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Regular version of the site

Why Study after University: Continuing Education at HSE

HSE alumna Irina Demina

HSE alumna Irina Demina
© Mikhail Dmitriev

In 2011, HSE graduate, Irina Demina, launched the startup ‘Button For Life’ (Ru: Кнопка жизни) - a round-the-clock service for elderly people and people with disabilities. Since 2016, Irina has graduated from three programmes offered by the Centre for Continuing Education at HSE’s Faculty of Computer Science and is planning to do more. Irina told the HSE news service about how the knowledge she acquired has helped her to reach new heights in business.

Motivations to Study

I graduated from the Faculty of Business and Management at the HSE in 2004, and after that I received an MBA from Skolkovo Business School. I then embarked on a rather interesting career path in the banking business, I was engaged in product development, analytics, business and market analysis – it was my job to think about how and what products to launch. After receiving the MBA, I decided to start my own business service, ‘Button for Life’, which I have now been running for more than seven years. The wearable devices that we develop are part of the evolving Digital Health industry, and the data obtained from these devices is extremely valuable.

The ‘Button for Life’ service was founded in 2011 and was originally intended for the elderly. Service subscribers receive wearable devices with an emergency call button and a geolocation sensor. The data from the devices are transmitted to the 24-hour dispatch center. As soon as the SOS signal is received, emergency services are sent to the relevant address, and relatives and carers are notified. Devices have also since been equipped with sensors that go off if the person should fall, and that monitor their pulse. In 2015, a similar service for children was launched and a device with a GPS tracker and alarm button was developed. Now, the number of users of the ‘Button for Life’ service exceeds 150 thousand across Russia.

At some point or other, I decided that I needed to continue my education. I wanted to better understand the engineering side of things - how new devices work and how new gadgets are designed and created, and I also needed to learn to deal with data. A lot of valuable information is collected from wearable devices: geo-data, pulse, blood pressure, ECG data and other indicators of human health and activity. Using this data, analysts can make predictions, for example, they can calculate the likelihood of various cardiovascular diseases. A person simply has to wear a fitness tracker, data from it is collected, and then, based on the data, they can be given recommendations to improve their health. This can even save lives.

We have a 24-hour call-center in our company that monitors our subscribers. If something happens, for example, if the person presses the SOS button or the fall sensor goes off, we react immediately. I wanted to come up with intelligent services that would carry out preventive monitoring, as well as the automatic analysis of various parameters for each subscriber, without involving the operator. First of all, it's cheaper, and secondly, a lot of information can be extracted from the data that the operator will never see, just by looking at the monitor. I decided to create the Data Science team, and, in order to do so, I needed to understand artificial intelligence and machine learning.

What Do Students Get Out of the Continuing Education Programmes?

My husband and I decided to do a three-month programme at HSE entitled ‘Machine Learning and Data Analysis’, taught by Yuri Kashnitsky. My husband is a financier by training, and obtained a second technical degree in Baumank. He is particularly interested in Deep Learning and the creation of processors for artificial intelligence and is very passionate about science. I had a more ‘concrete’ approach. I was interested in how to tie it all to business, to create a useful product, and to make money.

The Center for Continuing Education at the Faculty of Computer Science has offered professional development and professional retraining programmes in data analysis, machine learning, programming and computer education since 2016. The number of graduates to date is 547 and a further 105 are currently attending courses.

At first, I thought that I only needed to concentrate on data analysis and machine learning because we end up with a lot of data and I was having trouble remembering statistics we studied at university. Only when we began to work ‘for real’ did I realise that I needed to study more deeply. I lacked basic knowledge of programming and mathematics, but my advantage over other students was in my rich business experience and connections. For my project, my friends in banking gave me some data which could be used to build a model predicting a person’s likelihood to take a pre-approved loan. I completed this project with real data and understood how it all works, and I was able to describe it well.

The programme was challenging but I did manage to win a prize – it was a book awarded to the student with the best grades. It’s not that I was the most intelligent in the course- I just really wanted to understand everything and to do well. You immediately see results, and this is after only three months of training. Herein lies the motivation to continue to study.

HSE alumna Irina Demina/ © Mikhail Dmitriev
HSE alumna Irina Demina/ © Mikhail Dmitriev

Upon finishing the course, it became clear to me what a huge area it was, and that it takes time to fully understand it. I completed three more online courses in programming, mathematics and statistics on Stepik and then decided to enroll for the one-year programme ‘Practical data analysis and machine learning’ at HSE. This would give me the opportunity to study different areas more deeply.

The third programme ‘Mathematics for Data Analysis’ also lasted three months. I enrolled because I missed HSE and I just wanted to keep studying, and also because I had started reading scientific articles and the latest research on data analysis. I realized that I didn’t always have the mathematical knowledge to understand the methods and models. The mathematics in the course wasn’t boring – we didn’t prove any theorems, rather we solved applied problems. Of course, it would have been better to take a course in mathematics before the programme started, but such a course wasn’t available until 2017. It was still very useful as it went over some questions that at one time I wasn’t able to understand. Thanks to our teachers, I began to see mathematics as an interesting and enjoyable pastime. I really liked solving problems- it cleared my head after a long day at work.

The Result

Since I'm running the business, I can’t work on the data myself, or build models. But I understand what to ask of the analysts and IT specialists. In the six months that have passed since the end of my studies, we have created several prototype services which will soon be implemented in our children's watches. These devices allow you to monitor where your child is in real time. We have models which we use to determine the location when, for example, the device is in a building where the GPS doesn’t work and errors occur. We built a model that removes noise and more accurately displays geolocation. Our second model predicts the child's deviation from their standard route and notifies the user. To create these models, we used methods that I learned at HSE.

We are currently working with an analyst who graduated from the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics at Moscow State University who also completed a machine learning programme. Of course, his mathematical knowledge and programming ability are better than mine, but what I got out of my study at HSE is very helpful in my work. If I hadn’t completed the HSE programmes, we wouldn’t be doing anything that we do now.

This is probably the most applied knowledge that I have ever obtained- everything else probably just helped to give me the bigger picture. The MBA programme helps to you to get acquainted with various areas of business, but until you build a financial model yourself, you don’t understand anything about corporate finance. Similarly, until you start your own business, many things about management remain just theory.

We weren’t given that much theory in the Continuing Education programmes at HSE. Instead, there was a lot of hands-on work using both ‘make-believe’ and real data sets. This made it easier to understand how it all works, and I still use the code examples which were given to us by the teachers in my current work. I really appreciate the fact that the teachers, who work actively in Data Science, are very open and always ready to help, even with problems that don’t concern the curriculum. I took full advantage of this!

Looking back, it’s clear that the one-year programme was very comprehensive. It gives students the opportunity to delve into each topic. I can decide for myself which areas are more important for me at this point in time, and which areas to leave for later down the track. Of course, I’m keen to continue my studies. There are so many resources available - Coursera, Udacity, Stanford's online courses - you don’t even need to go to a particular university to keep studying. There are numerous interesting programmes offered at HSE and at foreign universities, and I’m now thinking about which direction I should head in next!


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