Mrs. Futekova, how do you see the future of the technology sector in the next few years?
Today, digital technologies are transformed from a single segment into an overall environment that encompasses all economic sectors and public spheres. Increasingly, we hear about talking about autonomous cars, smart homes and businesses, digital payments, e-medicine and education – these are just a few examples of the extent to which the IT sector redefines other aspects of our lives. I expect this trend to grow in the years to come with the development of technology segments such as the Internet of Things, virtual reality and added reality, artificial intelligence, and the processing of large data sets. Some call these trends a fourth industrial revolution. Regardless of how we will call them, it is certain that we are faced with extremely comprehensive changes that will affect the lives of everyone in the world.
What, in your opinion, is Bulgaria’s place in these processes?
Bulgaria is positioned very well in the information technology segment. Even as part of the socialist bloc before 1989. our country has become a technology center, production enterprises and universities have been established in the area. Building on this basis, for the past three decades, a comprehensive ecosystem has been built in Bulgaria, including educational institutions, technology companies, private academies of private business and branch organizations. As a result, our country is a recognizable software development center with many companies operating successfully all over the world, and many of the leading technology giants choose Bulgarian cities such as Sofia and Plovdiv for their development centers. We develop new products and services in some of the most promising technology segments such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, Internet of Things, business software and many more. That is why I am optimistic and I believe that Bulgaria can play a key role in the development of digital technologies and their entry into the other economic sectors.
How do you see our country on the global and European map specifically for business software?
Companies for business software deployment have moved a little later to the international market, compared to those specializing in software outsourcing, for example. Interestingly, in recent months we have witnessed the activation of Bulgarian implementers abroad and we are increasingly seeing ERP projects on the Balkan Peninsula or Western Europe realized by Bulgarian teams. This is another very good opportunity to realize the Bulgarian IT talent and to bring fresh financial resources to the Bulgarian economy from the outside.
You are the managing partner of one of the first Bulgarian ERP companies – ERP.BG, which has been on the market for more than 20 years. What changed in the sector during this period and started the Bulgarian business to realize the need for ERP systems?
Bulgarian companies’ relationship to business management systems has changed noticeably in recent years and there are virtually no major companies not aware of the potential of ERP systems to increase their competitiveness. There is also a better knowledge of different business software classes – CRM, BI and others, their specifics and advantages. Another important trend is that more and more small businesses are also implementing such software solutions to ensure better scalability of business.
What advice would you give to a company that still hesitates to implement such a system? Where to start and what to look for and where can they expect results?
At this stage, it is best for it to direct a SaaS-based solution to take full advantage of the benefits of this type of system. It is also important to integrate the business processes, software solutions and websites to the new ERP system at best. I would also recommend that start-ups start thinking about introducing a business management system at the beginning of their existence. They should not be frightened by the word ERP itself, and it is important to keep in mind that the availability of such software will allow them to grow much faster and more scalable.
How many developers are currently operating in Bulgaria and how has this figure changed in the last 5 years? Do you expect new names to enter the market and is there a danger of over-saturation with similar companies at one point?
Most ERP systems offered on the Bulgarian market are foreign. Bulgarian developers of business software solutions, which can be called ERP systems, are counted on the fingers of both hands.
What are the sectors / industries that are the biggest users of this type of solution and who do you think there is potential yet to be deployed?
It is important to clarify that the very ideology of ERP systems stems from the manufacturing sector and that is why logically the first such solutions are introduced into production plants. In addition, among the most active users are also the trading companies of all segments, the banks and the financial companies, as well as the ones in the sphere of services. There is still potential for business management systems to enter into industries such as tourism and real estate where there are specific vertical software products, but there are virtually no ERP systems.
What are the biggest problems and risks in terms of managing this type of business?
The biggest problem in the industry is the lack of skilled workers, which is in fact the most serious brake on the growth of the sector. In order to solve this problem we created together with the leading companies in the ERP branch in our country ERP Academy – the only Bulgarian organization that actively prepares staff in this specific segment. Within the framework of the Academy, we have developed together with the Higher School of Insurance and Finance also the only master program in Bulgaria in the field of business software, which already has great reviews. We are still planning a number of initiatives in this area and within BAIT. Among other risks, I would like to highlight the exceptional dynamics of this sector, which forces the participants to continuously demonstrate creativity and innovation, to keep up with the global trends and to compete with the big international companies in the industry. It is delightful that Bulgarian companies are doing this at this stage.
