About Success Builder
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
Russia’s largest bank is no longer a bank, but a whole ecosystem of products and services—all made possible thanks to the work of the Sber AI Transformation Centre. In this interview with Success Builder, Nikita Khudov— HSE University ICEF graduate and Sber AI Transformation Centre Executive Director—explains how artificial intelligence works for us, how sports help with work, and how earning two university degrees is useful in work.
How did you become interested in economics while a student in school?
I was not particularly interested in economics while at school. It seems to me that when they finish school, many students don’t yet know what they want to do and their parents often make that decision for them. I also had no idea about my future profession; I just had a desire to get a good education. My father helped me with that choice, and I’m very grateful to him for it. He spoke with a few people who were knowledgeable about universities and then I spoke with them also. They were unanimous in saying that for economics and business, HSE was the only university in the country worth considering and that I should go there.
A lot was said about ICEF. I went to their Open House and listened to graduates who spoke about their studies and the role this education played in their careers. This got me interested and I was convinced. I was charged up by the international atmosphere and saw the promise it offered. True, they also said that the studies would be difficult, but it was interesting that they didn’t lie about it. I love overcoming challenges, so this decided it.
What motivated you to overcome challenges?
I got my motivation primarily from those around me and from other students. As a graduate, I recently spoke to incoming applicants at an Open House and told them that the educational environment is very important. It weakens your motivation when the people around you dream of using minimal effort to pass tests and graduate. In this sense, ICEF is the exact opposite. The students here are really pumped up. They are interested in studying because they are interested in working. They have a clear idea of their future and are willing to do the work required to get there. ICEF students always want to do something and achieve results, and you also start wanting it and to follow someone’s example. It seems to me that this is the best motivation, to set high standards for yourself in life starting from your university years.
What do you like doing? At what did you first try your hand?
I have always been interested in entrepreneurship and even founded a startup my freshman year. It was called MSKS and we organised karting competitions and other auto racing-related events. I began developing this unusual business as soon as I found myself in an environment of like-minded people.
In general, HSE University is an amazing place in terms of carrying out highly ambitious plans and possibilities
Even before joining ICEF, I took part in championship-level karting in Russia. This was my main past-time. When I learned that there are many different sports clubs at HSE University, I thought, ‘Why not start a karting team?’ At that time, there weren’t any karting competitions at the university level, so that meant I should start one. I approached one of the vice rectors and said that I wanted to hold HSE University karting competitions by creating the HSE Karting Cup.
Then I collected more than 100 signatures which confirmed that students were interested. So, with the university’s support, I held the first karting cup. That was the start of the HSE karting club that conducted regular activities and competitions. Later, it grew into large-scale, national karting competitions at the university level.
Do sports help you in your studies?
Sports helps in everything—for me, in three ways. The first and most important thing in sport is to develop the skill of setting goals and striving for results. I mean competitions. Just going to fitness is good, but this is different. You need a challenge. When you compete in sports, you are struggling against your opponents, but in reality you are challenging yourself, your weaknesses. This motivates you to strive for victories, for outstanding results in both your studies and in business. It becomes a useful habit. In sports, you become accustomed to aiming for First Place. Otherwise, why compete? My underlying desire to be the first and best finds expression in other areas of life also.
The second is self-organisation. In sports, you always have to be organised. It is important to plan your progress correctly, to understand how and when to train and to be disciplined in building your work and study schedule. Sports has taught me the ability to manage my time and plans. I was able to combine my studies with several jobs and workouts.
And thirdly, sports help me relax and clear my head of work-related thoughts. Switching from head work to physical work is good for this. When you solve intellectual problems all day long, you get mentally tired. It can be difficult to fall asleep after such a workload. But a short evening workout really helps you forget all those thoughts so that you can start the next day with a clean slate and renewed vigor.
Which important soft skills does the university teach?
I think soft skills are something you develop on your own and are closely related to a person’s own desires. At HSE University, I received support, particularly by being able to test and improve my skills by participating in business case championships. The university provides a community where you can compare yourself with others, be helpful, be a leader or a great performer and team member. Competing in case championships helps you develop teamwork skills. This was an ideal platform for developing a variety of qualities. I also learned how to present ideas in public, which later turned out to be very important.
