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.
When Roman Stupin decided to go back to school after a decade of teaching and working with innovative startups, he chose HSE. That path started with continuing education programmes, then a Master’s degree and now postgraduate studies. 'I can't deny myself the pleasure of studying,' Mr Stupin admits. Here, he tells Success Builder how robotics can change education, what occupies specialists in Russian think tanks and why it’s time to replace government officials with algorithms.
Why did you choose to work in education and to what do you attribute your love of studying?
I earned my first degree without really giving it much thought. It was the ‘90s and I didn’t really consider which department or major was best. It was more a question of whether to earn a degree or not. I graduated from high school with honours. Studying was always interesting and easy for me, so I took this step out of inertia and enrolled in the institute as a marketing student. The turning point came in my fourth year: my instructor invited me to work in his son’s firm. It was a major retail chain that used new technologies to modernize traditional sales systems in the modern ‘cash & carry’ format based on the experience of the METRO stores.
It was then that I realized that only high technology and process automation could provide a competitive advantage
The company had many interesting practices for self-improvement. For example, the CEO read several books a day and strongly encouraged employees to borrow books from his personal library that he had moved to his office. We also subscribed to all of the world’s trade journals in foreign languages and studied business process engineering ourselves, so we started switching traditional stores to self-service and introducing video surveillance tools. We even organized video conferences between remote sales divisions. It was a major innovative project to automate sales systems, and it provided me with a great education and sparked my interest in technologies.
Still, I lacked systematic knowledge, especially in economics. I began studying applied mathematics and how it could be used in management systems. In 2006, I even enrolled in a postgraduate course in Economics and Management of National Economy, but soon put that process on hold: I realized that my dissertation was too far removed from what I could do and what I wanted to do for society. Now, with the practical experience I have accumulated, my priorities are set very differently, and even choosing science, I can consciously influence some economic processes.
How deep has your interest in technology become?
My applied activity occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At that time, I wanted to try new things and earn money quickly, so I tried to excel in different areas, and not only those connected with technical innovation. For example, I worked in political consulting, then switched to media communications and managed to get some experience abroad. I also led projects in government agencies and development institutions where I effectively developed startups. I got into the technology business in 2008 working for a company that produced and distributed conferencing equipment. That was the first wave of digitalization and the Internet was just appearing in the regions. International companies began introducing systems for online learning and remote video communication. It was cutting edge technology then, and we were one of the few in Russia and the whole CIS working in that field.
I was dealing with huge projects for the comprehensive computerization of entire regions and the digitalization of education systems. This gave me an understanding of digital trends and I created my own business, the YUAYTI Company, where we started producing equipment for online communications, sensor devices and communication systems. That’s when I became interested in robotics, and it remains one of my main interests today. And, although it is a hobby, there is market demand for it now and it has become a full-fledged project for me. One of our activities is the development of build kits in robotics and we are establishing international cooperation with Korean, American and French manufacturers in this area. The kits are designed for robotics classes in schools. The company is also working on sensor and interactive equipment for the education system as a whole, as well as for telemedicine.
Have you considered working in public administration as part of your effort to influence the economy?
Actually, I cooperate with people in public administration, primarily in the area of innovation. In fact, this field is extremely flexible, such that even the project managers of state-sponsored innovation projects have a lot of manoeuvring room and are not tied hand and foot by various regulators. This makes it possible to realize one’s potential and managerial skills. What’s more, IT is not even a field, but simply a basis for the functioning of economic processes. It combines science and business like nothing else does: technical changes occur not even daily anymore, but hourly, and there is always room for research and ideas to improve our lives.
No one can say with certainty whether Sberbank is a financial structure or an IT company, even though Sberbank is actually a state institution and research organization. Digital technology skills can be applied across an extremely wide spectrum, something I find attractive from the standpoint of business and influence. For example, to develop the robotics business, we conduct a huge amount of market, experimental and social research. For me, and for many technology specialists, the issue of ethics is very important right now. This aspect of technological innovation is practically unregulated, even though it is obvious to everyone that when creating an AI or digital finance business, it must be determined whether it will harm society or violate society’s value system. To some extent, we also function as regulators, identifying and testing technology’s influence on society. In particular, we test equipment to ensure that it cannot cause physical or emotional harm to children. I am personally responsible for determining which skills schoolchildren will acquire when using our robotics kits.
What is the Coordination Centre of the Intergovernmental Commission on Cooperation in the Field of Computer Engineering? What is your responsibility there?
