.

When, how and to what extent quantum computing will become a part of our everyday life is a question only the future can answer. But we can definitely say that we already live in the future – the Fourth Industrial Revolution is here. Unlike the previous three stages of industrialisation (mastering steam and coal, electricity and mass production, computerisation), Industry 4.0 steps on the symbiosis of cyber and physical systems, and the development of the Internet of Things and the Internet of Systems. What does this mean in reality? Take your smartphone and have a look at all the apps that help you find your way into an unknown place, to control your bills and pay banks and utility providers, to shop, to listen to your favourite music, to track the calories you burnt during your latest training session. And these are just but a speck of the fields in human life that the Fourth Industrial Revolution changed in the past decade. It is also present in the factories and the financial institutions, the governments and the administrative institutions, the modern armies, the advertisement business, transportation, science – everywhere. All these now depend on using big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Largely unexpected and greatly disruptive, Industry 4.0 is a factor that both small and large companies should consider and should adapt to if they want not only to survive, but also to thrive in these – if we can use the already tired Chinese proverb – interesting times.

Bulgaria is one of the countries that successfully utilised the changes in global industry. The talent of its IT specialists has been well known for years. In the 1980s, then Communist Bulgaria already had its own engineers and even produced its own computers (to a significant extent based on technologies from the West). The turbulence during the transitional period towards democracy and market economy led to the closure of the manufacture and many of the specialists emigrated. This sector in Bulgarian economy looked without a future at the time, but in the 2000s it started to reinvent itself. In the country, mainly in Sofia, appeared both Bulgarian and foreign IT companies. The major trend at the time was for the country to become an outsourcing center profiting from its cheap and competent workforce.

In the 2010s the trend began to turn. Indeed, outsourced activities continue to dominate the Bulgarian IT market. But with every year, international technology leaders open offices and R&D centres in Bulgaria. The number of startups, innovations and fields of production is increasing. Bulgarian companies do not rely solely on work from abroad – 56% of them develop their own products. The sector has the highest average salaries in the country. According to the Bulgarian Association of Software Companies in 2019 the average salary in the field is 3,900 leva.

Young Bulgarians are also increasingly interested in the field, but the industry suffers from a continuing shortage of new employees.

The need to attract new specialists stimulates the companies to offer to their employees not only high salaries, but also options for flexible working time, to improve their qualification and to develop new horizontal and vertical skills, social security and benefits.

The Bulgarian educational system is still struggling to offer enough adequately trained specialists, although many universities and high schools have developed such programmes. The companies try to address the shortage with opening of offices in other big cities besides Sofia and creating academies to train the specialists they need.

Bulgaria cannot compete with established international centres of emigration that answer their employee shortage with importing the specialists they need. But the industry quickly identified the advantages of and is actively using a segment of the workforce that the rest of the world still underestimates – women.

The traditional notion is that women are not good as engineers. Bulgaria has proven this is a prejudice that is not based on reality. The country is the leader in the EU in women employed in the sector. They make 28% of it, and the trend is for their number to increase.

"Indeed, there is a tendency for more women to enter the IT field, this is undoubtedly related to the collapse of the stereotype that programming, and IT in general, are for men," says Silviya Pantaleeva, a Front-end Development Manager and key employee in the Bulgarian office of SafeCharge, a Nuvei company for global omni-channel payment solutions (Sofia, 115L Tsarigradsko Shose Blvd, phone: 02 489 5090, www.safecharge.com). "Employers are increasingly relying on technical skills and complex qualities such as time management, communication skills, teamwork, task management, precision and attention to details which is inherent in women, making them suitable candidates. The fact is, that there are more and more women involved in the IT field, which contributes to the accumulation of experience and the acquisition of sought-after knowledge."

"SafeCharge doesn't have any specific policy regarding hiring people of a certain gender, but rather, they look for technical and personal qualities that will contribute to the balance and professionalism of the company," explains Silviya Pantaleeva. "Every candidate who is open to the challenges, positive, proactive, willing to develop and with the necessary technical skills is welcome to join the SafeCharge team."

