If you look at IT rankings and consider the fastest growing concentration of developers and their effectiveness and skills, Eastern and Central European countries are taking the lead. Currently, they are only giving way to unstoppable China. However, Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic all score high on Hacker Rank, also known as the Programming Olympics. Skill Value rankings confirm this data greatly.
There can be many reasons for these results, and my theory is around the fact that this could be one of the very few good things that comes out of being a former communist state.
STEM education in Eastern Europe is at a very high level, and even more important, is very respected. Parents often encourage their offspring to go for engineering careers because it usually means getting a stable and well-paid job. Because of the nature of the local economy, most of the industrial activity in EE is building what others designed, and more importantly, marketed. There was a lot of work opportunity in global corporations, but it very rarely included strategy or marketing work. This created a trend where you just couldn’t get paid as well doing liberal arts type jobs (like marketing) as doing engineering jobs (i.e. optimizing production). This phenomenon is not so prevalent anymore, as many countries, especially the ones with lesser Russian influence, like Poland, Czechia and Hungary, became very similar to their Western neighbors.
If we take it one more step and look further back into history, we can see it’s not only the economics but also the sociopolitical heritage of communism making its mark. If you think about it, there is no reason to study and research social sciences or arts — everything is already figured out by Marx and his followers. They described all the dynamics that rule the world, and there is no need to re-examine that. Art in communism is also viewed from a very pragmatic standpoint. It should advertise the Party’s program and inspire masses to work hard. Engineering is what is important: the nation and the state needs roads, bridges, factories and strong industry to build its wealth. Being too creative is bad for the revolution, but figuring out how to improve production output with limited resources is extremely important.
The limited resources and no access to new and cool gadgets created one more opportunity to breed great engineers. It is something we would call “hacker culture” today, but I believe a better word would be “tinkering culture”. Today’s recycling enthusiasts would be ashamed to see how inhabitants of Soviet republics fixed, improved, remixed and repurposed every object around them, not only clothes and furniture but also home appliances and electronics. Groups of friends would gather together to have fun soldering and fixing devices that were obviously not top-quality in the first place. It wasn’t Stanford’s Computer Club, but a shortage of information, research and devices sparked creativity and ingenuity, because you were forced to experiment on your own. This was engraved in the engineering culture, rendering EE teams suited to work amazingly well under tight conditions.
Most of these effects are now slowly fading off as communist times become more and more distant and countries absorb American culture. Educational choice is something that affects generations (also generations of school teachers), so it can be safely assumed that Central and Eastern Europe will keep being an amazing tech-talent hub, and we will keep seeing countries like Poland and Russia topping software development contests.