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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.

Despite the crisis in the labour market caused by the pandemic, the Mail.ru company has hired approximately 1,000 new employees over the past six months. HSE graduate Dmitry Smyslov, the Mail.ru Group Vice President for Personnel and Educational Projects, played a central role in that process. In this interview with Success Builder, Mr Smyslov explains why there are not enough mathematicians and economists among HR directors, how Mail.ru is blurring the line between fundamental science and the IT industry, which types of specialists are in demand right now and what exactly makes Russian companies good for careerists.

You graduated from HSE University in 2006. What was it like then?

I graduated from an HSE affiliated school in Ryazan. Many of us in the junior and senior grades were already preparing to enrol at HSE. We knew how demanding the entrance requirements are and how modern the system of teaching economic sciences is. Economics and law were popular fields of study at the time and I chose the former while still in school. I took part in regional academic competitions and scored well enough for admission to HSE. My scores were high enough to enrol in the Economics Faculty, but also good enough for Sociology, which is what I settled on. It seemed like a very interesting field with the possibility of interdisciplinary work.

I graduated with top honours from high school and was an excellent student at HSE as well, so after earning my bachelor’s degree, I decided to earn a master’s from the Faculty of Economic Sciences. During my studies, I became only more convinced that HSE is a leading university with extremely innovative methods and an almost tangible sense of freedom in many ways. What’s more, the university did not have decades of expertise and history behind it: it was the names of the professors and their high-profile research experience that, even at the initial stage of getting things off the ground made HSE attractive to applicants. I think my decision to enrol here was life-changing. I studied alongside students who came here for the sake of the education they would get, and not just for a diploma, and this made a difference as well. The only thing I regret is not having managed to finish graduate school. I passed all my exams but didn’t finish my dissertation: I started working and got swallowed up by the job.

It’s true that sociology and economics are similar sciences, but why did you constantly vacillate between them?

In the end, I chose economic sociology. I have always been interested in interdisciplinary fields in science, as well as the use of mathematical and statistical tools to solve research problems. I did well in micro- and macro-economics: mathematical subjects come easily to me and I have a head for math in general. In sociology, I chose the field of data analysis where I excelled in mathematical statistics.

Having gained sufficient knowledge in sociology and data analysis, I decided to earn my master’s degree in Economic Sociology from the Faculty of Economic Sciences. My academic advisor was renowned sociologist Ovsey I. Shkaratan. I wrote my master’s thesis and conducted research with him. Professor Shkaratan was not only a unique specialist but also a great teacher, mentor and friend. He played a very important role in my life. I was part of a group of young researchers from his group who collaborated with him in publishing several articles and a book on the topic of social inequality and its origins.

What role does fundamental education play in training a specialist?

I subscribe to the old school of thinking that says a university education is a necessity. I agree with those who hold that a fundamental, high-quality education is always of benefit and is important in making a successful, mature individual. And the more serious the university is, the higher the quality of the fundamental education you’ll receive and the easier it will be for you in life. For all modern professions, basic education is indispensable for the training of skilled workers.

At the same time, it is impossible to be a fully prepared specialist the moment you receive your diploma. Universities and schools teach students how to think, ways to frame and solve problems, logic and argumentation — all of which are universal tools. It is easier to achieve mastery over a new subject when you know how to learn and have a certain methodology for studying a new field. Consider my current profession: when I was in college, few institutions offered systematic applied knowledge in HR. I had to learn a lot myself, but because I already possessed knowledge in economics, sociology, mathematics and mathematical statistics, as well as strong experience in research, it was easy for me to systematize the skills I acquired at the workplace.

Lately, I have constantly been hearing the argument that education is lagging behind the business world, that formal education is unnecessary and that self-education will become the norm. It’s true that life has sped up considerably: the Mail.ru Group is now actively working with universities to bring the demands of business into line with the educational curriculum as much as possible so that students gain an up-to-date selection of professional competencies. Our employees teach at almost all the major universities using our educational programs. They try to bring basic science in line with the IT industry as much as possible. But this is only a ‘retrofit’ of sorts.

