Veronika Sokolova, an alumna of GSOM SPbU and the School of International Relations, spent a year and a half working in five different countries, overcame the fear of technology, organized an innovative club at British Telecom and became a leading specialist in the company's robotics. In an interview, she told why she was disappointed in diplomacy, how she forced herself to take a fresh look at mathematics and hi-tech and gave advice to those who plan to work in another country.
- Veronica, you started your career as a student of Bachelor program in the School of International Relations, and today you work in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence. How did it happen?
- When I graduated from high school, I just returned from studying in the USA and was interested in American culture and relations between Russia and the USA, which were quite good then. Therefore, without thinking twice, I went to study North American studies at the School of International Relations. But in the third year I began to become disappointed: layers of bureaucracy and a high degree of inefficiency in international relations confused me. And it so happened that just in my third year I received a scholarship and went to study at Babson College for six months — in a small but very respected university near Boston, known for strong business programs. Then, against the background of a fairly traditional study of international relations, the business world fascinated and attracted me: everything seemed logical, with a very short chain of action-result. Professor William Coyle, who later taught at GSOM SPbU, told me about the master's program. In the fourth year, I went to several open events and absolutely fell in love with what the GSOM was offering. I have no doubts that I need to enter GSOM SPbU, and I'm still very glad that I made it.
- What have you received at GSOM?
- GSOM SPbU is probably one of the most valuable stages of my education and growing up. First of all it is because of the people who surrounded me. My teachers and classmates gave me an incredible impetus to development. Until now, my classmates are some of my closest friends. We are friends of families now, the guys continue to motivate me and I delight in what paths for self-development they choose and how they build their careers.
We have a photograph that we took at the end of the first master's course on the fourth floor of GSOM SPbU. Last April, we were all in Rome at an unofficial reunion and again took the same photo.
- Immediately after graduation, you went abroad to work in the travel conglomerate TUI. Why did you choose this company, what other options were there?
- I can’t say that at the end of GSOM I had a clear understanding of what I want to do. Like many, I was interested in marketing, my master's thesis was devoted to this, and I began to look for work in this area. I wanted to start building my career in Europe. I thought: if I start working in Europe, then I can return to Russia. To start in Russia and then transfer to Europe then seemed to me much more difficult. Although now I understand that this is not so, still do not know which of these paths is more effective. I had job offers from L'Oréal and BAT (British American Tobacco) in Russia, I got to the last round with Google and Beiersdorf in Germany. I also had an interview with TUI, the world's largest tourism conglomerate. They had the opportunity to work for one and a half years in five countries in five different departments of the company. I chose this "international opportunity". Plus, I somehow immediately felt that the culture of those people who interviewed me was close to me. Fortunately, I received an offer from them, and then I started working in the field of tourism and travel.
- It turns out that you started becoming interested in technology after graduation?
- Yes, and if I could return to my student years, I probably would have done some things differently. At that time, I had a false prejudice that finance and mathematics are very difficult, and, no matter how stupid it may sound, it’s not a girl’s business. I thought it was easier for girls to work in marketing and HR. I had the same thing with technology: like many people, I was afraid of technical subjects and thought that work in this area was only for graduates of the Physics and Mathematics Department. But I began to go to professional meetings. Of course, they were rather male-heavy, as a rule, only 20% of those present were girls, but that didn’t bother me. Firstly, I realized that in order to understand technologies, I do not need a bachelor's degree in physics, and secondly, I received a huge impetus for development. Now I am very pleased to learn what I consciously avoided at the Bachelor program. And I really want the girls today to not think that the world of technology is complex or boring, and their path is marketing or HR. It is not true.
- Maybe you have tips on how to quickly gain knowledge in a subject that you have not studied before?
- First of all, go in for self-education. Today there are cool, free or completely inexpensive resources for self-education, which there were not 5 years ago. If you are interested in artificial intelligence, go to Udacity. If you want to learn something about robotics and data science, start at McKinsey, BCG and Bain, read their publications.
The second is to ac which helped me. When I applied for my current position, four more people were also fighting for it, including those with a technical background. When I started the interview, everyone in my company already knew me as a person who is very interested in technology and innovation, organized conferences and meetings on this topic, who tells everyone about it, and probably knows something about it. It turns out something like fake it till you make it.
Of course, there are specialties in which you will never be accepted if you do not have a technical education. But there are so-called “gray zones”: in the description of the position, knowledge of the subject appears as a strong plus, but if your future boss understands that you are very interested in this subject, you know the basic concepts and want to develop in this direction further, this could outweigh the lack of diploma.
- Returning to your career, you have worked at TUI for more than four years, discovered a lot of new things and grew as well. What has happened next? Why did you start to work at Deloitte?