This is a state agency, part of the Communications Ministry that was established in 1969 by the Soviet government. At that time, a number of Warsaw Pact countries united to develop common standards and approaches in communications, telecommunications and computing. Therefore, the Centre has retained three main activities — research in the natural and technical sciences, management consulting in the field of software and computer engineering and software development. On the one hand, this involves the implementation of pure state policy in the field of digital communication development. And on the other hand, the organization engages in commercial activity outside of budget parameters. This includes research, software development, and consulting in the field of information and communication technologies for commercial clients. For example, one recent project was the development and support of a draft law for Russia’s ERA Military Technology Park.
We also conducted ‘hackathons’ for Rossotrudnichestvo (Russian Agency for International Cooperation) in key areas of the digital economy in Mexico and Brazil. These are not greying hackers in white coats like people overseas imagine. They are market experts with business experience and backgrounds in research, and this makes it an extremely progressive institution and a working tool of the economy.
Could you call the Centre a Russian ‘think tank’ and, if so, what is its mission?
You could call it that, at least in part. But, as with many similar institutions, Russian academic research is somewhat lacking in the good PR and high-quality communication that, say, Western think tanks have. For this reason, few people know about the Centre’s activities. In fact, the Centre is an inter-industry hub in terms of software and the export of Russian solutions, but it is more functional than a think tank. The Centre’s mission is to build a working export chain for domestic innovations. To that end, we need to reform manufacturing companies, involve research institutes effectively, study the Western market and train personnel, and so on. If to look at specific tasks, including the reform of industry-oriented institutes, it also concerns career guidance in terms of popularizing IT knowledge among school students and preparing them to enter these institutes and universities. The Centre’s mission statement includes such goals.
For example, Belarus solved the problem of technical vocational guidance by making both computer programming and English mandatory in schools. This makes it possible to train personnel at a level where they can quickly accomplish the management, application and promotion of innovations, rather than only their development. In Russia, unfortunately, the technical tasks of state organizations slow everything down and nothing is done to increase competitiveness. And then, the attempt is made to sell the product overseas as part of the state plan without taking into account the interests and demands of the end consumers. That is why the Centre sets out to popularize engineering knowledge as a means of changing the current system, particularly the widespread attitude towards Russian technologies. We hold hackathons, educational events and robotics competitions and, in 2020, our institution won the right to host international robotics competitions in Russia.
What kind of competition is this? How can you hold it if the borders are closed?
This is the International Youth Robot Competition (IYRC), a major annual robotics and IT event. Every year, it brings together more than 2,000 participants from the 30 or so IYRC member states. In 2020, it will be held for the tenth time, but for the first time in Russia. I have been actively cooperating with the International Youth Robot Association (IYRA) for several years and have long dreamed that our country would host competitions of this level. I raised this possibility with the leadership of Russia’s Ministry of Communications in 2019 and the necessary support was given.
We put together an application for the right to hold the competition in Russia and I went to Korean to present it. An absolute majority of the IYRA members chose the Russian proposal to host the IYRC in 2020, beating out bids from China, Singapore, Indonesia and Israel. It was a real breakthrough, especially in terms of their faith in Russian technologies and in our readiness to join the global engineering community. Unfortunately, given the current situation, we will not be able to hold the event in person and are accepting applications online at this point. We are currently in talks with the organizing committee about postponing the competition until 2021.
We had some bad luck in this regard, but something good has come out of it: the situation has prompted us to work on the remote control of robotics events and the development of digital platforms. These make it possible to aggregate and hold various robotics and digital technologies competitions. In some ways, the pandemic has acted as a regulator by deepening the competition between online and offline formats and spurring the development of formats for interacting remotely.
What is it like working with innovations? After all, there is no set knowledge base because everything changes overnight — the market, tools and consumer habits.
The speed of decision-making and information processing are the main features of technology management work. Like many other specialists, I tried to develop a course on innovation management, but by the time I went to publish the textbook, the situation on the market had changed completely. The only educational approach that works is to monitor the market constantly. This means taking part in conferences, forums, constantly studying statistics, establishing ties with innovation industry representatives around the world and having the ability to process huge amounts of information.
In terms of business, you need to develop a flair for investment, and this is only possible through trial and error.
Every investor has a cemetery of startups. That’s normal
This requires a model of cutting edge development — not continuous learning, but cutting edge. Today, you need to become familiar with the technologies that will appear on the market 10 years from now in order to build up your skills in working with them. Computer learning and AI technologies no longer belong to the realm of science fiction: they are an everyday reality.
What makes robotics interesting from a business perspective? The field does not seem very popular in terms of commercial potential.
