Alexander Skalabanov is the co-founder and CEO of Intellectsoft, the technology partner of Fortune 500 organizations. With deep roots in software engineering, Alexander leads the team behind innovative software solutions in the healthcare, fintech, construction and hospitality sectors. As a technology visionary, he is an active investor and mentor to startups.
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Table of Contents
Welcome to your ValiantCEO exclusive interview! Let’s start with a little introduction. Tell us about yourself.
Alexander Skalabanov: Since day one, I have been an entrepreneur and founded Intellectsoft right after graduating. I think I was just born this way — I wanted to found the company that would use the power of technology to make a difference in the world, so I did it. What was once a dream and a mere fantasy of a freshman has become my dedication and commitment. With all the hard work put into it, we partnered with some of the biggest household names, and companies such as Jaguar, EY, Land Rover and Walt Disney turn to us to bring their A-game using cutting-edge tech. With over 14 years in business, I’m happy to see the company prosper and be harnessed for good.
NO child ever says I want to be a CEO when I grow up. What did you want to be and how did you get to where you are today? Give us some lessons you learned along the way.
Alexander Skalabanov: I’ve wanted to create my own company since I was a little kid and dedicated a bulk of my time to achieve this goal. Here’s what I learned along the way:
- The limits only exist in your head. No matter how crazy your idea is, it most likely can be brought to life – as a technology entrepreneur, I can assure you.
- Listen to your heart. Very few things are worth approaching in your life without being passionate about them!
- If you have a gut feeling that there is something you should do, go for it. Remember, half of the things that are the new normal these days were nowhere to be found a decade ago. What if you will be the next breakthrough?
I like the Japanese concept of ikigai: something that makes you wake up early in the morning, your main reason and motivation. I realize that nearly every day, Intellectsoft changes the world; transforming it into a more digital, safe, and convenient place to live.
Tell us about your business, what does the company do? What is unique about the company?
Alexander Skalabanov: Intellectsoft is a digital transformation consultancy and engineering company delivering cutting-edge solutions for global organizations. With 14 years in operation, Intellectsoft has created high-end technological solutions for customers worldwide. We’re proud to say that our services have been used by giants like EY, Jaguar, Harley Davidson, Nestle, Eurostar, Land Rover, Guinness, and other Fortune 500 companies. We help companies in various sectors, such as healthcare, fintech, hospitality, insurance, create and incorporate modern tech solutions into their everyday processes to increase business efficiency.
How to become a CEO? Some will focus on qualities, others on degrees, how would you answer that question?
Alexander Skalabanov: First, you should decide — do you really want it? Just ask yourself. It seems simple, but for many, it’s too hard to accept this cold truth about decision-making. Indeed, that would be a huge responsibility. Get passionate, create a vision, and finally get ready to face new challenges every day. Never give up and share your conviction to inspire others around you — for me, this is what makes a good CEO. Getting a degree in something can be good, but that’s not the whole point. Doing well with little or no relevant qualifications doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to fail. Of course, there must always be room for improvement: courses, lecturers, and even 5-10 minutes of reading can help you feel confident, as now you know the stuff. Also, I would like to highlight the importance of time management. Proper timing is among the key success factors that would be relevant for all. I mean, not only C-suite executives need to plan and act proactively, avoid overlaps, deal with deadlines, and address even early signs of overloading.
In conclusion, I personally see taking the time to set up recurrent 1:1 meetings with each of your people as an extremely beneficial practice from all sides: to learn more about each other, better understand your goals, seamlessly align your workflows, or simply make new friends. And it’s a nice opportunity to put leadership directly into action. Well then, with this in mind, you can grow your own managerial skills. For example, this is a really good test to see which of the four main types of leadership describes you best. Take a different view on weaknesses to turn them into strengths. Make a clear difference between doing the right things and doing things right. Be sure to delegate specific activities when handling them internally seems to be unfeasible. Eventually, you can end up with a dream team and the added value of the highest caliber.
What are the secrets to becoming a successful CEO? Who inspires you, who are your role models and why? Illustrate your choices.
Alexander Skalabanov: The main secret here is to think strategically and encourage strategic planning, having a 360-degree view of your business. Move the company forward according to the strategy. It might be tempting to make tightly focused and fully informed decisions. But without calibrating the business toward long-term strategic targets, you may quickly end up with the following. For example, many executives immediately started cutting their staff during the early signs of the COVID-19 outbreak, ignoring the fact that the crisis would come to an end sooner or later.
