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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.

At the age of 24, Valeria Matyukhina is the CEO of the SberTroika unified transport payment system for the capital and the regions. Forbes recognized her phenomenal career achievements in 2021 by naming her Best Manager in its 30 Under 30 rating. In this interview with Success Builder, she explained how to make economics and finance education more dynamic, why early career success does not depend on a company’s prestige and what it feels like to have the keys to Moscow’s underground world.

What attracted you to HSE University and why did you choose the Faculty of Management?

In high school, I knew only that I didn’t want to become a doctor or an actress, and I left the rest up to chance. Even at that age, I became interested in economics and finance and I knew that I wanted to study at one of the country’s top three universities. I graduated with perfect grades and high scores on my Unified State Exam and soon decided to study at HSE.

It seemed to me that HSE graduates were more competitive in the market because the format of their education is similar to that of international universities. HSE has a rating system, a different layout of its campuses, modules and many foreign teachers and researchers. For a student brought up in traditional Russian education, HSE seemed like something new and very interesting that promised a wide-open world and great career opportunities.

I wanted the faculty with the most applied subjects and management had far more than economics did — although the programme turned out to include many financial and economic subjects. I found such subjects as Human Resource Management and Strategic Management very inspiring and immediately imagined myself as a big and successful boss.

Did the economics part of your programme provide sufficient preparation to work in the investment field after graduating?

HSE provided high-quality education in economics, and this enabled me to subsequently enroll in an additional programme at the Moscow State University School of Finance to study the quantitative part a little deeper. During the final two years of the HSE Bachelor’s degree, students can take quite a few electives to augment their major. The main thing is to know where you intend to work. I definitely enjoyed the financial courses in the management programme.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

The third year was the most difficult for me. It seemed that the subjects in the programme spanned too broad a spectrum. But this has a positive effect: you learn to prioritize and just ‘get through’ some subjects because you begin to picture yourself in your chosen profession more clearly. The ability to cope with a large number of projects and tasks has become key for me in my career. As a result, I managed to cope with the workload and this proved crucial to effective study: I even became one of the top-ranked students academically.

How did you supplement your studies with electives?

When I was a student, the ratio of required courses to electives was approximately 75% - 25%, but reached almost 50% - 50% in the final years - for which I am very grateful.

I strongly advocate giving students up to 70% elective courses. This is what teaches you to choose what interests you and what you excel in

For example, I took electives courses in mathematical modeling and probability theory and participated in projects organised by various student groups, which turned out to be very useful. I helped create the case study sschool that exists to this day. Both for me and other students, competing in the case study championships was the key experience for developing applied skills.

HSE should form partnerships with large companies and small businesses so that students can study actual market tasks. For me, the experience of working in a team on projects with tight deadlines and using different methods and tools for solving problems made a crucial difference. This is how I learned to use the valuable knowledge that HSE provides as a first-rate university.

I recall how I came to the interview for my initial analyst job with the Moscow Metro. I brought with me the presentations and models that I had made for the case study championships and simply explained which approaches I had used for them. This impressed the employer because I was able to prove that I could do a deep analysis of a problem. I advise all students to participate in case study championships. I would sincerely like to contribute to closer cooperation between HSE and the market. I am ready to support such projects with SberTroika in every possible way and will allocate mentors. It would be interesting to work with students in the areas of finance, IT and marketing, to create cross-functional teams for the mutual exchange of ideas and professional support.

How did you choose your major and what did you plan to focus on when you applied for a master’s degree?

My studies have always been closely linked with work. My career began with a construction company during my first year of study, and by my fourth year, my work in the field occupied the greater part of my studies. That was why I wanted a programme where I could deepen the knowledge and skills I had already acquired and fully implement the projects and research I had already started without my work suffering as a result. I was very happy with the investment management programme I chose. It was interesting to go back and study a familiar subject in a new format, to analyse things in more detail and to devote more time to writing a thesis. A master’s degree focuses more closely on the knowledge you already hold and enables you to solve problems at a new level.

After HSE University, you also took a short course in finance at Moscow State University. How effective is this format in comparison with fundamental programmes?

It was a one-year course in which I studied every part of corporate finance in great detail, with an emphasis on modeling. Of course, you cannot master this field in such a short time, but it gives you a foundation, the perfect framework of methods and tools that you can can develop further on your own. In my opinion, this format is super effective for university graduates and will soon become part of programmes for upperclassmen. For example, financial modeling was absolutely perfect for me as an applied tool. I use it constantly in my work because a project begins with conducting an analysis and doing modeling as a ‘backup’ to the major decisions you make and to understand its financial consequences.

