WIT: THIS UNLIKELY TECH QUEEN WANTS TO BUILD A NEW GLOBAL HUB IN KYRGYZSTAN

Because behind every great app there’s a great team of back-end developers. Some are where you’d least expect.

By James Watkins of Ozy.com

The blinds are pulled in all the windows of the fifth-floor office. Computer screens and cracks of daylight cast a gray-blue glow, complementing the dark grays and dark purples of mismatched furniture, seemingly thrown together yet too cool to be accidental. The only accents of color are lime greens and bright pinks that dance across screens in lines of computer code. This place has style.

One of several artsy-looking signs on the wall reads “Dance like no one is watching. Encrypt like everyone is.” If I were a location scout for HBO’s Silicon Valley, I’d film the whole damn thing here. But we’re 7,000 miles from California. We’re in Bishkek, the capital of landlocked Kyrgyzstan, at a back-end development hub behind some of Asia’s top apps and tech platforms. Another streak of color? The shock of bright-pink hair on the CEO at the center of the room: Alla Klimenko. Her company, Mad Devs, is a leader in Kyrgyzstan’s burgeoning tech scene, which is increasingly pitching itself as a cheaper alternative to Ukraine, yet more upmarket than India, in the battle to be the brains behind tech titans in Russia, Singapore, Thailand and beyond.

Mad Devs became Mad Devs only about two years ago, but the core team of developers who started the company have been working together for more than a decade. Most recently, they were the development team at Namba, a sort of Netflix-turned-Uber in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan’s most ubiquitous consumer tech company started as an online TV platform, has run an app-based ride-sharing service since 2012 and added food delivery in 2013 (a year before Uber Eats launched). Not satisfied with those challenges, the coders felt they weren’t being given enough to do, says Klimenko, so they started their own company.

It now has more than 50 employees, contracting with Namba as well as Eatigo, a Bangkok-based restaurant booking service with more than a million users across Southeast Asia; Zentist, a Silicon Valley–based dental services platform; an artificial intelligence–meets–blockchain concept called Neureal; and others as far away as the U.K. and Australia. “We don’t work with small projects,” says Klimenko, only meaningful partnerships of six months or more. They don’t have a sales team beyond Klimenko herself, with all their work coming through word-of-mouth.

Tech CEO isn’t the usual career path of 31-year-old Kyrgyz women. Almost all talented young people leave to work in Kazakhstan or Russia, where average wages are four and eight times that of those in Kyrgyzstan, respectively. Klimenko herself spent 18 months working in Almaty, Kazakhstan, returning to Bishkek on weekends. Though the business scene is more developed in Kazakhstan, the region’s economic powerhouse, almost all employees in Kazakhstan’s tech scene are Kyrgyz, says Klimenko. But now, the lack of other opportunities means that tech is one industry where Kyrgyzstan could thrive: “We are hungry,” Klimenko says. “As soon as you give people a chance to earn good money here without leaving the country, they take it.”

That same ambition has driven Klimenko personally as well as professionally. Fiercely independent since childhood, she excelled at physics and mathematics Olympiads as a high school student. Studying computer engineering at university, she was one of the best in her class, and would often be held up as an example to her predominantly male classmates — “Even the girl can do this, and you can’t?” she recalls her teachers saying, though for her it’s more a source of pride than an example of sexism.

Klimenko occupies a strange ideological position on gender politics. She is considering running an all-female intern class next year because she’s convinced that women are usually far better qualified than they say in applications, and yet she doesn’t believe the future is totally female: “There shouldn’t be more women than men” in tech, she says, else “they start to try to dominate each other.”

Klimenko left her first husband (whom she married while still at university) because he wanted her to be a stay-at-home mother; she left her second husband (the father of her 6-year-old son) because he didn’t share her ambition. She is chatty and funny, markedly different from the rest of the employees, whose eyes barely rise from their screens as they eat at their desks. Klimenko hasn’t actually coded since university, after realizing that project management in tech was her forte. It’s “unique” for someone to have Klimenko’s communications and sales skills while still being on the same intellectual level as the coders themselves, says Andrew Minkin, one of Mad Dev’s other co-founders.

Mad Devs is “one of the top local companies” in Kyrgyzstan’s tech scene, says Aziz Soltobaev, co-founder of KG Labs, an organization working to boost the country’s tech infrastructure — although there are a few other companies eyeing international prominence, including software development platform Zensoft. Many of the other leading companies have offices abroad or foreign founders, says Soltobaev, making Mad Devs one of the few to remain in Bishkek. “One of the challenges is a lack of talent,” he says — a problem that Mad Devs tackles by training dozens of unpaid interns in-house, several of whom have no formal training. The team calls their grueling program “The Hunger Games,” which ends with a “hell week” during which the office sofas become makeshift beds. Minkin leads the internship program, mainly because of his size and intimidating physical appearance, says Klimenko.

