Armenia as an IT export powerhouse

Armenian economists, diaspora repatriates, and development evangelists offer many idealistic proposals about how Armenia can reverse its inexorable decline and parlay the forces of its gradual disintegration into positive economic growth and regional leadership. Most of these are plainly quixotic, at least to anyone with even cursory insight into everyday Armenian reality and demographic trends. They do not give one the sense of having been united with the probable.

However, on this spectrum of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed pronouncements, the idea of Armenia becoming a major IT centre is one of the less wholly implausible ones. Politicians and self-appointed diaspora luminaries say the darndest, most fantastical things; of all of their grandiose ideas, for Armenia to traffic in virtual goods is probably not the most far-fetched, if only because the messengers of progress have set a high standard with their pompous rhetoric.

I don’t have much experience working within the local IT market, though I do have plenty of colleagues in the IT field in Yerevan. Nevertheless, true to my well-established tendency, I’ll dubiously anoint myself enough of an authority to give an outsider’s impression about the merits of this thesis that Armenia should hitch its wagon to tech. Then, maybe insiders can tell me why I’ve got it all wrong.

Talent

The backdrop of strong Soviet-era fundamentals in science and engineering helps in Armenia, too. Armenian engineers are, classically, quite capable. Moreover, the hardships this generation of IT people have had to live through in the bedlam of the 1990s has given them a lot of adaptability, flexibility, and resolve. They’ve definitely got the stereotypical Soviet MacGyver-type knack for improvisation. Among my circle of acquaintances are many people who learned to program during the dark years of the electrical crisis and the Nagorno-Karabakh War, squeezing a few hours a day of power for their third-rate computers out of car batteries, charged by tenuous methods of dubious legality, at a time when Yerevan was plunged into near-total darkness and bitter winter cold. People were burning books and random objects at the time for heating fuel. They pioneered low-baud Internet connectivity through Moscow in extremely inhospitable conditions. They paid obscene rates for Internet and telephone service in the heyday of the ArmenTel monopoly, and still more obscene black market rates for aftermarket mobile devices. As far as the pampered, effete cubicle-dwellers of the “developed world” are concerned, these guys might as well have been working on punchcards by candlelight. They would’ve given a lot to have had mere Office Space problems.

But, for the most part these people left a long time ago. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise that with these kinds of skills, one could make proportionally better money abroad, even offset against higher living costs, while opening greater career development and life opportunities for themselves and their families. Moreover, these guys have an advantage that many other Armenians trying to leave the country don’t. Steeped in the Western-rooted shared culture of the Internet, they have a good command of the English language and soaked up a lot of globalist ideas that make them highly fraternal with their nerdy American and European counterparts. They’ve also got the Russian IT culture and language angle, which is very influential in Armenia as well, so they can migrate to Eastern Europe, too. Economically speaking, it’s a lot easier for foreign companies to plug clever Armenian technologists straight into their workforce, because they’re not so different from the domestic clever technologists. The homogenising force of the Internet definitely offers an efficiency benefit to both labour and management.

Understand, too, that there are ways to eke out a meager living doing IT in developing economies that effectively don’t exist in the developed world anymore, because they’ve been obsoleted, rationalised and optimised away. When’s the last time you saw a general, all-inclusive computer store in First World countries (Chinese importers notwithstanding)? Non-tech people may be forgiven for thinking that the guys at one of Yerevan’s innumerable computer stores that know how to repair PCs, clean spyware, make some simple web sites, and wire up small business LANs are pretty sharp, but their skill set is not globally competitive. They can’t emigrate on that basis. All that stuff is long commoditised. To find work abroad, one has to have specialised, nontrivial and current skills that are intra-industrially useful. However, the same applies to Armenia: this tier of technicians isn’t qualified to hold up the weight of Armenian infrastructure and economic development on their shoulders either. All in all, there may be a fair amount of computer-savvy guys in Yerevan, but there are actually very few, if you see what I mean.

So, as far as I can tell, the main limitation on any Armenian aspiration to become an IT major is the severe shortage of qualified people. Everyone prattles on about a shortage of qualified tech people in every market, but as with all other problems, in Armenia the problem is much more acute, sharp and concentrated, due to its tiny size. There’s a small skeleton crew of highly competent remnants holding down the fort (i.e. people who didn’t manage to leave for one reason or another, usually family or personal reasons rather than lack of opportunities to do so), but even among them, emigration is a major theme of discussion. As all other highly qualified specialists, productive workers and capable entrepreneurs in Armenia, they’re getting fed up and leaving. Many developing countries and ex-Soviet republics are bleeding specialists, but other countries have a lot more people to bleed. Armenia is haemorrhaging.

I don’t see a crop of up-and-coming youngsters that stand to viably replace the classic hackers of the 1990s. The few especially capable ones generally take the shortcut of leaving. It’s the same old song of Armenia: everybody’s leaving. Thus, I take no pleasure in elucidating the obvious conclusion to anyone thinking of turning Armenia into a globally competitive IT centre: where’s your globally competitive work force?

