The Rise and Fall of the “Russian Techie” Brand in London
Russian IT professionals developed and used the “Russian techie” brand – which I use as a distinguishing mark of professional competence and status – to facilitate their careers outside of Russia. Highly skilled migrants with a particular training, they thought of themselves as part of a specific and recognizable community, which gave them an incentive to continue to promote and disseminate the recognition of the brand associated with that community. I use biographical materials to uncover professional paths, career patterns, and changes in the self-identification of Russian IT professionals who decided to migrate to London tracing the transformation of their self-representation through the narratives they themselves give about their training, experience and migration strategies, as well as their integration into local culture and professional communities.
As a brand, the “Russian techie” trademark was first recognised only among Russian professionals themselves – people who had performed successfully as computer scientists and programmers. At first an image of self-identification and pride, reputation for competence soon moved beyond those confines to become a widely recognised stereotype. Of course, this brand could play a positive role in the careers the “Russian techies” only if the actual IT specialists lived up to the expectations set by it. A further challenge to the staying power of the brand was posed by the growth and differentiation of the community itself, requiring more efforts to keep high quality standards across the membership of its various growing sub-communities. To understand the rise and fall of the “Russian techie” brand we need to trace the crucial turning points in the migration patterns, first from the USSR, and then from Russia, to London: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the “dotcom bust” and the institution of the HSMP visa regime in 2001-2002, and the discontinuance of the HSMP programme in 2011.
The educational background of Russian computer specialists was crucial to their self-identification and group solidarity, and thus is key to understanding how the “Brand” emerged: “We [Russians] have very talented people” (M, 40, professor). This pride emerged from a shared cultural background and a specific pattern of training and education. The Soviet heritage of computer science (or informatics) shaped the future development of academic and industrial fields in Russia, and especially its educational component. I do not mean just the teaching of specific skills, but a general pedagogical approach where charismatic leaders played a crucial role. However, it was not only the teacher who “shapes the student’s brain”, but the whole curriculum that aimed at instilling a special “way of thinking”, “attitude of mind”, “mindset” – notions which are often used by my informants to describe the difference between themselves and specialists from other countries, and to show how they feel about having grown up in Soviet schools.
By virtue of the excellence of their training, Russian CS and IT professionals perceive themselves as elite professionals with their own working ethics and discipline. This pride is rooted in the Soviet educational system, where mathematical disciplines serve as the core of the curriculum, and where those who were interested in or curious about technical tinkering were afforded numerous opportunities to do so. Though this training did not guarantee that each professional had the same ability or the same technical aptitude, empirical data does provide grounds for the hypothesis that the Soviet education encouraged specific skills and the ways of thinking: “Russians went through a unique school training” (M, 38, COO). Schools and Departments of Mathematics and Physics imbued social activities with educational content: kruzhki (circles or study groups as a part of extracurricular activity) for kids, Olympiads and contests for secondary schools and universities, outdoor activities and camps for Math classes – these were all aspects of the Soviet training systems in Mathematics, Physics, and Computer Science. The social networks created by these activities and the attachment to the institutions that nurtured them facilitated individual success for many of their participants.
The superior skills of many who underwent this education became clear when Russians began to compete abroad with IT specialists from other countries, especially those from India. In the era of mass outsourcing, Steve Chase, former President of Intel Russia once said: “The policy we have at Intel is simple. If we can, we commit difficult problems to engineers in the USA. If the task is very labour-intensive, we assign it to the Indian specialists. If the problem cannot be solved, we offer it to the Russians”. This kind of respect for the “brand” enhanced its visibility on the map of the global labour market.
As the borders between East and West opened, London became a prime destination for Russian computer specialists. There were many factors which made it attractive to Russians. First, it, already seemed familiar through the experience of colleagues, and the legends that the “imaginary West” (Yurchak 2005) promised a comfortable life and a successful career. London also seemed not just a place of opportunity, but a place of stability. It is a global city (Sassen 1991), where a strong financial system offered top-paying jobs and challenging tasks.