At its core, education is not about responding to market trends but about developing a certain type of thinking

It prepares a person to understand the intricacies of how the world works, to see the meaning of cause-and-effect relationships. Additional education is pointless if a person has not developed their foundational thinking. And don’t forget that Russian education has historically been strong in mathematics, chemistry, physics and other sciences. This is the basis on which our country has developed a strong domestic IT industry, with the result that unique, world-class companies have emerged in this competitive global industry. We need to support and develop this standard of education in order to restore the high standing in science and technology that Russia once held, but has lost for one reason or another.

How did you manage to achieve such professional success so quickly?

My career really has developed very rapidly. The economy was booming in the 2000s and there were numerous opportunities for career growth. Many foreign companies entered the market and Russian firms developed rapidly, providing opportunities for people to realize their potential and gain experience. If you had a diploma from a good school, all you needed was desire, hard work and a little luck. I actually trained to become a marketing analyst, to conduct sociological research for companies, but during my third year in the bachelor’s programme, I took an internship with the Spengler Fox HR agency. After working there for two months, I was referred to the SUAL company, in the compensation and benefits division of the HR department. This was good for me because that field combines economics, math and sociology.

It turned out that HR was a promising field. There was a high demand for specialists at the time because there was a need to implement modern personnel management systems. I soon wound up at MTS and, at the age of 24, became the head of the Compensation and Benefits Department that developed the payment systems for a company of 25,000 employees. Next, I was made director of the whole department. I was in charge of not only the system of remuneration and benefits but also of planning the number of employees, the organizational structure and the automatization of HR processes. Everything turned out quite well, and I decided to develop further in HR for business, although for some time I was also doing science in graduate school. Who knows, I might return to science one day. I haven’t ruled it out.

How can someone trained as an economist achieve fulfilment working with personnel?

In HR and, in general, in all professions in which success stems from having flexible skills, there is a huge shortage of people educated in economics, math, and technical subjects, and, in general, of people with developed systems thinking. In this field, you need a combination of flexible skills and analytical thinking; you need to know business, economics and financial models and apply them all to the personnel management system. Only then will it be effective. The foundation I got from HSE really helped in this regard, from mathematical statistics to erudition and simply interdisciplinary thinking abilities and trying to see processes as a whole. Given how popular data science is now, I can converse just as easily with an analyst as I can with a sociologist or a philosopher.

How would you describe ‘systems thinking’?

It is the ability to analyze processes comprehensively, taking into account the past, present and future, as well as the influence different factors have on the phenomenon in question. Science and scientific research help develop systems thinking. In fact, the methods of scientific thinking that we learn at university helps a great deal in any intellectual activity. In business, we constantly have to be able to define a problem, set an objective and tasks, formulate hypotheses and test them objectively.

What was lacking in your university education and how did you learn those things on the job?

In looking back from my current experience, I would say that I lacked applied knowledge and real-world personnel management case studies taken from major companies. I gained all of my personnel management skills on the job and through specialized training courses that companies offered.

At the same time, much of what we studied at the university turned out to be extremely useful. For example, behavioural economics helps a lot in solving HR problems. In particular, when we implement certain management policies, we often use nudge theory that is based on sociology, economics and psychology.

In terms of practical business application, one of the most useful courses I took at HSE was Applied Software taught by Galina Balashova. Under her strict control, we learned to use software to make proper documents, calculations and presentations. This is a very important skill and it comes in very handy to this day.

I would add workshops by businesspeople and recent case studies from companies to basic university curricula

We are doing this now at the Mail.ru Group with our educational projects in the IT and digital fields: we supplement fundamental mathematical or technical education with experience solving real-world business problems provided by our collaborators. This helps future specialists greatly in preparing to solve the everyday tasks that arise when working for IT companies.

You have worked for large international companies. Why is it not so prestigious to work for Russian companies and what unique experience do they offer specialists?

I have worked for both well-known Russian and international brands. To be honest, I would have been happy to wind up at Philip Morris or Coca-Cola a little earlier than I actually did. Notwithstanding all the achievements of the Russian market, the business schooling available with Western companies seems in many cases to be more solid. This is due, first, to their long history and strong foundations. The largest Russian businesses have been around for 20-30 years, whereas Western companies have 100-200 years of history. They have gone through many stages of development and gained unique experience, resulting in business processes that set the standard.

