INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
Dealing with the Pandemic with Style: The Sigma Software Story
How Olesya Khokhoulia, Deputy CEO, Strategic Development at Sigma Software Group is using it to provide top-quality software development, graphic design, testing, and support services.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Olesya Khokhoulia: Pretty well. Before the pandemic, I was travelling a lot, spending 3-5 days per month at home. Now I can enjoy a bit more relaxed travel schedule. Despite all limitations, there is plenty of interesting stuff that is currently happening in the city. I can focus on the gym, e-learning, and meeting friends. In all situations, you have to find something good!
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Sigma Software Group.
Olesya Khokhoulia: My background is technical. I’ve studied at the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics at Kharkiv State University in Ukraine. Then I went to Australia to study at the Department of Computer Science at the Royal Melbourne University of Technology, one of the country’s original tertiary institutions. I started my career in IT as a QA, then after that, I became a project manager, then a Program Manager.
I joined Sigma Software in 2010 at the invitation of my current manager. We knew each other quite well even though we were competitors. He offered me the position of Deputy CEO, Account Management. And I saw it as a nice new challenge. The company had only 150 employees at that. Throughout my career, I’ve gained experience in working with enterprise clients as the Program Director. Therefore, I agreed to take the offer and started my journey at Sigma Software.
How does Sigma Software Group innovate?
Olesya Khokhoulia: All companies always claim they innovate, which is true. However, in Sigma Software, we’re not just saying that. We actually measure innovation KPI. In 2020 this score reached 52%. This means that every second project for more than 130 сlients uses innovative approaches, new technologies, and advanced domains. We get the result in several ways.
First off, we develop innovative products at the request of our customers. In essence, this is how we help them to meet their business goals. Overall, we provide software development solutions to such clients as Volvo, Scandinavian Airlines, Verizon Media, Scania, and many others. They all trust us to develop their innovative products.
Secondly, we run Sigma Software Labs incubator, a start-up platform that helps young companies to grow by using our resources, investments, and exclusive access to our vast business network. The incubator strengthens our product ecosystem with fresh new ideas, attracting start-ups to collaborate with us more.
Thirdly, there are 5 R&D centers in our company, where dozens of ambitious and tech-wired enthusiasts are working on the next big thing. Every day they monitor new technology trends, tools, and approaches to elaborate on innovative solutions by mixing all these ingredients. Even during the pandemic, the cost of our R&D activities was almost $1 mln.
Another project within our company is Sigma Software University which was created for knowledge sharing and IT community development in Ukraine. This is an important part of the equation, as we do not only help talents reach their goals, we instill them with innovative thinking. For the past 5 years, we’ve trained 3,000 people in developing their soft and hard skills. More than 300 interns are mentored by experienced Sigma Software specialists and are given an opportunity to practice on real projects each year. We support 15 leading universities of Ukraine by equipping tech laboratories where 1,200 students have the possibility to develop deep knowledge of technologies.
Talking about internal projects, Sigma Software holds an in-house contest to collect innovative ideas (it ranges from improving our business processes to product ideas for clients). Anyone can submit their idea, and it will be considered by the board of the company. This way, we get around 20-30 new ideas per month.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Olesya Khokhoulia: We’ve been working remotely with our clients globally since 2002. We have good experience in this, so we easily switched to local online mode. All processes have been set up, and employees are provided with all the equipment. A year ago, it took us only three days to fully adjust to the new normal when we moved 1,100-plus employees into work-from-home mode.
In our business, it’s crucial to be in touch not only with the clients 24/7 but with the core team as well. When the pandemic hit, our CEO Valery Krasovsky started sending weekly emails and business video updates to the entire company. It was done in a friendly, informal style, plain and simple. It helped all of us, no one was out of the loop.
We continue publishing news updates, showcasing the current situation and how it affects our company and our clients’ businesses. We also run radio shows, podcasts, webinars, Zoom parties, online quizzes, knowledge-sharing and video sports sessions, and so on.
Each quarter we gather all together at a special event called Fika. It’s a good Swedish tradition of coffee break where you have time for informal conversation between colleagues, top managers, founders. Anyone can ask anything, offer some ideas to discuss or improvements to implement.
As to business results, in 2020, Sigma Software grew by 25%, started cooperation with 30-plus new clients, opened an office in Canada, and included 200-plus new specialists. In January 2021, we acquired IdeaSoft, a Ukrainian IT consulting company. With this merger taking place, we’re planning to strengthen the core management team and enhance our offers to customers in Blockchain and FinTech.
So, overall, 2020 was a good year for our company, and 2021 started even better.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Olesya Khokhoulia: Of course, I have to make difficult choices from time to time. It’s just a part of the job.
