The Pillars of DataArt’s Corporate Culture: Interview with Alexei Miller

This month, DataArt celebrates its 24th business anniversary. Almost a quarter of a century, and we are still going strong, reliable, and crisis-proof! We’d like to spread the celebration around by looking back at DataArt’s early days. This is the second post in a series of interviews, in which DataArt ‘founding fathers’ look back at the times our corporate culture traces its roots to.
7 min read
07/12/21
By Anni Tabagua
PR & Communications
All articles
By Alexei Miller
Managing Director at DataArt
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The Pillars of DataArt’s Corporate Culture: Interview with Alexei Miller

We continue the series of blog posts about company’s core values and corporate culture with an interview with Alexei Miller, DataArt’s Managing Director.

Read previous posts in “The Pillars of DataArt’s Corporate Culture” series:

Miller

Alexei Miller leads strategic sales and client engagement efforts for global technology consultancy, focusing on IT strategy, new system development, and technology innovation. Alexei joined DataArt when the company was founded in 1997 and was elected to the board of directors in 2002. Over the past two decades, he has overseen product and service development, delivery, sales and management of key accounts, and has built a dedicated Finance Practice. Alexei has been instrumental in establishing DataArt’s position as a global technology leader dedicated to service excellence and helping to significantly grow the company's operations on a global scale.

Q: DataArt seems to be operating in an unusual way – as a meritocracy. Anybody can challenge anything at any time, regardless of their position in the company. Was it purposefully planned that way from the very beginning, or did this just happen naturally?

There was no plan, that is for sure. We certainly never thought along the lines of “Yes, this is the way a certain enterprise should function.” I think one of the reasons it happened this way is that, historically, we at DataArt were not as good at figuring out what to do as we were at understanding what not to do. I can recall many times when we would sit together and describe how things should not function, discarding ideas that were clearly destructive rather than devising a single way in which something should be organized. We would rather get rid of all the bad branches and let the rest of the tree grow rather than providing a shape for the tree to conform to.

Q: Right. DataArt was founded by a group of people who were all independent thinkers with strong opinions. How did you manage to agree on things?

Your standard corporate myth is rooted in the idea of a visionary founder who has three heads, seven hearts, always knows what is right, and always wins. While leaders like this might exist, it was definitely not the case with DataArt. There was no single visionary founder. There were founders, but I don’t think any one of them would call themselves a visionary.

The question presumes that there was always a clash of strong opinions. In reality, there was no such clash because there were no strong opinions.

There were opinions and there were disagreements – tactical, not strategic – but there was almost no ego in the process.

Q: You mention that it wasn’t about what to do, but rather about what not to do. Would you briefly state the core principles you agreed on and that DataArt was built upon?

One of these is extreme tolerance of failure, mistakes and uncertainty. We often speak about our tolerance of employee mistakes, our own mistakes, etc. But there is another side of tolerance: the tolerance of uncertainty, which is a managerial issue. A lot of companies try to address this uncertainty with detailed plans, bold proclamations about the future, and so forth. Those are all psychological tools for facing the fact that we do not really know what is going to happen in the future.

Somehow our group has always been okay with the very simple fact that we did not know something. Many of us came of age in the Soviet Union as it was falling apart. The world was changing 180 degrees every two weeks, so planning ahead was pointless. Perhaps, it was less our nature and more our environment that made us what we are. 

I think this tolerance of uncertainty has helped us in many ways. We waste less time planning for the future, which left more time and mental energy to focus on the present.
DataArt

Q: DataArt is also all about trust: there is almost no “us and ‘them.” Would you elaborate on the importance of trust at DataArt?

I’d say that, when first joining our company, many people have a lot of difficulty understanding the idea that trust does not have to be earned at DataArt. You are given trust from day one. And what can happen is that you can lose it. It is the opposite of what many companies do. From day one, we assume that you know what you are doing and that you will do it well. We assume that you will have the company’s interests in mind rather that your own political interest – so you’re trusted with confidential information, with making decisions. That does not have to be earned – it’s right there from the get-go. And that is unusual.

Q: Interesting. And very true. Why do you think it works that way at DataArt?

It is a lot more work to not trust. You have to build all these systems and structures, etc. It takes a lot of work to operate in an environment of no trust; a lot of time and nerves, too. So, energy-wise, it is just easier to trust everyone. Occasionally, when you are wrong – and sometimes you are – you just fix it. The total energy expenditure is lower that way. I can’t say that it’s true for others, but it’s definitely true for me.

Another thing is that we started the company when we were relatively young – early 20s – so there was never a father or mother figure who had done it before. If we were to start the company today, when we’re well into our 40s and beyond, it would be a different company. We have enough bruises, and we would do many things differently.

Our hiring policy has always been different, too. We’d always hire on this principle of whether there is a fit with the actual person, and not with what their CV says.

Q: Did it affect you that many outside consultants were saying that the DataArt way of doing business was wrong?

Up until we hit $100M in revenue, it did affect me. I can’t speak for the others, but it did create doubts. Often, we would sit together and discuss our model, considering the alternatives. “OK, let’s say we are not doing things right. Let’s imagine how an alternative would work here.” And no matter how ‘bad’ we were, the alternative always looked worse to us. Over time, we just came to realize that we are not that bad. We are just different. That collective discussion and decision-making really helped.

DataArt

Q: Do you think our culture helps our clients and our business?

We serve a broad spectrum of clients. Some really appreciate our approach. I do think that it definitely helps us keep clients. Our culture definitely influences the way we behave during the sales process: we are earnest, we are transparent, we are ‘what you see is what you get,’ no bait-and-switch.

I am not sure whether our culture helps us win new clients, but it definitely helps us keep the clients we have, in other words, to form long-term partnerships.

Q: What has to happen for DataArt to change its values?  

The company has to change. It is naïve to think that it will always be the same. Change is healthy. I hope the change would not so much affect our core values, but rather how those values translate into daily reality.

I can go off on a tangent about trust, but in the cybersecurity environment that we live in “trust” might not be the most convenient word. We need to watch our employees, ourselves, our clients, the world – regardless of whether or not we want to. The world is changing. I think the more appropriate question would be whether I can imagine a scenario where things don’t change. I think it’s not about the change itself, but the pace of it.

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