Entrepreneurs and former master’s students, Carlos Paniagua from Guatemala and Chris Willmore from California, chose to settle in Tartu, the second largest town in Estonia.
Both Paniagua and Willmore got their software engineering master’s degrees from the Institute of Computer Science, the University of Tartu a few years ago. They chose Tartu despite Paniagua being one of the co-founders of a startup that was originally set up in New York, and Willmore previously working in Silicon Valley.
Both men now live and work in Tartu – and are very happy about it. “It is a really good place to be if you are an engineer. People around the world know Estonia for its software industry,” Paniagua says.
Paniagua cofounded a startup called SaleMove in 2012 in New York. The company’s vision is to facilitate online customer experiences, enabling companies to sell to customers right through their website and make the experience pleasant. Their business, sales and support departments are still in the Big Apple, but the IT and engineering departments have found a home in Tartu.
“We have always been committed to being a tech-focus company and so we set out to invest in establishing a strong, high-quality, technical team. As I did my master’s studies at the University of Tartu, I have some friends who I worked with in the past and invited them to join our adventure. Those friends brought more friends to the team and at some point, it made sense to continue building the team in Tartu,” Paniagua explains.
One of the friends, who became a team member in a similar way, was Paniagua’s course mate and project partner Willmore. The American from California first studied informatics at the University of California, Berkeley, and engineered a web application for Yahoo! in Silicon Valley. But love brought him to Tartu – his wife is Estonian.
Willmore first started his own small consulting company here, but about a year ago decided to join the SaleMove team. “I had the chance to meet the other co-founders in addition to Carlos and I was really excited about what this company is doing,” he notes, adding that working as a software engineer in Tartu is great.
Skills and connections from the university
Paniagua says that, in retrospect, it was the right decision to build the technical department in Tartu for several reasons, such as the professionalism and ethics of the Estonian IT industry, the technical quality, foreign language skills and relationships with the university.
“So far it has been great to be part of the tech community and we look forward to continuing growth and collaboration with them,” he points out. “The industry is developing really fast here.”
In addition to helping build the team and finding talents, the University of Tartu and its Institute of Computer Sciences helps the company stay abreast of the latest developments.
Both Paniagua and Willmore mention that the knowledge and skill set they acquired from master’s studies made them competitive in the industry. “Course work experience has helped me with planning software development and the daily life in the office – what I and everybody else should be doing,” Willmore explains.
Courses of cloud-computing and social informatics were particularly interesting for him, but besides studying, he sees school as a great way to meet potential business partners. “The connections, meeting Carlos and my other work partners… it is very beneficial!” he concludes.
Paniagua says he is really happy he chose Tartu for his master’s studies as the university is very strong; both the theoretical and practical aspects are taught very solidly. “I completed my bachelor’s studies at the San Carlos de Guatemala University and started to work, but I wanted to continue studying to keep developing professionally. I also applied to South Korea, for example, but a friend of mine recommended Estonia and Tartu because he had been here already for a year and enjoyed it a lot,” Paniagua recalls.
The benefits of small size
Paniagua considers the systems of San Carlos and the University of Tarty very different and adapted for different needs. He explains that in San Carlos, the curriculum is strong in the practical and theoretical area; however, it is designed for a student to study independently and very autonomously. Also, in San Carlos, the opportunities to do research are limited because the student population in the university is a lot bigger than in UT, but they have fewer resources.
“At the University of Tartu, a student has the chance to decide whether they want to focus on research or practical applications. Having the chance to focus on research is a big difference already. Also, collaboration between the academia and industry is much stronger in Estonia,” he asserts.
Willmore sees size as the main difference between the US and Estonia. “Estonia is much smaller, but that offers opportunities in education. Classes are much smaller and students have more chances to interact with professors and researchers,” he says and adds that in Estonia, the local professionals are more involved in education – individuals from local companies teach courses, providing a good mix of practical and academic instruction.
The co-operation between the university and SaleMove works on different levels: many students become interns at the company and one university course taught by a SaleMove employee is developed within the company. The company is investing into developing the materials, taking time to teach the lessons and grade the home assignments.
Paniagua and Willmore hope the relations with the oldest higher education institution in Estonia will be even closer in the future. “We as a company are always looking to collaborate with the university in more R&D projects and we hope to create those opportunities soon,” Paniagua says.
Cover: Carlos Paniagua and Chris Willmore run their company, SaleMove, from Tartu. Images by Raigo Saariste.