We all have begun 2020, not knowing how turbulent it will eventually turn out. We had to change and transform, adapt to the new normal, embrace online, and accept restrictions. Though it was not easy, we’ve learned some valuable lessons, and there’s a lot to remember. We had to rethink many things – how we work, spend time with our team members and families, discuss opportunities with existing and prospective customers, share knowledge, and build relations.
Like many of us, through trials and errors, we’ve learned how to work from home efficiently, how to cultivate the right atmosphere and stay connected, how to maintain the culture of openness and productivity, and so on. In the end, it’s all about the people. They are the driving force of everything we do.
We started to pay real attention to education. We’ve got an opportunity to meet new people and learn something new from them, how they live through the new conditions. This was something that we usually didn’t have time for.
For example, the HR department started organizing Zoom coffee breaks and video sports sessions with our colleagues, creating articles and videos on keeping work-life balance and learning to work efficiently under the conditions of long-time lockdown. We’ve held our yearly internal PM Gathering knowledge-sharing event that was broadcast from our Kharkiv office. During the first two months of the lockdown, we’ve held 20 sessions that brought together up to 50 participants each.
For the development and attracting talents, we continue a meetup series Open Tech Week that gathered 40 speakers and 800 attendees who joined our YouTube broadcasting in order to develop professional skills and fundraise for charity.
In order to strengthen our relations with clients and communicate with them during the lockdown, Sigma Software held a series of Accelerated Change free webinars. We wanted to inspire organizations to move forward, present expert views on how businesses, entrepreneurs, and investors could thrive in it. We’ve held 9 events with top speakers from the USA, the UK, Sweden, Israel, the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, etc. With their help, we tried to predict the future of various industries like Cybersecurity, Fintech, Media, AdTech, Gaming, and so on.
A big breakthrough was the third Ukrainian Israeli Innovation Summit, which we conducted together with partners in a hybrid offline/online mode. The conference was highly supported by both the Israeli and Ukrainian governments and businesses. More than 50 speakers and 1,000 participants worldwide joined the Summit.
With the support of the USAID Competitive Ukraine Program, we’ve arranged the Ukrainian Trade Mission to the UK, which aims to strengthen business connections and find new opportunities between the two countries.
This was our answer to the crisis.
What kind of specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Olesya Khokhoulia: From the beginning of the pandemic, we switched to a work-from-home mode and quickly introduced Microsoft Teams as the main tool for conferences, team meetings, collaborations, and so on. Also, Zoom was introduced as an alternative.
Our company had organized access to all resources via VPN even before all these events. This came in handy during the transition to remote work — the changes for employees were minimal, so the migration happened quickly. It turns out it’s not that hard when your basic toolkit is narrowed to a laptop and Internet access. We manage projects and track tasks in Jira, Asana, and our own project management tool, which was developed within Sigma Software for internal usage.
We also actively use Workplace by Facebook, which helps us to support corporate culture. We share the latest news, conduct some challenges or flash mobs, organize kids’ contests there.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Olesya Khokhoulia: As I’ve mentioned above, things are looking pretty good for us at this moment. We’re growing at our pre-pandemic pace, so there’s no such thing for us as “stay in the game.” It’s not about us. Sigma Software is one of the pioneers and leaders of the Ukrainian IT industry, with an almost 20-year history behind it. So, we’re in for a long run with no intention to stop.
As to competitors… There are up to five thousand IT companies in Ukraine, 20 of which of our size or slightly more. Despite so many competitors, we are one of the Top 2 best employers in IT in our category by the independent anonymous employees’ survey on DOU.ua. We are listed in Global Outsourcing 100 by the IAOP, ranked among the best mobile development firms in 2021 by Techreviewer, and acknowledged as one of the Top 1000 Service Providers by Clutch.
One of our main competitive advantages is that we have our own portfolio of products. This means that we help our customers to reduce their costs by using ready solutions, not creating them from scratch. We already have more than 20 innovative products in AdTech, AR/VR, ML/AI, Cybersecurity, and so on. Some examples are Corezoid platform that helps our customers go through digital transformation, document management system Formpipe Platina that allows working with any documents from any device in a secure environment, DanAds self-serve ad-platform, Clean.io’s cybersecurity solution to fight with malvertising and fraud pop-up ads. This is just to name a few.
Your final thoughts?
Olesya Khokhoulia: Over the last months, my main word at work has become “partnership.” Many people like to share the idea of their start-up or show a demo of a product. I think the pandemic facilitated all these streams.
I do a lot of work with Sigma Software Labs. We are always open to see a demo of an interesting product from a well-established product house. Right now, as I’ve mentioned, we have a good portfolio of partners, targeting different business domains with their products.
Therefore, if you are looking for some particular ideas or business solutions — we may help at least to narrow down your search and give some ideas or brainstorm possible solutions together. If you have an interesting product or start-up – we would be happy to see it as well. We truly believe in good synergies.
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