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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.

Georgy Pashchenko, a graduate of the HSE School of Finance, was not afraid to leave his career in a large company and move to the EdTech startup Kodland that HSE ICEF graduates had founded. In 2022, Kodland raised $9 million in investment from a group of funds, including Baring Vostok, as reported by Forbes. In this interview with Success Builder, Mr Pashchenko shared how his HSE studies helped him solve real-world challenges at work and why EdTech is an extremely promising field.

How did you get started in the IT field?

I graduated from the Specialised Educational and Scientific Centre (SERC) of the Urals. There are only a few centres in Russia - at Moscow State University, St. Petersburg State University, Novosibirsk, and ours, that was established at Ural Federal University. At SERC, I studied in a highly specialised mathematics and programming class and had won a number of Academic Olympics before that. At the same time, I never wanted to limit myself to development; I was interested in programming only as a tool that could be effectively applied within a certain subject area. This area became economics, business and finance, although as a school student, I didn’t distinguish one from the other.

In the 11th grade, when I was choosing a university, I learned just by chance about the Business Informatics major and starting learning more about it. It turned out to be just what I needed: computer science within the framework of business tasks. HSE was then the main trendsetter in this field among Russian universities.

HSE was the first university to bring a progamme on computer science for business to the education market, and HSE adopted it to the realities of Russia. That’s why, when I found out I would be admitted to HSE on the basis of my Academic Olympics wins – and without having to compete with other applicants or submit Unified State Exam scores – I didn’t even apply anywhere else.

To what extent did the programme actually meet your needs?

We had an amazing course in programming and many other individual courses were also outstanding. But in my opinion, the curriculum could have had a stronger link between business and IT. It took some time for me to understand how business processes could be digitised and how to manage a technology project.

It happens that I now work in the field of business-related computer science as the CFO of a technology company. As a professional in my field, I can say that when I was a student, the programme lacked a sufficiently case-based approach.

Students need to solve complex business cases in which they can apply different areas of knowledge they have gained from classes

This would help them hone their new skills in practice, develop a global picture, understand how to use different tools to solve real problems and to see the result.

Why did you decide to continue with your studies and earn a master’s degree?

I thought it over for a long time. It so happened that during my fourth year, I got a job in the corporate finance department of KPMG without having a systematic education in this area. At work, I realised that I lacked certain fundamental knowledge. I quickly studied specific models, tools and approaches that were needed in my work. But for the tasks I was given, it was necessary to not only use ready-made methods, but to find solutions myself, to synthesise new methodologies for non-standard cases – but for this, I clearly needed more than I had. So, after six months of work, I decided to enrol in the master’s programme.

I spoke with many of my colleagues, including those at other companies, and they said that the only master’s programme I should consider was in Corporate Finance at HSE. I also could have pursued a master’s in Strategic Corporate Finance at HSE, which is also in English, but it would have been extremely difficult to combine my studies with an irregular work schedule in consulting, so I enrolled in Corporate Finance, that holds classes in the evening.

You specialised in technology, so why did you go into consulting?

It’s not that this work took me away from my specialisation. I got into deal consulting through Deal Advisory, a corporate finance group, and I got very interested in financial modeling. It was basically because of my ability in this field that they took me in this department in the first place. Thanks to the synergy between my IT experience and interest in corporate finance, I created some of the most technically and methodologically sophisticated models in our department.

Financial modeling uses a comprehensive set of mathematical formulas to represent business processes, and particularly cash flows, making scenario-based modeling of the future possible. In this way, you can model any business and entire holding companies with multiple profit centres, taking into account the legal architecture, regulatory environment, types of financing, etc.

How are purely technical skills applicable in finance?

I started with classical financial modeling in Excel, but even there, the basic concepts and principles of programming apply. Programming, in general, is the ability to translate this or that task into an abstract language of commands and formulas.

Therefore, it is the same concept as financial modeling, but with different tools: you can model the behaviour of a computer using lines of code or you can model future cash flows, describing the events and states of the thing you are modeling using the same formulas in Excel.

Next, I started enriching my models with complex macros. Then, we in the department began developing our own technological practices, our own digital solutions and services, giving rise to the Data & Solutions team. Using Python, we added machine learning to classical financial modeling and analysis and began developing web services based on a modern technology stack (C#, ASP.NET). This made it possible to automate complex sections of financial analytics, to standardise them and make them more modern.

How has your master’s degree contributed to your career path?

I am quite pleased with the Corporate Finance programme. I sometimes missed classes because of my heavy workload in consulting work. But I noted more than once that the morning after evening classes I would come to work and apply the new tools and knowledge in practice. My studies helped me find solutions to increasingly difficult challenges at work.

When I encountered problems on a particular project, I could approach the teachers and discuss possible solutions

We would discuss the situation and come to some kind of decision, one that was perhaps more methodologically correct than I would have found myself.

