Vladimir Tchernitski is the head of R&D at Azoft. His department handles projects requiring in-depth knowledge, intensive research, and an unconventional approach — such as those involving hydrodynamic process simulation, optical credit card number recognition and road sign recognition, or ultrasonic data transfer. Only the most adventurous of developers who can think out-of-the-box are assigned to R&D.
— What’s it like running the R&D department at Azoft?
Our team is sort of like a SWAT unit. We’re assigned to only the most challenging missions: technically difficult; methodologically unpredictable; and scientifically intensive. Naturally, one person can't be an expert in every field and this is why we often work in collaboration with scientists and engineers who have quite unique specializations. Luckily, we have many nearby, since Azoft is located in a well-known scientific and educational center of Novosibirsk, often called the Silicon Taiga.
Recently, for example, the search for a proprietary formula needed on a hydrodynamic process simulation project led us to the Institute of Hydrodynamics. Another time, research on image processing for optical recognition of credit card numbers brought us to the Institute of Mathematics.
— How many people are on the R&D team?
Officially there are two full-time developers under my supervision, but any Azoft employee can join a research project at any stage when motivated and capable. Desire and passion are all that’s needed, but actually there are few who can put up with the stress and unpredictability of entering into virgin territory. An R&D team member must be mentally prepared for the possibility that brilliant and seemingly flawless ideas still may fail, and that five or even ten attempts at a solution may not be enough. But... there’s no whining and no turning back allowed!
— A “tenth attempt” sounds rather discouraging...
Not at all. That’s the nature of our work: we take an idea and stress-test it until it either shines or breaks. An idea might be a disaster, but the failure reveals Х more options for further testing. If all of Х fail, we'll determine Y, Z, and test them until we find a solution.
That’s the curse and the blessing of the R&D department — we always look forward to the new. But what’s cutting-edge today will be old tomorrow.
Another key point: it's not always the optimal solution that we are seeking. For example, regarding image sharpening technology, its optimization will be the focus of the next stage of the project, and the Production Department is in charge of that. Our goal in this case was to define the project’s general direction. That was the specifics of our work here.
— What helps you stay focused and motivated on particularly challenging projects?
Our work is certainly anything but dull. It's a special feeling to take on a project that only a few people have considered before and to accomplish it, sort of like stepping onto the surface of a new planet. There are humorous moments in our work as well. For example, once, while developing an app for a fruit processing factory, we were all getting so serious about searching for the median of a peach that it became just absurdly funny!
— Which part of your daily duty is larger: theory or practice?
Our work starts with theoretical research, studying the work of top scientific institutions and laboratories in Russia and abroad. Then we proceed to practical application and stress-testing of possible solutions. Then we go back to more research. So, I'd say both theory and practice are equally important.
— What was your first R&D project?
It was an iPad app that allows users to imitate aqueous surface designs that are called Ebru or marbling. Ebru is a traditional Islamic and Turkish art that can be defined as painting on water and then transferring the paint onto paper.
In real life, artists draw on the water with an ink brush. In our case, users draw on an iPad using just their fingers. The pictures produced look very realistic: the water surface on the iPad screen ripples and reacts to touch like real liquid.
On that project we faced a familiar challenge that in the past often prevented us from being able to apply elegant solutions: the limitations of mobile device processing power. These days that’s no longer a problem as manufactures keep creating devices that are more and more powerful. Now we can come even closer to the actual artistic technique of marbling.
— What scientific basis was helpful to you on this project?
We used the formulas of Ludwig Boltzmann, an Austrian physicist who’s amazing, by the way. I just can't imagine how in the 19th century a scientist comes home, unsaddles his horse, puts wood in the stove and sits down to write equations describing the statistical behavior of a thermodynamic system. How in the world did it come to his mind to start describing water rippling in a tub through a mathematical equation? Yet, he did it! And he is right: everything can be expressed through the language of mathematics. It’s the language of God.
— Do you work only with mathematics?
No, our recent project on ultrasound, for example, is pure physics. One of our clients has requested a technology that will allow financial transactions to work on any smartphone. Not all phones support Bluetooth, have an NFC chip, or can exchange data. And there are still places without WiFi or cellular. But every phone has a speaker and a microphone so therefore we can use sound, or more accurately, ultrasound.
Months of work have found us to be getting far too esoteric, although initially everything seemed quite simple. We’re still on the case.
— Are there other IT companies in Russia with an R&D department?
I don’t think so. As far as a I can determine, only huge industries have such teams. Research is usually carried out in institutions and laboratories and the results are not immediately used to start bringing in money. In most companies, an R&D division is a luxury, while at Azoft we have emerged harmoniously out of the Production Department, effectively combining research tasks with practical application to produce tangible results.
We try to apply theoretical research findings in practice: we implement solutions into current projects, create unique components, write articles and build products based on the results we get.
— Are there any findings you’ve made that are still not used in practice?
Yes. For example, we figured out how to emulate the human vascular system and we applied for a grant. But since we’re a commercial organization, the grant went to a university, in Boston.
— How was your department formed?
I came to Azoft as a PHP developer but was always stubborn in overcoming challenges. This was noticed by Ivan, our company’s CEO. Several years ago he suggested that I form an R&D department and said he wanted me to be in charge of it.
— Is your job all about science?
I won't be that categorical. I think every researcher knows that feeling when they lose their the grasp on a project, then do something and they’re not even sure what, and everything starts working great. You can’t but wonder, would it have worked if not for that fluke? The feeling is amazing. But I do believe that without a solid scientific base, no blind luck is possible.
Russian text by Sib.fm