ASTANA – In today’s world, stories of people making bold career transitions are becoming increasingly popular. One such inspiring story of the courage to rewrite his own narrative is that of Bakytzhan Zhakazhanov, a once number-crunching finance professional who is now rising up in the IT sector in Kazakhstan and beyond.
Zhakazhanov, a native of the Karagandy Region, spent a significant portion of his career in the finance sector, working at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the Big Four companies.
“I started my journey seven years ago. At that time, the financial industry was in the hype. I studied economics and finance. In 2012, it was one of the most popular specializations apart from the oil and gas industry,” he said in an interview with The Astana Times.
Working in finance, Zhakazhanov had a chance to try himself in data science. To broaden his practical knowledge and understanding of the field, he spent two years studying at the University of California San Diego with the support of Kazakhstan’s Bolashak scholarship program.
“I knew nothing before I started the journey,” he said with a smile on his face.
However, it was not long before he realized that data science did not captivate him. That was the moment he decided to take the plunge into product management. This choice was not just a career move, it was a profound personal journey.
Product manager is a multifaceted role that involves overseeing the development and lifecycle of a software product or service. It is a crucial function that bridges the gap between technical teams, business stakeholders, and end-users, ensuring that the product meets both customer needs and business goals.
“Basically, product managers are people who understand the user needs and also have a very clear understanding of stakeholders, business owners, and investors. They have to know how to cover the needs of users and earn money for the business,” he said.
The journey was not without its struggles. Zhakazhanov embraced every stumbling block as an opportunity for growth. He now boasts experience in international startups and big companies in Kazakhstan at a senior product manager level.
The decision to set up own IT academy
A culminating point in his professional journey was the creation of his own academy, called Product Bee, two years ago. It stemmed from Zhakazhanov’s genuine desire to extend a hand to those contemplating similar leaps.
“The academy started by the demand of students, different specialists and switchers – people who want to switch professions. A lot of people asked me on social media. In the beginning, I tried to help them. More than 10-15 people had job offers,” he said.
So far, the academy has given 300 professionals a chance to enter the IT market.
“I can say we are number one in the amount of offers in the sphere of product management and number one in terms of alumni,” he said.
The academy recently signed a deal with InDrive, an international ride-hailing service operating in 710 cities in 46 countries. The agreement entails training high school students as part of InDrive’s BeginIT social educational project.
Challenges facing Kazakhstan’s IT industry
On a macro level, Kazakhstan still needs to double pace its efforts to keep up with global digital powers.
“The IT boom started around 15 years ago with the rise of Amazon, Meta, Apple, Netflix and Google. Belarus and Ukraine have made endowment funds and different practices to have their specialists trained and prepared for that wave. (…) It is one of the challenges that Kazakhstan is now a bit lagging, not for two or three years, but ten,” noted Zhakazhanov.
Another challenge is the lack of proper infrastructure, which hinders the country’s ability to prepare for the next era of artificial intelligence (AI). He emphasized AI requires hefty data centers and well-developed infrastructure.
“In the rise of AI, we can see nanochips and microchips from TSMC [Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company] and other large companies like Nvidia have been sold to mostly three countries – the United States, Singapore and China. Kazakhstan has very little nanochips purchased so far,” he said.
Advice for aspiring IT professionals
“If the goal is just to earn money, it is better not to transition, because the IT boom has hiring winter,” said Zhakazhanov.
But if one is keen to immerse in a field, the first step will be to find a community where one can grow.
“Basically, how we transition to IT because the inner cycle of friends and friends of friends transfer, and we see success cases near each other. Talk more to friends, ask more and be curious,” he said. Patience is no less significant at the start of the journey.
Zhakazhanov noted there are many communities in Kazakhstan. The number of conferences that offer opportunities for networking is also growing. Digital Bridge in Astana, hosted by the Astana Hub, and Digital Almaty, hosted by Tech Garden, are examples.
“They are large and probably monumental events that Kazakhstan has never had before,” he added.
Rise of investor mindset
Zhakazhanov also pointed out the growing maturity of investors.
“Before, the understanding was that you can earn only as a top manager or a traditional entrepreneur. In the West, startup founders and CEOs show how they can earn money not in the sense of earning money, but influencing the market,” he said.
Similar to every kind of relationship, the biggest challenge is communication.
“Most startup founders want investment now or tomorrow, but you have to create communication first with investors and have the same vibe. They are the people who want to help you as well. They are the people with whom you walk together for part of your life. In the United States, they say an investor is more important than a wife because you are going to spend more time with them than with your partner,” he said.
Need for regional cooperation
Zhakazhanov highlighted the need for regional cooperation, saying it is a regional problem that countries did not help each other to prosper.
“We are not understanding our power. We only recently started working with Turkic countries as an ecosystem. Last year, we signed contracts with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan,” he said.
Speaking about regional initiatives, he mentioned the establishment of the Silk Road Innovation Hub in Silicon Valley in 2023 as a “great movement from different countries to work together,” a first of its kind in the region.
The hub supports entrepreneurs, founders, startups, and talented individuals from Central Asia, Turkiye, Azerbaijan, and Mongolia straight into Silicon Valley.
“We cross-share several events like InMerge Summit in Baku and Digital Bridge in Astana. (…) Astana Hub in Kazakhstan, IT Park in Uzbekistan and Sabah incubation labs in Azerbaijan now work together to create and foster the startup movement. Even more, Uzbekistan’s Aloqa Bank invests in Kazakhstan’s startups and Kazakhstan’s ecosystem invests in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s startups,” he said.
Zhakazhanov’s IT academy is also open to professionals from the region.
“We are now giving scholarships and grants to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan’s students. They are applying to our academy. We are trying to help not only the Kazakh market but also Central Asia and CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] and this is how we envision our development,” said Zhakazhanov.
You can watch the full interview on our YouTube channel.