Are you sure that a ‘foundation’ is necessary? Maybe one day soon everyone will just take one-year courses.

I recently had a discussion with the head of HR for Google Russia about the many applicants without a higher education, but who have completed lots of courses for specific skills. This is especially true of IT. With the proper level of involvement, such specialists successfully land jobs in international companies and build good careers. The question of the need for a higher education is rhetorical and that debate is unlikely to end in the near future.

Fundamental education is not only knowledge, but also the necessary level of socialisation that we experience as a team

With fundamental education comes discipline, participating in student organisations and discussions, the ability to set priorities, delegate, and accept criticism. I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if I hadn’t passed through this stage of communication at a new level. So, I say that fundamental education is necessary. At the same time, education in economics and finance should be dynamic and programmes should undergo review not every year, but every trimester, adding something new. Universities should think about integrating with business because businesses will organically introduce new trends and present the market as it really is. Fundamental education needs to establish ties between programmes and specific industries and not just, say, study various subjects. But this is a question of proper career guidance, and that must be addressed first.

Finance majors often study abroad to give their careers a boost. Why is this important?

I won’t deny that I was tempted by the opportunity to study and perhaps work abroad. I view this as a positive thing and see nothing ‘unpatriotic’ about it. Such situations get people out of their comfort zone and the usual demands placed on them. It presents a challenge and an incentive to bring out their best qualities. What’s more, financial and economic education abroad is universal in terms of its applicability to the Russian economy, which is not the case, for example, concerning jurisprudence or international law.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

Management, on the other hand, requires a more multifaceted form of study. The ideal situation is when HSE students take part in foreign exchange programmes for a time. Either way, not only education, but also personal and practical experience play a role in career, and so students should use every available opportunity to acquire and develop them.

Can we call the Moscow Metro a Russian company? Are there any distinctively Russian elements of corporate culture?

When I joined the company, I was immediately put on a team that consisted of ex-McKinsey employees. The Moscow Metro was an oasis with completely new approaches to business management. The corporate culture in our department was very similar to that of a consulting firm. Even my interview and all the presentations were held according to the pattern of international consulting companies. When I moved from the Moscow Metro to the Sber payment service, I realised how much the lines between modern Russian and international companies are blurred. We constantly communicate with colleagues from Apple and Google. International communication greatly enriches both the Russian economy and the companies that enter our market.

How did you wind up at the Moscow Metro?

I just saw a want ad for an analyst and applied. I have no preconceived notions about the need to look for a job with international ‘brands’ or global consulting companies. I heard good things about the Moscow Metro team - that it was tops in terms of professionalism and that its members were young and ambitious. I was very curious to see how this very large and seemingly conservative company worked. At the interview, I was struck by the professionalism of the staff and the opportunities for development. I first went there during my fourth year, but I only started working six months later, after the second offer, because I had to finish up my studies so that I could graduate summa cum laude, which took effort.

I was immediately swamped by numerous tasks at work, but ‘a little light came on’ a few months later when I understood that job satisfaction depends entirely on how involved you are in what you’re doing. Wow! I’m working for the Moscow Metro! I was surrounded by very talented managers who helped and trusted me to lead the project from start to finish, which rarely happens in other companies.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

The hothouse conditions in other companies are not as conducive to your development as having the opportunity to take on more and receive the proper level of professional trust with a new task. Here, I was allowed to present results immediately and get feedback. Every time, I found out that there were far more possible solutions and options than I had imagined, and after each project, I felt that I was one notch higher than before.

Was it difficult working with logistics for underground transport?

I threw myself headlong into the unknown, was happy to learn everything new about the subway and had no fear of anything. For example, one of my first major projects was leading the preparation for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It was a very complex project that drew on all the company’s functional divisions and it was completely entrusted to me. I was responsible for readying the infrastructure, payment systems and passenger services. I knew each division head by sight and was in touch with each of them daily.

Thanks to the fact that I was in constant communication with representatives of different departments, within one year I had complete picture of how this giant enterprise operates. Apart from communications, my success here is the result of my personal interest in the subject. The metro is a whole world beneath the city, with its own unique features and extremely complex engineering solutions. I wanted to learn about it all and be amazed.

What did you find most amazing?

How harmoniously this gigantic mechanism operates. Among the world’s subway systems, the Moscow Metro leads on many indicators, such as the trains running on schedule, which is ideal here.

