Gyumri Information Technology Center Director Yeghoyan Visits East Coast


GITC

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN, Mass. — The city of Gumri, Armenia’s second largest center of population, suffered greatly during the 1988 earthquake, and even today has not fully recovered from that heavy blow. Despite the fact that it had many important institutions of higher learning, and was able to prepare a new generation of educated young people, the earthquake and the changes in Armenia’s economy after independence left little opportunity for employment locally. Young people were forced to emigrate to Yerevan and abroad in droves. The Gyumri Information Technology Center (GITC) was created 10 years ago to counter this negative trend. Its executive director, Amalya Yeghoyan, visited New York, Philadelphia and Boston at the end of September and early October in order to promote the center’s work. She had a number of private meetings along with several public presentations, including one at the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown.

While at the Mirror-Spectator, Yeghoyan explained that Gumri (the Mirror traditionally uses this transliteration of the name, while Gyumri is the form used by GITC in English) was still in dire straits in 2005. A group of young professionals visiting through the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) witnessed the situation. Among them was Patrick Sarkissian, the founder and chief executive officer of Sarkissian Mason, a high tech design and marketing services firm in New York City. Sarkissian saw the contrast between great human potential, with great education especially in mathematics, and the desperate economic situation.

Sarkissian quipped that the only thing which works in Gumri is the human brain. He was confident that a technology center could become a magnet to keep youth in Gumri. Meanwhile, according to FAR director Garnik Nanagoulian, FAR also had been looking for ways to stop the loss of talented youth there. FAR in a sense was born as a result of the situation in Gumri and northern Armenia after the earthquake. It decided to look at industries which could be nurtured locally to provide employment. After deciding against textiles and fashion, FAR consulted with Sarkissian and several others and became convinced to focus on internet technology.

Armenian-American donors liked the idea of preparing the youth for work in Gumri as specialists. The trained specialists no longer had to leave for education or work abroad, and instead work would be brought to Gumri. Internet technology work was expanding in Yerevan, and did not require large amounts of capital to start, unlike other industries. Private businesses in Armenia declared that the graduates of educational institutions in Gumri were provided with excellent general knowledge but still needed training to begin practical work.

FAR found out exactly what these companies were seeking in new employees, and accordingly established a curriculum. Then it decided on the best way to teach the curriculum. Instead of using the universities, it decided to hire as teachers the most advanced programmers and other young people in private firms in Armenia who already had experience in dealing with clients in the US and Europe. Nanagoulian said, “This became an extremely complex project. We had to bring these people from Yerevan on weekends, when they were not working at their regular jobs, provide them with hotels, and then bring them back. We soon realized we had to develop our own faculty. Patrick Sarkissian and some local organizations were instrumental in this.”

Yeghoyan said, “At first, we had nothing — no internet connection, no society that knew what was high tech, no curriculum, no teachers. We had twenty ambitious students and the desire and ambition of our three-person staff in Gumri. We started in 2005, teaching chip design, then we began to teach website design and planning.”

The two-year post-baccalaureate program turned out to be highly successful. In 2007, the entire graduating class of 20 was hired by the chip designer Instigate Design, which already had a center in Yerevan. Now Instigate Design established a second Armenian center in Gumri.

Each year thereafter, new internet technology corporations opened up in Gumri. The government started a technopark. GITC played a key role in all this. Each year it produced 20 graduates, so that up to the present there have been a total of 140 graduates, of whom 90 percent work in Armenia, and 40 percent in Gumri.

GITC began to be sought after for projects in other parts of Armenia and in Artsakh. In 2009, the Armenian Educational Foundation (AEF, based in Glendale, Calif.) contacted GITC and asked that it prepare teachers to use computers that it wished to donate. The AEF paid all the costs of transportation and equipment, while GITC provided the specialists. This turned into an ongoing program, and in different years, GITC worked in different provinces of Armenia, such as Lori or Tavush, and in Artsakh. Yeghoyan said, “We want donors to see that what they do serves the entire community. Our graduates gift back with their knowledge. We teach teachers, do free programs for children and prepare websites for free for associations for the handicapped and other benevolent groups.

GITC instituted rigorous procedures, starting with entrance exams for students. Only 30 people are accepted for the first year, and behavior, performance, speech and dress are all scrutinized in order to prepare people for the western business mentality. Classes are seven hours a day as in a regular place of work. Whoever fails is expelled without the certificate of graduation. Usually only 20 out of 30 graduate.

Students who do not possess the proper education are sent to a summer preparatory course before starting the two-year program. Students must decide between the web and mobile technology divisions. After learning the basics the first year, in the second year, the students are sent out to different places with specialists for practical work experience. Reports are sent back about their accomplishments, so that GITC sees who can actually do the work.

Students pay $500 tuition per year. During the second year, the students can work during the week for pay and come to classes on the weekend.

In 2010 GITC’s board decided to strive to create sustainability for its programs, and established a business department—GITC Solutions. It would find work for GITC’s graduates. The new approach is, said Yeghoyan, that “we will now ask our donors to find us work and projects for Gumri instead of our asking donors to give us money directly. We want to slowly become independent from donors. I am here now for this purpose.”

Yeghoyan declared that GITC can deliver a higher quality product at a cheaper cost than firms in Asia often used by US companies for outsourcing work. She said, “We want to remain in Gumri. If we have no work, we will all think of emigrating. Instead, we can do software and web development work for people in the diaspora. We have a great portfolio—we’ve worked for UNICEF (an e-learning portal), German associations, USAID and New York firms. We can do search engine optimization and mobile applications for IOS and Android.” She pointed out that GITC specialists can communicate in English, and offer a team to work on projects, not just individual specialists. She said, “Moreover, we don’t just prepare websites. We have a creative approach and can suggest new directions. Our flexibility is our strength.”

Yeghoyan’s own success story is a testament to both her native talents and the opportunities that diasporan assistance can provide. After graduating school in Gumri, she wanted to go to Yerevan but it was too expensive for her parents. Instead, she worked as a volunteer as a journalist and then at a psychology center. Then she studied at the Gumri Pedagogical Institute while working part-time as a translator to earn her tuition. After getting married and having children, thought she would have to leave Armenia in order to economically survive. She pointed out that “in Armenia, if you don’t have a lot of money or great patronage, you can’t make it. And I had neither.”

Fortuitously, after taking her final exams, her English teacher told her about a new center being founded in Gumri, which needed an administrative assistant. She went to GITC, not believing that they would accept somebody without connections. Yet after the interview, they accepted her. The director, Narine Petrosyan, encouraged her to overcome new challenges and helped her learn new computer programs, but six months later left for the US. Soon Yeghoyan became coordinator of the academic department, and began working closely with Nanagoulian at FAR. Then she became assistant director. In 2011 she became director. She said, “I was fortunate that American Armenians were my directors. They helped me learn from my mistakes. Even our donors are so modest and humble that when they call they ask first whether I have two minutes to talk.”

Nanagoulian later said, “We wanted Amalya to come here to promote GITC’s new approach. She is very impressive. She worked her way up to become a leader. She can easily turn into a mayor or leader of the province. And GITC proved to be an extremely efficient entity. It is now a recognized name in Armenia, and provides advanced training to business owners, academics and non-governmental organizations. Armenian businesses here in the US will see that our people can deliver at least as good service as the Indians on a continuing basis, and at a lower price.” FAR likes the GITC model so much that it is considering similar approaches in cities like Vanadzor and Stepanakert.