Our business develops and distributes many brands of build and educational kits, including programming, that we sell on the Russian and overseas markets. These are mainly multi-level build kits that a child can assemble in successive stages. They can set up gauges and sensors, master mechanics, then programme the device and check what they’ve learned by taking an exam on a special forum in the Centre for Youth Innovation Creativity. Working with build kits also helps students develop their presentation skills and overall flexibility.
We also produce more complex professional-level build kits. These include remote-controlled underwater devices that operate with software that is more complex. These devices serve as simulators for developing professional skills, as well as for teaching university-age students. In terms of our broader mission, all our build kits are based on the concept of caring for the environment: for me, the ethical side of business is extremely important. The device is designed not only to collect data in the ocean: it must communicate with the ocean and help preserve the ecosystem. This is a special area of interest for me because I grew up watching Jacques Yves Cousteau films.
We are not limited to build kits. With the world moving rapidly towards distance learning, we have started shifting our focus to software development. For example, we are actively developing neuro-assessment software based on machine learning for a personnel evaluation system freed from the human factor and subjectivity. The programme uses eye-tracking and other methods for assessing a person’s psychological condition to determine if the candidate is ready to manage a team or to work as a simple functionary. This project is still in the research stage, but it can help in developing methods for the remote hiring of employees and the remote control and management of company processes.
Is this research connected in some way with your current studies at HSE?
Very much so. Within the academic framework of my HSE postgraduate studies, I am trying to combine AI, robotic automation and state and municipal management — fields that were previously unconnected. Nobody is planning to use machines to replace government officials as a professional class, but there is a clear demand for using algorithms to replace certain routine processes. I am certain that you can only create a successful business based on good research that you conduct yourself using solid science. For me, these two areas are closely linked, both in practice and conceptually. Nobody needs research that is divorced from the realities of the economy and industry.
How did HSE first become a part of your life?
I have periodically continued my professional education throughout my career. You get a job or start to commercialize some project and you realize that you need additional knowledge in that area. My friends at the Business Incubator and colleagues in innovation management told me about the continuing education at HSE. I liked the programme because it dealt with managing startups. At the time, I was teaching and writing a textbook on the topic so I decided to reinforce my knowledge with theory and expert statistics. I didn’t have any thoughts about a Master’s degree at the time, but on the other hand, I had to accept the fact that knowledge constantly becomes outdated and that I really do like studying, so why should I deny myself this?
On an impulse, I applied to the Corporate Research, Development and Innovation Management programme. It was at the junction of applied science and business, naturally bringing together two of my interests: research and entrepreneurship. I liked the teaching staff, industry practitioners who were invited to speak, the professors’ lectures, first-hand expertise from leading companies and, of course, the networking.
The good thing about HSE is that it avoids strict barriers between instructors and students. Studying here is more like an exchange of experience
Many of my classmates are now working on my business projects and I sometimes get involved in one or another of their projects, so I am in the type of environment I like.
How do you think the current situation with remote learning will change universities?
I think the change will be slight. The prestige of this or that university is measured not by technology, but by the success of its graduates, the quality of its teaching staff and its international ranking. Of course, you can understand Western students who complain about the unequal value of online and offline university education. But these are only emergency measures and not permanent. The emotional aspect of education is extremely important: it helps with the formation of personality and soft skills, communication skills that help the graduate to succeed in society.
I would also note how HSE prepared for online education and dealt quite well with the situation that arose. Long before the quarantine, the university’s leadership devoted a great deal of attention to the development of digital textbooks and the use of technological elements in teaching. There was also a sense of continuity in that more experienced professors also embraced the innovations, avoiding the notorious phenomenon of young instructors alone leading the wave of the future.
On the other hand, the development of large universities with their online courses and extensive opportunities in the field of communications will create a wide gulf between them and regional universities that lack the technical resources to survive. The result might be that students in the regions will try to get to the capital, although some universities are already planning to develop distance-learning programmes that would enable them to receive a quality education and realize their potential without leaving their hometown.
Ten years ago, my business partners and I developed formats for distance learning in business. We had an e-school project with the concept of online parent-teacher meetings and remote physical education classes. It all seemed ridiculous and unrealistic at the time, but now it has become routine.
Accepting innovation is an important skill in modern society
Historically, people have resisted technology, breaking machines in factories, protesting against steam-powered locomotives and so on. They were afraid of unemployment, although all technologies are aimed at making life simpler and easier for people. In my research, I hypothesize that replacing certain bureaucratic processes with algorithms will eliminate corruption from the system. It sounds cynical, but I am trying to put people out of work. However, this is an inevitable process, and responsibility for it lies with the state, development institutions and research organizations. We need to develop a way for people to adapt to the new economy, and there should be a major breakthrough in this area. Conservative systems such as education and finance need help to navigate the transformation.