Lee Hambley

Founder, Consultant, Software Engineer

Hamburg, Germany

I was recently lucky enough to be invited as a headline speaker to the Belarusian capital Минск (Minsk) to speak at an un-conference called Ruby Open Air.


The format of an un-conference is inspiring, it's more BBQ-get-away than a serious stuffy conference in a hotel conference suite; 60 km (38 miles) from Minsk the conference was held at one of Belarus' many Agritourism facilities; a privately owned complex covering not more than an acre or two, featuring beautiful wooden bulidings, a covered area for giving the presentation, utility buildings and a small island all set around a lake in the middle of the forest.

I've never had the pleasure of giving a talk whilst bluetits tend to their young meters from my stage, and dragonflies, toads and other wildlife buzz and hop around mere meters away.

The conference was organized by Altoros, one of Belarus' larger software companies; they are very active in open-source, and very interested in building good culture and inspiring young developers.

The Country

In Belarus, it's not uncommon for an entry-level engineer in software development to make more (double wouldn't be an exaggeration) than a university professor. This tale is repeated time and time again when meeting people; of course the reason is obvious this is money flowing in from weathier nations in the West. In a country where a professor makes $250 per month, and rent on a small apartment is easily $200, it doesn't leave much money for food, or enjoying life, and many people are never able to move away from the family home.

I was shocked, and surprised by many things I hadn't expected when arriving in Belarus, the first and foremost is how much of the Soviet influence remains; I'm told they have fairly recently found themselves under the rule of a dictator who is trying to move the country back into the Soviet way of life, flying the flags of the Soviet Union, and of Russia from every major building.

Monuments throughout the city pay hommage to the country's Soviet past, which is both charming, intriguing, and frightening for an outsider; we grow-up watching movies about the evil soviets, enemies of freedom; experiencing a country that lives this way was very interesting; living in Germany I might be in the most politically predictible country, the one with the strongest economy in the English speaking world, compared with Belarus it was a shock, one US dollar is about 8,200Br (Belarusian Ruble) (€1 ≈ 10,350Br).

I don't know ifor how it's possible not to know what to expect but be surprised upon arriving in a country; but it must be, because I was.

To be clear, beyond any shadow of doubt, Belarus is one of the most interesting, humbling and inspiring places I have been fortunate enough to visit; I would recommend that as many people as possible do go there.

Obtaining a VISA is not difficult, but it is rather expensive, some €60 ($75 US) for an EU citizen, if you don't mind waiting a week or two, double the price if an express service is required; I took the express service, as I was short on time, and didn't want to miss the chance to visit the country, or to disappoint my hosts. As a citizen of the European Union, it's easy to forget that the rest of the world still struggles with Visas and border control problems.

Although they have their own language almost everyone lives, works and socializes in Russian; take the time to learn at least how to say please (пожалуйста)and thank you (спасибо), many older (and that can mean as young as 30 years old) Belarusians don't speak very much, if any English.

Beware that all signs, place names, subway stations, hotels, and more have their names written in the Cyrillic script, be dilligent about photographing or writing the names of the places you need to use to navigate, because otherwise you will not even be able to read the map in the subway, or even ask for directions by helplessly saying the name of the place you need to go.

Even within two days, I was able to begin to identify the sounds of the letters of the alphabet; far from being able to read; and nowhere near being able to understand, I was at least starting to be able to guess at what people's names might be from their name badge; a few hours practice would have been well worth my time.

The Conference

The other headliners, besides myself were Denis Gorin, Vladislav Gorodetsky.

The former AKA @nomadcoder has been living the couch-surfing or nomad lifestyle for 5 years, working enough to earn money to keep a roof above his head, and pay for his tickets, one of his clients encouraged the open sourcing of a framework for binding ExtJS to a sane Ruby architecture, the project is called Netzke and my first reaction was "ohh god, not ExtJS!", having tried and failed to make anything useful using ExtJS before, it really appears that Denis has solved many of the really frustrating problems; the way Netzke works makes absolute sense. I sincerely hope that Denis' talk is made available online, it was the only other talk of the day given in English; and I thoroughly enjoyed watching a presentation about someone solving real world application problems.

After two years of EuRuKo talks, where half the presentations were on academic "improvements" to theoretical "problems", I particularly enjoyed the pragmatism Denis demonstrated when talking about Netzke's architecture.

Unfortunately (for me) Vladislav spoke in Russian, I wish very much that I could have understood some of his talk; I hope it becomes available online, or that someone can refer me to anything he does (blog, twitter?) in the English language.

There were a number of short lightening talks given in Russian, and again unfortunately I can't say anything about them; as an Englishman in Germany I've learned during my time here that no matter how well someone speaks a foreign language, their native language comes more easily, and I cannot begrudge anyone for speaking in Russian, I was the only non-Russian speaker at the event, and I very much enjoyed listening to the sounds of the language, and trying to decypher it's grammar and alphabet.