In this competitive market (Ewers 2007), Russians quickly began to distinguish themselves. They became visible in ways that other ethnic groups were not: the phenomena of ‘Russian lunches’ and ‘Russian mafias’ (in the benign sense of Russian professional groupings) appeared in the areas of high concentration of banks – in the City of London or the Canary Wharf section. This visibility, enhanced by extraordinarily high competence and superior performance of the early arrivals, incubated the “Russian Techie” brand, and attracted still more émigrés to London.
So who were the typical bearers of the “Russian Techie” brand? They were (and still are) generally young – from 25 to 35 years old. Their communities were male-dominated, and were generally composed of former or current co-workers and friends with the same profession and leisure interests, mainly outdoor activities like hiking or travelling. They were politically active, interested in the political situation in Russia, and often held largely oppositional views. Many were still emotionally attached to home-country, keeping up with events there, and maintaining contact with home through friends and relatives. Some of them had experience of long-term work in other countries, and some were “serial migrants,” changing their country of residence every 3-5 years (Ossman 2013). They constituted a mobile cadre of ‘Russian techies’, for they were often contract workers, self-employed and responsible for their own taxes, social security, and other aspects of work. In general their position was relatively precarious: “A contractor usually earns more, but there is no promotion track. It is consumable material” (M, 44, System administrator). Yet an active system of recruitment agencies and headhunters usually guaranteed that a new job would be awaiting when an old one ended.
While the majority of HSMP/Tier 1 holders maintain some association with the Russian community or other IT professionals, many of them remain invisible. Single individuals often prefer not to be a part of community, but rather to dissolve into the IT market and cultivate their own professional careers. And while they often keep in touch with friends from their home country and with co-workers, these independent IT specialists might be viewed as authentic global professionals in the local IT market, because they are not particularly interested in maintaining Russian connections.
The institutionalization of practices during the process of emigration had a great influence on life in London for the third wave IT émigrés. Being part of a Russian community from the very beginning, they remained within that community and participated in its various events and meetings. And since the flow was large in comparison with previous waves, the number of communities and participants grew rapidly and differentiated, transforming status of IT specialists from creative techies into office workers owing to job rotation, short contracts, or self-employment: Still it seems to me that banks… they pay a lot of course, but in many respects… you know, what I call them? … Golden cage. Not just for traders, but finally for us [IT-guys] as well, yes. I mean, you are being bought, put in the cage (M, 36, Programmer).
So the “golden era” of IT migration quickly turned into the “golden cage” of corporate employment: real freedom to change workplaces tends to be imaginary. One needs to face the problem of changing projects and of arranging social services and social security with every new job. For banks and companies, these professionals represent a pool of relatively cheap labour (in comparison with permanent workers). For the employees, the banks represent willing employers – good jobs always seemed available. Yet these IT specialists become ordinary (though highly paid) corporate workers, one of thousands others like them. In In this bargain, they gain steady employment opportunities, but they give up any sense of stability in their careers. The same story repeats itself with communities where IT professionals interact.
You used to be, you know, exclusive. But now there are plenty of that sort. The element of exclusiveness had been lost… You used to come to some new hangout, on a visit, and you discovered 80% of your people, meaning, your were familiar with… The circle was fixed… Now, when you come somewhere, 90% of people, you don’t know them. All of them are new to you… The structure of all Russians, of the Russian community, if I may voice such global conclusions, it is a quite clear and known trend, because of so many people coming (M, 37, Developer).
As IT specialists grow in number, they create new networks, which attract not only “exclusive” professionals, but also “craftspeople,” meaning people of average level of skills. It is a case when quantity trumps quality in general, and this dynamic leads to negative effects. To be a temporary worker in the labour market means sacrificing any aspiration to improve one’s status: “they don’t want to learn new things; they find no zest left in life” (M, 35, Developer). If the high level of performance fails to be sustained, the “brand” decreases in its value.