Domestic demand

Any IT business in Armenia with aspirations of making real money must, by definition, be export-oriented. There’s no money to be made in selling into the local market. The only IT companies in Armenia I’m familiar with that make any money–and I’m not counting outsourced development or engineering divisions of foreign companies here–are ones that service government contracts and foreign orders.

The local market has IT needs, of course, but they’re pretty pedestrian and connected to low-margin products and services–the kinds of things that are, in terms of their global cost structure, only viable at a large scale. The killer is a triple curse:

  • Small market size, and therefore, no economies of scale, as well as fierce competition and saturation;
  • Poverty; it is possible to sell into a small market, but only if it’s a rich economy. Armenia is basically city-state size, but it’s no Singapore;
  • Relatively undeveloped, traditional economy. There’s not that many businesses in Armenia that have a need for sophisticated technological capital goods.

There’s other problems related to the last point as well. Armenian businesses are, as a matter of cultural disposition, cheap quite apart from their relative poverty, as Armenians are historically given to commerce with an Eastern bent. Few proprietors seem to have made the shift to a post-industrial mindset that divorces the subconscious perception of “value” from the idea of “tangible goods” while strongly incorporating the idea of shopping on value rather than price.

Traditional economies have never lent themselves especially well to Western-style economic rationalism and efficiency, either. Say what you will about the humanistic effects of that rationalism (which I would characterise somewhat ambivalently), but the reality is that a strong cultural focus on optimising workflows and business processes drives much of the demand for IT universally.

Infrastructure

Yerevan actually has rather good and ubiquitous FTTH-based consumer broadband. However, it’s easy to forget that the country’s connections to the outside world are tenuous and reflect its geopolitically precarious position. Armenia’s only real connection to the greater Internet is through the neighbouring republic of Georgia, and it’s quite easy to take the whole country offline, as the world learned in April 2011 (The Guardian).

I’m told that the fibre paths have got a bit more diverse now, but there’s not that much diversity you can add to a largely mountainous, landlocked country most of whose land borders are closed. Armenia’s border with Turkey has been closed since 1994 and has no cross-border telecommunication connections, and the border with Azerbaijan is ever-so-slightly militarised, you might say. Together with the Azeri exclave of Nakhichevan, that’s about 85% of Armenia’s land borders. As with many other things, Armenia clings to life through Georgia, subject to its whims and caprices, as well as the geophysical realities of doing so. To the south, Iran is connected to some very robust, high-bandwidth Persian Gulf cable systems, but, I’m told that for fairly obvious political reasons, the Internet link through Iran isn’t used much (if at all).

The inability to build redundant, multilateral physical connections to its neighbours makes Armenia quite ill-suited to the operation of any regionally significant Internet interconnection exchange or peering point. Armenian utility power is fairly reliable (as long as the Metsamor reactor keeps running), but definitely at “developing world” levels of redundancy. The power frequency isn’t terribly clean. There is high seismic risk. Wholesale IP bandwidth to the outside world is quite expensive. All these things likely preclude the possibility of Armenia hosting a real data centre or getting into the hosting or “cloud” business in a big way. So you want to operate a network? Who are you going to network with?

IT also depends on strong logistical links to the outside world and benefits from proximity to supply chains. Armenia is landlocked and largely blockaded, and, on account of its small size, constitutes an exotic, high-cost shipping destination. No access to open water means expensive transit through Georgia’s Black Sea ports, or even more expensive air cargo. Slow and unreliable internal logistics, as well as high import duties, are also a killer.

Ecosystem

It takes more than just electricity, Internet connectivity and low labour costs to create or sustain a significant IT sector. IT is highly interdependent and horizontally allied with a variety of other inputs, all of which require a critical mass of economic activity and sophistication to sustain.

I hear all kinds of nonsense from diaspora tech people about how Armenia can be an incredible startup hub because of its low costs. However, startups need clean business climates, low barriers to entry, transparent financial institutions, easy access to relatively abundant financing, and a critical mass of other startups that concentrates talented, experienced people in one place. There must be some sort of established and humming growth, exit and/or liquidation track. Armenia doesn’t offer much of that. Cheap labour does not a startup hub make. Without the right factors of production (principally human ones), any spark will quickly fizzle out.

None of this is to denigrate the efforts of the Yerevan tech startup community to do what it can with what it’s got. However, the chances of an Asian Tiger-type economic miracle there are vanishingly slim in my estimation.

It seems to me that government officials haven’t actually caught onto IT as a source of wealth or value yet. For the most part, they are rather sclerotic, stuck in the mindset of twentieth century industrialists and in keeping with Armenia’s largely traditional economic composition: if it’s not a physical good, it’s not a real thing that actually matters. Actually, this is probably a good thing; if technology companies weren’t so “under the radar”, they’d be subject to the same harsh extortion and shakedown racket that the notoriously corrupt bureaucracy, in concert with large business interests, visits upon most businesses in Armenia. It’s only a matter of time until they fully realise that there’s more to IT than just a bunch of guys sat at desks typing or whatnot.

In light of this, talk of crafty government policy incentives to lure startups or foster a more teeming IT investment climate seems like a very distant pipe dream.