The Moscow Metro is the only subway in the world that manages to run on schedule 99.98% of the time without using driverless vehicles

No other city has such an indicator. Behind this achievement lies an enormous amount of work, constant reconstruction of the infrastructure, huge investments and the professionalism of a workforce that ensures this machine operates 24/7 without interruption. Only 5% of the entire budget is devoted to the development of passenger services that are ‘visible’ - that is, ticket offices, turnstiles and all the innovative payment systems. All this is just the tip of the iceberg: the most complex mechanisms are hidden from view. When you have the opportunity to see the work of the metro from the inside, you feel like an astronaut in space.

What is investment management like in such a structure? In which areas is the Moscow Metro developing and what can passengers expect to see?

I specialised in the integration of the metro with other modes of transport. For example, for a long time I led a project to launch Moscow Central Diameters. We are now devoting a lot of attention to integrating commuter rail services into the metro system as efficiently as possible.

My second area of focus is the development of payment services, which I am doing apart from my Moscow Metro work. I first worked on this project within the company, after which it became an independent structure with me at the head. Much is being done now in terms of updating the payment infrastructure, particularly mobile services and fare payment technologies. By monitoring developments in the Department of Transport, it becomes obvious that a whole range of new projects is devoted to sharing and mobility - when both you and your friends can use your car or save time by transferring from personal to public transport.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

Moscow’s entire transportation grid is now linked closely to various payment systems that make it possible to interact with the whole system without the need for additional infrastructure. For example, a passenger can conveniently use a smartphone to plan their route, transfer to a taxi and then use car-sharing to reach their destination - and pay for all those services with a single app. The virtual Troika is another very important event that we are preparing. It will simplify the process of paying for transport, transfers and contactless transport passes.

What is the SberTroika project? Does it exist as a separate entity, or is it still part of the Moscow Metro?

Neither. The SberTroika project is a subsidiary of the Government of Moscow and Sber, with the Moscow Region holding a minority share. It is a separate company that was created to develop an inter-regional transport payment system using a single platform based on the Troika card. Our team developed this project after conducting a detailed analysis, from which we realised that it was time to transfer Moscow’s accumulated experience in the field of transport payment to the regions.

In 2020, Moscow Transport won the international Transport Ticketing Awards for Best Smart Ticketing System — for the most convenient fare payment service in the world. This means it deserves to be implemented on a larger scale. Sber is serving as a technological partner to this idea because it had a similar transaction processing platform, but in the field of bank payments. We have combined the Sber innovations with the Moscow Metro ticket platform to offer a single transport solution for all Russian cities. The Tula Region was the first to participate in the SberTroika project.

How did you come to lead the project?

I was involved in structuring the project from the start, determining the budget, its strategic focus and technological characteristics. As a result, Moscow Metro representatives put forward my candidacy to lead the new company. That was unexpected. I accepted the position as a challenge and an incredible opportunity to conquer the market, to show what progressive projects we are prepared to introduce into Russians’ everyday lives. This is one of those times when you can say, ‘Look at what a cool project our team has developed and how it will improve life for each of us’.

While working on the project, how did you fill in the gaps in your knowledge of engineering?

While we were preparing the deal, we had to continually analyse the product — to understand what was missing, how it could be improved and how to integrate it. I communicate constantly with IT specialists because technology is at the core of SberTroika. At my new managerial level, I had to assemble a technical team and experts help with this. The software development for this type of work is extremely complex because it must work nonstop and provide certain security guarantees. We are currently very open to hiring young specialists who are willing to be trained in this specific field and to gain unique experience.

Do you already have people from HSE on your team?

We have HSE students who are working as technical specialists and project managers. I concluded that HSE students often have more practical skills than the graduates of other universities.

You have achieved great success in your career in a very short time. What do you think contributed to this?

I think you should be passionate about what you do. It sounds simple, but career success depends on how invested you are in what you do, and a little bit on luck. Everything you learn at work, studying the details, reading the news on your area of interest should all somehow dovetail with your ideas and inspire you. A specialist who is really engaged has a kind of ‘radar’ for gathering information and is constantly involved in the process. He thinks about how this new knowledge can improve the product he is working on at the moment.

It is important not to fear taking responsibility in any activity, to take the initiative and bring the work to a successful conclusion. Otherwise, you won’t be able to move forward or grow

You should feel personally responsible for a product that is the result of the resources you have invested. It won’t be graded like at a university, but you are responsible to yourself for the result. This is what provides true motivation and lets you know that you are managing your project within the company successfully.

Challenges are very important for any professional. I would advise students to take on those projects that are the most incomprehensible and anxiety-causing. Students often expect guaranteed success because of the brand of the company where they go to work. But believe me, the real opportunities lie hidden where the field of tasks has never been plowed, where there are loads of opportunities to do significant work yourself and receive tangible results.