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.
In today’s labour market, it is difficult to remain in only one field. An increasing number of HSE University graduates find themselves at the juncture between industries, adapting their knowledge for technical fields. For example, Timur Zekokh—who holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the HSE University’s FES—found himself in the IT field and works as a senior data analyst at Avito. He told Success Builder how love for econometrics inspires his teaching, which knowledge is important for working with data and why Avito switched from Excel to Vertica.
What attracted you to finance and HSE University’s FES undergraduate programme in particular?
I lived in Maykop, where very few people knew about HSE University. I was told about HSE by my parents who were looking for a good university for me. I looked at the site, studied reviews and stories of graduates and found programmes that were interesting for me. I chose the Faculty of Economic Sciences. I also considered the Financial University, but their admissions process was not as streamlined and they offered no guarantees. At HSE, I was among the first wave of students admitted, and besides, I was more than satisfied with the curriculum offered by the FES bachelor’s programme.
You came a long way from your hometown. How quickly did you adapt to Moscow and student life?
I got used to HSE University very quickly and easily. I spent all my childhood in a similar environment where you had to produce good results, and I got used to meeting a high standard and communicating with like-minded people. Compared to school, HSE University simply became a new place where I could feel free, where I could choose subjects that were interesting to me and devote more time to them.
It wasn’t difficult for me to study; I got good grades, because I had a strong mathematical background. While a school student in Maykop, I also studied at the Republican natural-mathematical school of Adyghe State University. This was like a preparatory course with a math component for college-bound students. Of course, I was amazed at first by life in Moscow; for an 18-year-old who has lived all his life in a small town, it made a very strong impression and it was a great deal of new information. I immediately liked the city. At FES, I immediately made friends with my classmates. We formed a close-knit team; many of the guys were also from the regions. We were all equally unusual, so we felt very much at ease. In addition, in Moscow I attended events organized by the Circassian Foundation, so I maintained my connection with my native culture.
You started working in the ‘Big Four’. What did you like about consulting?
Consulting in itself has never attracted me, but the ‘Big Four’ had a very strong name; it is a good school and provides rich experience for a beginner. At PwC, I worked in valuation and financial modeling. It required a deep knowledge of mathematics that suited me quite well. Although I was thinking about continuing my studies with a master’s, pursuing an academic career wasn’t attractive. I found it more interesting to develop in business at an international company.
With experience in a corporate environment, my desire to work only increased. Such companies instill a certain corporate culture from the very beginning, which is the standard in the international arena. The same can be said of the internal business structure of such companies. This makes it much easier to get a job in another similar company. Of course, it is also important to note that in international companies you communicate with specialists from different parts of the world. This significantly expands your horizons and helps you gain a wide range of experiences in a short time.
Why did you choose the ICEF master’s programme?
ICEF attracted me because it has a strong focus on two areas that I really liked: financial mathematics and econometrics—although to be honest, these disciplines did not find any application at that time in my work. Solving practical problems was interesting, and studying was doubly interesting. ICEF is also famous for its close-knit alumni community with the help of which you can establish professional contacts, obtain expertise, and find business partners and project collaborators.
The deciding factor was the simplicity and ease of the admission process that required only a portfolio, without any written exams. I had a strong portfolio and an attractive diploma, so I was guaranteed the opportunity to study in the master’s programme in Financial Economics. I was completely satisfied with the fact that the programme had a strong mathematical component and was balanced in terms of its academic opportunities and applied courses.
In addition to your interest in financial economics, how else would you like a master’s programme to help your career?
It is difficult to identify a cause-and-effect relationship between education and a career boost. On the one hand, I left PwC when I started the master’s programme because I thought I wouldn’t be able to combine the two. In the second year of my master’s degree, I interned in the research department at McKinsey. I liked the work overall, and at the same time, the programme included a risk management course taught by Dzhangir Dzhangirov that made me think more seriously about risk management as a line of work.
Then I went to work at VTB doing risk validation. This was how my master’s education influenced my career track directly . Many of my classmates held strictly technical bachelor’s degrees and the wide range of elective courses offered by the ICEF master’s programme helped them a lot in terms of specialisation and work. In my case, studying at the master’s programme was more like a continuation and deepening of what I had liked so much in the bachelor’s programme. In a sense, my work experience gave me even more and went one step further than what I was taught, but in any case, my education was very beneficial and, most importantly, a pleasure.
After getting my master’s, I enrolled in the postgraduate Financial Markets course at PRUE. It was simply a result of inertia: I was accustomed to studying. But since I moved to another job and my workload has changed—I now have many projects, including teaching projects—I took academic leave and remain on it now.
How did your career interests change when you switched to banking? What did you specialise in?
When I came to VTB, I started working on the risk management team. We dealt with risk models—which concern either credit or market risks—and I was especially interested in the latter. They were almost exactly the same as the volatility models that I studied in my undergraduate and, later, graduate courses. So I was able to help my coworkers in every possible way with the work on market models. It helped me a lot to understand how academic skills correlate with reality and what kind of models are really needed.