We also had a similar issue that involved some in-house positions like a secretary or event manager. Why would we need them when there is no longer such work or duty? But we decided to review our working schedule and common assignments, effectively retaining those people in our HR department, and they are still with us. Next year, we plan to participate in public events like conferences, and our office will operate normally and need those roles back again. What we had to optimize, after thoughtful consideration, was our marketing budget and half of the physical space in our HQ — without involving people or their compensations. Again, when a project comes to an end, we realize that there are developers who will need a job. Instead of letting them go, we welcome different considerations. For example, a shift to another project with the same technology stack is a way to tackle the high attrition rate. After all, the cost of replacing a highly-trained employee is always high, so it’s a good point to value your team in any case.
As for role models, I like Elon Musk. He is a visionary and practitioner in different areas, even though he wasn’t an expert in the first place. Owing to his curiosity and genuine enthusiasm, merely a single tweet under his name can change stock prices or trigger massive deals, for example, when his recent suggestion to buy Tesla Cyberwhistle instead of Apple Cloth eventually led to the sell-out.
Many CEOs fall into the trap of being all over the place. What are the top activities a CEO should focus on to be the best leader the company needs? Explain.
Alexander Skalabanov: Many chief executives, especially first-time CEOs, are still caught in a mire of details and solving problems. Getting in the business and just working harder— instead of thinking how you can work differently — isn’t the way to go. Actually, it’s the fastest way to screw up your business, no matter how flexible, focused, or attentive you are. Setting the company’s course is probably the most significant and daunting task you will face.
I would like to offer this advice for leaders seeking how to set the right focus: Remember, as CEO, you can determine the vision and direction of your growing company. Forget about getting in the business and just solving problems. You need to step back and think big-picture. Identify competitive advantages, focus on strategic targets, and, more importantly, systematic growth. Build relationships with your people based on transparency and devotion. Employ analysis and research to develop the company’s vision, a big idea that changes the world. Who would believe Elon Musk when he first claimed that he is going to launch a rocket to Mars? But look where we all are now — stick to our screens watching every Falcon flying up to the sky. What used to be unimaginable becomes feasible when your vision aligns with the company.
The Covid-19 Pandemic put the leadership skills of many to the test, what were some of the most difficult challenges that you faced as a CEO/Leader in the past year? Please list and explain in detail.
Alexander Skalabanov: I think here we are not unique. The toughest challenge for us was remote work. Although IT companies have always been loyal to people working from home, what we see now is that remote work is a new reality, and people are neither bound to the employer brand nor to the company. We have realized that we don’t really need so much workspace, so we have abandoned one of the two floors of our offices, and we are cutting the space even further starting next year. Most of our people prefer working from home, with many of them living far away from our main R&D center. We have also started hiring people from all over the world instead of concentrating on one country. And this became our new challenge – to become an international company with the best talent from all over the world. We are already succeeding at it, as evidenced by our results. So, I would say, setting the company’s course is probably the most significant and daunting task you will face.
Another big challenge is keeping track of everything taking place in the company, and it is hard when everyone is online but not even turning their webcam on. So, at a particular moment, we have asked people to turn on the cameras so that newcomers could learn how the person looks and recognize each other when they see each other offline. It was funny when some people came to our office for the first time, and I heard, “Oh, so that’s how you look in real life!”
In fact, it is getting harder and harder to acquire the best talents in IT for a reasonable price nowadays. I think it is a result of the high demand for digital transformation in many spheres, from banking to e-commerce. All the trends of slowly moving towards the digital future have been backed by the pandemic, and as a result, some companies want to catch up with more progressive market players. Unfortunately, some of our potential customers are contributing to this problem by sending requests to several companies like ours, which results in the opening of some so-called “presale vacancies.” It multiplies the number of vacancies on the market. Also, some clients cannot accept the new reality – they want it all and now, but they refuse to reduce the number of stages when interviewing the candidates or lower their expectations. That’s why we work closely with the clients explaining to them the new reality and try to minimize the stages, at least on our side. Our advice for companies would be to try to find the best vendor by doing market research. You will see which companies have a good reputation, positive customer reviews, awards, and certificates. Make a shortlist and have patience, as high-quality hiring takes time.
What are some of the greatest mistakes you’ve noticed some business leaders made during these unprecedented times? What are the takeaways you gleaned from those mistakes?
Alexander Skalabanov: We share the view that many companies recovering from the aftermath of the pandemic will keep moving towards digital transformation and tech innovation. Today’s IT leaders and business stakeholders, even those who used to skimp on their tech budgets for ages, started investing selectively in app development in a desperate hope to enhance performance and bring value to their organization.