Working there, you encounter a well-developed system of management. You learn from this experience so as not to make mistakes and end up reinventing the wheel. What’s more, you have access to a global community of specialists. You see how people from all over the world do their work, what they think, their method and style of communication and the way they make presentations. I should mention that, from what I’ve seen, Russian specialists are still behind others in their presentation and communication skills. We need to develop in this area, possibly by starting to prepare children at school age.

However, in Western companies, it can be more difficult to advance your career quickly and apply all your creative potential. In a strictly regulated business structure, in a decades-old system of personnel development, it is difficult to become a director at the age of 26, as happened in my case. There may be more opportunities for self-realization in Russian companies. This is why there are so many examples of people first gaining basic experience in major Western corporations and then moving successfully to Russian companies where they solve complex problems, build new management systems or develop new products, reach top positions and build brilliant careers.

What makes someone a good HR manager?

The task of HR is to build a system for managing personnel and it seems to me that Russia still lacks a clear understanding that this is a profession, a craft requiring serious training. Many people go into HR because they think it’s ‘about working with people,’ that they are good communicators, ‘love people’ and that that’s enough. But it isn’t.

Personnel management is a discipline that must be mastered both theoretically and practically. You must have a firm grasp of the tools for analyzing information and data, understand finance and economics, and know the labour laws. Of course, communication skills and the ability to influence others play a huge role, as do all flexible skills, but these alone are not enough. You need to study all of the disciplines I mentioned here as well as the real-world practices and processes of the most successful companies, and then apply that knowledge and experience systematically in your work.

How does the Mail.ru Group work with its personnel?

It was two years ago that I found myself at the Mail.ru Group, one of the most modern companies in Russia. It was interesting to work in a business environment at the forefront of the digital economy. And more importantly, the Mail.ru Group can rightfully be considered the leader of Internet business and e-commerce in Russia. This provides plenty of opportunity for HR specialists. The company is growing very rapidly and attracting the brightest IT talents. The size of our staff has increased by 150% in the past two years and we hire hundreds of digital professionals every quarter.

The digital industry is the fastest growing in the world and so I found myself in a completely new environment compared to my previous experience. Decision-making and communications move at incredible speeds here. We work with a young generation of employees whose average age is 29. We study their values and build a unique management system. Thus, I work in an environment where I have to adapt constantly to the latest trends in HR, management, technology and in the approach to employees.

The Mail.ru Group has a very flexible business management system: everything is focused on achieving results. The corporate culture supports freedom, speed, flexibility and efficiency. For this reason, the company has removed restrictions on everything from how much time employees must spend in the office to how they communicate and what they wear. One of the main values of many large companies in the world right now is preserving the cultural identity of employees, their individuality and self-expression. This is an element of the overall values that drive the company.

If each employee thinks creatively, then more ideas, solutions and efforts will be invested in the company’s overall objectives

We build systems for recruitment, remuneration, motivation and employee performance evaluation that support our culture and our focus on results. It is important for us to maintain the speed and creativity that enable us to make products that millions of people use.

How has the pandemic changed the labour market in general and Mail.ru Group hiring practices in particular?

During the pandemic, we actually set a record for new hires, bringing in 1,000 new people of 8,000 total staff. My team broke records in both quarters. Our industry is booming right now for a number of reasons and because Mail.ru Group products are developing rapidly, there is a big demand for personnel. This segment of the labour market is not unlimited and there is a lot of competition. We have a shortage of not only programmers but also of professionals in related specialities such as digital marketers, product managers, product owners and data analysts. There is a great need for people who create value from the opportunities that the modern digital economy provides.

At the same time, the pandemic has affected the format of how we work. There is growing consensus in business that remote and hybrid remote-and-office work formats will become the reality of future office life.

What plans does the Mail.ru Group have for cooperating with HSE University?

We plan to launch a joint programme of continuing education with one of the university’s faculties that will combine academic knowledge and applied practice. We are very interested in cooperating with the Higher School of Economics as one of Russia’s leading universities. HSE is a significant supplier of talent for the Mail.ru Group and is one of the top three universities from which we hire employees. We’re waiting for the fall to take new steps in this direction, at which point HSE students will have more opportunities to join our company. Wait for updates!