- There were two reasons. Firstly, by that time I had been working at TUI for almost five years, and I wanted a new challenge, I wanted to see what else there is in the business world. Secondly, at that time I had already settled enough in London, and the "lights of the big city" began to attract me. I was very attracted to City - the business and financial center, if not of the whole world, then at least of Europe. I really wanted to become part of it, sit in a large glass office, wear a suit for work and rush somewhere in the morning with a cup of coffee.
- And how long did you enjoy wearing suits and other paraphernalia of “serious people”?
- You know, I still enjoy it. When I finished my first project for British Telecom and the Financial Times wrote about it the same week, of course, I was pleased. The name of the project I worked on was on the front pages of newspapers, and I made A, B, and C on this project. The City of London has very strong energy.
- Tell me, please, what are you doing at British Telecom right now?
— My role is called Lead specialist in Intelligent Automation. Most of the time I have been implementing what is called robotics process automation (RPA, business process robotization). This is the first real part of artificial intelligence and automation, which is now entering the mainstream and which corporations are actively using. My job is to implement RPA in British Telecom. This is the first part, the second is the search for the next element, which we will introduce in terms of automation and AI (artificial intelligence).
- That is, the second part of your work is strategic planning?
- Yes. There are two main topics here: the first concerns data and data science, the second is virtual assistants, chat bots and the extension of what we call virtual workforce. In our company, we plan to develop these areas at the same time, but in many companies data science and data use are much more developed, especially where there is data lake — a collection of all existing company data. We have jokingly called this data swamp — a lot of data, but they are not so well indexed and in order for data swamp to become data lake, this data needs to be cleaned.
- Can you give an example of the introduction of RPA in British Telecom?
- Of course. It so happened that one of our suppliers stored invoices of our customers on their server for 7 years. And we had a choice — to start paying tens of thousands of pounds a year for this storage, or transfer invoices manually to our servers. According to our estimates, 30 people should have been doing this full time. Hiring 30 people for 3 months of work, given the high labor costs in London, is a bad idea, and the employee who faced this problem turned to our team. As a result, 13 robots worked 29 days around the clock and moved all invoices to British Telecom servers. We finished work in less than a month, avoided fines for inappropriate data storage and annual checks of not tens of thousands of pounds.
- Veronica, talking with you, I have absolutely no feeling that a stern businesswoman is sitting opposite me. You are a calm and cheerful person, you look fresh and happy. How do you manage to find a balance?
- Thanks, Roma! Over time, you learn to perceive things much more calmly. But this is rather the result of all the difficulties, conflicts, tears and nervous breakdowns at work that have already occurred. Leaving work for emotional health in England is not uncommon. In my teams, this has happened more than once. Furthermore, this has happened to people pretty close to me. I understand that work is an important part of my life, I can't imagine myself not working and not doing anything, but this is only one part. You need to learn to take care of yourself.
- Have you learned?
- I am quite a pragmatic and straightforward person, and in the first years of my career I was worried that maybe I need to be a little softer in communication. But at some point, I just stopped apologizing for my values and views. I had moments when I was so disappointed either in the team or in the common goal that I came to work and was ready to quit at any moment. But it was precisely in those periods that I had the greatest career growth, because I stopped endlessly thinking about how to do something right. I understood that I had nothing to lose and spoke directly and openly. And people, in fact, were interested to know what I thought about the problem. Therefore, my first advice is to be yourself.
The second, as they say in many fashionable coaching studies, your life is a stool that has three legs — family, friends and work. If you have a terrible day, or even a month at work, you can sit down with your friends and dump it all on them, talk, they will support you and understand, the same thing with family.
And the third — you need to have sports and remember about your health. After 30-40 years you work a lot, there may come a moment when in terms of the career you want and know so much about, but you are forced to downshift simply because health does not allow you to move on. After all, none of us wants to burn up after 40 years and go to Thailand to fish.
- Veronika, can you give some advice to the alumni who are facing relocation and work in a new country?
- Firstly, I would advise you not to create unnecessary stress. Everything will work out in the best way. Moving to a new country is always quite difficult: even if you have already studied abroad, moving to work somewhere is much more difficult. In any case, you will have problems at the very beginning. There will be days when someone foolishly jokes about Russia or about your accent, or the manager says that you behaved too bluntly at the meeting. All this will happen, just know that this happens to everyone in time, and you don’t need to worry too much about it. Take it easy.
Secondly, I would advise building relationships with people in the new “Homeland”. Often, immigrants live in a new country for 5-10 years, and on their birthday they still mostly invite compatriots. It seems to me that the efforts to create relations with the “natives” are very valuable. This is not always easy. The British, for example, do not invite you to their homes on first days, month or years of friendships. But these relationships ultimately allow, among other things, a better understanding of the culture, and at some point you begin to feel at home, having received at home-made Mince pies or Christmas pudding and realizing that the country in which you felt like a guest, already has become little more of your own.