The HSE University community is an environment where initiative and the desire to be the best are in the air
In this way, the university provides great opportunities to develop harmoniously in your studies and personal life through communication.
What makes communication in the HSE University community unique?
I would say that communication with alumni is a very important part of university life for students. For example, I try to regularly visit ICEF and take part in such events as Open Houses and others. ICEF holds lots of career events to which successful graduates—representatives of a wide range of companies—come and talk about work, the industry, and life hacks that you can only learn from insiders. The graduates are very open to communication and this communication between students and the industry is truly unique and useful.
You’ll learn firsthand how jobs work. What’s more, the graduates’ success provides motivation, and this becomes the norm among the student community. You get together to discuss not plans for summer vacation and parties, but interesting career opportunities, places you can work, and promising internships. It’s that kind of community. It helps, nourishes, and motivates you towards a career. This is a very cool advantage, an HSE tradition that distinguishes its students from those at other universities.
What is the CryptoAlpha project? How and why did you start it?
This is a small investment boutique that I founded in 2017 while studying at a business school in Madrid. We made fairly serious investments in the cryptocurrency market. I assembled a team of 10 people, which is a lot for this type of business. I travelled to various conferences to raise funds. I spoke with investors and attracted financing. The result was a full-fledged investment fund that was engaged in the trendy field of cryptocurrencies.
We worked in three areas: algorithmic trading, venture investments and our own large-scale mining farm that is operating successfully and generating solid profits. All this gave me unique experience and much of it was useful. But the main thing is the skill of managing an investment organisation.
Before that, I had experience managing a sports event agency where I had to attract money from investors, manage this money, communicate with all parties to the transactions, and make wise long-term investment decisions. It turned out that having your own business is extremely useful in professional growth. It is very interesting and you cope with difficulties more easily because you are so closely involved, which means you grow much faster by dealing with the core work processes.
I worked full-time on the project right up until I started working at Bain. I had long wanted to work in consulting and decided to follow through with that. Now the project manages personal finances for myself and some close friends.
Why did you decide to go to business school?
I wanted to attend a foreign master’s programme to become a better and more well-rounded specialist, to receive additional education along with a new look at things ‘from abroad’. My reasoning was that I would always be able to work, but I could only earn a master’s at that time: later, it would have been too difficult. I went to business school mainly for new soft skills. European schools are different in that they give you a wide range of opportunities for personal development. There is a huge emphasis on this compared to master’s programmes at Russian universities. I wanted get more advanced presentation skills, learn how to work in a team—especially in one that was multinational and multicultural. I was guided by these goals in choosing which country and programme to study.
What was interesting about the IE Business School programme?
I considered several Master in Management programmes. The IE Business School offered a double degree, so I thought, ‘Why not continue the tradition of double degrees?’ That is, you could master two progammes at once. Your first degree would be a Master in Management and the second was optional. I settled on the Master in Business Analytics and Big Data programme. From scratch, they taught us to program in various languages, work with big data tools, build machine learning tools, etc. I liked the programme because it enabled me to look at the problems we were solving from the standpoints of both technology and business, and this later turned out to be very important and applicable in my work.
To be honest, after ICEF, the Master in Management was quite easy, although the Master in Business Analytics was difficult because it was a completely new subject for me. The reason for this is simple: ICEF has a very strong programme in economics, finance, and banking, which form the basis of management. I also passed the first level of the CFA without much trouble, although it is generally considered a serious challenge.
You started your career in the consulting industry. Why?
The most useful thing a graduate can do is start out in consulting because you get to know a very diverse range of businesses. This is because the Big Three consulting firms do not specialise according to industry. The result is that you work with completely different companies, from oil and gas to fintech.
At Bain, I managed to work with retail, the public sector, aviation, investment funds, tourism and more
Working with this sort of diversity gives you very wide experience. You learn the economic side of different fields, which is invaluable for continuing your career and, in general, for understanding how business and economic phenomena work. Consulting also offers a wide variety of tasks, unlike IB, where you only need to deal with finances. This made it an obvious choice: my specialisation at Bain provided the best possible real-world school.
Consulting provides opportunities by which you can dive deeply into finance and marketing strategy while simultaneously studying the technological features of oil production. In my experience, we dealt with complex analytical projects in which we worked on various digital issues such as machine learning.