My colleagues strongly recommended the Corporate Finance programme to me, and now I warmly recommend it to anyone who is new to the industry. In my opinion, it offers the perfect combination of theory – that creates a fundamental picture of the world and enables you to find your way and make your own decisions – and practical knowledge that you can immediately use in your work.

People working at companies are usually reluctant to take teaching jobs. Why is that, and why did you decide to teach?

It is not as popular in Russia as it is in the West for established professionals to offer to teach practical university courses as a way to share their unique real-world experience. This adds to their social status. I think the experience of studying at the university is not the easiest for many Russian students. This is partly because they combine study and work, not devoting themselves entirely to their studies and to the university culture. Study turns into a hassle, a mindless succession of sleepless nights. Why am I doing this? For me, this is a good way to structure my knowledge.

Not only students learn, but also teachers, because truth always emerges through debate

When you teach, you think everything over again, sort it out and boil the information down into some kind of coherent concept. Plus, you always discuss it with students. I have many business cases from work that I use in my classes. Interestingly, I have changed my views on certain questions on several occasions after discussing them with students. What’s more, I have learned how to speak in public so as to hold an audience’s attention and make my presentation interesting and clear.

Why did you prefer going to work at a startup to a job with one of the largest companies, risking a total change of direction?

I love taking risks and am not afraid of change. For example, I’m into extreme sports: skydiving, undersea diving and downhill skiing. Risk doesn’t stop me if I can count on greater rewards. At KPMG, I really had good prospects, a great team and carte blanche to develop new services and technologies. I had a pool of clients for whom I did financial consulting projects.

The main reason I left was that I was bored. It was my first and only job and I wanted to see different businesses and challenges. Consulting is an interesting field, but it doesn’t offer enough feedback on the decisions you’ve made and the projects you’ve done. They just say ‘thank you’ and leave. Your interaction with the business ends there; you don’t hear any more about it. In financial consulting, many projects are done just for show. You invest a lot of time, effort, energy and expertise; you do an incredible amount of work; you pack the data into a model in a methodologically correct way, generate an attractive report - and that’s it. Often, the client doesn’t even look at the report, just shows the cover to whomever needs it and puts it in a drawer. I don’t want to spend my whole life on this.

I considered many different interesting job options. Kodland offered me a position as CFO in charge of building financial operations that would support the company’s rapid growth, starting practically from scratch.

I came to Kodland when it had 2,000 employees. It was no longer a startup, but a full-fledged business

Among other things, I liked the people because we share common values. Almost the entire senior team at Kodland consists of HSE graduates: both founders, the COO, CTO and many other people are HSE grads.

What is Kodland and how would you describe the EdTech business?

Kodland is an online school for teaching digital skills to children. We have two departments – programming and digital creativity – that offer group and individual courses for children ages 6-17. We teach a large number of programming languages and various types of digital work, from video editing to blogging. What distinguishes Kodland from other schools is its special approach: we are focused not just on conducting lessons; what is important for us is to guide the child along the path to creating a final product.

When a new student comes to us, we hold a profiling session with him at which the child, parent and facilitator decide together which end result would be worth achieving. For example, a student might want to make his own blog about cars, write a game and put it on Google Play, earn money from advertising and learn about the economic side of things at the same time. We put together an educational track from the available courses to fit this goal.

The Kodland educational system includes an accelerator. We try to select the best students and, at company expense, help them make their products commercially viable. The young people actually start to earn money, thereby seeing in practice that you can earn money doing what you like. Of course, we don’t have any millionaires (yet), but when a 12-year-old child creates a game from scratch and earns $2 a week, this is a huge motivation for both the student and the company. We have our own social network, HUB, where children post their projects, look at source codes, discuss them, and share and make their own rebuilds of the projects they like. It already includes several tens of thousands of projects.

As for the business itself, I was attracted to it for several reasons. It is a fairly large company with an annual turnover of approximately $10 million as of 2021. We have about 16,000 students. We were the largest player in our segment in the Russian market and we began focusing on the international market in the fall of 2021.

We are now growing rapidly abroad, mainly in the UK and Ireland. Indonesia and Spain joined us in the last several months and we are growing well in a large number of countries such as Turkey, Poland, the Philippines, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Forbes ranked Kodland when it recently raised $9 million in investment from a group of funds, including Baring Vostok. Why has the EdTech industry become so successful?

On the whole, the EdTech industry is one of the hottest venture capital markets of the last 2-3 years. If you watch the financial news, you’ll see that educational startups are raising absolutely amazing sums in their investment rounds.

An educational company invests a lot, but it also earns a lot. As for Kodland, the company made the right choice at the right time. We didn’t grow in breadth by adding courses in, say, mathematics or literature. We focused specifically on digital skills, developed our own methodology and make an excellent children’s education product. Then we learned how to adapt this product quickly and well to other markets and to work effectively with audiences in different countries.

I like growing along with the company. When you are the CFO of an international company, every workday brings new challenges. You look very quickly for answers to questions that you couldn’t even imagine before. When you are at the helm of a business, and not a cog in a huge company, you will always find something interesting if you unexpectedly get bored.