Programming in the Andes. A Toptal Engineer’s Search for Adventure

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Andrew Toptal“What’s next for me? Hmm. Let me think.”

Andrew Korzhuev, who leads various analytics initiatives at Toptal, talks to me via Skype on a Thursday afternoon. He is in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“Oh! I know. My next project is to go back home to Russia to get a driver’s license.”

I can’t help but chuckle to myself. Here was a young man who had accomplished in a few years of freelancing what many programmers hope to achieve in their careers, and the next big project he hoped to tackle was getting his driver’s license?

“I want to go to so many places where nobody goes. In South America, for example, if you want to go adventuring to amazing, awesome places out in the wild, you need a car.”

The story of Andrew Korzhuev’s upbringing is, at least by this American’s accounts, a fascinating one. To hear him describe the circumstances and community into which he was born almost sounds like he’s setting the scene for the origin flashback of a great comic book supergenius action hero, but to him, it was just life.

“I grew up in a tiny city right outside the suburbs of St. Petersburg. It’s called Sosnovy Bor. They have a nuclear plant there, so you can’t get in unless you are part of the plant. The whole city exists only to support this nuclear facility. Basically what happened is the USSR put a lot of very intelligent people out there, often without their consent, to run the nuclear plant and do the research, and a couple of those people happened to be my parents. They lived and worked in this town where I was born, and they were both doing great engineering things in their jobs, which dealt with something like programming and automation, so I just grew up around all that from a very young age. It was very fun.”

It seems that it was always Andrew’s fate to work with computers. He remembers fondly his time growing up in Sosnovy Bor, this little city of geniuses by the Baltic Sea, where the community of extremely intelligent people all around him fostered a love, interest, and passion for lifelong learning, scientific inquiry, and, perhaps most importantly, computer programming.

“Of course, I grew up around computers, so I always remember them being a part of my life, but it was as early as middle school that it became a real field of study. The school I went to in Sosnovy Bor, Lyceum №8, offered pre-high school classes on the basics of algorithm design and programming. The teachers were very talented, and they entered us in programming competitions, both within the country and on the international stage—some of my classmates and I won international contests. That’s really quite remarkable for such a tiny city. Many of us went on to accomplish some amazing things.”

Thanks to the early algorithm classes and programming competitions, Andrew began to explore the practical applications of his computer knowledge.

“When I was in high school, I realized that people needed my services and would pay money for them, so I started doing that. I remember the first time I made money on a programming project. I got paid $300. I worked on these jobs where I was doing reverse engineering and working with microcontrollers and C and C++. I’ll admit, back then things like that were considered pretty amazing.”

So, as just a high schooler, Andrew Korzhuev launched his freelance programming career.

As the Internet bubble grew larger and larger, Andrew honed his skills and broadened his programming expertise, always staying up-to-date with the latest in-demand language, moving to Perl and, eventually, Ruby.

When he enrolled at the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology, Andrew took his freelancing jobs with him and quickly found he enjoyed the balance of academic work with programming work.

“I studied System Analysis and Control. This was at the University founded by Mendeleev, so there was a heavy emphasis on chemical engineering, but it was a very cross-disciplinary program. Take a vodka factory for example. You need chemistry knowledge to properly make the vodka itself. You need physics knowledge to architect the distillation process. You need mechanics to design the factory machinery. You need control theory to automate the whole process. I studied all of that in my field. I enjoyed it, so I got a Master’s degree in the same field as well.”

Andrew’s uses his cross-functional skill set every day in his work at Toptal. As a team lead working on many analytics projects, he works on highly complex, highly performant features across a number of technologies on a daily basis.

“I was finishing my studies and doing freelance work in Ruby because that was the in-demand skillset, and it was during this time, specifically while I was getting my Master’s, that I met Taso [du Val, CEO of Toptal].”

The meeting was to prove itself serendipitous for both parties involved.

“He was in the process of hiring lots of people for Toptal, but he had to sort through and reject all these bad programmers, and that was a big waste of precious time. Generally speaking, this is a big reason why Toptal was born, I think. He wanted to make a service easier for finding more qualified programmers more efficiently, without wasting time having to wade through piles of bad applicants.”

Andrew is certainly onto something when he hints at the inspiration behind this innovative company. Toptal’s rigorous screening process has just a 3% acceptance rate, and includes an intense series of tests for technical prowess and screens for everything from computer science fundamentals to English language proficiency and personality. And while Toptal was not quite up and running when Andrew and Taso first crossed paths, they did form a good working relationship that included projects like Circlefy (now defunct) and Collabshot, an excellent collaboration tool that’s still very widely used at Toptal.

After finishing his university studies, Andrew continued on the freelance path. In fact, he’s never worked in a 9 to 5 office job, and he likes it that way. In the months after completing his degrees, however, Andrew ran into a bit of a problem with the remote work lifestyle.

“When I was first freelancing online, I might have a gig that goes half a year, then I’d have to spend a long time looking for my next project, so the income was very unsteady. But that all changed for the better when I joined Toptal.”

Taso and Andrew had kept in touch after their initial projects together, and when the company got on its feet, Taso reached out to Andrew once more, this time for more than a freelance project.

“It was two years ago that I began to work full-time leading analytics projects at Toptal. We actually do a large number of things, so I wear a lot of hats. It’s funny, it’s actually pretty similar to the system studies and control theory fields I studied in college and graduate school alongside my chemical engineering, so it’s nice that I still get to use those skills.”

What Andrew likes the most about Toptal is its progressive mentality. He attributes the company’s growth to a culture of accountability, in which every member of the team is constantly encouraging one another to push boundaries and test assumptions. Indeed, he has lived his programming life with this idea in mind.

“If I could give advice to a young person entering the tech world, I would say this: People who invented these big things, like amazing technologies or languages, they are not necessarily any smarter than you. Often times there are flaws in their products, but no one questions them because they think, ‘Oh, this product is used by everyone, so there must be nothing wrong with it.’ But that is not the case. So think for yourself, think critically. Challenge the status quo. If somebody made a bad design decision in a language, it’s their fault if you’re learning the language and get confused. You can do better. So go out and do it.”

Andrew says his appreciation for the Toptal community goes far beyond its engineering culture. Indeed, the lifestyle of many Toptalers suits him, and he speaks fondly of the ways in which Toptal has given him the ability to achieve things he had never thought possible.

“I told myself, if or when I get a stable remote job, I will finally travel. I had never really left Russia before I joined Toptal, but just a couple weeks after I signed on, I went to Hungary. It was amazing. Now I’m in Buenos Aires. In the last four months alone I’ve gone all across South America, including Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. Russia is still my home. My family and friends are there, but I do enjoy being more nomadic. I love traveling with Toptalers, they’re very fun and intelligent. The community is great, and while we’re not necessarily hanging out all the time because we’re a remote community, it is nice to travel anywhere in the world and be able to meet up with someone you know.”

The freedom to roam has inspired Andrew to take up new interests, among them photography. His portfolio of breathtaking photographs reflects the adventurous globe-hopping life he now has the ability to live, thanks to Toptal.

“Earlier this year, I spent two months living 3,500 meters above the ocean in the Andes, hiking mountains and discovering Inca ruins all over the place. I’m taking photographs to capture these incredible life experiences, meeting new people and seeing places I never thought I’d ever see. And I’m still working my ass off, of course.”

And how about that driver’s license?
“Well, I’ll stay in Buenos Aires for a little longer, but yes, I should take care of that some time. My main goal is always this: to go exploring somewhere, not just simple touristy sightseeing. I want to go on real adventures all over the world.”

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