IT is a globally competitive field. If you want to compete, you have to answer the fundamental question of just what it is that you can offer that is better than other countries or locales, or at least on par with other countries and locales. Generally-accepted criteria for a market poised to break out in IT include:

  • Abundant human capital at a low cost (Armenia’s got the low cost, but not the abundant human capital);
  • Adequate physical infrastructure;
  • Logistical integration with the outside world — easy to travel to, ship to and do business with (this is particularly important if Armenia’s destiny were to become an “outsourcing centre” rather than a “startup hub”, and the “outsourcing centre” seems like a more practical step);
  • Relatively transparent regulatory and legal climate;
  • Location that is in some way central or regionally significant;
  • Established education pipeline to feed the human talent pool, in some significant volume;
  • Concentrated networks of financing resources, advisors, mentors and talent.

Does Armenia have any of this?

Hope?

Rather than becoming a startup zoo, the more likely emergent development track for a place like Armenia is to work on becoming an offshore development centre, which is a simpler, dumber configuration that doesn’t make such enormous demands on its scarce and ill-prepared ecosystem.

This is the same sort of thing that propelled India to IT-led economic growth, and in principle, it seems possible. I’ve seen a number of American companies move their development offices to Yerevan, or acquire Armenian companies seemingly for the purpose of leveraging their existing engineering talent.

If this trend were to gain any traction, it might help to retain Armenian IT talent in Armenia. However, there is a natural tension between this and the downward wage pressure that gives offshoring its competitive edge from the point of view of the arbitrageur.

Still, I think if there’s any hope of IT taking a real hold in Armenia as an export, it’s probably going to proceed down this route. However, it would benefit a lot from government incentives to nurture it, as well as movement toward greater administrative and financial transparency that is going to be at odds with Armenia’s endemic corruption.

The biggest cause for pessimism is, in my mind, the lack of a critical mass of local talent. I don’t see where these companies are going to find enough local bodies. Seemingly in recognition of this fact, I’ve even heard proposals to convince IT-able diaspora Armenians to move to Armenia and ply their craft there for foreign companies, but when pressing for details on how to pull off this feat of psychological alchemy? I get crickets. Diaspora Armenians are sometimes strongly receptive to nationalist-irredentist demagoguery, though, so I suppose one could do it with ideological bombardment. The sorts of people who are easily persuaded by that sort of claptrap don’t tend to make very talented engineers, though; computing work requires good critical thinking.

A side note about Tumo

Tumo has occasionally been trotted out to me as a vanguard of Armenia’s high-technology future. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take a very in-depth tour once and see it firsthand before passing judgment.

I’m afraid I have little to say in praise of Tumo as a job skills creation engine, at least from the perspective of an engineer. They’ve taken what was fundamentally a rather good idea, backed by very significant money, lots of good hardware, a nice in-house curriculum management and interactive lesson delivery platform, and squandered it on teaching kids “lite” stuff that doesn’t matter. This focus on animation, design and media may be sexy, but if they want to give kids the foundation for skills that will actually help them thrive in critical, high-value roles, they need to put all this fluffy multimedia away and focus on serious software engineering and operations. That would take a rather radical retooling away from what they’re set up for now.

I’m all for artistic endeavours, but if you want to talk about Tumo as a player in some possibility of a serious future for Armenia through IT, these design-oriented skill sets do not represent an effective vehicle for investment in that viewpoint. They need to learn a thing or two from the people that went to the 1990s school of hard knocks.

If there are still any left in Armenia by the time this goes to press.


Leaving Armenia: What I’ll miss, what I won’t

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Mount Ararat and central Yerevan, viewed from the top of the Cascade complex.

For the first time in quite a while, I’m leaving Armenia for a non-trivial period of time. I’ll be back in a few months, but am seriously reconsidering my previous inertia toward longer-term residence. I haven’t fully made up my mind. There’s some novel personal reasons that enter into the deliberation lately, including a very short-lived and spectacularly failed marriage here, but I’m not letting a bad marriage ruin Armenia for me, and I’m not here to talk about that. I wanted to share some more general parting thoughts and observations.

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Musical fountains at Republic Square.

I’ve spent most of the last year and a half in Yerevan, with only two very brief visits back to the USA and a two-month stay in Berlin. I’ve been through the entire cycle of euphoria, disenchantment, and realignment with regard to living here. I came in early summer 2012 for the first time and loved it. I left in February 2013 hating it. I came back in late April 2013 more rebalanced.  I feel that my spirits are calm, and while I don’t speak from a position of very wide experience, I think I can say some things in a fairly level-headed way, without being unduly swayed by either a sour winter mood on the one hand, or the sunny rush of novelty on the other. I haven’t seen everything there is to see, but I think I’ve seen enough to have some credibility. I think.

What I’ll Miss

Density and compactness: Yerevan has the rather appealing quality of being large enough to be interesting, but small enough to be manageable and easy to get around. It’s not a small town, but it’s not sprawling.

From an Atlantan’s point of view, everything here is very easy. My permanent residence is in downtown Atlanta, but as we know, the centre in a place like Atlanta doesn’t have the same meaning; it’s not actually central to daily life. It’s more like a picture of post-industrial urban decay, overlayed with spots of revitalisation.

