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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.

How to wed economics with technology, break down stereotypes of women in IT and master the intricacies of corporate dress code? Victoria Korzhenevskaya, head of digital strategy for IBM Russia, explains this and more to the portal’s news service.

How does each stage of the educational process change your professional worldview? Why did you originally want to study at HSE University and how has your life changed since?

Early on, I received a strong foundation in mathematics. I’ve liked math and analytical thinking since childhood, but I understood that I would have to combine this with an understanding of industries, markets and real-world practice. Economics is a field that combines an understanding of actual business practices with deep analysis. I chose HSE because it is the best university in Russia that meets my criteria. I attended the HSE preparatory course while still in high school, won the national Olympiad in Economics and was already immersed in the HSE environment before entering. I saw how dynamic and active life is here.

I like the module system that doesn’t allow students to disengage for six months. It’s a challenge that fueled my interest. I entered the Faculty of Economic Sciences and, as a student, became interested in quantitative methods in economics. I tried my hand at various interesting tasks — from modelling the addictive behaviour of people making purchases to analysing road construction costs in various regions of Russia. I began to see the application of economics to real life. I graduated knowing what I wanted to focus on in this profession. And, because I wanted to gain a deeper and more practical understanding of finance, I entered the ICEF Master’s Programme.

Of course, knowing your professional interests does not necessarily mean that you’re choosing them for life: in the modern world, everything changes too much for that. There’s no need to follow my example. I think it’s better to go out and start working after earning your Bachelor’s, and only afterwards decide in which areas you need more knowledge and go back to continue your studies.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

Couldn’t a person work and study at the same time, take an internship or get some on-the-job experience?

As a second-year Bachelor’s student, I interned at HSE’s Laboratory of Industrial Market Studies where I began to get a sense of the task at hand and to take responsibility for my work. After my third year, I got a job with an auditing firm that was one of the ‘Big Four’ international companies. Later, I switched to an investment fund doing algorithmic trade. I continued working while I studied for the next three years, and my Master’s thesis summed up not only my studies but also my experience in trade and algorithms. Work experience is especially important for those students who plan to work in a business or company after getting their bachelor’s. And, when entering a master’s programme, such experience provides an understanding of the applied aspects of your field of study.

How to find the right balance between theory and practice? The educational system is often accused of excessive academism and of being divorced from how industries really operate.

If you graduate from ICEF or receive any other fundamental education, you will know how to work with real data and not just search through Facebook for ‘sources.’ At HSE, I learned to rapidly process huge amounts of information and to pick out what was most valuable. This helped when I went to work at IBM and had to quickly immerse myself in IT. Among other important skills, I want to note critical thinking and the ability to instantly analyse a situation and draw conclusions. This is a huge advantage of fundamental education and nothing can take its place.

What does a person get out of working for a large company, other than a few lines in their résumé?

There’s a whole range of benefits — international contacts, communication with people from different countries and cultures, a deep understanding of the market and ways of interacting with competitors and colleagues. Corporations also offer employees different types of training. For example, IBM can certify employees according to international standards as a Product Owner or Agile Coach, and that not only improves your résumé but also indicates your level of knowledge.

International companies provide the opportunity to participate in global projects, including projects abroad. We at IBM have a program in which you can work in a foreign office. For example, I worked in Azerbaijan. Such experience helps you understand the ins and outs of complex corporate processes. It teaches you to communicate, achieve your goals, and to master business ethics at the highest level. Every major company has been perfecting such processes for decades. If you want to understand how everything is supposed to work, you can’t find a better school than international corporations.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

Did you encounter any difficulties when you came to IBM without IT skills?

I joined this company right after earning my Master’s degree and started in the consulting department, where I still work. Globally, IBM is actively changing and pursuing a strategic course to strengthen the role of cloud, cognitive, and technological services. I had almost no experience in IT, but I was lucky because I arrived just as IBM Russia was opening its iX department. I became a part of that team and developed along with it.

IBM iX is essentially a consulting agency within the company that works in the digital environment. Russia and other CIS countries are actively working to convert their economies to digital and we just happen to be focusing on the intersection of business consulting, creative design, and technological development.

At first, I had to build up my business and system analysis skills to establish communication between customers and the development team. It wasn’t easy, but I am accustomed to mastering new subjects quickly and thoroughly.

What was your first job at IBM?

I started five years ago as a junior consultant in the IBM Consulting by Degrees (CbD) programme. This is a starters’ programme for beginners that combines work with training. I am currently the Head of IBM iX Digital Strategy for Central and Eastern Europe.

In the CbD programme, employees work and study for two years and become good consultants. Some graduates of the programme become Product Owners with the development team as part of a large-scale project. Those who want it and are up to the challenge can find good opportunities for growth. We also have an internship programme in which participants work part-time. By the way, colleagues from ICEF are studying in that programme right now.

How closely does a degree in Economics match the needs of the digital marketplace?

There’s high demand for economists in the technology field. For every technology such as blockchain or AI, there’s a need to identify its application and calculate its business value right down to the individual case study, including the financial payoff. Even better is when such specialists help find those areas of business and client activity where there are problems, difficulties, and opportunities for development, and only then, together with the technical expert, create a product that can bridge the gap and achieve a breakthrough. The digital transformation of the financial sector is another area in need of specialists with an education in economics.

