About the project «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 graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
Dan Livshitz, who graduated from the ICEF programme with a Bachelor’s degree in 2014, began his career at 18. At 22, he was the youngest associate ever to work for McKinsey in Europe. Now a top manager with the Gett global technology platform, Mr. Livshitz explained how to make the transition from consulting to technology, the inner workings of Gett and what not to say in a job interview.
Was the goal of your studies to get a job with a foreign company?
Actually, that was the result of several factors. It was lucky that the ICEF programme offered the chance to study as an exchange student in the Netherlands during my third year. I lived and studied for six months in the beautiful city of Tilburg. This experience, coupled with the programme that offered two degrees, helped me understand the purpose of my studies and the nature of the international professional community. Through immersion in a different environment abroad, I learned what I did and did not want. Before that, I managed to work a little, do very well in my studies and get into sports. But my experience abroad gave me a vision of what it would be like to work somewhere other than Russia.
The second factor was joining McKinsey during my fourth year of study. I looked at my colleagues, including those who had completed master’s programmes abroad, and tried to understand how that training had helped them professionally. It seemed that career success did not correlate as closely with having a diploma from a prestigious school, and especially a Western school, as was generally believed. It was far from the only thing that could give you a ‘green light’ to success. I concluded that I had an excellent, very high-quality education and that it was sufficient for me to find work with elite companies in Moscow and abroad. For this reason, I did not try to leave Russia, either for work or for study.
And what about your bachelor’s degree? Didn’t you ever want to just plunge into the unknown and start again from scratch somewhere abroad?
Imagine a 16-year-old living in Novosibirsk who is thinking about studying abroad. That is difficult from both a financial and psychological standpoint. And although Moscow is part of Russia, it seems just as far away as a foreign country. The ICEF programme is the same as at the University of London. Common sense helped me to weigh the facts and make a choice without going to great expense. At the same time, two of my classmates did go study in the U.S. after graduating from high school. I was not that brave.
What did your parents think about your education?
I am very grateful to them. My mother is a doctor and my father is an engineer. Neither of them had any connection to economics. But they never told me what to study or where. They gave me complete freedom to do what I wanted.
I was good in math, but at some point, I grew uncomfortable with how abstract it was and how divorced it could be from reality
At the same time, I had an interest in entrepreneurship because my father, who co-owned a business, subscribed to the magazine ‘Expert’ and I really liked reading it. It turned out that business, and more broadly, economics was a real-world application of mathematics! And if you understand math, mastering the economic disciplines is not so tough. After taking part in several regional math competitions, I was certain I would study at the Mechanics and Mathematics Department of Moscow State University (MSU), but then I took part in several national economics competitions and a dilemma arose.
Aside from certificates of participation, what did you get from these academic competitions?
I began to understand which universities were best. For example, in addition to MSU, there was HSE. I spoke with people from the university environment and, by listening to their arguments about which school to attend, my outlook expanded. Anyone winning such a national competition could attend the university of his or her choice. That is a huge privilege for a school student and the main motivation for participation.
My fellow contestants were people who had figured out what makes for a good higher education and a positive academic environment. What’s more, these national academic competitions provided a close connection with university teachers. Already at that level, I was in communication with HSE professors. I could see what kind of people they were and I liked them. I understood what type of atmosphere I could expect at the university and I made my decision.
Unlike some classmates, the math component of the ICEF programme was not especially difficult for me. Although many students struggled in their first year, I had come to the university well prepared. Jeffrey Lockshin taught mathematical analysis back then. Those lessons were not especially difficult or unexpected, but they were interesting and I was able to make a great deal of progress building on the foundation I already had.
While a student, what sort of job were you hoping to get? Which of the necessary skills for it were you able to acquire?
During my first year, I took an internship at a bank and wanted to see how our classroom knowledge applied to business. During my second year, I tried my hand at Strategy Partners Group, a leading Russian consulting company. I experienced some doubts at that job because there was some discrepancy between what I was learning at the university and what was demanded at work.
The ICEF programme enabled me to do more than the immediate requirements of a job in finance or banking — for example, to analyze, retrieve information, think critically and consider a wider range of options than was immediately apparent in a given situation. I worked in a bank for three months, but it did absolutely nothing for me. Education endows you with certain reasoning abilities that give you greater opportunities for self-realization, so I never took an interest in the field of finance, although I did consider other interesting options.