Consequently, their approach remains partial and fragmented, put simply: companies implement new digital products and innovative technologies without any comprehensive, action-oriented, and outward-looking strategy. And this is one of the greatest mistakes we’ve noticed during these unprecedented times. At the same time, however, some sectors and even whole industries have proved to be too slow to catch up with technologies in recent years. So, here we are — in 2020 we see a booming demand for competent service providers, the lack of tech specialists, and the skill gap. I mean that there is a dire need for rare talents who mastered specific tech stack or emerging methods that only started gaining wider adoption. All this taken together created high demand for services like ours.
What IT leaders and business stakeholders should have done long ago is to keep an eye on trends and plan their digital transformation, acting proactively to get the leg up on their competitors. So, a “rush hour” in software development will persist, posing a challenge for businesses in different industries and their unwise approaches to digital transformation.
In your opinion, what changes played the most critical role in enabling your business to survive/remain profitable, or maybe even thrive? What lessons did all this teach you?
Alexander Skalabanov: A well-known saying goes, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Sounds deceptively simple, doesn’t it? In 2021, we enabled a line of productive changes in the company’s performance. Extracting all-around information on how projects are progressing, we gained an understanding of their alignment with marketing and workforce on current business goals. First, we changed the customer acquisition model, as traditional marketing channels were underperforming, namely in terms of lead generation and cost per lead, so we decided to test channels we’ve never used so far. Another critical change was rethinking and rebuilding our HR and recruiting department from scratch to make sure our employees are being taken good care of.
What makes us thrive during the crisis? For our company, it is the fact that we are flexible enough to adopt changes. When it was necessary, we cut costs (office space and everything to do with working offline) back in 2020, but we have never cut salaries or number of employees, unlike many other companies. This way, we have managed to hold our talents during the toughest times, and now we work further on our employer brand.
What is the #1 most pressing challenge you’re trying to solve in your business right now?
Alexander Skalabanov: Most outsourcing companies are now suffering from the biggest distortion of supply and demand on the hiring market. Talent acquisition has never been so tough. Luckily, we have a positive HR brand, so that we give an extra value to our candidates and coworkers, and this way, we keep the attrition rate low. Our HR department has done so much to achieve it: there are many activities for our employees both offline and online, from a ping-pong robot at our office to establishing small communities, people are united by their interests. We have developed mentoring programs for junior specialists so that we can nurture young talents investing in their careers. Some companies are afraid to raise talent – what if we teach them and they leave the company? Well, I think it’s worse if they won’t learn anything and stay.
You already shared a lot of insights with our readers and we thank you for your generosity. Normally, leaders are asked about their most useful qualities but let’s change things up a bit. What is the most useless skill you have learned, at school or during your career?
Alexander Skalabanov: I dare say it’s calligraphy. My handwriting was always terrible, and that’s why some teachers were always cutting off students like me and made us rewrite the whole essay. Sometimes, I was lucky to produce nearly perfect writing, but I was still rated unfairly low, again due to my handwriting and blots. It sounds ridiculous today — everyone is typing, and the last time I signed a paper with a pen in my hand was quite a long time ago. Documents go digital, signatures too. Neurologists insist that kids still need to start with handwriting, and there’s no other alternative at the moment, let’s face it. But when it comes to learning and early development, there must be no room for punishment or disrespect. What’s important here is the content, not its visual look. And what we’re doing at Intellectsoft right now is making clinics free from paper and redundancy. Hopefully, bad handwriting will soon become a thing of the past.
Thank you so much for your time but before we finish things off, we do have one more question. We will select these answers for our ValiantCEO Award 2021 edition. The best answers will be selected to challenge the award.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make, this past year 2021, for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts?
Alexander Skalabanov: Our company has been growing steadily since inception as we partnered with amazing companies such as Guinness, EY, Disney, and Jaguar, but wanted to accelerate our success even further. First, we accepted the fact that the company lacked a solid growth strategy, and we needed a transformation. Our main focus for the year was to determine and even further strengthen our expertise in the key niches, such as fintech, blockchain, and healthcare – the ones that we have the most cases and the most demand in. We worked on our talent acquisition model to make sure we attract world-class talent, set up process management as well as new procedures within the team.
No transformation ever comes easily, but we are certain that we chose the right path, as we see the results already. We see an influx of demand and lower customer and talent acquisition costs, and our brand awareness nearly doubled. Moreover, we see from our internal metrics that the delivery department is working more efficiently, and our customers are extremely happy as they continue receiving cutting-edge solutions with high-end customer service and an efficient development process.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Alexander Skalabanov for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Alexander Skalabanov or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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