Of course, it’s still early days for the Mad Devs team, and becoming the go-to back-end development hub for the future economy is a title that emerging economies the world over are fighting for. But if there’s one thing they’ve nailed in the aspiration to bring Silicon Valley to Central Asia, it’s a tribelike company culture. Minkin even has a tattoo featuring the Mad Devs logo. Klimenko’s own tattoo covers her forearm with a “goddess of flame,” and it too was inked with the company in mind — yet another colorful selling point.

WIT: WWII code-breaker shares ‘can-do’ attitude with aspiring female roboticists

 

 

 

By the Pittsburgh Post Gazette

When Julia Parsons left Carnegie Tech with a humanities degree in 1942, her career seemed prescribed: Women at that time were educated to work as secretaries, nurses, costume designers, homemakers.  

But with World War II raging and all the men in the armed forces, “I thought, there’s got to be more I can do,” Ms. Parsons, 96, recalled. “I wanted to go in the service, too.”

It was the can-do spirit — plus a couple years of German language classes at Wilkinsburg High School — that landed her an elite and highly classified job among an all-women team of code-breakers in the war effort. From a Washington, D.C., communications complex run by the Navy, she helped to unscramble messages that helped turn the tide of the war.

Ms. Parsons, who after decades of secrecy began sharing her dramatic story in recent years, had a rapt audience in a Carnegie Mellon University lecture hall on Saturday: a few dozen teenage girls, dressed in jeans, plaid shirts and red polka-dot bandannas — a la Rosie the Riveter, the famous illustration depicting the strength of the female workforce during WWII.

This was a gathering of the Girls of Steel, the all-female high school robotics team sponsored by CMU’s Field Robotics Center. Since its founding in 2010, the group — whose logo is Rosie the Riveter with a robotic arm — has grown to more than 50 girls from the Pittsburgh region who build robots to compete in regional, national and global competitions. 

It was a place where Ms. Parsons’ message resonated across more than seven decades.

“It was awesome to see her experiences and how they similarly reflect experiences we have — but in a different time,” said Corinne Hartman, 18, a senior at the Ellis School in Shadyside, who sat front and center in the lecture hall. “She was working with a group of women who worked together to help do this really big awesome technical thing.”

Ms. Hartman said she came to the Girls of Steel after trying several STEM summer camps at which she was the only girl. 

“I felt like my ideas or opinions weren’t being heard, that I didn’t have a place there,” she said. Once she joined the robotics team, “I absolutely fell in love and have been here ever since.”

In Ms. Parsons’ time, a woman’s path to find technical work was even more uphill. 

Right after graduation, she worked briefly for an Army ordnance laboratory, fixing gauges that were used in steel mills to produce shells and ammunition. It was a job that women got, she admitted, only because there weren’t enough men. “Pittsburgh was pretty much devoid of men” between the ages of 18 and 40, Ms. Parsons said. “All of them went.”

The work on ordnance gauges was “pretty boring,” she said, and she quickly enlisted in the Navy. She shot up her hand when a recruiter asked if anyone knew German. 

Before she knew it, she was part of a team working three shifts, round the clock, trying to crack the code of intercepted German messages sent over radio waves by ships and submarines.

It was extremely difficult work, even though they had the German-made encryption machine, known as the
Enigma, and some of the code books, which the British had secretly recovered from a sinking German submarine years before.

Just months before the war ended, Ms. Parsons worked for days to assemble a spreadsheet of all the messages and noticed something. The Germans had sent the weather forecast every day at the same time — a crucial mistake that allowed the women to decode a slew of messages and that helped track down an elusive German submarine.

After the war ended, she wanted to keep serving but hit an unexpected roadblock: She was pregnant. That fact ended her military career, she said. “Now, there are maternity uniforms,” she joked. 

So she came home, raised three children and taught English at North Allegheny High School. She told no one of her code-breaking experience, not even her husband, until she found out in the 1990s the government had declassified the team’s efforts.

At the end of her talk, Ms. Parsons had just as many questions for the girls as the girls had for her. “How do you get into this?” she asked them. “Do you know enough about robotics to know what you want to do for a career?”

A key difference, of course, is the publicity of the mission. 

“We try to get ourselves out in the community,” Ms. Hartman, the high school senior, responded. “This has shown me I want to continue doing robotics in the future.”


What do think of the future of robotics being female? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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