On the whole, the experience of working in a bank gave me an understanding of what kind of knowledge is in demand for a specialist in my field
I also got acquainted with various aspects of communication within banking departments; we often validated models from other departments, provided expert commentary and recommendations, and discussed various questions with coworkers. It was very interesting to play a role in the negotiation process, which also became a valuable experience for me. In Russian organisations, the coordination and approval process differs somewhat from what I am used to in an international company: everything is a little more complicated; banks are extremely over-regulated; there are many legally complex issues; a lot of reporting, etc. There is a definite need here to gradually simplify and automate processes. This requires time, digital solutions and a new approach to management.
Why did you need to teach? HSE didn’t want to let you go?
At first, I taught at the Faculty of Economics as an English teacher’s assistant, and after the first year of the master’s programme, I began conducting ICEF courses entirely on my own and teaching a course on econometrics. In my junior and senior years, I also took on the task of teaching my favourite subject, financial econometrics, and seminars on the valuation of financial assets for the third year of undergraduate studies. Even at that time, Corporate Finance was divided into two courses and I began checking students’ homework and helping to prepare exams. I really liked it; I got along well with the students and shared my knowledge with them in precisely those areas in which I most enjoyed delving into detail.
After earning my master’s degree, my coworkers invited me to lead seminars in a new course on quantitative methods in finance. It so happened that at that time I was leading seminars in four subjects—a rather large, but enjoyable workload. It was difficult to combine teaching with my job. It took all of Saturday and one more day during the week to teach courses, and this was during my first year at Avito. I endured it for one year, but then gave up two courses, keeping only Econometrics and Financial Econometrics for undergraduates.
Why did you, as a specialist, decide to leave your work with financial institutions and switch to the digital sector?
Financial knowledge was only half of what I was interested in while studying at HSE University. I also did machine learning and everything related to it. At that time it was a new and fashionable topic that advanced students were interested in. I devoted many hours of my extracurricular activities to such projects and studied data analysis, machine learning and neural networks myself. I also took courses, including those at HSE University. This field overlapped to some extent with my love for econometrics, financial econometrics and statistics, which gave me a good technical background.
My interests prompted me to look for a job where I could combine these two areas of knowledge, and I ended up at Avito, in the data analysis department. This was in part with the help of ICEF that is distinguished by its friendly alumni and student community. At that time, I met some people who worked at Avito and who spoke highly of the company’s corporate culture, its caring attitude toward its human capital and its attention to employees’ development. I heard about the tasks that Avito specialists were working on and I became very interested. I saw new possibilities for how quickly I could develop. I was also told that the company was looking for a data analyst. I decided: Why not try? I threw my resume in the ring and went through the whole selection process. I liked the team and I liked the company. They hired me, and I still work with these guys.
How difficult was it for you to make such a sudden transition?
The switch was truly radical, but I got through it smoothly and even enjoyed it. It was both exciting and interesting. In terms of knowledge, statistics were very useful to me at Avito. I felt that I was no longer moving simply by inertia. Because I had always worked in finance, I got used to a certain type of tasks and way of presenting results. When I came to Avito, I saw a completely different approach to work in terms of communication and trust in employees. It took me time to switch not so much to the new tasks, but more to the different way the entire organisation operated. But I liked it, so I adjusted quickly to working in my new role. At the same time, I didn’t lose touch with finance and continued to teach at HSE University. I didn’t want to burn any bridges.
How would you describe Avito’s corporate culture?
The primary feature is transparency about how you can grow: you understand perfectly what you must do to advance your career as a data analyst. If you just accomplish a specific objective, you are guaranteed to move a step up the ladder. The second thing that I immediately liked was the very advanced software you work with, the databases, the ability to use different programming languages and deep analytics, etc. By contrast, many companies still use Excel as their main tool for storing, processing and presenting data analysis results.
Avito uses nearly the same technologies as such international IT giants as Google, Amazon and others
For example, we use Vertica as a database. The main programming language for data analysis is Python, which almost all international companies also use. For reporting, we used to use Tableau, which was one of the most common international tools in the IT field, but now we’ve switched to Redash. For this reason, Avito can be considered a leader in the Russian market in terms of the quality of services for working with data. And employees like working under such conditions, which in some ways is on a par with the world’s top IT companies.
You also teach at the Avito Analytics Academy. What is it and what do you do there?
When I first started working at Avito, Dina Simkina was the director of the analytics department and she suggested creating a data analysis school within the company.
The idea was to teach applied skills and nurture data analysts who, after graduating from the academy, would know how to use the tools and do the standard tasks as required, and could come work with us. The company supported the idea and launched the project which it called the Avito Analytics Academy. It includes two programmes—data analysis and data science. Dina remembered me from my interview and knew about my teaching experience, which she valued highly, and invited me to teach econometrics. So, from the very launch of the project, I became a regular instructor at the academy. My coworkers and I developed an econometrics course adapted for IT and I have been the methodological leader of the data analysis programme since 2023. My academic experience has been very useful because I have to supervise the work of all the teachers and be a kind of guide in developing academy courses, which for me is a new and interesting step in the technological field.