To be honest, I don’t use quantitative finance methods in my current work, but the skills I gained for constant improvement, learning and most importantly, for having the motivation to master new knowledge have turned out to be very important.
How did you manage to become the youngest McKinsey associate in Europe?
It was a standard internship programme that the company offered to senior ICEF students. After serving six months at McKinsey as interns, students usually hired on full-time. It was the same for me. The company has a very predictable growth track for employees: every year, you change your job depending on how well you performed on projects, the strength of your desire and an evaluation by your professional mentors. The key to my success was that I managed to skip several ‘grades’ by doing what everyone else did, only a little faster and better. My previous experience at Strategy Partners Group, where had I worked from my second to my fourth year of studies, clearly helped also.
Yet, consulting still seems to be a better fit for you. Why is that?
It has a more diverse range of activities that you can use as a template for your experience and way of thinking. In a bank, the tasks are similar, but you work mostly with business valuation models that change little from one day to the next. And you look at business more from a financial point of view and less from a fundamental economic perspective. I found it interesting that consulting sell more types of solutions: you can understand the essential aspects of how many different industries work, which is harder to do in banking. I was also impressed by how much there was to learn from people who work in consulting. This is very subjective, but these were the factors that played a role when I chose my career path.
What unique experience can you get in an international company? Why is it so important to have such experience in your portfolio?
Employers know how strict the selection process is in such companies. The very fact that one hired you and that you worked successfully there for some time indicates that you are a very skilled specialist. The prestige of international experience is comparable to the prestige of an ICEF diploma: it shows that you are ‘fit’ for even the toughest global challenges and sends a positive signal to those in foreign markets.
Specifically, at Strategy Partners Group or McKinsey, you learn to learn work as a team in solving business problems for very large companies and you do it very responsibly because consulting services cost a great deal of money. Companies trust you with their internal data so that you can test your hypotheses on it. That is a serious incentive: you try to translate your assumptions into objective facts, knowing how incredibly important it is and that the global economy depends on it! Then you have to present it and put forward convincing arguments.
In addition to studying the market and industries, you also learn to communicate with more experienced professionals and very capable managers. You beef up your negotiation skills, get better at putting your ideas across more concisely, and learn how to listen to and persuade others.
Working in an international environment provides general skills, but they are exactly the fundamental abilities needed in the labour market
Thus, you can look at consulting as a good school that it is hard to get into, and having a diploma from an institution they prefer is the first stage in the selection process.
Why didn’t you continue working in consulting, knowing what outstanding opportunities for career growth and remuneration awaited you?
I joined Gett in 2016 more for what I found attractive there than for anything that I disliked at my previous position. It seemed obvious that the world was becoming increasingly dependent on technology and I saw at McKinsey that this was changing the industry and the company itself. I always had a sort of cross-section of the economy in front of me and I saw where the money was at any given moment, what was growing and developing — retail, banks, telecommunications, the ‘Uberization’ of the economy. I wanted to get an inside look at how things were changing and understand these processes.
On the other hand, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. You have to agree that if you are only 22 and wind up in an elite company while still a student, surround yourself with super-motivated people, have direct control over economic processes and are constantly in that environment, it seems that you have loads of options open to you and you don’t want to miss out on them. I understood that they might not work out, but I knew that my McKinsey experience would always give me an advantage.
What was your starting position at Gett?
Head of Supply in Russia. Every marketplace has two sides: attracting users and working with those who perform the actual service. I was responsible for all of the latter part as it applied to the taxi service, including drivers. I worked with taxi drivers and taxi companies, was responsible for attracting and training drivers and developing strategies both for extending our contracts with drivers for as long as possible and for entering new cities.
How did your previous work experience in consulting prepare you for this seemingly very different set of tasks?
They only seem to be different. A consultant works according to the principle: ‘Smart guys come in and quickly figure out what’s what,’ no matter the field concerned. And you’re that person. Just by chance, I had previously worked on a navigation project for the Moscow Transport Department and so had a good idea of how urban traffic works.
Any technology company has two main operating units. The first is for technological operations. It includes development, product managers, people who create the communication algorithms for the application and all the employees who make or provide the product itself. The second unit is operational. It works on how to attract drivers and clients, how to market the service and build a support system. In this second case, you are simply handed a product and told to find a way to use it ‘in the field’ to obtain the maximum economic benefit. It happens that this task is not very different from what I studied at HSE.