The lack of trained specialists is among the first problems for the further development of the Bulgarian IT industry. However, in reality the companies in the country have to concentrate their energy, attention and talent to solving also other problems that concern the sector at a global level. In order to stay competitive and to continue developing, they need to be proactive, to develop new products and to attract new investments.

"IT industry reached a moment when it actively seeks to invest not only in technical skills, but also in business models with shorter sales cycles and more easily recreated sales. In general, it wants to develop markets and products," says Andrey Rusev, VP Real-time Analytics at the Bulgarian startup for eCommerce, online publication, advertisement, fin-tech and telecommunications mishmash io (phone: +359 887 434 834, www.mishmash.io). "The availability of good professionals is good, but the availability of both professionals and capital is times more important for the future of the industry."

The presence of international companies on the Bulgarian market is crucial for the development of the local industry. On the one hand, it stimulates competition, and on the other hand it is a signifier for the quality of the Bulgarian specialists and the products and services they develop. To attract outside investments, Bulgaria has to overcome the competition of other countries in the region.

"We researched for three years. We surveyed all countries in the region, including Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Serbia. I think that Bulgaria is the best choice of us," says Ivan Doudin, Regional Director Balkans, Turkey and Central Asia for for Acronis, global leader in development of solutions for backup, data protection, secure data encryption, sharing and access (www.acronis.com). "On the one hand because of the fact that we already had a local partner, T-Soft Company, which became a part of Acronis. Since the very beginning we were aware that we would need to import employees as Bulgaria is not a big country and a large part of its young specialists are leaving it. To a significant extent we preferred Sofia exactly because we supposed that between 10% and 30% of the employees here will be foreigners and we rely on state support and help to make Bulgaria a more attractive country for living for highly qualified specialists."

When they decide to step on the Bulgarian market, foreign companies consider not only the technical competences of the employed in the sector, but also their personal motivation, their strive to develop and grow, to create new products. Thus, the success of the company becomes the result of the united energy, talent and ambition of the people who work in it.

"Cobuilder is a company with a clear mission. We want to bring the construction sector to its digital tomorrow," says Lars Fredenlund, co-founder and CEO of Cobuilder (www.cobuilder.com), a Norway-based company for software solutions enhancing information and documentation management for construction products and hazardous chemicals. In 2013, Cobuilder chose Sofia to establish its first subsidiary – Cobuilder International. Currently, the Bulgarian office of Cobuilder employs more than 50 ICT specialists and 50 specialists from various backgrounds, including architecture, civil and electrical engineering, business development and marketing, linguistics and others."Digital transformation in construction requires more than just world-class expertise in software development – it needs a personal drive and the ability to systematically look towards the future. Within the Bulgarian ICT sector we found so many people who understand why we need to move the global construction sector to a higher level. In order to build better, greener, smarter buildings we need a special type of passion for technology. This raw passion is exactly what makes the Bulgarian ICT engineers stand out."

"At the moment our Bulgarian office employs more than 300 people and our plans is to expand it with at least 30% by the end of 2020," says Ani Krusteva, Human Resources Manager at Genius Sports (www.geniussports.com), a company offering collection and analysis of data from sport events and teams. "The reason to believe that we can grow in Bulgaria is the fact that we are engaged in the sports industry and so we know exactly what we want and what are our advantages before other companies. We look for people who are interested in both technology and sports. Of course, you don't need to be a sport fan to work with us, but it definitely helps. When we have both, it is easier for us to work with our employees, and for them it is easier to stay with us, as this combination is rare."

How will the IT sector in Bulgaria develop is a question that is hard to answer, as unpredictability and fast changes are in the essence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. What jsutifies the continuing optimism for the future of the segment in the country is the combination of motivation and hunger for development, of ambition and perseverance inherent for both the companies and the specialists employed in the sector. Working in the field of information and communication technologies has its own prestige and many young people find there an opportunity for professional and personal development. The dynamically changing environment and the strong international competition for their part stimulate the companies in the field to develop new products, to discover new markets, to be an active part of the change that defines the early 21st century.

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