Slovak IT firm focuses on 'domain knowledge'

NOWADAYS, to succeed in the competitive market for information technology it is not enough to be considered an IT expert. Domain knowledge, i.e. knowing how one’s client’s business works, as well as related legislation, is now necessary to develop effective IT solutions for clients. The Slovak Spectator spoke about the latest IT trends, including mobile technologies, as well as the current challenges in the industry and expectations for the future, with Aleš Mičovský, managing partner at Softec Group.

Aleš MičovskýAleš Mičovský (Source: Courtesy of Softec Group)

NOWADAYS, to succeed in the competitive market for information technology it is not enough to be considered an IT expert. Domain knowledge, i.e. knowing how one’s client’s business works, as well as related legislation, is now necessary to develop effective IT solutions for clients. The Slovak Spectator spoke about the latest IT trends, including mobile technologies, as well as the current challenges in the industry and expectations for the future, with Aleš Mičovský, managing partner at Softec Group.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What are the latest IT trends in Slovakia? Do they differ from those abroad?
Aleš Mičovský (AM):
Slovakia is nowadays a normal European country and I see nothing special here in terms of the latest IT trends. We can only sometimes speak about postponement, but also about some acceleration. The latter is because while western countries are gradually developing their information systems in a quite conservative way, we here in Slovakia started to fully build them only after the fall of the previous regime, and we built our information systems with what was the latest knowledge at that time. Thus, some trends arrive earlier here than in western countries.

Now we have information systems, for example in banks and insurance companies, at a really high technological level. Western society, which has been developing its information systems for a longer period of time, cannot replace old programmes from one day to the next.

In general, when looking at the IT community, the most notable trend in Slovakia, as well as in neighbouring countries or even globally, is the arrival of mobile technologies, which involves the use of smartphones and tablets and the influence of those devices on our clients’ information systems. In my opinion, nobody expected that this would come so fast. We knew that this would arrive, but it is a surprise to a certain degree that mobile technologies arrived so quickly and that they are so widely accepted. Smartphones have become a common device even in countries with low GDP and with people who are far from rich. This is fascinating and has a major impact not only on common people, but companies as well.

Mobile devices have become so popular among people that companies have to respond either to the pressure of their own employees using mobile devices first in their private lives or pressure from their clients. This has brought new challenges as companies are mostly prone to behave rather conservatively and like to have their IT environment under their full control. Thus, the arrival of mobile technologies has brought them a range of security challenges, like whether to allow employees to use their own mobile devices for work or whether a company should buy the devices for its employees. On the other hand, mobile technologies improve the synchronisation and flow of information in a company and can contribute to better management.

We, as a software company, are trying to seize these impacts and use them to make companies operate more effectively.

TSS: What role does the cloud play in the rising use of mobile devices in companies? What challenges does this development bring to IT companies and the development of new products?
The cloud, which makes the sharing of content easier, plays a significant role in this process. It simplifies the life of the user, who can finally forget about copying all the data from one device to another. But while ordinary people do not even think about how their data leaves a smartphone and appears on their tablet, companies think very profoundly about where their data goes and whether the cloud they use is trustworthy, safe and protects their data from abuse by unauthorised people.

Companies were used to having all their data ‘at home’. Firstly, these were papers kept in safe deposits and later companies used to have their own computer centres and were willing to trust only that which they had fully under their control. The crisis and efforts to make things more effective have resulted in a gradual movement towards data centres. Nowadays many renowned financial institutions are starting to use the services of data centres, which can be thought of as a private cloud. From here it is only a small step to deciding whether to use a data centre in Petržalka, which I can personally visit and know its manager, or whether to launch a data centre in Beijing, where costs of labour and energy are completely different and far more competitive. Then it is only about my mindset and whether I can believe that my data would be safe over there and that the facility would provide the required level of services. It is also necessary to take into consideration EU legislation, which does not allow some data to be located outside the EU’s territory. Sometimes it is not possible to do some things even if they are more effective for the company. Thus, there is a whole set of rules on decision making about effectiveness as well as trust that data will be administered safely, that nobody will abuse it and that it would be as safe as if I kept it at home under my personal control.

TSS: Deloitte predicts that in 2013 more than 90 percent of user-generated passwords, even those considered strong by IT departments, will be vulnerable to hacking. How do you view this opinion?
Security is a complex problem and the password is only one small part of it. Of course, it does play a role, but it is only as significant as its level of importance within the overall safety policy. Moreover, the problem of passwords is a technical problem and we can solve technical problems very well.

Deloitte is right that now there is much more computer power available to crack a password. While in the past it might take years to uncover a password, now this process can be shortened to days or even hours. Thus a strong password is not a cure-all. The safety policy should direct the user to behave responsibly. We also know to make verification of identification more complex, using fingerprints, but also chip cards, various tokens, short messages, randomly generated codes and other forms.

Nevertheless, the human factor is still the most important element and the question of how to protect the user from himself or his deeds remains. Phishing attacks and social engineering [a form of hacking] can be very creative and people often swallow the bait very easily.

