THE BLOG
11/07/2014 11:53 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

The No-Complex Generation in Romania

It is commonly said (on the Internet) that the second most widely spoken language at Microsoft, after English, is Romanian. Even if this is just a fanciful e-myth, it's certainly true that the corporation does a great deal of recruiting in Romania and, in 2007, established its Global Business Support Center in Timisoara and Bucharest. Once a supplier of computers to the Soviet bloc, Romania managed to leapfrog over the regional competition in the 1990s to develop a new reputation as an IT hub in Europe. Computer programming is nowadays a ticket to a well-paid job in Romania or a ticket out of the country altogether.

When I met Florentina Hristea in Bucharest in 1990, she was a computer programmer and fluent in English. She parlayed these skills into an academic position in Romania as an associate professor in the computer science department at the University of Bucharest where she teaches artificial intelligence. She has also been a Fulbright scholar at Princeton and a visiting professor in Toulouse. Although there is prestige attached to an academic post in Romania, it doesn't come with much in the way of material compensation.

"The salary of an associate professor is a bad joke," she told me when we met again after 23 years for lunch near University Square in Bucharest. "I always have to do research projects, other types of collaborations." Those collaborations have brought her renown in the field of artificial intelligence and natural language processing. But renown doesn't pay the rent, and she was considering giving up her apartment to moving in with her aging mother.

Her students, however, are looking at well-paid jobs in the private sector or overseas. "The younger generation is very different," she said. "These kids, for them, the Ceausescu era is old history. They were born after him and they don't attach great importance to him. Their parents are still obsessed by him -- because he ruled over our lives. But for my students, he's just like any other Communist leader. They don't care about him. They were born in a free world. They know that their world is poorer than others. They are concerned with financial and economic issues, not political issues. They feel free. They say and think whatever they want. They have no complexes. They are very good at what they do. And when they go abroad and participate in competitions, they are not ashamed to say that they are Romanian. They are proud of it."

In 1990, we talked a great deal about politics - and she even gave me a political tour of the sites of importance in downtown Bucharest during the revolution and its aftermath. Today, however, she doesn't follow politics as closely.

"I'm quite disappointed by what has taken place in politics," she told me. "And I'm really not interested any more because I've lost hope for my generation. For my students, it will be different. But it has taken much too long... I was never optimistic, not even at the beginning. After all, the country was ruined for 50 years, day by day. Normally you would need a 100 years to recover. If you destroy something systematically for 50 years, it's logical that it will take longer to rebuild. So, I am disappointed but not surprised, because from a strictly logical point of view it should take this long. However, I'm disappointed enough to lose interest in all this. I'm just not interested in politics any longer."

Nevertheless, we started off by talking about politics, specifically the face-off between Romania's president and prime minister that took place in 2012.

The Interview

Of all the countries that I've visited in this region, the mentality of people here in Romania seems to have changed less than in the other places.

This is a very traditional society and it changes very slowly -- not in a single lifetime. The younger generation is very different. These kids, for them, the Ceausescu era is old history. They were born after him and they don't attach great importance to him. Their parents are still obsessed by him -- because he ruled over our lives. But for my students, he's just like any other Communist leader. They don't care about him. They were born in a free world. They know that their world is poorer than others. They are concerned with financial and economic issues, not political issues. They feel free. They say and think whatever they want. They have no complexes. They are very good at what they do. And when they go abroad and participate in competitions, they are not ashamed to say that they are Romanian. They are proud of it. So, there's a complete change.

Is that a change for you as well? Do you feel when you go abroad some residual embarrassment at being Romanian?

It's very different for me. I've gone abroad a lot, both for my job and as a tourist. As a tourist, I felt awful when I showed a Romanian passport at the hotel because they didn't know that I was an associate professor in academia and that my husband was a lawyer on vacation. They could have very well thought anything. I went to Switzerland once and they asked, "What are you doing here?" And I said that I was on vacation for two weeks, visiting a friend and traveling around the country. I stayed in nice hotels on my husband's money. He couldn't come because he was very busy here at his office. I told them I was a university teacher on vacation. They became very polite. I was surprised that they believed me. Romanian teachers don't go to Geneva on vacation. Although that was exactly what I was doing. There were some bad moments when I was there. Not always. But still.

When I was in Princeton, everyone was extremely polite with me. They wouldn't even call me by my first name. It was always "Dr." They told me that many of their PhD students came from Romania and especially from my university. And by the way, they said, did you know that Romania is number two worldwide after India for programming?

Have you changed your perspective in any way in the last 23 years?

I don't remember what I told you 23 years ago -- I have no idea! When we're talking about the changes, well, we are much more mature. And nowadays I'm much more involved in my professional career. I'm quite disappointed by what has taken place in politics. And I'm really not interested any more because I've lost hope for my generation. For my students, it will be different. But it has taken much too long...

Longer than you thought.

Longer than we all thought. I was never optimistic, not even at the beginning. After all, the country was ruined for 50 years, day by day. Normally you would need a 100 years to recover. If you destroy something systematically for 50 years, it's logical that it will take longer to rebuild. So, I am disappointed but not surprised, because from a strictly logical point of view it should take this long. However, I'm disappointed enough to lose interest in all this. I'm just not interested in politics any longer. Because I will never get anything from it. I can more or less anticipate what will take place. I don't like it, so I don't spend too much time thinking about it.

Is this a common perspective among your friends? With your mother?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.