Throughout the day there were flip-charts stood at the back of the venue, all attendees were encouraged to write questions for a so called expert-panel discussion, it seems strange to be lined up on such a panel, but I enjoyed answering some very hard questions about my strong opinions on REE and Passenger mod_rails. The other two of the lightening talk speakers joined the headliners for the expert panel discussion; and we fielded questions on a variety of subjects; audience participation was better organized and encouraged than at any other event I have ever attended, there must be something about wildlife, beer, and BBQ that brings people together.

I would like to ask anyone who was involved in speaking with me that day, any of you from the panel discussion, and anyone who missed talking to me to write me an email, I sincerely enjoyed talking with every one of you, but as I can't even type Cyrillic, I can't Google you, or reach out to you!

The Entertainment

I think Altoros have raised the proverbial bar, by encouraging us to try Archery, putting on a live band (the bass player is one of their managers!), cooking enough BBQ шашлык Shashlik to feed us all until we were stuffed and plying us with beer to help everyone relax!

They ran a competition to finish the joke "a proc and a lambda walk into a bar", I got a 1/2 translation of the funniest Jack D Proc/Lambda which apparently was quite excellent, but it lost something in translation, to the winner, enjoy your bottle of Jack Daniels!

The Family

Many of the people attending (mostly the organizers) had their wives and children with them at the event; I can't over state how awesome this was, in Europe we struggle with getting Women involved in technology. In Belarus, admittedly because "we wouldn't see our husbands otherwise" the family is around at these events. In particular the close-ties between these people is obvious, and there's a lot of love, friendship and grace in the people of Belarus. I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with everyone, about everything, and I hope I have made many friends with whom I will stay in contact and I hope, work with.

The Politics

Lastly, I can't talk about Belarus without mentioning the politics.

I'm not qualified to speak much about politics, except to say that it's a mafia state; every man, woman and child on the street knows it, and there is a huge difference between the average hard working Belarusian person, and those involved in the crime of politics. It's obvious, disgusting and frustrating; I wouldn't be surprised to see a country in Belarus' position overthrowing it's leaders if they do not begin to lead the country forwards; since the latest dictator came to power the currency has apparently devalued by a factor of three, getting a VISA has become more difficult, and they have renewed close relations with Russia, which seems to me to be a backwards step.

The Summary

Go To Belarus. If you can't go, hire their engineers. You will quite possibly be changing someone's life. It's a nation full of driven, passionate, friendly, curious and intelligent people; hire them to work remotely, as freelancers or via Altoros, or a similar company. Invite them to work whilst visiting your company in your home country; the chance to practice speaking native English whilst on location, and the quality of work you will receive is a win for both sides.

As a matter of neccessity there, programmers use Linux as their primary workstation every day, people at the conference, between them had more than a hundred patches in Rails, that's one per person… how many patches in open source do your team in LA, or London, or Berlin have? This means they're people bred on working with Unix, everyone uses Vi, Emacs or the shell, and there's not much you can teach any of them about Unix that will surprise them.

Remember it was a Russian who found a fatal security flaw in Github's Rails application! People speak about China being the home or the next generation of hackers, but if that's true Eastern Europe is the home of the current geneartion of hard working, intelligent engineers who are more interested in learning, and working hard than which coffee shop makes this week's trendiest coffee or who's written the coolest Pintrest or Instagram app.

Working with more eastern europeans might be the smartest way out of the western engineering talent shortage and accompanying salary arms-race.

I've worked with Balarusians remotely, and spoken to a number of them in depth during my time in Belarus, I've been nothing short of delighted. As most younger people speak English, particularly people who spend a lot of time on the internet - you can expect not to have any communication problems with the engineers directly; and if you work with a company such as Altoros then you will probabably work with the support of a native Russian speaking account manager who lives in your counry, and speaks your language fluently too. That is especially true of Altoros, who I'm told have something like 25-30 people in the USA, and a handful of staff spread across western Europe and the United Kingdom.

I have to express heart-felt thanks to Olga Lavrentieva for inviting me to speak, and helping me get everything prepared; to Ekaterina Kutyavina for the help with my legal issues (Visa applications aren't much fun), to Alexey Karpik and his wife Tatsiana for being my drivers for the weekend; and to Olga and Sergey Sergyenko for an evenings conversation and friendhip, and a drive back to the hotel when I missed the Bus from being too encrossed in conversation with you to even notice that everybody had left!

My final thanks goes to Sergey Avseyev with whom I worked for a number of months, and who had the first thought to invite me. Sergey I want to thank you for the great work we did together, and the invitation to your beautiful home country.

Full Disclosure: Altoros hosted my visit to Belarus, they paid for my flights, Visa and my hotel, their staff spent the weekend helping me get around, and seeing the city. They didn't pay me to advocate their company, but I absolutely do so. I don't work for Altoros, but I think I'd really enjoy working with them, they already sponsor some engineers to work on open source, and I hope to come to an arrangement with them to continue my open source work in the interests of the Ruby community.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Licences for my individual projects, and mini-code snippets can be found within each.