To Russia, with love
In recent months, I’ve reported about trips that were financed by COFES (Congress on the Future of Engineering Software). One was to Scottsdale, Arizona and this one was to St. Petersburg, Russia. The subjects are about the trips, not about the company. Just so you know, there’s no conflict of interest. I get no fee from COFES, but they do pay my expenses. I consider them a way to get a free vacation a couple of times a year. So read them and join me on my adventures in travel and technology.
My association with COFES has been profitless, but interesting. Although COFES targets CAD/CAM, it also covers innovation and science. Brad Holtz, Cyon Research CEO and head of COFES, called me up and asked, “Do you want to go to Russia?” “Certainly! When?” The travel was from May 26 to June 3, 2013. This travelogue includes my handicap. My legs are bad and a long trip like that with substantial baggage (and the computers) requires lots of preparation and a companion. We examined the trip for several months—visa, inoculations, meds, etc.
We went via Lufthansa with one stop in Germany. Before we left, we had to make sure we had all the necessary items. We had to make sure our credit cards would respond correctly because of unusual activity or from a foreign location. I was caught once, and I don’t want to get caught again.
One of the mistakes I made was that I did not take into account the new computer safety and security issues. I don’t mean the airport security, I mean the security of the laptop itself. Apparently, the new security software attaches passwords to locations and the computer being accessed. I did not do the right thing and tell the computer system I was going to Russia. When I got there, my regular email password didn’t work. It still doesn’t.
I did make some observations that are not statistically relevant but interesting. On the ride to the hotel I only saw two Russian-made vehicles, but I did see two Cadillac Escalades. Most of the cars were Asian, German or American. We had no problems with country entry and exit, which surprised me. Our hotel was located a quarter-mile from the summer palace of Peter the Great.
The COFES conference was preceded by a specialized vendor conference hosted by Russia’s Ascon Group. My talk was acting as a bridge between the two conferences and my official time for talking was in the afternoon for several hours. Host Brad Holtz decided to make sure the conference stayed informal. He did not allow ties and jackets into any session. All English, no translation and no PowerPoint. Essentially we had a fireside chat hosted by the boss (Brad) and performed by yours truly. We covered many subjects. Some were “how do I think,” and “tell us about the Higgs boson.” Since I could not leave the hotel, I continued these sessions for the next two days in the lobby. I met with their minds, not with the buildings.
The food was not very good unless you stuck to Russian customs. I ate a lot of sausage and they ran out of Pepsi Light. As expected, you had to ask for ice repeatedly. The breakfast buffet was quite good, and the hotel was excellent. To my surprise, most of the queries to me were from non-Russians.
What did I learn? More than most of the attendees. One of the talks I heard was about entrepreneur innovation and nanotechnology for Russia. They were three illustrations that hit my midbrain head on. One was entitled “Where the Entrepreneurs Are.” Turns out there are five areas that are doing twice as many startups than the U.S. The U.S. has 21 per cent of its wealth made through new companies. Europe, Asia-Pacific, Middle East, South Africa and Latin America are twice that or more. Another was a four-square chart indicating the players in nanotechnology and the rest of the world. Italy and Russia are minor players. Russia knows it’s a minor player and wants to move into the dominant arena; primarily Germany, Japan, South Korea and historically the U.S. The chart I love is a correlation between Noble laureates per 10 million population and chocolate consumption. This one I looked up myself. There is a strong correlation between chocolate consumption and Noble laureates. The subject has nothing much to do with the session, but I thought it was interesting. You have to have some laughs.
I have some friends in Italy who go to St. Petersburg for vacation. The Russians I talked with seemed to be concerned about respect to them and respect from them to us. Cultural changes. They seemed to want to avoid eye contact as well and referred to previous events (early 1990s) as “Soviet times.”
A little closing commentary: If there is something you want to do or see, do it now. Don’t wait until you are unable to enjoy the trip. And entrepreneurship in Russia? They seem to be afraid of failure. But entrepreneurship is based upon failure. Innovation is built on a foundation of mistakes—something not available in most countries. One of the advantages we have is that we can let people go at the end the week. None of the countries I visited so far can do this. Once you hire somebody, you have hired him or her “forever.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.