TSS: Where do you see the biggest IT safety risks? What is the situation in Slovakia compared with abroad?
I see the biggest safety risks in the way in which the e-Government system is being built in Slovakia. New EU member countries are experiencing rapid development of information systems of the public administration thanks to EU funds, which are financing this development. I do not know exactly how it is in all these countries, but I see the situation in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. While in the Czech Republic the name of the architect of their e-Government system is known, in Slovakia I do not know it. I’m convinced that clearly named and renowned architects responsible for defining, implementing and following the supervision of rules, including those pertaining to safety, can lead to significantly reducing the risk of information about each of us being abused.

TSS: What inspired your company to develop its own solutions for uncovering fraud or to create its own business intelligence-based solution?
We have been automating processes, especially in financial institutions, for many years. We know these processes very well and we can identify where they are vulnerable and how they can be abused. This already happens, through dishonest clients or employees, and causes huge losses to companies, which are, especially during the current crisis, very sensitive to this.

And this was a challenge for us as we were convinced that here we can bring a significant added value to our clients. We first used, as a basis, available business intelligence tools. But standard solutions always have their limits and it is difficult to do sophisticated data analyses when you cannot improve and adapt these solutions according to your needs. As a result we developed our own solution. The goal is to analyse data and indicate suspicious behaviour. Then it is up to auditors to find out whether there is actually something fraudulent happening or not.

The target group for these products are financial institutions, which mean banks and insurance companies, but we also cooperate with the Labour Ministry, where we take care of the system of payment of social benefits.

TSS: Many companies in Slovakia are not satisfied with the level of knowledge of school and university graduates and complain of a disconnect between business and academia. How do you view the current situation?
The education sector in Slovakia is in a difficult situation. It suffers from a lack of money as well as quality teachers. On the other hand, I see mistakes that have been made in this area. The education sector suffers from atomisation and there are local universities, which does not make sense to me. Thus there are a lot of problems that we cannot solve. We try to help where we see a possibility for it. We cooperate on a long-term basis with renowned universities. Our employees lecture at universities and hold conferences for students to present to them the latest technological trends. We do this to help the educational process as well as to be known as a developed technological company and a prospective employer. We also invite teachers as well as students to our non-commercial trend conference that we organise each year. We also sponsor various activities to help grow talent. We often employ students who later become our employees and so on. So I would not cry over the low interconnection of business and academia; each company has a possibility to help.

TSS: In Softec you have implemented a concept of education and development based on so-called expert centres. Could you explain this concept?
It is very simple. The organisation of our company is based on project management, which gradually resulted in the creation of a structure of divisions dealing with certain types of projects. Now we have the insurance systems division, the telecommunication division, the banking division, the public administration division and so on. These divisions consist of project managers, consultants, analysts, programmers, testers and others, who, apart from IT know-how, which they need for designing, analysing, testing, implementation and maintenance of our products and solutions, have deep domain knowledge. What we lacked within this structure were clusters of people within the same specialisations, which would enable them to exchange experiences as well as relay knowledge from senior specialists to juniors. This resulted in the creation of seven expert centres. We have an expert centre for management, another one for analysis, several programming expert centres focused on technological domains, with one centre for testing and so on.

Now we have a matrix structure, in which people work in divisions but they are simultaneously in one or more expert centres. Within this structure our employees work on their own projects, but at the same time they can convey their knowledge to others as well as have a chance to learn new things and further develop.

TSS: Last year Softec became the IT company of the year. What did this award mean for your company?
For me personally, and certainly also for most people in the company, it means a certain recognition of the job we have done, as well as the path upon which we embarked 23 years ago. On the other hand it is also an obligation for the future as far as what we have to do to be seen even more as a top technological company that is able to combine top technological knowledge with domain knowledge. Our ambition is to be a partner of our clients when solving their business problems, optimisations, working processes and so on. Already now we mostly do not cooperate only with our clients’ IT departments, which was a standard approach some years ago, but in a not-insignificant number of cases we cooperate primarily with business departments. Domain knowledge is nowadays inevitable. Without it and without a proper understanding of the needs of businesses, we could not provide our clients with effective solutions.

TSS: What is the history of Softec? How has the IT market changed over that period of time?
We launched our company immediately after the Velvet Revolution, 23 years ago, when we as a group of software specialists from the academic sphere decided to leave the safe backgrounds of our institutes and set off into the unexplored spheres of business. We had enthusiasm and the will to transform our theoretical knowledge into concrete information systems. When I look back today, we were absolutely unprepared for what was awaiting us, but we wanted it very much.
Since this time a lot of things have changed. The company has gradually grown to over 250 permanent employees and about 30 students. We have 47 active clients in central Europe, especially in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. We provide services especially for banks, insurance companies, brokerage companies, telecom operators, utility companies and the public sector.
And how has the Slovak IT market changed? When we started it de facto did not exist. Today I dare to say that it belongs among the most developed in Europe.

TSS: The Slovak IT market has been affected by the crisis as well as by the halting or postponing of projects within the Operational Programme for the Informatisation of Society (OPIS). What are your expectations for the future?
This is a very difficult question and I do not dare to offer a prognosis in this unstable environment, where we first had the financial crisis, which evolved into the debt crisis. I am more and more convinced that those who speak about a crisis of values are right. What seemed to be completely absurd even a short time ago – the introduction of the barter trade – is today a reality in part of Europe. I only hope that common sense as well as human values will win and that we will use technologies that we develop rapidly for improving the quality of life of all us and not only a chosen few.

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