I have worked a lot with banks that are now trying to grow by restructuring their revenues. We tested several hypotheses: Can a bank convert 90% of its client operations to digital? Can it enter the small business market in, say, agriculture? Is it worthwhile to create a multi-bank service? And so on. This shows that the digital economy is not only for techies, but also for economists.

Does IBM plan to integrate its know-how into fundamental education?

IBM has been working with universities around the world for many years. We are now launching specialized educational initiatives with HSE University. This year, we conducted a course with the Faculty of Business and Management on the use of design thinking to create products and business models. Design thinking is an important new discipline in which companies tailor their products and strategies to users’ specific interests, as identified by in-depth research. This is essentially a bridge between business, real life and technology from the viewpoint of the user’s experience.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

What role do individual qualities play in a person’s career?

‘Flexible’ skills are definitely important now. Two of the most important skills are making effective presentations and storytelling — the ability to convey content so that it isn’t ‘dry,’ but is a logical and compelling story with a clear message that leads the listener to draw a conclusion and make a decision. The ability to negotiate is also important, knowing how to listen, skillfully shift the line of conversation, strike the right timbre, speak at the right pace, read your interlocutor’s reaction correctly, etc. IBM has a training series on presentations, negotiations, leadership and all the qualities needed for effective management. The company actively develops employee skills in empathy and communication because a close-knit team is the key to the success of any project. On the other hand, even the best human qualities have no value to a corporation if they aren’t backed up with professional skills.

As a woman, how comfortable are you working in IT?

It’s true that few women work in this field in Russia, or the world as a whole. But the statistics show that the situation is changing gradually. According to Russia’s State Statistics Service, approximately 19% of the people in Russia’s IT sector were women five years ago. Now they account for more than 37%. At IBM, women hold many senior management positions such as the CEO of the entire company, the CEO of IBM Russia and CIS, the director of the Business Consulting department, and the Sales director. They are all exceptional, interesting professionals with extensive IT experience. In general, a policy of diversity applies at every level: staffing decisions should be objective, without considering such things as gender.

I really like the company’s attitude towards women with children. I had a child last year and I became concerned about my income. IBM gives moms with newborns the option of working from home. I currently work part-time but plan to return to my previous duties soon.

IBM helps employees in every possible way to work at times that are convenient for them, from anywhere in the world, and in any situation. We have web conferences, Slack, and a corporate messenger for communication, digital tools such as Trello for managing projects, Box for storing documents, and Mural/Miro for structuring project information and insights. But if you are a consultant who needs to thoroughly understand their client, how the target audience lives and works, or what’s happening with the other members of your team, it is impossible to completely shut out all personal communication.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

Does IBM have a dress code?

IBM iX has marketing material that includes something called a Think Book. It is a brochure on who we are as a company and the types of projects we do. One of the sections devoted to teamwork includes a picture of an employee who has a tattoo. Such people are not censured. The emphasis is put on the fact that we’re all different, but that that doesn’t influence the effectiveness of our work as a team. It is customary here to respect each person’s unique style.

We have a slogan: ‘Renegades & Realists.’ We openly display our distinctive qualities and our unique points of view, but we respect boundaries without causing discomfort to our colleagues. If your client is an oil and gas company, you shouldn’t go to their office wearing jeans. Otherwise, people are free to express their own styles.

What do you think is most lacking in the education students are getting now?

I try to participate in the life of the university. I attend meetings with students to talk about my work and the company. I was even invited to conduct a series of lectures next year. I’ve been thinking about this subject and consider it extremely important that company reps have a place in the educational process. When I think back on my time in the ICEF Master’s programme, the most memorable courses were those with short intensive interactions with industry professionals. In particular, Vyacheslav Ivanov’s course on mergers and acquisitions was based entirely on case studies: we broke into teams and ‘sold’ and ‘bought’ companies. There was also an important course with Brian Ils of LSE on derivative financial instruments that involved a lot of practical work. These enabled students to get acquainted personally and professionally with the industry.

It is extremely important for students to get every possible form of real-world practice and to learn to take full responsibility for their work. For example, interns at IBM in both the consulting and business departments present their projects to company management. This is an excellent opportunity to consider your work from the standpoint of its value for the business and to present it properly. Other forms of training such as case study championships, intensive meetings with representatives of major companies, and test-launching a startup enable students to dispel their illusions and get a realistic look at their work under conditions that are as close as possible to an actual business environment.

Would you like to work abroad? Does holding an ICEF diploma by itself qualify a person to work abroad?

An HSE University education provides a firm foundation. Our graduates have broad analytical skills, but they are often not as practical as, for example, the graduates of foreign universities. Many who have earned their diplomas take jobs with consulting companies abroad, and I am also considering such an opportunity. Working in another country instils a truly global worldview. This is certainly an important stage of growth. But it is also important to have a good understanding of the economy of the country where you live – and this is a huge advantage in work. You will improve more if you have a thorough understanding of what is happening in a particular market and are immersed in the subject. If you go abroad, then better not to go short-term, but to study that other economy deeply — not only to gain a little experience but to make a contribution using your specific knowledge.