Raiffeisen Bank International’s competence centre for strategic initiatives proves that while Kosovo may be small, its IT sector has big potential.
Back in 2012, Raiffeisen Bank International’s (RBI) branch in Kosovo needed a mechanism to centralise and tailor its services. Six years later, the IT competence centre for strategic initiatives (CCSI) has proven itself to be a diamond in the rough, offering the banking group a talented workforce and smart solutions.
Now, as the CCSI’s manager Kreshnik Halili tells Emerging Europe, it supplies RBI group with a streamlined approach to data warehouse, digital technologies, governance risk, and compliance solutions.
This success goes to show that Kosovo, despite its size, should not be overlooked for its skill in the IT sector. As the maxim goes, ‘quality over quantity’.
- Poland is home to CEE’s most competitive IT sector
- In Kosovo, an electoral earthquake
- Time for Kosovo to secure its true independence
Prior to the establishment of CCSI, RBI was looking for ways in which it would foster competences from its network units for the development and enhancement of their IT services. After extensive planning with the local COO Shukri Mustafa, and along with the support of RBI and local management, the decision was made to prepare a proposal for a competence centre exclusively dedicated to RBI’s services.
The primary aim was to ensure a more efficient, structured and tailored approach to service delivery for the bank. However, as Mr Halili explains, this allowed for the CCSI to go beyond streamlining, and provide the right ecosystem and resources for growth, where strong foundational knowledge in IT met disruptive thinking, ensuring smart strategic solutions to services beyond the conventional.
When starting out, the team of just three found it difficult to gain the trust of the group head office to delegate their operations to the centre.
“It was very challenging at the beginning,” explains Mr Halili. “It is not by default that you would expect IT services from Kosovo.”
However, after proving their talent with the first few projects – such as delivery of a GRC platform to the group’s security department – they quickly moved on to bigger competences and the RBI group came to realise the CCSI’s true potential.
“After the first project, RBI HO and some sister banks wanted to open-up and try new projects, up to the point that we have now become one of the preferred partners for delivering group solutions,” says Mr Halili.
Now, the CCSI team stands at 41 employees and growing, an evolution done in sync with the group head office. And it is this group of employees that appears to have consistently been the centre’s point of difference.
“I went to RBKO CCSI with tight deadlines and high expectations, asking them if they will build for us nothing less than a customer centric lending platform,” says Vasilica-Valentin Pantazi, international leasing steering and product management at RBI. “Yes, I was impressed with their technology stack, with their agile delivery methods, but what made me tilt the balance and decide to go for their services was the team.”
Many at RBI value the CCSI because of its innovative mentality. Finding a group of individuals with IT skills may prove easy, but finding individuals who can then apply this knowledge to complex problems, initiative and thinking outside the box proves moves difficult. Yet, this is exactly what the centre has been able to achieve.
According to the centre’s manager, this is partly down to nature of the IT sector in Kosovo.
“When it comes to IT in Kosovo, I compare our IT talents to diamonds. Diamonds are made under pressure and usually are found in uncharted territory,” Mr Halili explains. “It’s the same here, despite a challenging environment in Kosovo, our IT talents have proven that they are very competitive with their know-how.”
“Kosovo is not on the top lists of IT sourcing destinations, that’s why I say it is uncharted, but for Raiffeisen and some other companies to enter this uncharted territory proved to be very rewarding.”
An unconventional choice
Of course, growing up in a country that has been unrecognised by many international players, and suffered economic and political upheaval significantly inhibits access to opportunity, and makes it an unconventional choice for IT focus.
Yet paradoxically, this hardship is fostering Kosovo’s unique talent, partly stemming from young Kosovans’ ambition and the need to prove themselves above and beyond expectations.
Universities in the country like the University for Business and Technology (UBT), the Innovation Centre Kosovo (ICK), and two sponsored IT labs, one at UBT and once at Cacttus Education, as well as an Elevator Lab Fintech Partnership programme – sponsored by the bank – are aiming to foster this talent pool.
While earlier this year a PwC report found that formal and vocational IT education in Kosovo is below the needs of some companies, these institutions are seeking to change this and break expectations.
As the ICK’s director, Uranik Begu explains, fostering this ambition for learning, particularly in sales and marketing, is key to the sector’s longevity and to overcome regional competition.
“Given the untapped potential of our youth, this centre [ICK] has become a home to many young people who see it as an opportunity to develop their ideas into sustainable businesses. Basically, they come to us with an idea, and we offer them tailored services and programs to help them accelerate their businesses,” he says.
A dynamic, shifting sector
Moreover, the sector is dynamic and always shifting, so staying in close contact with the stream of talent coming out of these institutions is paramount. A close connection with universities and programmes therefore aims to ensure a sustainable talent pool in Kosovo.
However, for Mr Halili, while a good education in IT is important, it is not the be all and end all. Rather, what he looks for is attitude. An ambitious, competitive talent, willing to go the extra mile is what lies at the heart of the recruitment process. This cannot be taught, whereas skills can be.
It is these core attributes which Kosovo’s unique environment offers, and one which the CCSI encourages.
“If the proprietary technologies are there, with attitude and basic logical know-how, then we will help with processes and learning, allowing them to grow with us,” explains Mr Halili. “Hands-on training, online training, coaching with senior developers, that is what is most important. We offer a lot of freedom, a lot of labs. This allows talent to experiment, learn to break things and truly learn to think outside of the box.”
Fostering this agile environment has paid off for the centre. As RBI’s Martin Köb from group information and cybersecurity explains, “colleagues are always coming up with solutions, I haven’t heard once that ‘this is not possible’.”
An important exporter
More broadly, Kosovo’s IT sector must still counteract the struggles of a younger industry, where many stakeholders lack in-depth knowledge and resources, and more efforts are needed to establish a strong institutional framework, including relationships regarding markets and trends. However, projects like the CCSI are beginning to shift this climate towards becoming stronger and more established.
The PwC report also found that the rate of start-up failure in Kosovo remains high, with around two-thirds requiring more financial support, which Covid-19 will accentuate. Nevertheless, the same report found that “the ICT sector is among the few sectors within the Kosovo economy that is characterised by a positive trade balance”, where around 78 per cent of already existing companies export their services.
The government is further trying to aid the development of the country as a hotspot, building upon strong IT and language skills. This spells good news for Kosovan IT, where the success of the CCSI may be just the beginning, if financial constraints can be overcome.
Kosovo’s very young population, and its increasing focus on the IT sector means that this trend of innovative thinking is likely to continue. With almost every young person fluent in English, and many becoming fluent in German, as more German companies are entering the market, it appears as though young Kosovans have indeed proven their worth as diamonds in the rough.
Unlike many news and information platforms, Emerging Europe is free to read, and always will be. There is no paywall here. We are independent, not affiliated with nor representing any political party or business organisation. We want the very best for emerging Europe, nothing more, nothing less. Your support will help us continue to spread the word about this amazing region.
You can contribute here. Thank you.