It’s actually a bit remarkable that I praise central Yerevan for convenience, because public transportation here is abysmal. It’s no European capital. Yerevan’s convenience comes out in a somewhat different way. Living in the inner centre, everything I need is a ludicrously short walk away, by the standards of virtually any other metropolis I’ve been to. It keeps me in shape while not compelling me to spend half a day walking all over creation. Walking is an interesting and pleasant experience, aesthetically and architecturally. I haven’t lived anywhere else where running errands was so easy and quick. The inner centre is nicely laid out in that regard.

Safety: Given its overall place on the global economic totem pole, one might expect Yerevan to be ridden with crime and a substantial degree of violence. But it’s really not. Sure, it’s got some petty crime, statistically speaking, but you can blithely walk in any part of Yerevan at 4 AM without worrying about your physical safety or having the expectation of being robbed.

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Abovyan Street in the winter.

I can’t vouch for your personal comfort walking at 4 AM in all parts of Yerevan, especially if you’re a woman walking alone, but comfort is one thing, physical safety is another. Armenia is not a place in which armed robbery, rape, murder, etc. happen to any non-negligible degree. Even disorderly public drunkenness doesn’t make much of an appearance here. It also doesn’t have the widespread social problems related to drugs, which are an unavoidable staple of life for all but the most exclusively gated bourgeoisie in the US, and many other places in the world, “developed world” and otherwise.

With the exception of particularly orderly Germanic capitals, in most places I’ve been to, you need to watch your ass. Most likely, nothing will happen to you on any given day, but you still learn the unconscious reflexes of looking over your shoulder and being aware of your surroundings. You need to know where the bad neighbourhoods are. Strung-out homeless junkies can cut you up. If you walk into the wrong bar, you could find yourself in quite a fix (don’t laugh, I got robbed in Buenos Aires this way). Get into the wrong taxi, you could find yourself at an ATM, cleaning out your checking account at gunpoint. It’s unlikely, but it’s certainly possible in principle, so you’re always calculating how to avoid risks. Life in Yerevan is blissfully free of this sort of tension. I’m actually afraid that I’ve become a bit complacent.

(Footnote: This umbrella of safety doesn’t appear to extend to open gays and lesbians, particularly ones participating in demonstrations or pride parades. Although I don’t have first-hand experience, Armenia is clearly a terrible place to be LGBT. See below.)

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Cascade complex, at about 5:30 AM on a summer morning.

  Mount Ararat: Catching a glimpse of Mount Ararat or Aragats from some elevated position in the city is always a sensational treat. And the view from the Cascade is beautiful; it can never get old. Armenia is undeniably scenic.

Informal flexibility: Armenia is not a place where one is straightjacketed by efficiency, business processes, workflows, or formal productisation.

You can buy pills, fruit, and just about anything else a la carte, by the single unit. You can have just about anything delivered to your home. It’s common to be personally acquainted with service personnel (electricians, plumbers, etc.) and officials and just call them up. Connections and first-name basis relationships go a long way everywhere. Custom, one-off requests are always an option, and just about anything is negotiable.

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Yes, they’re loading a papier-mâché swan into a Lada. Why? Because Armenia.

Some years ago, a relative of mine was trying to get a piano up to his 5th floor apartment. No matter what he did, it wouldn’t fit through the hallway, common areas, and front door. But, there was a construction crane outside, so he paid the operator a bit of money and, voila, the piano was hoisted up on the crane and delivered through his expansive living room window. You can do that in Armenia.

When I go to the doctor in Armenia, reception asks for my name and address, not eight pages of family medical history and insurance garbage. The medical practice charges the patient directly, based on what the market will bear. The doctor gives his mobile number and says to call whenever if I have any further questions. I got a [good] root canal, stint and filling (composite, not the cheap, toxic silver amalgam kind they love so much in the US) done for a grand total of US$60.

All this flexibility is just a distant fantasy in the US. It’s common elsewhere in the “developing world”, but I’ve found the Armenian implementation particularly humane and amicable.

Intellectually positive culture: Esteem for intelligence, education, the arts and literature is deeply embedded in Armenian culture, history and heritage.

That doesn’t mean all Armenians are highly intelligent, educated people. No, most definitely not. But, as in many European cultures, their values affirm intellectualism, at least nominally

In Armenia, backward provincialism is indicated by an objective lack of education. Simple people still profess admiration for scholarship and broad horizons. The main error of ignorant Armenians is their false belief that they, themselves, are educated people. They may be ignorant as can be, but they really think they’re not. They want to be educated. They want to feel educated. They want to seem educated. Calling someone a philistine rube (in so many words) is genuinely hurtful and offensive.

In the US, in contrast, backward provincialism is indicated by a deep-seated contempt for that high-falootin’ book-learnin’, a profound disdain, suspicion of, and outward hostility toward urbane intellectualism and cosmopolitanism. There is plenty in the American history of settlement by marginal social groups, as well as the influence of quirky theology and parochial frontiersmanship to explain its idiosyncratic know-nothingism, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the much worse of the two options.

