For those technology firms fretting about finding the right software engineers at the right price, Intelligent Resources International Inc. of Baltimore has an idea: Look to the Soviet Union.
In a twist on glasnost, Intelligent Resources officials say they can buy Soviet brain power to write computer software for U.S. projects, and at a fraction of what it would cost to hire computer programmers here.
Like their counterparts in the textile, steel and other industries, software companies have begun to move overseas in recent years to look for cheaper labor, mainly to India. But Stefan Press, director of engineering and software development for Intelligent Resources, said that in the Soviet Union, computer programmers' wages are even lower than in India, and the supply of talented, highly qualified software engineers is substantial.
"On one of our projects, we evaluated it would cost $1.5 million to perform in the U.S., and $250,000 in the Soviet Union," said George Selvais, president and chief executive of Intelligent Resources.
IRI officials said the company has found software engineers with masters or doctoral degrees in computer sciences and four to five years of experience who can be hired for the ruble equivalent to $100 to $500 a month, depending on how the ruble's value is calculated.
While the pay is substantially more than what the Soviets could earn at Soviet jobs, it is less than one-tenth the amount that their U.S. counterparts would earn, according to Intelligent Resources officials.
Ulric Weil, a computer industry consultant, said a number of software development companies have been talking about using computer programmers in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland, as well as in the Soviet Union, because of the huge wage difference. But he said most U.S. companies are taking a cautious approach, waiting to see how the political and business environment shapes up before investing time and money in such ventures.
"Everybody is looking for low-cost solutions, and programmers will soon be in short supply in the U.S.," said Weil. "Russians are good at mathematics. It might work quite well."
That's certainly the thinking at Intelligent Resources, a two-year-old software development and systems integration company. Intelligent Resources International has about 35 employees in the United States and $3 million to $4 million in annual sales to both the commercial and government sectors.
About a month ago, IRI hired 15 software engineers in Leningrad and put them to work on four different projects. "I would anticipate that within two years, we would have well over 200 programmers over there," Press said, adding that in the past few months he has met more than 800 Soviet software engineers.
The Soviet venture was the brainchild of Yuri Shestov, IRI's director of research and development and an instructor in computer sciences at Boston University. Shestov, who received a PhD in mathematics from the University of Leningrad, emigrated to the United States 17 years ago.
In recent years, he has traveled frequently to the Soviet Union. In September, while visiting friends in Leningrad, he mentioned that he was doing research on neural networks, something that would not be immediately marketable, and thus he could not afford to pay much for computer programmers on the projects.
He asked if anyone there would be interested. "Suddenly, I had a flood," said Shestov.
He said Soviet computer science training is far more theoretical, in part because of the lack of access to new computers. Soviet software engineers are excited about the prospect of getting more practical experience in the commercial side of software engineering and the opportunity to work with U.S. technology, according to Shestov.
Officials at Intelligent Resources said language differences have presented some minor problems, although many Soviet software engineers can discuss technical issues in English. A larger problem has been the quality of Soviet telephones and other communications systems, which has created some problems in getting data in and out, according to Press.
Another problem has been that Soviet software engineers are accustomed to working alone or in two-person teams and are not experienced at managing larger projects, said Press. He said that for the first few months, he planned to avoid giving the Leningrad office extremely large projects.
Intelligent Resources officials said they experienced surprisingly little red tape in setting up their venture. Press said the technology transfer issue that has created problems for some U.S. companies has not come up. He noted that the company's business focuses on office automation, and that it does not do any military work.
Shestov, who is now a U.S. citizen, said his involvement in the Soviet projects is not just motivated by bottom-line concerns but also by emotional feelings for his native country. He argues that more U.S. companies should get involved in the Soviet Union to prevent the country from "backsliding."
"It's our neighbor, and it is just getting out of a nightmare and it needs our help," said Shestov.
He has little doubt, however, that the prospect of cheap and qualified software engineers in the increasingly competitive software development market will send other U.S. companies scurrying to the Soviet Union.
"I'm pretty sure," said Shestov. "It's just economics."