Explore Alexey's journey from scientist to CEO in commerce. Learn about his challenges, self-discovery, and team spirit in this insightful interview.

Alexey, please share with us the milestones of your professional journey. Tell us about the most significant events and how they influenced your current position.

Before I address the main question, let me share the principle that guides me when changing jobs. I am primarily interested in gaining new experiences and encountering challenges. This largely determines my decisions.

Let’s rewind the tape. I graduated from Belarusian State University (BSU), Faculty of Radiophysics and Electronics. My choice of university was heavily influenced by my parents, whose example I had before me. They also graduated from BSU. At that time, the university offered a broad, fundamental education rather than a specialized one, which allowed for greater versatility in future career choices. Was this the only reason I enrolled there? No. I was very good at mathematics and physics, and I enjoyed participating in competitions in these subjects. One of these competitions helped me gain admission to BSU without entrance exams.

During my time at university, I didn’t set decade-long goals or imagine myself as a director by thirty or a leader; I simply did my work diligently. In my final year, I aimed to pursue a scientific degree and try my hand in research, a unique mix between learning and working. This seemed like a natural extension of my studies. I thought long and hard about where to continue my education after graduation and decided not to limit myself to Belarus. I composed a resume and sent it to relevant institutes in Western Europe.

My resume caught the attention of an institute in Germany that was making groundbreaking advancements in the field of semiconductors. It was called IHP (Innovations for High Performance Microelectronics). After a successful interview, I began working on a project to develop a new filter based on a mechanically deformable p-n junction. Several months in, the project, initially deemed risky, was concluded because, as my work revealed, the actual effect size was significantly lower than initially predicted. For a project to count towards a scientific degree, it has to be successful, of course. So, I began searching for a new scientific project for my dissertation and sent resumes to institutes, including the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin.

Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin

Out of several offers, theirs appealed to me the most—thus, I ended up in the Department of Computational Experiments. The department worked in theoretical physics, developing specialized software for computational experiments. On supercomputers, we described material properties ab initio, based solely on the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics. My first degree was also in physics, but radiophysics deals with electromagnetic radiation. At the Fritz Haber Institute, I delved into solid-state physics. It was incredibly interesting. Alongside my work, I attended special courses at Berlin universities and learned "in the field." For my research, I developed software for calculations and did a lot of programming in C++ under Unix. Alongside my research, I wrote articles analyzing numerical experiment results and substantiating the results of my experimental colleagues.

It was a very exciting time. Every day, I learned something new and honed my skills as a researcher and analyst, mastering the art of presenting and defending my findings. Therefore, when my supervisor was offered the position of director at the Max Planck Institute in Düsseldorf, I transferred there as well to continue my project under his guidance. My dissertation defense for the degree of Dr. rer. nat. took place there. Typically, a dissertation takes 3-4 years to write. For me, it took about 6 years.

I suspect your dedication and relentless pursuit of meaningful results played a role in the extended timeframe.

Yes, exactly. I need to see a task through to a result that satisfies me. This drive for perfectionism has its pros and cons.

It's also important to note that I didn't have a strict external deadline for defending my dissertation. I set my own timeline. For instance, in the UK, the rules are stricter and the system more rigid: after three years, you have to defend, no exceptions. In Germany, I didn't feel that pressure. It's quite possible that this was just my experience, and I was lucky to have a supervisor who didn't impose time constraints. I can't say this is the case for everyone everywhere.

I achieved my goal of earning a scientific degree, but my "hunger" for scientific work wasn't yet satisfied. After defending my dissertation, I continued my research but wanted more, faster growth. I aimed to become the leader of a research group. I chose my direction, formed my team, and together with my colleagues, we wrote many articles that are considered "capital" in the scientific community. If you aim for a high-ranking position, like a professorship, you need to accumulate enough "capital." Without it, you can't be an invited speaker, for instance. Modern science is also a business, with its own ecosystem, approaches, frictions, and competition.

Alongside leading the research group, I managed the department's supercomputing center. A former colleague who started his own business entrusted me with a team of technicians, and together we developed the center. This was a new and interesting experience, not just within the realm of research, but also in creating the necessary infrastructure for it.

It was time to set a new goal. By then, I had experience chairing conferences, numerous publications, my own research group, and a solid understanding of how the global and German scientific ecosystems functioned. I imagined staying in science, with the next milestone being the defense of a Dr. habil. degree and obtaining a professorship.

