From Russia to Mexico: An Engineer’s Life Lessons

After just under two and a half years at global software development company Luxoft, 27-year-old Maksim Kolesnikov was ready for an adventure – and the one he chose has taken him to the other side of the world, to a country he had never visited before.

After just under two and a half years at global software development company Luxoft, 27-year-old Maksim Kolesnikov was ready for an adventure – and the one he chose has taken him to the other side of the world, to a country he had never visited before. When the opportunity to lead a team in Luxoft’s new Mexico office was offered, Maksim jumped at it. This was not his first big move, however. Maksim told Nearshore Americas about his experiences in his temporary home in Guadalajara.

“Stepping off the plane in Guadalajara, the enormity of my journey struck me. Guadalajara was a world away from Kiev, Ukraine where I now lived. I had taken what felt like an even bigger move, though, a few years earlier, yet somehow this new environment felt more alien.

My first realization of just how far I was from home was trying to fill out the immigration card and some girl, an airport worker, tried to help me with this. The only problem was that she didn’t understand English at all, but she still was trying to help me.

It was my first acquaintance with Mexican people. They are always trying to help you even if they are do not know how to actually do this or do not understand your question. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it leads to even more problems, but it shows how friendly the people are.

First Steps

Born in Russia, in the small town of Muravlenko in the north of Siberia, I moved more than 2,300 miles to Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s fourth largest city located 240 miles southeast of the capital, to study a degree in computer networks and software engineering at Oles Honchar Dnipropetrovsk National University. Muravlenko was a town of just 35,000, small and compact. Dnipropetrovsk housed almost 30 times as many people. It was a big move, but some of my relatives lived there, so the transition was not so bad.

After working as a programmer for over two years, I moved to Kiev, where I took up a position at Luxoft.

IMG_7635I started at Luxoft as a mid-level Java developer, working in the travel area with customers like online travel bid site, Hotwire, a client account I am still involved with. Although I came relatively late to computers – I had my first computer at age 16 – my passion for the field drove me to pursue a career in the industry and I worked hard during the last two years of my schooling to enable me to go to university and study computer science.

None of my family members are in IT; my mother, a single parent since my father left when I was two years old, works in economics. My family is supportive of my choices. In fact, I often have to help solve computer problems that they have. It is hard even to get Skype working for them. Although coming from a single parent home had its challenges, I have no reference example of the ideal family to compare it to.

My mom made so much for me, that I didn’t realize that deficiency. I lost my father really early, so I had no chance to compare ‘before’ and ‘after’. My mom’s impact on my education and self-development is huge, but the decision to tie my life with IT was made by me, because she was far from all these ‘computer things’.

Driven by curiosity and the desire to try something new, my wife, Bogdana and I, took the plunge and decided to move to Mexico temporarily, when the opportunity arose. This was different than my previous moves to Dnipropetrovsk and then Kiev. There was no family in Mexico to make the transition easier. In fact, I knew nothing about the country we were about to travel to. For me, being away from relatives and friends is the hardest part of being in a foreign country

Guadalajara is a stark contrast to Kiev. More than 6,000 miles separate the two cities. Ukraine’s capital experiences temperature variations between 23F and 78F, in contrast to Guadalajara’s much warmer 41F to 93F range. My home town of Muravlenko is even more extreme, temperature-wise: The weather in that place was really aggressive, dipping to -58F in winter and having a very short summer. So you need to have really strong arguments and willingness to stay there. Guadalajara is much more temperate. There are differences beyond geography and climate, however.

The structures of Kiev and Guadalajara differ greatly. In Kiev there is one central city area, whereas in Guadalajara there are a few centers in different areas. Buildings in Guadalajara tended to be clustered differently to those in Eastern Europe with larger buildings surrounded by smaller residential ones. Kiev’s skyscrapers would tower over Guadalajara’s generally much flatter city landscape. In fact, tall buildings would seem strange in Guadalajara.

It’s funny what you notice when you are in a new place. I was surprised by the lack of billboard advertising in the city, something that is a mainstay in Kiev and other parts of Eastern Europe.

