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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Internet Prince Who Loves Clowning Around

MTSegalovich discovered his talent for software engineering while studying geology.
The offices of Yandex are reminiscent of any Silicon Valley software company. Casually dressed engineers work late into the night, sitting in cubicles that are decorated with goofy toys. Meanwhile, in the server room, over 60 computers form the nerve center of Yandex.ru -- one of the most popular sites on the Russian-language Internet.

"We serve over 20 million pages a day," shouts Ilya Segalovich, the company's chief technology officer and co-founder, over the deafening hum of the air conditioner.

As a boy growing up in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Segalovich excelled in mathematics. In 1981 he took second place in the U.S.S.R. Mathematics Olympiad. Nonetheless, later that year he was denied entry to Moscow State University. Segalovich, who is half-Jewish, attributes this to Soviet anti-Semitism.

Unable to attend the Soviet Union's most elite university, he became a student at the Moscow Institute for Petrochemical and Natural Gas Industry. There, Segalovich studied geophysics. In doing so, he was following a family tradition -- both his parents were geophysicists. But Segalovich entered the field reluctantly: "I was never crazy about geology," he admits.

However, while working in the computer-intensive field of geophysics, Segalovich fell in love with software engineering -- a skill that would prove extremely profitable.

In 1990, he left his programming job at a state-owned company to work for a private enterprise run by Arkady Volozh, an old schoolmate. Volozh had established a successful business in Moscow selling computers. But he wanted to branch out into writing software, so he invited Segalovich to work on a small project -- a program that would search through large quantities of Russian-language text.

Segalovich began tinkering with the program. He improved its speed and efficiency, and after delving into linguistics, he made it "smarter." In 1991, he almost abandoned the project when he was granted political asylum in the United States. Although he was strongly tempted to emigrate, he decided to stay and finish the program.

"I thought it wouldn't be good to leave for the U.S. and leave this software in such a bad state," he recalls.

By the spring of 1993, Segalovich had fully optimized the program and fixed the major bugs. The delighted Volozh asked Segalovich to come up with a name for it. Segalovich stayed up all night, scribbling ideas in a notebook. Finally, he stumbled on "Yandex," by taking the English word "index" and replacing the letter "I" with the Cyrillic letter "?."

Thus, the completed program had a name, but it had no obvious application. Initially, Volozh and Segalovich tried to sell it packaged with CD-ROMs. But none of their CD-ROMs were big sellers on the Russian software market. In facing these difficulties, Volozh and Segalovich were actually confronting a larger reality that characterized the software industry at the time. However, all of this changed with the explosive growth of the Internet in the mid-1990s.

After seeing the early AltaVista search engine in 1995, Volozh and Segalovich knew what they had to do. It took almost two years to adapt Segalovich's search program for the Internet, but in September 1997, the web site Yandex.ru was born. Since then, the results speak for themselves. It has become a full-fledged portal, offering services such as e-mail, online communities and web hosting, with more traffic than competitors such as Mail.ru and Rambler. Above all, it has become highly profitable. After losing money for years, it finally broke even in August 2002, and its annual profits are now in the millions of dollars.

Today, Segalovich oversees all of Yandex's engineers as the company's CTO. But he often feels nostalgic about his programming roots, so he continues to be involved with technical issues. One of his main problems is the struggle against "search spammers" -- unscrupulous companies and individuals who exploit the structure of search engines to get listed first in the search results.

When asked about the significance of his work, Segalovich turns philosophical.

"In my opinion, web search is one of the most important tasks for humankind," he says.

Segalovich is married to Maria Yeliseyeva, who runs the nonprofit Maria's Children, and he is also heavily involved in the group's charitable activities. Maria's Children provides art therapy for children in Russian orphanages. Segalovich and Yeliseyeva have adopted a number of children of their own.

One of Segalovich's friends is the famous American doctor Patch Adams, who he describes a "very crazy, very spiritual man." The two met through Segalovich's wife in 1993.

Following Adams' example, Segalovich enjoys dressing up as a clown and entertaining children in orphanages. Since these are often bleak, prison-like places with bars on the windows, the children are overjoyed to see him fooling around in colorful costumes, along with the other volunteers. Of course, they rarely realize that the man they are seeing is not just a clown, but the clown prince of the Russian Internet.