High-quality food and agricultural products: I’m not an expert, but Armenian food staples seem to be relatively uncontaminated by modern agro-industrial processes, together with their endless herbicides, pesticides, contaminants, preservatives, antibiotics, artificial flavouring, heaps of processed and refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.These things are present in nearly everything we eat in the US, even the stuff whose nutritional value is supposedly inscrutable. I can tell a difference between Armenian fruits and vegetables and American ones in a heartbeat.  The Armenian ones are rich, flavourful, aromatic, and spoil quickly.

Armenia is one big farmer’s market, a place where “organic food” isn’t a boutique section of the supermarket, but the whole supermarket. Almost everything in Armenia is natural and grown more or less commonsensically.

If nothing else, consider that I’ve lost 15 kg (around 32 lbs) since I came here, even though I eat prodigiously (including plenty of carbs and desserts), observe no dietary restrictions, and do not follow any weight loss-oriented exercise programme (though I obviously do a fair bit of walking). In the US, I get the opposite effect; no matter what I eat, and no matter how little of it, I balloon out (and I walk a fair bit in Atlanta, too; I haven’t had a car in quite some time).

Like I said, I’m as far from an expert from this area as it gets. But you tell me what you think that means.

Beautiful scenery and pristine countryside: The regions of Armenia, in view of the country’s unmitigatedly mountainous relief, are stunningly beautiful.

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A bovine, somewhere north of Ijevan, in the northern Tavush province.

For all of the US’s variance of landscape and its biodiversity, a lot of it is ruined by sprawling suburbanisation and bland, utilitarian homogeneity–offering none of the benefits of the rural, while lacking the economic and aesthetic benefits of the city. In Armenia, when you go to the country, you are definitely in the country, and it’s captivating and distinctive.

20120921_151108Better yet, you don’t have to go far. Armenia is only about the size of Delaware, so when you want a real change of scenery, you’re looking at a few hours’ drive at most. Armenia’s mountainous topography also creates very distinct climactic areas. Yerevan is in a sunny valley that frequently traps hot air. Dilijan is only 60 mi (96 km) away, but has a much cooler, more overcast climate because of its surrounding mountains and different elevation. For its small size, Armenia offers many such contrasts within short reach.

Friendliness and congeniality: For all the melancholy crystallised in the Armenian historical experience, Armenians are generally friendly, hospitable and humane people who, like many “southern” cultures, place a high value on the quality of their relationships and shared experiences.

Although Armenians are far from the only culture with these values and priorities, it’s something I’ll miss. One does not find such spirit and life in the banality of quotidian Anglo-American life, the reservedness of northern Europeans, nor in the grittier, standoffish attitudes common in many harsher parts of the “developing world”.

– Late schedule: Yerevan doesn’t really get started until 10 AM or so, even on weekdays. Personally, I think that’s nice. The first time someone schedules me for an 8 AM meeting back in the US, I’m going to blow a gasket.

– Fashion and dress: While I have many critical things to say about the tastelessness of Yerevan youth, the fact remains that, apart from a few specifically cringeworthy and comical memes, the standard of dress and appearance in public is broadly much higher here than in the North American universe and many parts of Europe, even for men. I’m not looking forward to returning to an aesthetic consisting mostly of shorts and t-shirts, hoodies, baseball caps, and sweatpants, for grown professional adults and children alike, rural and urban.

Come to Armenia, it’ll teach you to dress like a civilised person. I’m not ashamed to say it really helped my wardrobe.

What I Won’t Miss

Isolation: After a while in Armenia, a feeling of profound isolation sets in.

Geopolitically, the country is literally isolated: it’s tiny, it’s landlocked, and 80% of its land borders are closed due to the Turkish-Azerbaijani blockade. It straddles the Muslim and Christian worlds, and sits at a Euro-Asiatic crossroads. It’s undergoing a demographic implosion, in the form of rapid emigration, brain drain and general depopulation.

I think these things, along with the nation’s innate fear of being lost or dissolved in larger currents, have caused the post-Soviet culture to develop in an especially insular and self-contained way.

The small market size also means logistical and transportation connections are poor. There are very few flights coming into Armenia from Western Europe, and most of them are not daily.

For a place that’s fairly close to Europe and claims to be closer, Europe feels very far away–culturally, spiritually, and geographically.

Marshrutkas: These flatulent camionetas are an eyesore and a very uncomfortable mode of transportation. They also have a knack for flipping over.

Enrique Peñalosa vanquished these polluting death trolleys in Bogotá; why can’t they do it here?

Infantilisation of adult children, authoritarian clan parenting: Children live with their parents here well into their late twenties and early thirties–until marriage, in other words, and quite possibly beyond.

On the surface of it, the reasons are economic; with the wage and employment situation being what it is, hardly anyone in their twenties or thirties can afford to live on their own. Naturally, this leads to a lot of “my roof, my rules” constraints on one’s life, and it’s a problem anywhere.

But there’s a lot more than that going on in Armenia, for cultural reasons quite apart from the underlying economics. It’s quite possible to raise one’s children into self-sufficient adults with well-formed, independent personalities and lives, even if they cohabit with their parents. Many Armenians don’t do that.

