In Jessup shed, Russians prepare computer future

October 26, 1992|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer

For the past two weeks, four Russians have been holed up in a warehouse in Jessup fixing computers.

They're here as part of a business venture to bring U.S. equipment to the former Soviet Union, where computers are badly outdated.

Digital Quest, a computer company with offices in Jessup and Kensington, is handling the technical side of the project. The company is responsible for installing U.S. computers in Moscow, providing training in computer maintenance and basic trouble-shooting.

The project was initiated by New Jersey-based Computer Leasing Inc., whose chief executive officer realized on a trip to Russia that business opportunities there in the computer field were plentiful.

The idea was to take older computers that U.S. businesses no longer used and sell them to Russian businesses and government agencies.

"We train them in how to get the stuff up and working and how to keep it working," said Steven Broider, president of Digital Quest.

The future computer experts include two employees with the Ministry of Energy and Fuel for the Russian Federation, two Russians working for Computer Leasing and one Moscow-based U.S. sales representative for Computer Leasing.

"They'll be able to maintain the American computers under this training," said Pavel Joukov of Moscow, who works for Computer Leasing and explores opportunities for the company.

"Unfortunately, in Russia we have not so many companies who can provide reliable maintenance," said Mr. Joukov, who is also a member of the Moscow City Council.

Computer Leasing's special projects manager, Eric Gerstmann, said there is a huge gap between the technology used by the former Soviet Union's military establishment and that used by the commercial sector.

"When the Soviets got their computer system, they cloned one machine from 1975 and stopped there," Mr. Gerstmann said.

Wearing Digital Quest T-shirts, the group struggled during a training session last week to solve a problem with a computer tape drive.

Since they have a rudimentary knowledge of reading English, Mr. Broider encouraged them to use the handbook to solve the problem.

"I can go through this book and find out why this isn't working," Mr. Broider told the group. "But I won't be in Russia when this stops working, so it doesn't help you for me to find the problem."

Through an interpreter, Yuri Tumasov asks, "Why read the book when we could be taking it apart" to determine the problem?

But Mikhail Klikov advises his colleague to consult the manual.

"We really should take a look at this carefully," he said.

All of the group's members have thrown themselves into the training, working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday to master the machines.

"They get upset because we treat them like kids," Mr. Broider said. "We have tons of doughnuts and snacks for them, and we go out to lunch and dinner."

Vladimir Klepov, director of computer hardware for the Russian Ministry of Energy and Fuel, said he is learning about American computers "step-by-step."

"It's tough because we have a limited number of days and so many units that we have to learn," Mr. Klepov said.

Despite their commitment to the training, the group members managed to find time in their grueling schedule to do some sightseeing.

They spent a weekend at a mountain cabin owned by a Digital Quest staffer and visited the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum and the National Gallery in Washington and the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

"Too many people, too crowded just like in Moscow," Mr. Klepov said of the nation's capital.

Over the past year Digital Quest and Computer Leasing employees have made several trips to Moscow to set up computer systems. In the process, they've learned a few lessons about doing business Russian-style.

Mr. Gerstmann said the experience is akin to "walking through the looking glass."

An appointment is required to make a call to the United States or to take money out of the bank.

One of the most frustrating problems, according to Mr. Gerstmann, is the Russians' unwillingness to pay for computer software.

They've solved that problem in the past by pirating software, Mr. Gerstmann said. Two Soviet agencies that traveled frequently, the Sports Authority and the commercial Shipping Fleet, would handle the pirating duties.

IBM Paris has agreed to sell software to the Russians for 3 percent of the market price, Mr. Gerstmann said. But the Russians won't go for the deal.

"This is a real basic issue, you pay someone for their work and they just won't do it," Mr. Gerstmann said. "It's a certain mind-set of poverty and trying to always work on the edge."

Mr. Broider, of Digital Quest has discovered that in Russia, a signed contract doesn't mean much.

"A contract is just a beginning point for negotiations," he said.

For example, Mr. Broider recalls that his Russian clients threatened not to pay for a delivery of computer equipment because cables weren't included. But the cables weren't part of the contract.

"They just said 'Oh, by the way, we need 15 feet of cable and a connector,' " Mr. Broider said.

"It's a whole re-education," Mr. Broider said.

"They've been run by the state for so long they have no idea what the world is doing. They're learning the free enterprise system."

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