The fourth wave arrived after the HSMP visa regime ended in 2011. They usually worked for global companies with offices in London, at research organisations, or in education institutions. It is rare to find Russian start-up entrepreneurs in London, especially from the forth wave, since companies have to pay for their residence there. Just one case of a start-up entrepreneur emerged – an IT specialist who came to join a start-up team after long-term distant collaboration: “when he [the founder] realises that he needs [you] right here and right now, and there are no possibilities to work remotely anymore, then efforts are made, like to certify organization to grant a visa…” (M, 26, Developer).
These newcomers rarely sought communication with other Russians. They felt free to choose their own futures, and saw little need for the rituals and communities of the earlier arrivals. Most of them were integrated in company teams bearing a corporate identity and loyalty, and they did not limit themselves to local Russian communities. This generation moved from office to office within large global companies, and they went whenever the job it was located.
The sequential migration waves of Russian IT specialists each operated differently in the London IT market, which itself was dynamic and ever-changing. The first wave of IT émigrés to London in the late 1980s was composed mostly of academics, and its members quickly assimilated and developed a deep rootedness in local English life and everyday practices. The experience of these highly competent specialists established the basis for the “Russian techie” brand, although this reputation was not yet fully formed. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, migrants of the second wave of the 1990s became involved in speculation in the booming IT industry and pushed forward an authentic brand around the image of the “Russian techie” relying heavily on established network resources and the reputation of their predecessors. However, the final evolution of this brand only emerged during the third wave of the 2000s, which saw London as a point of attraction for Russians both because of a favourable immigration policy, and because a broad network of IT professionals with diverse communities had already gathered there. These people were at first able to exploit the already established the “Russian techie” brand to further their careers. But the arrival of some many new Russian émigrés, the brand was soon diluted and thus lost its cache. IT specialists crowded into temporary positions at banks as self-employed middle-range contract employees. Small professional communities turned into huge networks of new and barely familiar people. Identification of the Russian émigré as a unique and exceptional professional was transformed into a type of salaried short-term worker in large banks and corporations, a situation in which the status of “Russian techie” was no longer relevant or useful. As a reaction to these changes, some Russian professional communities began to erect entry barriers in order to retain their sense of elite status. Others dissolved and their members dispersed.
The case of the Russian IT specialists in London could have turned out differently than it did. It might have become a classics if story of “brain gain” (Rhode 1993, Meyer 2001), where immigration of qualified professionals takes place. It might also have been a happy story of “brain circulation” (Saxenian 2006) - returning these people’s talents to Russia, enriching its IT culture and economy. But the rise and fall of the brand in British context means something else: it is barometer of conditions in Russia itself. The period of outflow, whose dynamics followed the twists and turns of developments in Russia, has ended, and the Russian professionals in London are moving on with their careers. But given current conditions, it is exceedingly unlikely that many will choose to bring their expertise back to their home country.
Because IT is the cutting edge of economic development around the world, Russia’s position as a significant player on the global stage is dependent on the successful ecology of innovation in the IT sphere. Russian regions can conduct different experiments in IT development, but the recent trend toward “nationalization” of IT, or the policy of seeking “digital sovereignty” are moving the country in a direction which may well impede IT development and culture, for they threaten to cut the country off not only from the world economy, but also from those Russian IT professionals who might otherwise have returned. For example, at the moment of this writing, two families of my informants moved on to the USA and to Switzerland, several singles travelled to South-East Asia, and particularly Singapore – the seventh financial capital of the world. Only a few specialists have come back to Russia (Moscow) but mostly because of either visa problems or family issues. The brand of “The Russian Techie”, which might have worked as a real trademark of the Russian IT professional worldwide and at home, and which could have placed Russia onto the map of global IT world, will likely now serve only to enrich the IT ecologies of other countries instead.