Russian Firm to Train Israelis in Hot Tech Fields

Yandex to begin first classes in October with 50 students

A yellow Yandex NV taxi cab waits for customers beside Red Square and Saint Basil's cathedral in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, April 9, 2018.
Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Fifty Israeli students – most of them computer science graduates or veterans of army technology units – will begin a program in October to learn the ins and outs of some of the hottest fields in Israeli high-tech, such as data science and machine learning.

The classes will meet at Tel Aviv University, but no Israeli academic institution is involved. The syllabus was written and the lecturers hired and paid for by the Russian company Yandex.

In a country not famous for high-tech, Yandex is an outlier – but a big one. It controls more than half the internet search market in Russia, earning it the sobriquet “Russia’s Google.” But it’s also Russia’s eBay, Spotify and Uber all rolled into one. On the Nasdaq it trades at a market cap of  $12 billion.

More than a decade ago, Yandex also got into teaching. That was the result of a problem familiar to tech companies in Israel and elsewhere in the world, namely a shortage of qualified personnel, especially those with practical experience.

“Russian universities turn out excellent students with a deep understanding of the fundamentals of physics and mathematics, but it’s only a filtering mechanism,” Yandex CEO and founder Arkady Volozh said in a phone interview. “All the advanced work they learn [on the job] at technology companies.”

Volozh is a serial entrepreneur who started his first company, Comptek, in 1989 and began experimenting in Cyrillic search engines a year later. Yandex grew out of that, becoming an independent company in 2000 and going public on the Dow Jones Stock Exchange in 2011.

The Yandex School of Data Analysis isn’t a profit center for the company, rather it’s a way of recruiting and training future employees. It selects 200 students every year from an applicant pool of 4,000 and hopes the top half of the graduates will opt to work at Yandex. 

Tuition is free and, unlike most other training programs, the program last two years, not a few months. Since it began in 2007, Yandex has expanded the program to Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg in Russia, Kiev and Minsk in Belarus. 

Yandex has invested in Israeli startups but it has no research and development center or other operations in Israel. So why come here?
“The whole future of high-tech is in machine learning, just like electricity was 200 years ago,” said Volozh. “But if you look at companies that really do machine learning and serve hundreds of millions of people, they’re scattered in very few places around the world. Silicon Valley and Seattle have Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google, but also in China, Korea, Russia and Israel.”

The model in Israel will be slightly different than elsewhere. Students in Israel will have to pay tuition, although it will be heavily subsidized. The one-year program will cost 8,000 shekels ($2,190), versus the 14,000 a masters degree would cost at a state-subsidized college or university in Israel.

The program has attracted 300 applicants for what will be 50 places in the first semester. 

They will be subject to a program of learning totaling 250 hours, which include being challenged with problems provided by Israeli startups like Anodot, whose technology identifies business information anomalies, and Sense Education, which uses data science to create personalized educational programs.

Students can work part-time, but Yandex says it prefers that they work no more than half-time. Israeli experts who have seen the syllabus say it is in depth and ambitious.

As to why Yandex is investing in Israel’s human capital when it has no presence here, Volozh answers: “We will get to know people and they will get to know us, and we’ll see what happens. In our industry everything starts with people. We considered several times building an R&D center in Israel and until now that hasn’t happened. Maybe now, around this school, it will happen.”