However, I didn't see myself in this role because it would mean quantitative growth while the qualitative aspects remained the same. Yes, there would be new positions and titles, but the repetitive nature of tasks and their cyclical progression from one level to the next didn't inspire me.

I decided not to stay in science. I had a clear understanding that I wanted to try myself in a completely different field, gain new experiences, and develop new skills.

Can we return to the scientific environment? You mentioned cyclicality and how the prospect of uniformity didn't thrill you. Did you ever feel a surge of energy and strength at the mere thought of working on a socially significant project? There is an image of a scientist as a somewhat eccentric, somewhat selfish person who doesn't eat, drink, but works day and night developing an "internal combustion engine." Do you consider yourself one of those? Have you met such people?

Of course, success in any field comes to those who are primarily driven by their passion for the work itself, those who are motivated by the work itself, regardless of income, titles, or status. These are the visionaries. They lead, inspire, their eyes shine with excitement, and they are deeply interested in research for its own sake. There are many such people in the scientific community, but not everyone who engages in science plans to do it for life. Many, like me, come to science for new, unique experiences. Many of my colleagues, like me, set a goal to earn a doctoral degree (Doctor rerum naturalium, which is equivalent to a PhD in the US and UK, or a Candidate of Physical and Mathematical Sciences in the former USSR), which is practically essential for a career in science and very helpful outside of it. Once they earned their degree, they too faced the decision: to stay or to leave. If they left, it was usually for the commercial sector: consulting, large corporations with their own research centers, patent attorneys, their own business, or commercial companies. Pure scientific research wasn't enough to keep them motivated.

However, there were also "craftsmen" who pursued science without that "fire in their eyes," but they didn't leave. This happens in any field. As I mentioned, science is not just about research; it's an ecosystem, a business with its own currency, its success stories, and the familiar rules of interacting with people. To be a successful scientist, beyond the research itself, you need to build the right network, secure funding, understand how the system works, know how to "sell" yourself and your work, and know where to focus your efforts for maximum success and growth.

During my time in science, German universities, when looking for new professors, were interested not only in the candidate's subject matter and scientific success but also in the amount of funding the new professor could bring to the university. I'm sure this situation hasn't changed much over the years.

Many of my colleagues stayed in science, though not all. I found it fascinating as long as there were qualitatively new challenges within the scientific environment: defending my dissertation, leading a group, overseeing a thesis, mentoring a PhD student, attending new conferences, publishing in high-level scientific journals. It was always new experiences, new knowledge, new skills. Once I realized that quality was starting to turn into quantity, I decided to leave science. The mere fact of doing research wasn't enough to inspire me. In that sense, I am not a scientist in the classic sense.

Another important point: I was engaged in fundamental research. Therefore, immediate effects were not to be expected. These are studies that serve as a foundation for other research, which may someday become the basis for applied developments and have a real impact on the industry. But this is not about "here and now," without immediate practical implementation; it's a long game.

What was your next job?

I didn't initially consider Germany as a country where I wanted to stay long-term; it was an excellent choice for quickly immersing myself in international science. If I had decided to continue with scientific research, continuing my career in Germany would have been natural, but I had no such goal. My decision to return home was deliberate: my eldest daughter was about to start school, and Belarus was the country where I wanted my children to receive their education.

The opportunity to work as the Deputy Director at the Belarusian Institute of System Analysis under the State Committee for Science and Technology resonated with my inner compass. It wasn't a government job per se, but it was closely related and offered the new experience I was seeking. The State Committee for Science and Technology is essentially a ministry that sets policies for innovation and scientific and technological development at the state level. The institute provides scientific support, conducting research projects, organizing events needed by the ministry, and helping shape the agenda through studies of the country's scientific and technological base. We helped develop rankings of scientific and technological development and the innovative impact of other countries and executed international cooperation projects. This was an entirely new and interesting field for me. My previous experience allowed me to quickly adapt to the institute's work, organize its funding, and manage projects and research, albeit not in the field of physics. Concurrently, I gained new experience working in a different ecosystem, with different principles of research funding, specific interactions with the ministry, and leading a large scientific organization with broader tasks and projects.