There are some deeply authoritarian, Oriental currents of parenting baked into Armenian culture, and the result is that lots of young people are effectively stunted. Boys are often raised to be spoiled, ineffective couch potatoes (definitely an Eastern tendency), while girls are chiseled into domestic slaves while being coddled and overprotected in all the wrong ways. No 25 year old woman should have an 11 PM “curfew” or be unable to attend art school because “my dad didn’t let me” (emphasis: not “wouldn’t pay for it”, but “didn’t let me”). I’ve met plenty of young men in their twenties that could afford to live separately, but their parents “won’t let them”.

The practical consequences of this for a lot of Armenian young adults is that they don’t evolve independent, self-sufficient social instincts, or form the essential social and professional connections they need in order to chart a distinct course in life, which is inherently at loggerheads with the individualistic orientation of modern capitalism, and with the demands the modern world will make of these people outside of Armenia, and increasingly, inside it, too.

It’s frustrating to see a prostrated, infantile, incapable 28 year old man who can’t seem to do anything without daddy’s help or approval. To the extent this is simply a consequence of economics forcing people to live under one roof with their parents and develop accordingly, or to the extent that limited employment opportunities restrict the accumulation of life experience, I sympathise. I really do. But to the extent this is Armenian cultural parochialism at its worst, which it absolutely is, it makes a bad situation much worse. Not letting the chicks leave the nest, literally or figuratively, leaves them woefully unprepared to negotiate the challenges of dealing with other people and building bridges of understanding and diplomacy. I’ve met my share of 30 year olds that don’t realise that there’s a way to resolve disagreements other than by leveraging out one’s parents. These kids are not learning the skills to solve their own problems, or live with the consequences of their own decisions. They are not learning how to fail and how to make mistakes. They’re not learning to pick up the pieces and move on. They’re learning that dad (or, as is often the case, mom) is The Oracle, the one who knocks, the one who is many, the first, the last.

When I call this out, I usually get some lyrical encomium in return about the ever-important “Armenian family values”. Much is made of these Armenian family values. However, as it turns out, it’s quite possible to have solid “family values” without treating your adult children like they’re four. Living with one’s parents long into adult life is normal in much of the world, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to such suffocating helplessness. I don’t doubt that many parents participating in this travesty have the best of intentions (though, certainly, some do it out of selfish motives), but, they’re still stunting their children.

You might ask why I care. What’s it to me how other cultures rear their young? Live and let live. Well, aside from the fact that it’s demoralising and depressing to see it play out, this goes in the “won’t miss it” pile for entirely selfish reasons: I’m almost 28, I live alone, rent on my own, work on my own, and regulate my life on my own. This makes me almost peer-less in Yerevan, since so many of my peers are not allowed to be grown-ups. It’s pretty hard to make friends with people who aren’t fully up and running by their mid-twenties, or even their thirties. That’s why I won’t miss it.

Dating and gender relations: This is strongly related to the last point.

I’ve basically sworn off Armenia as a place to find a romantic partner. You might assume, not unreasonably, that it’s due to the aftertaste left by my divorce, but it’s not. I just can’t handle the prevailing backwardness of this place.

For someone who is used to the relatively robust individualism of Western countries, dating in Armenia is quite challenging because women well into their twenties (and sometimes beyond) don’t have independent romantic, emotional and sexual lives–not “nice girls”, anyway; some have these things, but they come with other complications. There are some exceptions, but they’re definitely anomalous. Women pretty much come as a package deal with their parents, and you should expect your relationship with a grown 26-year old woman to be eerily reminiscent of high school dating, complete with curfews, chaperoning and scrutiny entirely unsuited to grown, self-actualised adults. I know a guy whose relationship with a 32 year old woman ended because her parents ran her life like she was 14.  32!

Premarital/extramarital cohabitation is pretty much out of question; what will people say? What will the neighbours think? Armenians’ obsession with policing the sexual behaviour of young women certainly doesn’t compare with that of the Muslim world, but it’s pretty high up there, though the primary enforcement tools seem to be gossip, shaming and stigma, rather than sharia.

The “cult of virginity” is alive and well in Armenia, if you can believe that here, now, in 2014, there’s a place on the globe where a lot of men wouldn’t marry a sexually “experienced” woman (outside of those parts of the world that have made a name for themselves precisely by specialising in building bridges to the 1500s). Armenian popular culture devotes a great deal of energy to this obsession with virginity, and, I’m told on good authority, gynaecologists devote a great deal of energy to hymen reconstruction. (In this unsurprising twist, it turns out that even Armenians have something in common humanity at large. Ain’t nothin’ but mammals.)

This shockingly uncontemporary backwardness doesn’t touch all segments of society equally; social class dovetails strongly here with cultural development and worldly awareness, and not all layers of society are yoked to these relics of bygone millenia. The problem is that it doesn’t matter; the intelligentsia may not be as I am describing, but they’ve long retreated as a source of cultural influence, mostly due to their drastically thinned-out ranks. Contemporary Armenian social mores are not shaped by the intelligentsia. The dark age of the village has dawned. If you didn’t rear your daughter like this, don’t take it personally; as far as I can tell, you’re a minority now.

