Because behind every great app there’s a great team of back-end developers. Some are where you’d least expect.
By James Watkins of Ozy.com
The blinds are pulled in all the windows of the fifth-floor office. Computer screens and cracks of daylight cast a gray-blue glow, complementing the dark grays and dark purples of mismatched furniture, seemingly thrown together yet too cool to be accidental. The only accents of color are lime greens and bright pinks that dance across screens in lines of computer code. This place has style.
One of several artsy-looking signs on the wall reads “Dance like no one is watching. Encrypt like everyone is.” If I were a location scout for HBO’s Silicon Valley, I’d film the whole damn thing here. But we’re 7,000 miles from California. We’re in Bishkek, the capital of landlocked Kyrgyzstan, at a back-end development hub behind some of Asia’s top apps and tech platforms. Another streak of color? The shock of bright-pink hair on the CEO at the center of the room: Alla Klimenko. Her company, Mad Devs, is a leader in Kyrgyzstan’s burgeoning tech scene, which is increasingly pitching itself as a cheaper alternative to Ukraine, yet more upmarket than India, in the battle to be the brains behind tech titans in Russia, Singapore, Thailand and beyond.
Mad Devs became Mad Devs only about two years ago, but the core team of developers who started the company have been working together for more than a decade. Most recently, they were the development team at Namba, a sort of Netflix-turned-Uber in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan’s most ubiquitous consumer tech company started as an online TV platform, has run an app-based ride-sharing service since 2012 and added food delivery in 2013 (a year before Uber Eats launched). Not satisfied with those challenges, the coders felt they weren’t being given enough to do, says Klimenko, so they started their own company.
It now has more than 50 employees, contracting with Namba as well as Eatigo, a Bangkok-based restaurant booking service with more than a million users across Southeast Asia; Zentist, a Silicon Valley–based dental services platform; an artificial intelligence–meets–blockchain concept called Neureal; and others as far away as the U.K. and Australia. “We don’t work with small projects,” says Klimenko, only meaningful partnerships of six months or more. They don’t have a sales team beyond Klimenko herself, with all their work coming through word-of-mouth.
Tech CEO isn’t the usual career path of 31-year-old Kyrgyz women. Almost all talented young people leave to work in Kazakhstan or Russia, where average wages are four and eight times that of those in Kyrgyzstan, respectively. Klimenko herself spent 18 months working in Almaty, Kazakhstan, returning to Bishkek on weekends. Though the business scene is more developed in Kazakhstan, the region’s economic powerhouse, almost all employees in Kazakhstan’s tech scene are Kyrgyz, says Klimenko. But now, the lack of other opportunities means that tech is one industry where Kyrgyzstan could thrive: “We are hungry,” Klimenko says. “As soon as you give people a chance to earn good money here without leaving the country, they take it.”
That same ambition has driven Klimenko personally as well as professionally. Fiercely independent since childhood, she excelled at physics and mathematics Olympiads as a high school student. Studying computer engineering at university, she was one of the best in her class, and would often be held up as an example to her predominantly male classmates — “Even the girl can do this, and you can’t?” she recalls her teachers saying, though for her it’s more a source of pride than an example of sexism.
Klimenko occupies a strange ideological position on gender politics. She is considering running an all-female intern class next year because she’s convinced that women are usually far better qualified than they say in applications, and yet she doesn’t believe the future is totally female: “There shouldn’t be more women than men” in tech, she says, else “they start to try to dominate each other.”
Klimenko left her first husband (whom she married while still at university) because he wanted her to be a stay-at-home mother; she left her second husband (the father of her 6-year-old son) because he didn’t share her ambition. She is chatty and funny, markedly different from the rest of the employees, whose eyes barely rise from their screens as they eat at their desks. Klimenko hasn’t actually coded since university, after realizing that project management in tech was her forte. It’s “unique” for someone to have Klimenko’s communications and sales skills while still being on the same intellectual level as the coders themselves, says Andrew Minkin, one of Mad Dev’s other co-founders.
Mad Devs is “one of the top local companies” in Kyrgyzstan’s tech scene, says Aziz Soltobaev, co-founder of KG Labs, an organization working to boost the country’s tech infrastructure — although there are a few other companies eyeing international prominence, including software development platform Zensoft. Many of the other leading companies have offices abroad or foreign founders, says Soltobaev, making Mad Devs one of the few to remain in Bishkek. “One of the challenges is a lack of talent,” he says — a problem that Mad Devs tackles by training dozens of unpaid interns in-house, several of whom have no formal training. The team calls their grueling program “The Hunger Games,” which ends with a “hell week” during which the office sofas become makeshift beds. Minkin leads the internship program, mainly because of his size and intimidating physical appearance, says Klimenko.
Of course, it’s still early days for the Mad Devs team, and becoming the go-to back-end development hub for the future economy is a title that emerging economies the world over are fighting for. But if there’s one thing they’ve nailed in the aspiration to bring Silicon Valley to Central Asia, it’s a tribelike company culture. Minkin even has a tattoo featuring the Mad Devs logo. Klimenko’s own tattoo covers her forearm with a “goddess of flame,” and it too was inked with the company in mind — yet another colorful selling point.