On an uncharacteristically chilly/rainy day in July, I had the chance to interview (via Zoom) Ilia Aphtsiauri, one of the founding engineers in Veriff.
First of all, thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. To get our readers up to speed, could you first tell us a bit about yourself? For example, I know you’re originally from Georgia (the country). What brought you to Estonia?
You may or may not know, but there’s a pretty tight relationship between Estonia and Georgia. Estonia is kind of advertised as a powerhouse of technology in Europe. In particular university fairs that came to Georgia to promote Estonian universities (specifically Tartu University in my case) was the real decision maker. The opportunity to study and work alongside tech innovators was a pretty big selling point for me.
Ilia Aphtsiauri at Veriff. Photo by Jake Farra.
That’s great to hear that there’s a connection between the 2 countries. It seems like in Estonia, Georgia’s advertisement is more about visiting rather than studying.
Yes, and right now is actually a good time to visit in regard to a lot of the restrictions surrounding travel to other countries. In fact, as a tourist, it would probably be easier for you to travel there than it would be for me – considering quarantine measures, etc.
You came here originally to study at Tartu University, how long ago was that?
It was 6 years ago, in 2014, that I came to get my Master’s in Software Engineering (I had finished my Bachelor’s in Georgia). Interestingly enough, when applying for jobs and putting down that I studied in Georgia, several people thought I meant the state rather than the country – for better or worse, I’m not sure.
Now that we know the why of how you came to Estonia, how did you first come across Veriff and what in particular attracted you to the company?
During my time at Tartu University, I was finishing up an internship and looking at current options when I stumbled upon a good example of Facebook advertising – an open position at Veriff. I opened up the job posting and saw all of the technologies they dealt with were ones that interested me and the webpage itself looked nice. Oddly, when I went to research more about the company, there was almost nothing at all to be found (Ilia says with a smile). Regardless, I still sent my CV and scheduled an interview - which accidentally ended up being via a Skype call while I was on a ski slope because I mixed up the days. During the unconventional interview, the full idea and mission statement were explained to me and it seemed to be something perfectly suited for me.
When you started, you were one of the first on the team, correct? Sort of when Veriff was still in the idea stage.
Right, Veriff was quite small at the time that I joined. In fact, on my first day I came to the office, which I thought all belonged to Veriff, only to find that Veriff at the time was basically just a table in one corner of the building. Veriff was my first startup, so I wasn’t quite prepared for this, but I quickly fell in love with the ability to shape the company that comes with it being a startup.
Startup life at early Veriff days. Photo by Ilia Aphtsiauri.
How has your experience in the company been so far?
I guess you could best describe it as a rollercoaster. We were initially extremely excited to get things going but struggled to get clients in the beginning. We went through a series of different projects and ideas, each one failing…until we finally started to pick up clients. When that happens, your emotion peaks and you realize all the hard work you’ve put in was worth it. From there, we would just continue to expand, moving from just the Baltics to quickly dealing with companies internationally.
Travelling with friends. Photo by Ilia Aphtsiauri.
You’ve been with the company for 4 ½ years. Are there any particular changes you would like to expand on during your time? Office moves? Personnel changes? Etc.
The biggest change is getting new people, but at the same time it seems like everyone we’ve been able to bring in always fits the culture. Moving from 4 to 200, there almost seems like there’s been no change. This is something I certainly find fascinating. Something I’m proud of us for achieving and maintaining.
Going back to Georgia, how was living around Tbilisi? How would you compare it to living in Estonia?
Well, something more obvious is how much more emotionally open people are in Georgia compared to Estonia – sometimes maybe too emotionally open. Also, and maybe it’s just because I live in a bit of a tech bubble, but compared to Georgia it seems like things are politically much more at ease.
Perhaps the biggest shock was the difference in the relationship with neighbors. In Estonia, you don’t really talk to your neighbors, but in Georgia you can easily go to your neighbors for a favor or just go over for a chat – it’s odd to not have that kind of connection here.
After over 4 years, do you feel like you’ve become involved in the tech scene here in Tallinn?
Honestly, it’s something I would like to be more involved in than I am now. I would love to be able to contribute more to the startup scene, helping to share the knowledge I’ve learned and mentor others in achieving their goals.
I hear you’re a pretty competitive person and keen on skiing. How has living in Estonia impacted your skiing habits?
When I first came to Estonia, I knew it was in the north and that it would be colder, but I never really thought about the fact that it would be so flat. Before coming here, I couldn’t imagine living somewhere where there’s no mountains to be found. As soon as I was accepted to Tartu University, I looked up “Estonian ski resorts” and was astonished when I found out there was none to be found. For a brief moment, I started to second guess whether or not attending Tartu University was worth it.
Skiing in Mestia, Georgia. Photo by Ilia Aphtsiauri.
Do you have a chance to go back to Georgia or other places to ski?
Yeah, I go back to Georgia at least once a year, but I recently ruptured my Achilles while playing basketball, so no sports for me until around winter.
Looks like we’re coming to the end of the interview, which means it’s time for the ‘quickfire’ questions. Ready?
I’m ready to go.
What book is a must read for you and why?
One book that I was really impressed with was “All Quiet on the Western Front”. The way it ends leaves such an immense emotional impact on me.
What podcast would you recommend?
Currently I’m listening to “Dark Net Diaries” which is about hacker stories presented in a very interesting way. The host does an excellent job of describing the entire scenario of stories.
Mac or PC?
Mac, or Linux if that was an option.
If you weren’t an engineer, what would you be?
Well, my original plan was to be a professional tennis player, but that didn’t pan out so… perhaps a wine maker.
And the last question. What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
That’s tough, but one of the best pieces of advice that I have heard (not given directly to me) was from Nelson Mandela about how everything you do should come straight from the heart.