In January of this year I visited my EMC co-workers here in St. Petersburg, Russia. An important part of my trip was university collaboration. I lectured to a classroom full of students about high-tech innovation. Most importantly, we brainstormed with the students about a few ideas and launched a few prototypes.
Within a few short months they were finished. During the summer I started getting emails with the following question:
Got any more ideas?
I was impressed with the student's sense of urgency. I also wondered: "Why the rush? What makes the students so advanced?" Upon my return this month I spent much more time with Russian universities here in SPb. What I learned helped me understand the output of Russian high-tech students. Below are some of the finer points that contribute to their accelerated software output.
IFMO and SP State University
I spent one day at St. Petersburg University of Information Technologies and Optics (SPb IFMO), and one day at St. Petersburg State University (SPb SU). I asked some of the students at both locations about their background before their arrival on campus. In many cases their parents had identified a talent for math and sciences during their youth. Some were enrolled in specialized high schools that had a strong focus on mathematics and science (e.g. St. Petersburg Lyceum 239 Pulblic High School). While at high school, many of them began involving themselves in University activities long before graduation. Students interested in software could involve themselves in academic programming contests.
Saint Petersburg: World Champions
Both universities participate in international programming competitions. If you look closely at the World Championship list from the last twenty years, the pattern of Russian excellence is commendable (six championships in the last ten years!). Five of the championship teams were either from SPb SU or SPb IFMO:
2000: SPb SU wins in Orlando, Florida (1,968 teams)
2001: SPb SU wins in Vancouver, Canada (2,160 teams)
2004: SPb IFMO wins in Prague, Czech Republic (3,150 teams)
2008: SPb IFMO wins in Banff, Canada (6,787 teams)
2009: SPb IFMO wins in Stockholm, Sweden (7,109 teams)
I met with several students who were involved in the programming contests. One of them, Maxim, was on the 2009 World Championship Team. I asked him how many students get involved with the coding challenges when they enter the University. His answer was "pretty much all of them". With each passing year the more accomplished students practice at least 10 hours per week via two five-hour simulated challenges.
It's no wonder they can prototype so quickly.
Strong Ties to SPb Software Industry
When it comes to the software industry, St Petersburg is known as the software capital of Russia. I was informed of the following statistics during my visit ...
- ...over 400 software companies,
- ...over 2,000 employed software engineers,
- ...over a quarter of a million students,
- ...over 50 universities, and
- ...over 10,000 students studying IT
Professors at both universities leverage this rich software ecosystem in different ways. At IFMO, the students can choose to form their own start-up. The students involved with this particular track finish their coursework in the morning and then work on their own start-up in the afternoon. The professors advise them on both the technical and business side of their ideas.
At SPb SU, professors augment their teaching by running actual high-tech businesses from within the halls of the campus. For example, I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Andrey Terekhov, who also leads a state enterprise (TERCOM) and a private enterprise (Lanit-Tercom, Inc).
In all cases, students get great exposure to applied software development.
The first lecture that I presented was attended by over 200 students, and the second was standing-room-only in a 120-seat classroom. In a software culture where there are so many startups, the students find it intriguing to hear a message about innovation at a large corporation. Many of the questions were related to the motivation behind being an "intrapreneur". It's a good question, especially since many students view innovation at a start-up as the best path to potential riches.
My answer did imply that a successful intrapreneur can find financial reward, especially at a company that can be as generous as EMC. I also pointed out that corporations provide a benefit that is highly tied to university life: learning. EMC, for example, has acquired over 40 companies since the year 2000, and the opportunity to learn new software algorithms abounds.
This week I'll travel to Moscow to meet with customers as part of EMC Forum. It will be a change of pace. Instead of talking about a career in innovation, I'll be talking about the results of a career in innovation: new products.
I was extremely fortunate to experience "Golden Autumn" while in St. Petersburg. I've included two of the better pictures below.