The bottom line here from a dating perspective is that if you want to date and/or marry an Armenian girl in her twenties, it’s just as likely as not that you’re going to have to pour years of effort into ungluing her from her parents and helping her get some perspective, all while dealing with petty and meddlesome paternalistic obstacles that I haven’t seen since the era of my school girlfriend. If you come to Armenia to meet the ladies, be prepared to rewind your historical memory a few decades. If you’re lucky, you’re just transitioning ownership of the bride away from her parents and assuming it yourself. If you’re not as lucky, congratulations–you’ve just met your new bosses, who are going to try to run you like they do their neutered sons. And, you are looking for marriage, right? There’s no other acceptable long-term relationship orientation.

I don’t have time for this. When Armenia decides to join the post-1960s reality, I’ll be more interested. Until then, I’ll let the “family values” echo chamber do its thing.

If you’re a conventional woman thinking of meeting men here, I have no advice except “just no” and “run”. You read about Neanderthals in school, but I don’t think anything can prepare you for the twilight of life with the average young Armenian man reared in the regressive post-Soviet cultural environment. To say that your rights, freedoms and personal latitude, framed in the context of spousal and in-laws’ expectations, will be curtailed to “pre-feminist” levels is to put it very mildly indeed. Armenia also has an abysmal record on protecting women from spousal rape and physical abuse, which are all too commonly seen by police as “private matters”, and by society as dirty laundry that no wife should be airing in public. If you’re a woman coming from a Western upbringing, you really have no idea what you’re getting into.

Lastly, keep in mind that much of what I’ve had to say here goes for the youth, not necessarily for classical Yerevanians of Soviet extraction, or their descendants. However, as I said above, this regression is the dominant reality today. If you want to try to pick needles out of a haystack, be my guest, but it seems to me you’re better off just looking for love in a country not so overlooked by global progress.

Patronising advice: Speaking of “family values”, I won’t miss all the unsolicited advice from random strangers about how I really should get married and have children, because, don’t you know? Children are life’s greatest joy.

Maybe they are. Maybe not. Please let me figure out my desires, priorities and values for myself. I know my “elders” mean well, but there’s a reason I don’t turn to random 20 year olds and tell them about life’s greatest joy. “Teaching” comes naturally to older Armenians, and it’s annoying. Mutual respect means that at some point, we stop talking to people younger than us like they’re children.

Ethnic strife-driven discourse: This is the first time in my life I’ve wandered into a Yugoslavia-type psychological powder keg.

Be Sumgait, Baku and Karabakh as they may, and be the century-old Genocide as it may (this is coming from someone whose ancestors died in the Genocide), I will not participate in this Balkanised metaphysics where the Turks (both kinds) are simply known as “The Adversary” (which does, in fact, happen to be News.am’s term for Azerbaijan, seemingly). I have no wish to plant a tribalistic stake in this complex and multi-faceted problem.

But frankly, it seems to me that Armenia is no position to make enemies or make demands from the Turks. The kinds of realpolitik pragmatists who realise that don’t get to lead the country, though. Fanatical nationalism is ugly everywhere, and it’s ugly here too. Won’t miss it.

Intolerance: I left this one for last because it’s a big one.

With the amount of energy Armenians devote to their twin obsessions of virginity and homosexuality, they could seriously cure cancer, end world hunger, or invent nuclear fusion.

If you’re LGBT, the aforementioned security of Yerevan does not apply. Yerevan is a place where the firebombing of a gay-friendly bar is not at all out of question and pride parades are attacked by angry nationalist mobs (seemingly with tacit support from the police and the establishment). It makes me indescribably sad to see otherwise cultured, intelligent people wind up their vitriol toward gays and lesbians. What did gays and lesbians ever do to you? What on earth does other people’s sexual preference change in your life, that you take time out of your day to crinkle your nose and remark on how distasteful same-sex intimacy is? Armenians have problems–a lot of problems–that they would be well-served to focus on instead of sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong, in people’s romantic and sexual lives. Such attitudes seriously make me question whether Armenia can sustain evolution toward and integration with the Western world. I really feel for LGBT people in Armenia. Life isn’t easy for them.

While I’m hardly a crusader for extreme political correctness, I also would recommend that the workaday Armenian public strongly reconsider its offhand attitudes about Black people (as in Africans) and other “unfamiliar” ethnicities. I’ve seen a few black American volunteers and visitors here, and with the looks they get, they might as well be in a minstrel show. I know the morons gawking at them are from a 99%-monoethnic country with few foreign visitors, but they don’t get a pass. It doesn’t adorn Armenia to underscore that you live under a rock.


Thoughts on working remotely from Armenia

I’ve spent most of the last year and a half working remotely from Yerevan, Armenia. I’m a telecommunications consultant and software vendor in VoIP, and my products and services are oriented toward the North American market. Almost all of my customers are in the US. I don’t see 98% of my customers face-to-face pretty much ever, and IP telephony, along with the Internet in general, seemingly make it possible to work from anywhere in the world, which was a thought that led me to attempt somewhat long-term residency in Armenia on that basis.