How can we bridge the gap between fundamental education and technology?
For the most part, I think that only people who want to become computer programmers will study programming. Finance is a different speciality, but even those students could certainly use a course in programming language to be able to understand which tasks to assign developers. It is physically impossible to study business, economics and programming simultaneously at a very serious level.
In the future, financial experts could transform into product managers
These are individuals who are somewhere in the middle between financial experts and technical specialists and who carry out critical business communications. Such specialists play an important and even leading role in companies now. I held such a position when I switched from the supply to the product end of things. Product management is the same kind of consulting, but in an actual company with an actual product. My main goals now are to maximize revenue in urban micro-markets and to extend our business relationship with drivers. Then you need to fit all this into a broader strategy for, say, the region.
Which territories do you visit on your job?
I spend a little time in many different places because when you sit in one place you lose your understanding of the market as a whole. I spend most of my time in Israel and Russia. I also go to Great Britain, and until recently flew to the U.S. frequently. But now, we’ve sold that part of the business. Gett is an Israeli company and our headquarters have been located there since 2010.
What is unusual about Gett and how does it structure its work processes?
Gett offers very promising career opportunities. We recruit people without experience who grow quickly from support staff and managers to department managers.
What I like about Gett and am surprised by at the same time is the straightforward culture composed of employees who hold the same values in their DNA
This makes it possible to gauge quickly whether you fit in and whether you would want to work here. If everything checks out, then you land in a circle of like-minded people and it’s a huge thrill to work with those who understand you the moment you start speaking. We reach decisions easily and quickly because, against the backdrop of commonly understood values, the problems associated with any business conflict stand out in sharp relief. McKinsey also has a very strong corporate culture, but it focuses on the client. By taking care of the client, Gett develops its employees and the market as a whole. I had an interesting insight about values because they are literally ‘written on the walls’ at both Gett and McKinsey. When you arrive at work, you don’t forget what you are doing there and what is expected of you. It is very good when values are verbalized in this way.
How can an HR staffer identify a person’s values during an interview?
If an interviewee talks about their previous employers by saying, ‘I’m smart but they were not too bright,’ then he or she probably doesn’t belong here. That kind of attitude will create conflicts in the company. The HR people run everything through the prism of our values. I can give you an example. Question: ‘Tell me about the two best things you did at your previous job.’ When the interviewee says he did a great job, but they didn’t appreciate his work, it can only mean that he probably didn’t bring things to completion, does not know how to give convincing arguments, and his work was ineffective. This shows that it isn’t necessary to interview each person three times and sit by a fireside sipping drinks together to understand their values. They come out in response to a few simple but well-formulated questions.
What differences do you see between McKinsey and Gett?
At McKinsey, you work for a huge company and play only a minor part in its success. If you did your job poorly, the company as a whole will barely suffer. In a smaller company, you can see a greater effect from your actions. In a startup, for example, where the culture is built on motivation and every member of the working process doing their part, you can literally see your individual contribution. At Gett, I get a charge out of feeling that I influence things. Business is definitely the place for me. It has more drive and motivation. I find it even more difficult to forget about work and I think about it almost constantly now. That increases my anxiety level a bit, but it is also incredibly invigorating.
Gett was recruiting HSE students at this year’s Keystone Career Forum and had one of the most popular booths. Who is the company looking for and what is it promising applicants?
We actively invite specialists in product management and analytics, which is pertinent for ICEF graduates. Our site usually posts complete information about vacancies, opportunities for part-time and full-time work. We have employees who started working during their third year of studies and who have grown tremendously since. We also have students from business and computer science. Gett loves HSE students because we share very similar values.
When specialists become managers, they often decide to get an MBA. Is that important for you and does it always make people better managers?
I don’t see an MBA providing clear-cut advantages for career growth, but I do see several interesting things such an education provides. It is important to live abroad and gain a wider experience of the world. New connections and acquaintances, especially in such a high-quality business environment, will also play a role in your development.
At the same time, I think the HSE and ICEF brands are well known abroad and do not require still another diploma for legitimacy. An MBA programme is useful and interesting, but if I want to learn about a subject in-depth, I can do it faster than two years. There are lots of opportunities and open resources for this now.