The master programmers of Eastern Europe

The Slavic countries are producing exceptionally skilled hackers—and sometimes that’s no bad thing

January 21, 2019
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If you were in any doubt about the computing excellence of young people from the nations left in the rubble of the Soviet Union’s collapse, consider those nations’ performance at the International Collegiate Programming Contest over the last 15 years. At this annual competition—where teams of young computer scientists from around the world go head-to-head in answering a series of programming problems—there is no competition. Since 2004, the gold medal has been won by teams from either Russia, Ukraine or Poland in every year without fail. You wonder why anyone else bothers to turn up.

By comparison, the United States fares poorly. Supposed powerhouses of American learning like Berkeley and MIT will usually make it into the upper quartile of the final leader board, but often without a medal, finding themselves bested by institutions of far lesser repute, far smaller budgets: the Ural Federal University (Bronze, 2017); the University of Zagreb (Silver, 2014); Belarusian State University (Silver, 2013).

This is not just excellence, but total supremacy of east over west. Until recently though, no one outside the computing community really knew it. In that sense, the last three years, which have seen repeated cyber-attacks on western European and American institutions, have been an abrupt and noisy awakening to the fact that the east, and most specifically the Russian state, has at its disposal the finest programmers, coders and hackers in the world—and is prepared to use them as a weapon.

The reasons for eastern technical superiority are historical. The Soviet education system placed far greater emphasis on the study of concrete disciplines, like engineering, astrophysics and mathematics, than it did on liberal arts subjects—interpretative fields that were more liable to breed divergence and dissent. A degree in chemistry was therefore better regarded by the system than, say, a degree from the faculty of philology. More fundamentally though, science and technology were the key cornerstones in the building of a communist state. From Lenin’s electrification programme of the early 1920s to Gagarin becoming the first man in orbit, the white heat of technological advancement wasn’t just political rhetoric, but an integral component of the Soviet project. Today’s eastern Europe is no longer saddled with that ideology. But being only a generation removed from it, the countries of the former Soviet Union have not lost their respect for the power of technology.

Gleb and Boris, two professional hackers from Moscow, told me that they had been writing code since they were six and seven respectively. The pair, who refused to give their real names, are both in their late 20s and make a living from breaking into company servers on the commission of those companies’ IT teams looking to find the cracks in their systems. “My parents are both scientists,” explains Gleb over an email exchange. “And they had good lives in the Soviet Union because of their profession. So they wanted the same thing for me and always encouraged me to learn technical skills that would help me in the future.”

While Gleb and Boris studied sciences to university level, both are self-taught computer programmers. “It isn’t so much that in Russia we have the best places to learn about computers,” said Boris. “It’s more that you are better respected and can earn good money from knowing about these things.”

The two hackers were understandably reluctant to give their names as both have form when it comes to hacking without the go-ahead from companies, and while still a schoolboy, Gleb claims to have hacked the server of a well-known Italian fashion brand—“for practice.” Neither say their ventures into the dark side of coding were ever done with malicious intent, but the same cannot be said for some of their compatriots who firm evidence suggests have been responsible for a range of targeted hacking attempts on institutions including the Foreign Office, the Bank of America, French television network TV5Monde and, most notably, the servers of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 US presidential election. Some of these attacks were coordinated by autonomous agents, like the “Fancy Bear” group, and others by military intelligence officers. In both cases, however, these operations wouldn’t have happened without the help, or at the very least with the knowledge, of the government executive. Now in the western public perception of eastern pervasion, it isn’t the Red under the bed that looms large—it’s the Russian in your iMac.

The great irony of this though is that most of us probably wouldn’t have it any other way. Because the west collectively benefits from the legacy of Soviet technical excellence far more than it suffers and, for the most part, an eastern European computer programmer in your iMac is not a bad thing, and nor is it uncommon.

In labour terms, eastern European programmers are the Holy Grail, combining a rare trinity of high skill level, availability and low cost. And it is for this reason that the region is now the place where companies—from established multinationals like IBM and Deutsche Bank to bedroom start-ups—are flocking to fulfil their programming needs. “Whereas I would pay between $50 and $100 per hour to have a software engineer in the UK do some digital development work for me, it can cost as little as $20 per hour if I have the same work done by someone working in eastern Europe,” said Oliver Quie, who co-founded an AI-driven headhunting start-up in London in 2016. “And for someone like me who is trying to get a project off the ground, having that cheaper labour makes all the difference.”

Though Russia has just as many skilled software engineers as the rest of the former Soviet Union, the majority of outsourced labour comes from Ukraine, Poland and Belarus, largely due to the more clement political climate in those nations. Some firms, like Ring and Uber have set up their own offices there. Most, however, go through native outsourcing companies or, as is often opted for by smaller operations like Quie’s, find individual freelance software engineers using networking platforms like Upwork.

Nikolai Miroshnychenko is staffer at one of the big firms in Kiev but is in the midst of setting up his own outsourcing enterprise. “If you’re a smart young dude in Ukraine who wants to make money, going into software development is really an obvious choice,” said the 27-year-old economics graduate, who like Boris and Gleb is a self-taught coder. And with western companies quite literally queueing up to tap this crystalline reservoir, it’s hard to disagree with him. Demand for slavosphere expertise is now so high that native outsourcing companies are having to set up their own in-house universities to train new programmers. “Ukraine is not a country that has many opportunities for getting rich,” he continued. “But this is one of them.”

As for Russia’s cyber aggression, attacks are likely to continue as long as the Kremlin views a stable and unified west an existential threat. There are, of course, some outsourcing partnerships between Russian and western firms, but not nearly to the same extent as its neighbours have secured, and for now many of the country’s best coders are being swept up to do the state’s hacking work. They say though that for a modern tech firm to succeed you need three people: a hipster, a hustler and a hacker, a paradigm that will probably outlive Russia’s current regime. “Hacking and coding are the most important skills a person can have in this century,” said Boris, “and there will always be work for you.” The east may well be equipping its young far better than we think.