Coming to ITMO

When I was choosing a university, one key factor besides its international status was that they had to have a program at the intersection of management and IT, as it was and remains a field of high importance. That’s how I ended up choosing the Faculty of Computer Technologies and Control. Back then ITMO had just been granted the status of a national research university.

My thesis was about developing an information system for a commercial bank branch. I really wanted to do something based on real data, not something from books. To find an academic advisor, I wrote letters to around a hundred different banks asking for help with a thesis project. I ended up getting a reply from a head of the IT department at a major St. Petersburg bank. As I wrote my thesis, he explained to me how information systems work at a bank. Thanks to his expertise, my thesis had an actual practical application.


Working as a student

I began working full-time right after graduation. On the day after getting my diploma, I prepared a resume and, two days later, was invited to a job interview at a company that fit my thesis’ profile exactly. They even asked me if I intentionally wrote a thesis on a subject they were interested in. It was a development company that made processing software for banks. This was a confirmation that a relevant topic is not one judged so by experts’ predictions, but one that people are paying for right now.

Working as a Master’s student was a challenge. I’d go to university in the early morning, then go to work, and spend the night reading, studying, and writing. Still, it meant that by the time I got my degree, I’d not only know the theory, but also have a practical grasp of the relevant processes and technologies. My work involved plenty of different situations common to banking: from writing reports and handling crashes, to working shoulder to shoulder with bank staffers and security services, and even running a course on card fraud prevention.

OpenWayGroup. Credit: social media
OpenWayGroup. Credit: social media

Four languages

As I was writing my diploma, I made the decision to give my defense in two languages, Russian and English. My department, recognizing the value of that decision, agreed to put together a committee of professors with knowledge of English. Back then, this was not a common occurrence.

This was, of course, a conscious choice: not knowing English leaves you with very few opportunities in the modern world, especially in the IT field. As I enrolled at ITMO, I know that I didn’t need just technical or management or language competences; I need a combination of all. There are plenty of translators, techies, and managers out there, but there are far less specialists who know tech, management, and language at the same time. This was a strategy that paid off 100%.

My parents always said that “languages are opportunities” as they paid for English and German classes for me and my brother until we were able to learn on our own. By the time I graduated from school, I was fluent in English, Estonian, German, and French. This knowledge came in handy many times, and throughout my career I got to work in American and French companies, experience different cultures, and even manage three-way negotiations as a Russian-French-English translator.


From software engineering to project management and consulting

My career path has, in a way, helped me understand how organizations work. I got to try out the roles of a software engineer, tutor, project lead, head of a business analytics department, a consultant, and, finally a project office head and an organizational adjustment director.

Over 15 years, I amassed a vast and diverse experience from many fields and cultures. Working in companies big and small as both a client and a contractor has given me a well-rounded understanding of the complexity of modern companies and how flexible one must be to respond to challenges and changes.

Making changes

These days I mostly work with production companies that wish to adopt a more modern management model. The most important thing that I’ve learned through my years of practice is that when you’re working with people, you’re working with trust, and all else is secondary. If you have people’s trust, you can do many things. If you don’t, that’s what you should be starting with. It’s easy to lose trust, and nearly impossible to restore it. I’m a supporter of the shift from headhunting to “hearthunting”.

OpenWayGroup. Credit: social media
OpenWayGroup. Credit: social media

There was a corporate culture change project that involved some 850 people, which was nearly all of the company’s staff. It went on for two years and the key goal was to motivate people into changing how they respond to conflicts, interact, and make decisions. It had to be not an abstract change, but a coordinated one, with a common direction and a shared set of values. We worked through the positive and negative behavior types, assessed dynamics, and evaluated the values they employed in pursuing results.

It was difficult due to the geographic distribution of facilities and the need to manage hundreds of people on an individual level. But it showed that there is much to be accomplished when you understand yours and others’ purposes, accept their right to not believe or not desire change while also creating conditions where they have to change, and speak to them with honesty.

What good leaders are made of

A good manager must absolutely possess systems thinking, which usually, but not always, comes with a technical background. It’s important that you are able to see a business or a task as a system comprised of interconnected elements with its own principles, limits, and feedback, rather than as a set of random data. You can build a system and develop an algorithm for activity, but no system should be static as a rock. It must be flexible and allowing for changes in strategy and actions. If a manager isn’t building up a management system, they might as well be a dispatcher.

OpenWayGroup. Credit: social media
OpenWayGroup. Credit: social media

Another important quality that we tell students about at our MBA program is the ability to perceive reality from various standpoints. As a manager, as a person, as a woman or a man, as an employee, and so on. It lets you see things you otherwise wouldn’t. People may reject your ideas because they don’t see value in it, or simply misunderstand your intentions. It’s important to bear in mind the values of those you work alongside with.

Finally, a good leader must speak everyone’s language. After all, there is a difference between a translator and an interpreter. In business, you have to not just deliver information, but get the point across, switching from the language of organization to that of production, of finance, of your clients and your developers. All members of a business chain are the different aspects of the same activity. Knowing different languages helps. In essence, what I do these days is translating from “manager to human”, from “business to IT”, from “cultural to business”, and vice-versa.


Enable Change

I have recently founded the change management school Enable Change together with my husband. Our goal is to give people simple tools needed to change their lives. After all, any organizational change starts with an individual.

It took years to develop the concept. I have been teaching for almost fifteen years now; at one point I taught a course here at ITMO, and I also speak at conferences on project planning and change management. There are many high-class professionals in my field, but there are also plenty of charlatans who deliver an illusion of change without any real benefits. My desire to share what I’ve learned through years of experience culminated in this idea of systematizing the material I have and creating a school.

Personal growth is no walk in the park

In our country, the subject of personal growth is tackled by a range of initiatives as diverse as eateries: from roadside diners to Michelin-star restaurants. The idea itself has been heavily discredited by amateurs chasing easy money. This is partly because with a subject such as this, results are extremely difficult to measure. You come home from a motivation session energized and in a good mood. Is that a result? I don’t think so.

Personal growth isn’t achieved by taking a pleasant walk on the seaside. It’s impossible without tears, re-experiencing trauma, and finding answers to unpleasant questions. But don’t think you’ll get bogged down in pain and suffering once you start figuring yourself out. Past trauma is like a rotten potato in your backpack. You can pretend it’s not there, but sooner or later the stench will spread. You can grapple with the prospect of removing that trash, or find support and take steps towards doing it.

Self-development is not mandatory. Survival is not obligatory. If you’re content with what you have, don’t change things. The last thing you should do is tell people how to do things right. Everyone makes that choice for themselves. I chose to work on myself, and now I feel better and happier than I did 20 years ago. Personal growth amounts to an extensive, serious, and complex effort to gaze inside yourself and answer the most difficult questions – and each of them makes you more successful, mature, and whole.

All personal growth starts with answering this question: “Why do I need it, why do I think I don’t have enough of it, and how will I know it’s there?”. That’s why you need criteria of success. In business training, they tell you to use the SMART system, but that’s not the only set of criteria. Start with answering these questions: “How do I feel?”, “What am I growing for?”, “How will I know if things have changed?” and “Within which planning horizon did it occur?”. Believe in yourself, listen to yourself, and keep trying. Then you’ll get it done. After all, I did get that one reply to my hundred emails.