We spoke with Nordeus’s Branko Milutinović about the beginnings of his company, education in Serbia and the Digital Serbia Initiative, of which he is among the founders.
The members of the Digital Serbia Initiative are Nordeus, Ringier Axel Springer, Seven Bridges, Telenor, PwC, Telekom Srbija, Microsoft, Infostud and Startit, while it has now expanded to receive four more members: Institute Biosense, Raiffeisen, Societe General Bank and the Karanović-Nikolić Law Office.
Nordeus is one of the most successful companies not only domestically, but also regionally and as a global IT company. At any given moment you are working with hundreds of local developers and IT professionals. What is it that separates our experts from the competition? What are the greatest strengths of our programmers?
– Two things are compatible advantages: The first is a consequence of the system in which we grew up and still live in to a great extent, while the other is a system that compels you to circumvent it. And whatever you want to do today you need to circumvent the system.
The system is as it is. During your upbringing you develop skills that you later use in life, with a great deal of flexibility. That is a cultural thing that is typical for communist states and certain nations, including Serbia. This kind of upbringing has taught us and led to us more easily approaching the solving of problems in business, even in technical sciences. Because of this, our engineers have much better troubleshooting mechanisms than many others.
Software as such, or any activity related to digitisation, is pioneering work where it is not possible to find conventional solutions, as new problems needing to be overcome constantly occur. Problems and their resolution have a paradigm that is different with us than with those who grew up in orderly systems.
Far from somebody being smarter in this, all people are the same on this issue, only we view the solution to the problem differently.
The other thing is that we, as a nation, are very loyal to small teams and work well in such an environment, which is good because the software teams are small. Good teamwork, without individualism and ego, is the most important for success.
Following your experience gained at Microsoft in Sweden, you returned to Belgrade and established Nordeus with your partners, after which Top Eleven Football Manager was created, and became the number one Facebook game. Did you back then have the vision that Serbia is actually the right place to implement your ambitious ideas? How much did the environment help you on that journey, and how much did it hinder?
– We were helped by the fact that we started here, so Serbia was our base, alongside a very good network. We studied here, and made friends and colleagues here. Just as there are Harvard alumni in America, so we have our alumni in Belgrade. We had the advantage of knowing which people we wanted to engage, which is very important when a team is initially being created.
The conditions under which we started our work were almost impossible! We wouldn’t have succeeded in any other country, because there is nowhere else in the world where anyone would work with us for free, as was the case with us in the beginning. We worked for the idea that we’d created, and we succeeded thanks to the persistence of the entire team.
I’m sure many things will change through the Digital Serbia Initiative, because now there officially exists at least one initiative that will try to change the value system of our society. In addition to changing the awareness of our society, we need to improve our legal framework, which has no understanding for modern businesses
Our entire journey was pretty tough, our system and mentality held us back a lot and often halted us.
In Serbia it is difficult to be forgiven for both success and failure. That’s why my axiom is that if you don’t try you certainly won’t succeed. I’m sure many things will change through the Digital Serbia Initiative, because now there officially exists at least one initiative that will try to change the value system of our society. In addition to changing the awareness of our society, we need to improve our legal framework, which has no understanding for modern businesses.
There is generally a lot of misunderstanding about what a digital business is and I get the impression that it immediately starts from the assumption that it’s all a resource for cheating others. The law has been changed and improved in many places, but the people who need to interpret it don’t do so in the right way and then problems are created between the economy and the authorities.
I personally overcame those problems a few years ago, but some upcoming kids who want to do something new will encounter numerous obstacles in the system, and this is something the Digital Serbia Initiative will fight against.
The system in Serbia does not support the creation of values, while the mentality supports inertia. However, if there was no hope we wouldn’t have done all this.
We believe we can do a lot more and that many outsiders from the current digitisation will eventually emerge as winners. This whole process has nothing to do with the size of the state, nor its economic power, but rather is more about agility, readiness and the determination to change things
The Digital Serbia team announced that it will also work on re-training and developing the entrepreneurial spirit. Can you tell us more about this goal?
– The mission, or end-goal, of the Digital Serbia Initiative is for our society not to be overtaken in the next 10 to 15 years, and we will be overtaken if we don’t make big changes.
A society that fully digitises and re-orientates its economy towards new business models and new ways of generating value will create new values and pick up all the profits, while societies that don’t do that will be practically overtaken.
We believe we can do a lot more and that many outsiders from the current digitisation will eventually emerge as winners. This whole process has nothing to do with the size of the state, nor its economic power, but rather is more about agility, readiness and the determination to change things.
Just look at Finland or Estonia, which weren’t so successful on the issue of GDP 15 years ago, but which have progressed so much today thanks to their acceptance of digital transformation. These countries are smaller than Serbia, but they’ve understood what the modern economy is.
One of the goals of our initiative is education. The education system has to change. Education is a certain winning combination for the future of humankind, which will be based on knowhow and cognitive abilities, because everything else will be done by machines. Finland is a very good example of how to reform an education system.
A second element is related to the mentality. We have certain goals to change the mentality, or to some extent the system of values and the general way of observing everything around us. We need people like Novak Ðoković, who are role models and who would promote the significance of digital transformation and highlight why it is important. A big shift will come when citizens realise that digitisation is really a useful thing for all citizens. If we don’t grasp that and keep pace with the world, we cannot expect to make progress.
A third element is support for entrepreneurship and start-ups. We want to help entrepreneurship in various ways, through education and through the development of knowledge via some existing solutions, and perhaps through the construction of a network.
Do you think our country has sufficient capacity, primarily in terms of experts able to convey to young people the knowledge necessary to compete on the world’s contemporary information technology market?
– Education is underdeveloped. It is very important for us to understand and realistically accept the fact that education must be reformed as soon as possible. We must change many things in education. Introducing IT as a compulsory subject in primary schools is a big step forward and it shows us that a lot can be done in a short time. As an initiative, we have managed in a short period of time to bring to the doorsteps of schools a teaching programme that’s among the best in the world. The support we received is great, because it has shown us that understanding new solutions is crucial. This is proof that the system can be changed and you can receive a new way of learning overnight that is very useful for our future generations.
I am very concerned personally about higher education in Serbia, because that is what needs to propel children from a general state of education to specialisation that will create new values. This is a major problem, because this process is pretty inefficient.
Specifically, for the most sought-after professions in the world you need only one computer, but the areas of learning they cover are obsolete.
A positive thing is that there are companies in Belgrade that deal with data science and work at a top level. This is done from Serbia at the global level. On the other hand, our students have no place to get the necessary knowledge in this field, because the universities refuse to introduce specialised courses.
Nevertheless, I’m an optimist. Through the Digital Serbia initiative, we will do good things. We have gathered people around the initiative who have good will and who want to improve the system in Serbia. And I think we also have enough knowledge and strength to change something by going in the right direction towards digital transformation. We will not give up. We’re going to the end until we fulfil our objectives.