In the world of digitalisation, all roads somehow lead back to Taavi Kotka. A former chief information officer of the Estonian government, Kotka has a lengthy pedigree in software development and also helped lead the country’s ambitious e-Residency program. He also founded Proud Engineers, a band of experts with diverse skills that help clients with their digital transformation strategy.
Kotka is also an in-demand public speaker; this was how he and the engineers caught the eye of the Central Bank of Armenia, which was dreaming up a transformation project of its own.
“That resulted in us working with Armenia,” said Andres Kütt, a member of the Proud Engineers team. “We identified key weaknesses and challenges, and then moved on to helping to alleviate those challenges, to see what we could do to help Armenia advance.”
Headquartered in Tallinn but active worldwide, Proud Engineers has a flat organisational model. There are no titles, and each expert on the team brings to the table their skill. Kütt, who has been a programmer for 30 years, was tapped to manage the relationship with the Central Bank of Armenia. A project manager takes care of the project and ensures the customer is satisfied.
Moving the needle
Proud Engineers doesn’t operate by merely suggesting what software to adopt, helping clients get it installed, troubleshooting issues, and then leaving on the next plane to Tallinn. Instead, the company’s team offers clients insights on how to realise their objectives.
“We write strategies and concept papers, but we also try to make things happen,” said Kütt. Customers’ concerns are also different. He noted that in Uruguay, cattle received personal identifiers, similar to a personal identity code that underpins Estonia’s digital services, before citizens did, as cattle were venturing over the border into Argentina, resulting in disputes. Proud Engineers, therefore, work by identifying local challenges and creating plans to resolve them.
“Writing a strategy will not improve the lives of Armenians,” remarked Kütt. “Describing a challenge and helping them fix it is something that will move the needle,” he commented.
Political and economic challenges
For Armenia, digitalisation is seen as a path toward overcoming political and economic challenges. The Caucasian country, with a population of 3 million, has long been involved in a territorial dispute with neighbouring Azerbaijan. A war in 2020 resulted not only in thousands of casualties but also cyberattacks against civilian targets. Therefore, establishing a means to protect civilian IT infrastructure is one challenge that Proud Engineers is helping Armenia realise.
Another issue facing Armenia is its population register, which is not centralised and is spread across agencies. As data quality is low, ensuring fair elections is a challenge, as a centralised population register is necessary to produce a list of eligible voters. “There is no way of telling who should have the right to vote,” he said. “Fixing it will resolve the voting issue downstream.”
Attitude for excellence
According to Nerses Yeritsyan, the deputy governor at the Central Bank of Armenia, the government and the CBA are undertaking a digital transformation strategy, one that will put in place the necessary architecture to support a digital society and economy in Armenia, making the country a better place to live and do business, both domestically and internationally.
To achieve this, Yeritsyan’s team began to engage with Proud Engineers in the spring of 2021, and by fall, the team had presented its recommendations. He noted that political engagement within Armenia was important. Following Proud Engineers’ recommendations in 2021, Armenia’s government agreed on a high-level concept for building a digital society and economy and embarked on a long-term partnership with Proud Engineers at the start of this year.
“Our Estonian colleagues share our attitude for achieving excellence, and we always think together and collaborate to come up with best-practice solutions,” he said of the relationship.
He added that Armenia is not seeking to copy Estonia but is instead learning from its experience. It has also studied where other countries have made errors. “This is crucial for avoiding the types of mistakes that delayed or prevented other countries’ digital transformations,” Yeritsyan said.
An ambitious reform agenda
Armenia has already made significant progress toward its goals. The country has established a chief information officer, an information systems agency, and an information systems management board led by its deputy prime minister. This has resulted in a platform for supporting digital identity and cybersecurity and aligning the public vision with the private sector.
“The private sector is a key stakeholder in this process, and we have strong alignment with the leading telecommunications firms and banks in Armenia on, for example, eID solutions and much more,” said Yeritsyan. “This is an ambitious reform agenda, and it requires all hands on deck, including, especially, the active involvement and leadership of the private sector,” he said.
Silicon Valley, mixed with Estonian humility
And the work continues, Kütt stressed, noting that Proud Engineers will continue cooperating with the Central Bank of Armenia. “Armenia demonstrates the importance of having a vision,” he said. It also aligns with Proud Engineers’ mission to create social change. “That is our core belief,” said Kütt. “We are not about deploying software, we are about making change happen.”
He remarked that Estonia’s vision for digital transformation is somewhat similar to Silicon Valley’s focus on fomenting great changes but tempered with Estonian restraint and humility.
“The idea is that we are actually tiny and have limited capacity to change things ourselves,” said Kütt. “But we can move fast, provide options, and help build solutions,” he said. “The Armenians make the decisions, we have a support role.”