“I am from a nonexistent city in a nonexistent country,” Toptal freelancer Dmitry Pavlov tells me during our Skype interview, and I’m unsure how to respond to this unusual answer to the simple introductory question, “where are you from?”
“It’s a local joke, you see. I am from St. Petersburg, but when I was born it was Leningrad, and Russia was the Soviet Union.”
As far as local jokes go, I think that one is more clever than most, though not many places have such a unique history to build on.
Dmitry has won the Microsoft MVP award for technical expertise in C# seven years in a row beginning in 2008. With over twelve years of experience in both .NET and C#, Dmitry is a formidable well of knowledge and experience. He currently lives with his wife and daughter in St. Petersburg. He is expecting a second daughter this September, and he is happy to have his family and raise them where he grew up, in a city so familiar yet also distinctly changed.
“There were years of chaos after 1991 [the year of the Soviet Union’s dissolution]. Systems were broken, people needed money. Everyone only trusted themselves, but the changes went deeper than that. It changed the way Russians looked at the future. You know, my parents always knew what would happen next in their lives. In many ways, their future was set, and the previous generation knew the path life would take them. But now nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. There’s uncertainty in that, but it’s a good thing. I was originally a geologist and look where I am now. My daughters will have these possibilities too.”
Not only was Dmitry a geologist, but he was on his way to completing a PhD in geology before deciding that studying rock formations wasn’t for him. Instead, he decided to pursue software development, but it wasn’t a clean transition.
Dmitry began his formal education at St. Petersburg State University, studying Engineering Geology. In his youth, Dmitry was interested in geology because he found the idea romantic. He imagined regular field expeditions into the wilderness and was taken by the image of the geologist conquering nature through science. It wasn’t until his second year of studying that Dmitry even considered technology, buying his first computer in 1998. The purchase wasn’t out of interest so much as laziness.
“At the time, my financial situation presented me with two options: I could buy an old car or I could get a computer. I was lazy, so when everyone around me constantly talked about computers and their usefulness in daily tasks and education, I got an Intel computer. I’ve never regretted it.”
At first, Dmitry used the computer for video games and Excel calculations, but within six months, he got bored and decided to teach himself more about computers, all while maintaining his studies for his undergraduate degree.
“I learned about web design and development and C++. Then I discovered .NET and realized that what took me hours to accomplish in C++ took me only 15 minutes with .NET. That’s ultimately why I specialized in .NET. The language was just more intuitive to me. I thought that people will pay a lot of money for this, so in 2001 I decided to enroll in a Master’s program for Computers Systems and Networks at Saint Petersburg State Polytechnical University.”
Yes, you read that right. I even asked Dmitry to repeat himself during the interview to confirm it. Dmitry entered a Master’s program with no formal training beyond what he taught himself online. At the same time, Dmitry began his Master’s in Structural Geology at the State University.
“I attended both universities for two years. In the mornings I would study geology, then I would drive to the Polytechnical University and take computer courses in the evening. When I got home at night, I learned and practiced English. It was a crazy period in my life.”
The two Master’s programs worked together better than I would have guessed. Dmitry implemented his own software for his independent geology research to great success, though his professors always wanted his work to be more focused on the geology than the software he had clearly put more time into.
Today, Dmitry’s interest in software development has made him one of the world’s elite .NET programmers and has garnered him attention from one of the behemoths of the industry, Microsoft, who awarded him the Most Valuable Professional in C# award seven years in a row.
“I first got noticed by Microsoft for my work with Microsoft Visual Studio. I was working at Sharpstyle Labs, and the company had a few Flash-based systems. Flash was dying, so I created a Visual Studio extension that allowed developers to write ActionScript code, which helped the company salvage their Flash systems. A year later, I started answering a lot of questions on different forums about the topic, and Microsoft noticed my participation in the community.”
While winning these awards, Dmitry worked a wide range of jobs, ranging from project manager to team lead to software developer. He even co-authored an article about implementing usability methods and one year tried the experimental Extreme Programming method. Some jobs were in an office, others were remote, which he preferred.
