Bulgaria's potential in high technologies transcends the outsourcing software services it is popular for now. Rüger Consulting has been a successful example for exploring new fields. It is a regular feature in the top 3 list of the most prosperous IT consultancy companies by the Computer World Bulgaria weekly. It is small, but it's clients' portfolio includes major international names, like UniCredit Germany and the largest financial group in Northern Europe – Nordea. The company implemented and refined many terabyte scale enterprise data warehouses and big data applications. Recently another practice area was added to its portfolio – service and project management.
It all started in a way evoking the tried and tested Chinese saying about crisis as an opportunity. Timm Rüger, an established IT consultant working for IBM Germany, arrived in Bulgaria in 2008 for something that was planned as a 2-year-long vacation. The financial crisis, however, changed everything. Tired of the constant commute between Sofia and IBM's German clients, Timm Rüger quit IBM, and founded an IT consultancy company here, using his previous experience and connections with international clients.
In 2016, Nikola Gaydarov joined the ship, taking over the service and project management, and the company's training programmes.
We meet with Timm Rüger and Nikola Gaydarov at Rüger Consulting's offices in East Park Trade Center, Sofia.
Why did you broaden the company's portfolio with service and project management?
Timm Rüger: I wanted to scale up to new practice areas, and Nikola has a rich practical and theoretical experience. We mainly work in large-scale programmes, like data warehouse or big data initiatives, and thus we needed a better grasp at project and service management. Additionally, we only worked with Western European clients, but now we also want to win Bulgarian customers, i.e. local branches or corporates. For this you need someone like Nikola who knows the local market by heart.
Why did you stick to consulting and not go mainstream into outsourcing?
Nikola Gaydarov: The market in Bulgaria is very much focused on outsourcing, on operational activities. Consulting comes before operations. It is when an idea is born and implemented – which is a lot more interesting work than operations and outsourcing. Also, you can see the results from our work directly and in a short short-time frame.
TR: Outsourcing and offshoring in particular is all about standardisation and cost reduction, whereas consulting is all about creativity, improvement and value creation. The business case for offshoring is rather weak: if labour costs increase and the standard of living in Bulgaria approaches western standards, offshoring to Bulgaria will no longer be attractive. Bulgaria should focus more on consulting, on having top experts in a certain field whose expertise would be valued globally. This would create true competitiveness rather than only cost competitiveness.
What are the benefits of IT consulting over outsourcing?
TR: Outsourcing vendors often link achieving more with adding more manpower – i.e. "doing more with more." But the more people you employ, the bigger the existing problems in the processes and in the applications will be. On the other hand, the outsourcing client frequently delegates responsibility to the vendor. We want to bring the initiative back to the customer, to say that they need to improve their processes and to take the responsibility for it. If you don't do that for years, you fall back so much. We have seen projects fail because of outsourcing. As consultants, we try to convince the customer to regain the initiative instead of relying on an outside company to do this. In consulting, we concentrate on making processes more efficient and adding value for the customer – in a nutshell "doing more with less."
How are you able to help?
NG: A process is a process, regardless of the business. I am an expert in the ITIL framework for setting up an IT organisation and the processes needed for service delivery. I try to convince my customers to focus on the value, not on the process itself, and to move towards better service delivery based on good processes. All companies run on a similar model: you have customer-facing activities and you have supporting activities. If these are not organised well, it ends with either processes that are not good or efficient enough, or with bad services.
We help our customers to setup efficient processes or to improve existing processes. We also support the customer in "agilising" their processes and services which essentially means to rearrange the way the organisation realises its established service or process framework.
TR: We often see two extremes: larger organisations which are very process based and consequently lost adaptability and agility and smaller organisations or start-ups which have no standards and struggle with complexity and find it hard to be in control. Of course, you cannot run a big organisation like a start-up, but it is good to bring a bit of the start-up culture into the big business. It usually means that you have smaller, cross-functional teams working towards a common goal. So, we advise customers on how to become agile without losing needed standardisation or how to standardise without losing agility. And we bring the human factor back in those companies that relied too much on processes.
Where data engineering fits in this?
NG: To achieve your goal, you need to measure where you stand. For this you need data. When data becomes valuable information, it reveals what goes well and what does not go so well in your company and where you have to improve. Data engineering is all about turning data into these insights. For this you need to combine and integrate the data, to analyse and interpret the information it reveals and to decide how it fits your goals.
TR: It is also about using the right data. E.g. the KPIs (key performance indicator) "number of incidents solved" is frequently taken as a measurement for the operations performance. The more incidents are solved, the better it is, the thinking goes. But this is a very narrow view – what about the incidents which were not reported, because the customer thought he better saves the time on creating a ticket rather than dealing with the operations department? Probably only those incidents are reported which have a high likelihood of getting resolved. This shows that you can easily be misguided if you only look at one particular piece of data. You need to look at all the data from different perspectives. This can be rather challenging when you have lots of data, but only very limited time. You need to have an excellent data engineering team that uses high-end technology like massively parallel data processing pipelines and clustered or in-memory databases in order to achieve that.
What is more important? Applying an established framework like ITIL or being creative?
NG: Both are important. ITIL has been around for 30 years and has proven itself working for thousands of companies in the world. For example, that every service delivery company should have a service catalogue is one of the key lessons of ITIL. But you also need creativity to create the service catalogue in the first place.
TR: It depends on the customer situation, but when you try to define and standardise everything, creativity and continuous improvement are gone. You need to relax the rules a bit. You need to stick to your service catalogue as long as it makes sense without giving up the ability to adapt to a new situation. As you cannot foresee everything, imagination and creativity are essential to deal with new situations and the future in general, and this is very important for industries which are undergoing a major transformation like the digitalisation in banking.
NG: That is also the essence of agility – you are a human, you work with humans, so the processes and the tools should support you instead of becoming the focus. As consultants, we don't sell tools. We sell knowledge and solutions. The tools and frameworks should supplement these.
What is required for a company to do actual improvement?
TR: First is creating ideas how to improve, and figuring out what it means to implement them. Second you need to take risks. If you don't take risks, you will never improve. A lot of larger corporations don't want to take risks, either because of bad previous experience, or because they feel insecure as they only think about failure. But without calculated risk, improvement won't happen.
NG: We are not magicians, but we have broad and diverse knowledge in projects both small and big, and this allows us to have confidence, to know the risks, what can go wrong and how to act in such situation. You always have issues, it is inevitable.
TR: And there is procrastination as a risk-avoidance strategy believing that the problem will go away when you wait long enough. But falling behind the deadlines of the initial plan is dangerous. With each delay, the situation changes and the risk of actual failure dramatically increases. The costs increase, too. That means you need to tackle problems head on and you need to stick to your idea and plan as difficult as it may be.
What are the differences between consulting and teaching?
NG: In consultancy, I give you the options and their pros and cons, and you take an informed decision. In teaching, I give you the knowledge, the theory, and the best practices, so you can come by our own with the options. Teaching provides you with the basis and is particularly good for customers in the beginning of their business, when they are forming the needed processes, services and solutions.
TR: As a consultant, you want to have a well-informed and educated conversation with your customer. You cannot discuss service management if the client hasn't heard about ITIL or does not know the Structured Query Language (SQL) that is crucial for working with databases. In that sense teaching is a precursor to consulting. Teaching and learning are the two sides of the same coin. You may not need advice, but you always need learning – without it, an organisation cannot develop.