As I began to feel more confident in this new field, I once again sensed that qualitative growth was gradually transforming into quantitative. I looked into my future again and asked myself whether I wanted to continue doing the same thing for the next five, ten, or fifteen years and what goals I would set for myself if I stayed in this sector. Once again, I craved entirely new experiences and challenges.

The commercial sector had always been a tantalizing terra incognita for me, sparking my immense interest and "hunger." I started actively searching for a job and, after speaking with several companies, chose EnCata, where I began working as a project manager. EnCata attracted me with its complex and unusual hardware outsourcing model and its young, ambitious team.

I joined the company with a lower status, understanding that I couldn't aspire to a higher position at that time since I was radically changing my field of activity.

Could you please elaborate on the phrase 'couldn't claim more'? Was it fear? A tactical move?

No, I wasn't afraid. I understood that I was interested in leadership roles, that I enjoyed analyzing and continually improving whatever I was involved in. My previous experience in analytical work and project management was entirely relevant. However, I also understood that R&D at EnCata was not the same as scientific research. I knew I could quickly get up to speed and deliver results for the company, but I also recognized that reaching the level of Deputy Director was something I had to grow into and prove myself worthy of.

To be an effective top manager, you need to understand why the system is structured the way it is. You need to grasp and share the company’s philosophy. This is precisely why I'm not a fan of hiring external leaders. It’s not Lean. A candidate for a leadership role should see and feel the system from the inside, understand why it works the way it does. They shouldn't immediately break it or change it based on their previous experience, but rather understand why it exists in its current form and then work to improve it.

Every company is unique in its own way. Each has its own business processes and peculiarities. Working as a project manager at EnCata allowed me to quickly understand the company's inner workings by handling specific "real" projects and developing an understanding of the company’s essence. This new experience, combined with my previous research experience, allowed me to move up to a higher position – the head of the project management office (PMO). From my perspective, a PMO is someone who has already figured out the company’s system, knows how to shape the development policies of the department, and sees the mechanisms for the entire company's growth.

It's important to understand that these mechanisms are not usually visible on the surface. Often, the potential for improvement is tied not to specific employees but to business processes. To figure out how we can do better and more efficiently, we need to trace how the entire chain of events works, what is the cause, and what is the effect. In this regard, LEAN provides an excellent tool for analyzing any situation using the "5 Whys" principle, which we use extensively.

At EnCata, we are constantly refining our business processes and welcome first-time mistakes because they allow us to see what can be changed and improved. However, we have a very negative attitude toward repeating initial, learning mistakes, which is why we develop a system of standards that serve as the foundation for continuous improvement, or Kaizen. Again, these are the LEAN principles that are embedded in EnCata's DNA.

When you decided you were ready to become a PMO, what shortcomings did you start to correct? What results did you achieve during your time as a PMO?

There’s no simple answer because improvement is a continuous, daily process. It’s not about achieving a momentary result or milestone, nor is it about a one-time, decisive change: "Implement and relax."

We've made a vast number of changes, and they are qualitative. There are many focal points, constantly fluctuating, sometimes fading, and then pulsating again. In this flow, we wrote and rewrote standards, accumulating our experience and expertise. We continually analyzed cases where we made mistakes (equally opportunities to learn something new) in interactions with clients, in production, in the work of the design bureau, in logistics, and procurement. We examined what we could have done better, identified the root cause of any shortcomings, addressed it, updated standards, and modified business processes. After some time, we would "learn something new" again and figure out what we could do better this time around. This is Kaizen.

We began to explore how to nurture effective project managers and teams in general. What does each of us expect from our colleagues? How can we improve? What can we change in our processes from a business perspective to make EnCata more effective and higher quality today compared to yesterday?

Both then, and now as CEO, my job has been to systematize and integrate a vast number of factors: different people and information, to see interconnections and opportunities for improvement. Every specialist has their own understanding of what’s important and excellent. For instance, if you ask someone in marketing where to invest money to get a return, they will likely focus on marketing-related tasks. Engineers will have suggestions related to development, and production will have their own priorities.

All these factors need to be brought together to see how they align with the company’s development goals, what needs to be changed right now, and what is less urgent. This is a constant process because the business environment we live in is perpetually changing, both internally and externally.

As PMO, I changed numerous processes. Some were necessary in the past but are now outdated. For example, the Kanban board for designers that visualized their work and duplicated our ERP system. We invested a lot of time in developing its algorithms, which allowed us to refine our ERP work templates to the point that the physical board became unnecessary. However, the experience of using the Kanban board for designers was crucial in developing standards for completing tasks.

