Johnson Controls VP Jeff DeBest: Sky Is the Limit for What Private Sector and Bulgarian Education Can Achieve Together
Exclusive interview with Jeff DeBest, Group Vice President Global Electronics of Johnson Controls Automotive Experience, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Johnson Controls Bulgaria; Published by Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) and Novinite.bg at the "Investors of the Decade" Business Survey.
Johnson Controls has celebrated 10 years in Bulgaria. What would you say are Bulgaria's advantages as an investment destination? Why has Jonson Controls been expanding in Bulgaria for the past ten years?
First of all, Bulgaria has a history of software capabilities and electronics capabilities. Second, that history is also fostered by the education system.
If you ask what we would ask for from the government, every company is going to ask for continued support, more focus on education, and so on. But we also see that as a two way street: that we in the private sector also need to work with universities when it comes to internships, explaining our needs from a curriculum standpoint.
For example, we are meeting with the five Bulgarian universities that we work with because if we are not active in explaining what our needs are and where we stand, the universities will have a harder time in developing their curriculum.
At the same time, we need to be developing internships, and other opportunities so that we can have access to the talent that is being produced by the education system.
Johnson Controls working relationship from business standpoint in Bulgaria is very sound so we continue to be able to recruit and retain talent in the Bulgarian market, locally, and as long as we continue to do that we will continue to grow in Bulgaria.
What has Johnson Controls invested in Bulgarian education so far?
We do provide some monetary assistance to Bulgarian schools, and we will actually be increasing that as part of our 10-year anniversary in recognition of the fact that continued growth needs to have continued investments in education.
In honor of our ten years in Bulgaria we will be increasing the amount of money available for our CEO in Bulgaria, Roman Vasilev, and his team here locally to deploy with the universities.
Globally, Johnson Controls has a pretty interesting mix of locations. Could you compare your Bulgarian investment with those elsewhere – Brazil, China, the USA, Germany?
We've made investments in our physical facilities everywhere because one of the ways you attract and retain talent is technology – they want to work with a state of the art technology. So that's important.
But it is also very efficient for us because with advancements in software you need to keep making those investments. It doesn't matter if it's in the USA or Bulgaria, or Germany. You have to make those investments to keep in pace with technology.
It speaks very well that we keep making those investments in Bulgaria, and the employees and our engineers know how to use them so in that sense our technical center in Sofia is on par with our others around the world.
Building upon that, how much training do you Bulgarian employees need? Is that specific and different in Bulgaria compared with other locations?
No, there is a hierarchy of development but it is no different than elsewhere. University graduates would get entry positions and then grow from there. With software, there is not a lot of difference – when you walk into the office environment, you wouldn't know where you are at because software is about having two monitors on your desk, and the work stream and decoding, and there are usually electronic devices you are playing with.
We are making sure that we've got a team environment because software is not developed in a vacuum any more; there are so many different layers and interaction that takes place.
I travel to all those dots on the map, and I actually see Bulgarians everywhere I go. And I think they are very good ambassadors for the country because I see them in Northern China, Western China, Shanghai, in Michigan in the USA, in our tech centers in Europe.
I've always been impressed not only with their capabilities and competence but also their energy and willingness to go and do things. They are will to go around the world to work for our corporation, which is also a great personal learning opportunity for them. It speaks volumes for the types of engineers that are being developed in Bulgaria.
Do you have a lot of foreign staff in Sofia?
No, we are able to develop most of what we need locally, and we deploy Bulgarians on assignments to help us with the interface between the tech center in Sofia and the others – because the Bulgarian tech center feeds all of the others with different services – software primarily but also validation services, and so on. So it is very important that we have good communication.
We had 50 people from around the world for our 10-year celebrations in Bulgaria. It speaks about the value of the tech center in Sofia that we have 50 people that are willing to invest their time to come here and to celebrate with the team.
And these are all manager and director-level personal, VPs, so that also shows you the reach of how many different touch points this tech center has across our engineering around the world. It is a very good example – having fifty of our leaders coming to Bulgaria to celebrate with the team.
And if you look at our growth, we've been growing about 10% per year in Bulgaria, and we see 2012 about being the same. I think sky is the limit as long as we keep finding and retaining.
The type of investment that Johnson Controls has made in Bulgaria is a dream investment for this country - with high added value products and highly-skilled staff. Do you have a recipe for attracting that type of investments?
I would say that technical jobs might not be as many as base manufacturing but they advance the country and technology and capabilities of the overall country as well.
Our formula is pretty simple. Over time it's not going to be about low cost or lower cost, it is going to be about access to talent, and so you are looking for education systems that are producing good engineers. You are looking for the ability to recruit them and retain them, and we've been very successful.
To bring fifty or sixty people into an organization every year, and to be able to onboard them effectively speaks volumes of what the team here can do. We have actually been awarded innovation awards for products developed in the Johnson Controls center in Bulgaria.
What would you say your industry will look like in 5 years (because 10 years is probably too far into the future)?
In 5 years, you are going to see software continue to become a bigger and bigger part of electronics.
Today it's not so much about the hardware design, it's more and more about the software and what you're making that hardware do.
I think that in five years you'll seen Johnson Controls' center in Bulgaria continue to expand, as far as continuing to keep pace with the abilities to develop software. So it's not just that we are proud of what we have today but we continue to have greater expectations of our team here to keep pace with technologies.
I would expect us to have further headcount in Bulgaria, to continue to evolve our working relationships with the universities – we need to be in unison with the increased capability requirements – and I think that's where we'll really see it.
We'll see software being a bigger and bigger part in the world – and not just automotive – in general electronics you'll see more software required.
So if Bulgaria can continue to produce the quality software engineers it has today, sky is the limit of what we can do together – both the private sector and the Bulgarian education system.
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