I had never been to Mexico and I knew very little about it before coming here. It was all part of the adventure, although I did speak to other colleagues at Luxoft who had been to get a bit of a feel for the place. Guadalajara feels about as far from Kiev as you can get. It is absolutely different cultures on different continents.

That being said, even in the most different of places there are bound to be similarities. We found out that in Ukraine and in Mexico we have absolutely the same native song. I’m not sure that the meaning of the song is the same but the music itself is completely same. We also have very similar authentic traditional clothes.

Isolating Factors

The language barrier has been isolating at times. I have often been described as a quick learner by colleagues and can speak Russian, Ukrainian and English, and now I am learning some Spanish. I knew almost no-one when I arrived here in February. I am the only person from the Ukraine here, although there were other Luxoft colleagues from the Ukraine here before and we are expecting some more in the coming months.

Outside of the office, few people speak English, making it difficult to get even simple tasks done. Apart from the language barrier, I don’t feel uncomfortable here, but I do miss my friends.

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I know that Eastern Europeans are generally seen as quite closed people, who do not smile easily, who are less social and are not seeking attention. I have had to learn about myself in order to integrate into the team, but I think we, as a team, have bonded well. It is strange to face such issues with language, especially since Mexico is so close to the US.

I have found it difficult to adjust to the cuisine too, and I often feel that there is a lack of variety in Mexican food. My own preference is for richer Ukrainian and Russian dishes. I don’t think there is a Ukrainian or Russian restaurant in Guadalajara, but I have managed to make contact with another expatriate Ukrainian woman, who moved to the city 11 years ago and who has started selling home-cooked Eastern European food in the area. She has organized events at the Russian Embassy before, so I hope to have the opportunity to meet with others from Russia and Eastern Europe.

Transport is another area of difference that has surprised and sometimes dismayed me. Drivers here are crazy! I had never witnessed an accident in my 27 years in Eastern Europe, but I have already seen a few in Guadalajara. The narrow Guadalajara streets make me feel uneasy as a pedestrian and the perceived lack of road regulation has been an adjustment. You always need to watch everything around you.

Despite the challenges, I feel that I have benefited from the experience. I have grown in terms of communication, language and leadership skills. We are a tight-knit team, mostly made up of young Mexicans from different parts of the country. The office here is still young and the expertise of the local community is still growing, so while there is deep knowledge in certain areas, there is not always the required breadth.

As Web team lead engineer on the Hotwire account, I have been working on both back-end and front-end aspects, including Javascript, and on marketing tasks. The Mexican team members have shared their cultural knowledge with the team. The team is built well.

Cartel Fears

Not knowing much about Mexico before moving there meant that I did not have rose-tinted expectations. I was shocked about the cartel activity, however. I had spoken to my Ukrainian colleagues who had lived in Guadalajara and they said it was not really a problem in Central and South Mexico, but more in the North, near the US border.

The criminal situation here with the cartels, drugs and so on erupted in Guadalajara about a month ago. It didn’t touch me personally. It usually doesn’t impact on people because it is between the cartels and government. Luckily my wife and I were not in the city at the time, but it was still unsettling for us.

They [the cartels] have a war against the government. Less than a month ago the cartels here just burned trucks on the street, they blocked 37 different roads and highways and here in Guadalajara it was a problem to move from city to city. People here talk about it as though it were an earthquake or a problem that had already been solved. It is difficult to get used to; it is stressful.

Our adventure is temporary, however. We will return to Kyiv in January 2016. I think that is long enough, although I don’t discount the possibility of another adventure in a different part of the world. I would like to travel more, so we will see.

Luxoft offers employees the opportunity to transfer temporarily or permanently quite easily, although it does take a few months.

I would recommend a temporary transfer, although there are challenges. You will be faced with new people, you will be faced with a new culture. You need the ability to dive into the environment and embrace the opportunity. You will have the opportunity to learn a new language far faster than you can do it in your native environment. If you are someone so tightly coupled with your native location, then I don’t think you will be comfortable. If you are open to something new, then you are welcome.”

Voyagers focuses on IT professionals from all over the world who have undertaken interesting journeys to or from Latin America and the Caribbean. If you have any ideas for future Voyagers articles, email Bianca Wright.

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