Systematizing the experience of hundreds of different projects allowed us to identify commonalities and create EnCata's standards for project assessment and execution. Without constant, years-long analysis and improvement, this would have been impossible. These approaches integrate all the experience of developing non-standard devices and solutions.

The same goes for any aspect of product development at EnCata, such as technical project assessments during the sales phase. Technical assessments are a crucial stage where we first need to understand the business task of our potential client and then propose the best technical solution. We must thoroughly understand what we are developing not only from a technical implementation perspective but also from the standpoint of our clients' businesses.

Alexey, how do you achieve coherence among project managers? When someone joins the company, they don’t yet understand what kind of place it is, so they haven’t formed loyalty. To ensure that everyone is synchronized and shares the goal – helping people – you need to convey to the new employee that this is also their goal. How do you do that?

Every new employee goes through a multi-level "sieve" because we take preserving EnCata's culture and philosophy very seriously. We're interested not just in the technical skills of an individual, but also in their life motivation and personal philosophy. I personally discuss the company's mission, goals, and unique features with potential colleagues, explaining that we are not a family but a sports team. A sports team is about a common goal, about the shared adrenaline rush that an employee experiences both in the process of achieving the goal and upon its accomplishment. If this format suits them, and if their skills match our needs, they become part of our team. At this stage, you can usually tell if their eyes light up. But, of course, we get to know each other better once the probation period starts.

Regarding skills, not everyone fits in with us. Many people who come to us undergo a rigorous selection process and don't make it onto our team. Just because someone starts a trial period doesn't mean they will succeed. We’re not sure there's another way to assess this. To see how a person works and thinks, you need to put them in "combat" conditions. Many nuances then surface: for instance, how well a manager can articulate their thoughts, how well they can write, how they think, how responsible they are, and how their previous experience enables them to foresee and manage risks.

A very important task for a project manager is to develop a complete picture of the project's development in their mind. To some extent, they need to play the role of "devil's advocate," anticipating negative scenarios and ensuring they don't come to pass, working proactively.

How do you think, is it possible to acquire the skill of "seeing the big picture"? Or is it a privilege of brain structure? How was it for you?

Any skill can be acquired. However, it's more effective to develop areas where you're naturally strong and pursue what genuinely interests you. To determine what that is, you need to try different things and decide if you like them or not, if they suit you or not. If you're not passionate about certain tasks, you'll procrastinate and avoid them. I believe this applies to everyone. When there are aspects I internally disagree with or don't share a vision for, I also experience classic procrastination. It's important to note that this isn't about laziness; it's about internal priorities and not sharing the vision. If someone doesn't have a passion for leadership, that's neither good nor bad; it's just normal. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. There's no need to lead if you don't enjoy that type of work. Not all top developers want to become team leads, even if they have well-developed soft skills. They're simply not interested in a managerial and coordinating role, but they excel in other areas that interest them more. At EnCata, we recognize and support our colleagues in what each of them excels at.

A logical question: when a new project comes up, are the strengths of the engineers assigned to the project taken into account?

Absolutely. We understand that engineers don't just perform tasks — they bring their own skills and experience to the table. We recognize the strengths of our colleagues.

We're not afraid to make mistakes because we know we can learn from them and grow. Our business thrives on unique and unconventional technical solutions, and we're constantly striving to improve and evolve. We don't settle for the status quo; instead, we aim to make our projects more complex and ambitious. However, we also understand that these changes must occur gradually and in a controlled manner.

And finally, could you share the main rules you follow when managing the company?

The first aspect is continual improvement and striving toward our goal: to be the best in the world at developing unconventional hardware within our technology stack, creating our own technical school and approaches. This involves constantly accumulating and analyzing new experiences, having a vision, and seizing opportunities, as well as continuously working on standards and business processes.

The second aspect is to view the client as a partner, a colleague within our team, with whom we discuss how to solve common business challenges using our experience in developing new products and solutions. This entails open and active interaction, taking into account the client's opinions and ideas. Together, we analyze the problem, create a development strategy, and make decisions, allowing us to use resources most effectively and achieve the best results.

Thank you, Alexey, it was a pleasure talking to you and getting a ton of useful information from the CEO of such an extraordinary company.