It can be done, as evidenced by the IT talent that operates here in the service of foreign companies or clients. The Internet connectivity is reasonably reliable. Mobile data services are good. The Level3 route back to the US (Georgia -> Sofia -> Frankfurt -> Paris -> Washington -> Atlanta) is clean and consistent. The reliability of power utilities is adequate, if not at “developed world” levels. There are many cozy cafés with good WiFi. It’s possible to rent a small office relatively inexpensively by First World standards (with the usual caveats about quality and getting what one pays for; if you want First World standards, you’ll pay First World rent; I don’t pay First World rent, and my office is uninhabitable right now due to insufficient heating.) The business environment is notoriously corrupt and contentious, but none of that touches you if your business is not based in Armenia and if you don’t earn income here.

If you work a lot with hardware, import duty, unpredictable shipping, and some paucity of local stock will be a problem. However, I traffic strictly in software goods, so it’s not a problem for me, although having my laptop’s power adaptor or motherboard die would be quite a daunting obstacle to deal with in this corner of the world. You can buy a new computer, sure, but if you’re going to settle in for a while and like to use the latest and greatest, bring spares.

insomnia mathStill, the harsh truth that I’ve begun to understand fairly recently is that the 9 hour time difference (8 hours in the summer) is just too much. It’s a mixed bag, because I am prone to nocturnalism and the time difference does reward it. The managerial classes at large companies like to show up at work at 7 AM and see correspondence in their inbox from this productive “early bird”. Everyone appreciates my willingness to volunteer for 4 AM maintenance windows and upgrades. I can get a lot done before the Americans even wake up, which is great for procrastinators like me who always have things they’ve put off until the last minute. That’s great, but, at the end of the day, I’m not sure it makes up for the fact that even if I keep decidedly unconventional work hours, in local Armenian terms, the latest I can really be available is mid-afternoon Eastern time. This doesn’t seem like a problem in the course of working the daily grind, but when I come back to the US, I feel how much I’m missing out on by not being around during the late afternoon and throughout the evening. That’s when some of the most important stuff happens in the 24/7 techie universe, which is replete with other personalities who aren’t on the early bird manager’s schedule either. The time zone factor influences business-impacting socialisation strongly.

Plus, there’s a powerful ongoing tension between this work situation and the social expectation of keeping relatively “conventional” hours in local Armenian time. I’ve never been able to consistently keep a 9-to-5 schedule in any locale or time zone, but one is expected, generally, to be up and running in the daytime and socially available in the evenings. Even if my local friends and relatives could deal with me sleeping all day, there’s a lot one just cannot do living like that–same as in any other place.

My two-month hiatus in Berlin enlightened me to the fact that an offset of +8 or +9 is like five times worse than +5 or +6. I can make it work from Western Europe, but Armenia’s just too far away. I really might as well be in China or Australia. There are plenty of people in Armenia who can and do make the remote thing work, but I would suspect that most of them are probably not self-employed entrepreneurs, or at least, not ones who have to do a lot of low-volume, high-depth, consultative relationship building in order to move product. Companies can deal with day-night communication cycles with their overseas developers. If you sell a product that is effectively marketed via the web (AdWords, SEO, links, reviews, etc.), it doesn’t seem to much matter where you are. I sell capital goods, and I have to do so very interactively, and into a tiny, close-knit, and judgmental market community dominated by traditionalists. The more qualitative, interpersonal salesmanship dimension of this requires a lot more socialising from me than I find myself able to consistently sustain all the way from Yerevan.

Besides that, I do have some customers that I see face-to-face, or potentially could see face-to-face. Knowing that I’m way on the other side of the globe, with no cheap or easy way to get back, subconsciously changes the tenor of sales conversations that could lead to on-site work or training, or which could benefit from an in-person meeting back in Atlanta.  I have a different attitude toward conferences, which play a fairly big role in my marketing, or, at any rate, they ought to. The sense of being remote–deeply remote, not just a little remote, for Armenia is not a place well-connected to the rest of the world logistically–leads to some level of skittishness and unconscious self-censorship.

I don’t have the ability to do a controlled experiment to compare where I am now with how much more business I would have had if I were sitting in the US this whole time. I haven’t lost any customers over the fact that I’m remote, nor have I encountered any frustrations in sales.  However, my sixth sense tells me I’m the victim of some pretty bad attrition on the marketing side. I strongly sense that I’m losing out on opportunities, and my evidence for this is that when I come back to the US even for a little while, the pipeline really starts moving again, even though the topology of my “virtual” relationship with my customers–actual and prospective–doesn’t change. It might just be coincidence, but I don’t think so. There’s something about being in the same place, even if I’m still a figment of the Internet, that makes a difference. I haven’t fully figured out if this is more of a “same place” thing or a “same time zone” issue. I suspect it’s both both, but the time zone matters a lot more.

To the extent that I haven’t paid a heavy price for hanging out in Armenia, it’s because I have ways of limiting the damage.  I can and do stay up very late as a matter of innate disposition anyway.  I speak with a friendly, idiomatic American accent and don’t give anyone doubts as to the plausibility of my claim to be fundamentally “Atlanta-based”. Aside from the ~170 ms round trip delay on the phone, and the varying hours, I do not create the sensation of working with a truly overseas company, so nobody thinks of paying me offshore rates. Still, I have the sneaking suspicion that if I were to keep this up too much longer, I’d probably start bleeding.

I haven’t tried working from South America yet, which is far away enough for the distance and locale to matter, but essentially in the same time zone. It’s on the bucket list.