Whey did you decide to switch over to Sber and work in artificial intelligence? How much technical knowledge did this require?
I gained fairly strong technical skills in my master’s programme and this was enough for me to focus specifically in digital. While I was at Bain, Sber made me an interesting offer. I couldn’t refuse because I had always been very interested in AI. At Bain, I took on projects connected with digital, particularly AI. I also made a personal study of where and how AI is applied. This gave me very good expertise that I could demonstrate to clients. This is how I wound up at Sber.
I don’t do the technical part. I don’t make models and don’t have such a goal. I understand it all and know how to do it, but I’m more interested in the business and management part. Our department has the task of transforming businesses by introducing AI into banking.
How can AI change business? How does the widespread adoption of AI benefit them?
The applications for AI are extremely wide. In essence, AI can make decisions based on data, replacing employees and serving as the linchpin of workflow automation. For example, credit scoring models—loan officers stopped making manual reviews of retail borrowers’ applications long ago.
No individual decides whether to issue a loan; this is done by algorithm
This is because the algorithm model has a lot of different data at its disposal. On this basis, the model can provide the optimal solution. If it decides in the affirmative, it can calculate at which rate to issue the loan. AI is also an excellent recruiter for common jobs: a candidate’s application is submitted, the AI collects data on the person and evaluates whether to hire him or her. There are countless similar applications of AI that boil down to data-driven decision-making.
AI is involved in almost all processes at Sber and in most of its products. The Sber ecosystem is developing well. This includes our entire non-banking business such as markets and services in which we are very actively introducing AI. For example, Sber Mega Market is the perfect platform for AI. A person visits the website or application and, thanks to the work of AI, receives recommendations for products that he really needs. This enables the client to save time and not scroll for hours through a large number of products. He immediately sees what he’s looking for.
And there is the Sber Zvuk music service, that has gained relevance after certain foreign companies stopped working in Russia. AI is widely used in music streaming, recommending the music that a person wants to hear. In general, the task of introducing AI is to maximise the individualisation of applications so that the user feels at home, sees that the app knows him and won’t waste his time. The projects in my department have done very well in introducing this approach. Large-scale work is underway in the application of AI and new developments will be forthcoming shortly.
Sber has long been more than a bank; it has become something of a mini-market. What is generally meant by an ‘eco-system’ in this context?
There was a recent rebranding whereby we stopped being Sberbank and became Sber. It really is an ecosystem—that is, a flexible structure of marketplaces and various services under the Sber brand. Markets are changing now. Their traditional services are becoming digitalised. For example, classical banks are getting into the fintech field by moving their financial services to the Web. There are also marketplaces such as Ozon or Yandex that are opening their own banks. All the market genres are melding to please the client. The idea behind this is that the task of a large corporation such as Sber is not just to provide a service or a set of banking services, but to try to meet all the client’s vital needs.
It is important for Sber to be close to a person in all areas of his life and at the most important moments of decision-making. Clearly, this is how we earn more and become involved in different industries. On the other hand, this is great for the client, too: he will receive more advantageous offers within the framework of a single platform and derive material benefits, among others, from it also. So, the more a person uses our ecosystem, the more data the AI has, enabling us to provide the client with increasingly useful recommendations. He buys something on Sber Market then listens to music on Sber Zvuk, then opens Okko and instantly receives recommendations for films that he would like. This is exactly what makes the idea of an ecosystem work—AI working extremely well with data. The result is a win-win situation in which both the company and client only improve.
If banks are now ecosystems, how should today’s students prepare themselves to work in them?
Regardless of the digital transformation of traditional banking institutions, we will still benefit from professional specialists in finance. First, business-based, analytical, and strategic departments will always value the ability to think in a structured way. For example, this develops well through consulting work and participation in business case championships. In general, structured communication is super important for all specialists who work in teams. Second, analytical skills and the ability to work with data and to make recommendations based on data are very important. Yes, AI is far from being able to do everything, but more and more decisions are based on data.
To get into the AI Transformation Department, it is helpful to have a good understanding of the AI industry—which is based on working with data—and which technologies exist and how they work. In AI transformation, you can work as a data scientist and as a business specialist. In any case, though, excellent skills in programming, mathematics, and statistics will be important in the work.