“I like working remotely. It’s comfortable. I have a really flexible schedule. I can do things when I want to do them, not when I have to do them. I try to work hours similar to a normal office week, but it never ends up being normal. It also allowed my family to travel. Before my daughter started school, we would spend two or three months away from St. Petersburg every year because the weather is so bad in the winter, and I have vivid memories of those travels.”
One particularly memorable trip occurred several years ago when Dmitry was vacationing in Cyprus for a few months with his family. During their stay, Dmitry realized that they didn’t have enough money to return home and pay off the loan on their house in St. Petersburg. Rather than mitigate his losses and pick one option, Dmitry and his wife decided to enjoy the rest of their planned vacation anyway and used the rest of their money to go to Paphos and rent a big two-floor house instead.
“I ended up finding a freelance job that would pay up front, so we were able to buy plane tickets home, but the money wasn’t enough to get to the airport. I had to make a deal with the villa owner. He drove my family to the airport, and in exchange, I made him a new website for the rental home.
“A year later, we went back to the same house because we enjoyed it so much, and what do you know, he used my website. It’s still live today.”
It’s these kinds of experiences that appeal to Dmitry and make the remote work lifestyle a perfect fit. It allows him to express the adventurous spirit of his youth even if he is no longer a geologist taking a sample of some rare ore in the heart of an unmapped crevasse.
Oddly enough, the hardest part about working remotely for Dmitry was finding the work itself, despite the honors and recognition he received from Microsoft.
“I tried to put myself through every site that sounded remotely like freelance work. I had some success with these open freelancing platforms, but, more commonly, I never got responses. The problem with these platforms is that a lot of people with few skills charge really cheap rates. It’s difficult to compete with those prices, and that’s even if you are noticed in the midst of so many people clamouring for the job.”
It was during one of these frustrating searches that Dmitry discovered Toptal. Or, rather, Toptal discovered him. Toptal is a completely distributed company that screens software developers and then connects them with clients. A Toptal employee noted Dmitry’s expertise and encouraged him to apply. Dmitry went through Toptal’s extremely tough screening process and passed, and has now been working with them for over three years.
“I’ve done four projects at Toptal so far. All of them were .NET-related, but the business area was different, which made it interesting. I absolutely like working at Toptal. I’ve been trying to push everything I can to make Toptal better and more popular.”
Dmitry isn’t lying about actively working to make Toptal a better company. He is the Toptal Community Leader in St. Petersburg, and is involved with all of Toptal’s Russian-speaking communities as well. As a leader, he plans regular meetings for Toptalers and those interested in the company, and he is at the heart of this tight-knit network of people.
“I love the Toptal community because wherever I am, I can join activities. All these events are cool because I meet people face-to-face. It’s important to me to talk to people in person and figure out what their problems are, what they’re thinking about, and how Toptal can make their remote life easier.”
Dmitry was a community leader before the role even became official, and he is pleased with the development of the community. He dreams that one day all Toptalers will go to one huge event for a global meet-up, but for now he is happy to plan events on a smaller scale and is proud to see how Toptal has grown.
With the steady income that Toptal provides, Dmitry has relaxed into the remote work lifestyle with his family. On the side, Dmitry helps his wife with her literary agency, and he is also learning German for fun. He hopes that once his daughters are grown, he will be able to travel more frequently once again.
“It’s good to be able to travel and work at the same time, which is something Toptal really encourages. It’s healthy to be exposed to new ideas and places.”
Dmitry learned early on that travel isn’t everything though. When he completed his two Master’s degrees, Dmitry became a geological engineer, which he thought was his dream job. He lived out his fantasies of trekking into the wilderness to do scientific research for two years before abandoning the career path.
“My boss told me that I had to do a five-month excursion for my job and PhD research, but I already had a wife. I didn’t want to be away from my family for so long, so I said no. I lost my job and never finished my PhD.
“That was the turning point for me when I decided to really focus on software. I spent the rest of my money trying to find a job as a software developer. I had maybe thirty interviews in two months. Everyone looked at me and said, ‘you’re a geologist? You have no job experience in computer science? You shouldn’t be here.’
“Well, here I am.”