According to a study by Delloite in the coming years, the cost of IT services worldwide will exceed half a trillion dollars. How do you see Bulgaria on the global and European map and what are your expectations for the next 5 years (specifically in the CRM / ERP / BI part)?
The most significant trends in the sector on a global scale are migration to SaaS solutions as well as the gradual conversion of ERP systems into platforms for a variety of applications by external developers. In this regard, Bulgaria is not lagging behind and even boasts some serious successes. At ERP.BG, we have been developing in these directions for several years, and today we can boast that our EnterpriseOne ERP system is amongst the few with a developed ecosystem of applications. We have also recently created our own programming language for the system, with which our partners will be able to create even more functionality in support of their customers.
As a wholly Bulgarian developer, how does ERP.BG manage the competition of its Western counterparts?
With the continuous introduction of innovations, as well as with very close communication with the Bulgarian enterprises from many branches. A few years ago our EnterpriseOne ERP system became one of the first, fully optimized mobile and touchscreen displays. We have made Business Intelligence features available contextually throughout the system. We are also developing a comprehensive ecosystem for enterprise application development for EnterpriseOne, and we have just introduced our own programming language built into the system. With some of these innovations we even outpaced some of the internationally recognized ERP systems. At the same time, our proximity to Bulgarian managers, their communication with them and our network of partners helps us to be very familiar with the specific problems, needs and requirements of the companies in Bulgaria and to create products that are fully in line with them.
You have recently been elected to the board of directors of the Bulgarian Association of Information Technologies (BAIT). What will be the priorities of the new leadership of the organization?
It is a great honor for me to take part in BAIT’s leadership – undoubtedly the largest, oldest and most influential branch organization in the Bulgarian IT industry. Over the years, it has repeatedly defended the interests of the sector before state institutions, participated in the most significant discussions about its future, and has often initiated the discussions themselves, setting the tone for the development of the IT sector. The new board will build on these sound foundations and will work in full consistency with the previous leadership of the association. Today, BAIT includes all major technological sub-segments, and among the most prominent members of the organization are well-recognized companies all over the world who work successfully in Europe, America and Asia. That is why the association’s activities include many priorities. Among them, education and market development will certainly stand out.
As a long-time university lecturer and founder of ERP Academy, you have a very close look at the processes of Bulgarian education. What are the most serious challenges in this area?
Education will continue to increase its importance in the information age. In a number of countries around the world, it is now necessary to understand that the educational system must be free from the traditional pattern of engraving some learning material that has not changed for years. It needs to be more flexible and open to novelties, to create new thinking patterns and to encourage students to be open to change. If, a few decades ago, it was normal for a person to complete a vocational education in a given area and then work in it for the rest of their lives, today the speed at which the professions appear and disappear dismisses this function of the education system. Although currently the most current professions are those of the programmer or system administrator, the truth is that when today’s children grow up, they will be working entirely new jobs that we can not even imagine today.
How can the school and the university prepare them for this?
Only by educating an open attitude to change, critical thinking and the ability to learn through life. This is the new role of education – instead of educating good workers in a certain sphere, creating critical thinking and open to change individuals who will be able to cope with different types of tasks, depending on the changing environment.
Does the problem of IT staff shortages deepen?
The emergence of multiple academies for business talent, partnerships between universities and IT companies, and other initiatives in recent years have undoubtedly a positive impact. Among the successful examples are the first bachelor’s and the first MSc in Business Software in Bulgaria, created by ERP Academy and the Higher School of Insurance and Finance, which already enjoy extremely positive feedback from both businesses and students. However, the sector will continue to suffer from a lack of staff for a long time and this is quite logical given the overall migration of business and a number of public spheres to the digital environment. When we talk about new segments like the Internet of Things, fintech, or virtual reality, we must bear in mind that behind their development lies the realization of thousands of new projects, services and companies in Bulgaria and around the world. And that means we will be looking for an increased demand for specialists to ensure the functioning of these new services. Even in Bulgaria, the demand for IT talents is diminishing, the export orientation of our technology industry and the high competitiveness of Bulgarian companies as a price / quality ratio means that the demand for quality specialists in Bulgaria will exceed the supply.
Alexandr Alexandrov interview for Enterprise magazine