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'The Role of a Teacher Is to Be a Senior Partner, not Sacred Knowledge Keeper'

'The Role of a Teacher Is to Be a Senior Partner, not Sacred Knowledge Keeper'

© Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE

After graduating from ICEF with bachelor's degree in 2017, Oleg Sobchenko re-joined ICEF as Corporate Finance lecturer. Currently an expert in financial product sales at VTB Bank’s corporate investment segment, Oleg shares why he thinks teaching can benefit bank officials,   how to avoid the frustration of not achieving the ‘successful success’, and why neural nets are unlikely to take our jobs.

You enrolled in 2013 when nothing threatened our wellbeing. What made you choose ICEF?

Cognition comes through comparison. Back then, 2013 seemed kind of a down year to me, but now it seems to have been a fantastic time. My choice of a university was driven by my interest in Economics, which was taught to my class just brilliantly. I still see modern economics as a practice-oriented discipline that doesn’t take a lot of advanced mathematical thinking to be understood.

Since Economics operates a lot of English terms, it seemed logical to me to study it in its original language. For this reason, ICEF was an evident choice. Its English-language programme is designed to provide skills for international careers in economics and finance. I am very grateful to my parents for supporting my decision. 

Did you find your studies difficult?

Challenging, to say the least. Notwithstanding that I started learning economics in grade 9. At ICEF, I realized the importance of hard work and ability to face challenges. School was easy, ICEF was mind-blowing. It taught me determination. Our students are very ambitious. Many of them hold prizes from academic contests and high score in the Unified State Exam score. Many are confident users of English. An environment like this, with intense competition, stimulates to work harder every day, providing a valuable foundation for life and career. 

There’s one ground rule I learned at ICEF: if you are looking to get ahead faster than others, you’ve got to push yourself harder than others

When you are 18 and just started university, there’s so much to be learned and understood. What students feel in the first few months is emotional overwhelm. And HSE, as a world-class university, plays a great role in their becoming mature and responsible. It has cool students and cool teachers to guide their interests. HSE now has a beautiful new campus. I envy the current students their new environment. It's a pity I can’t be there every day because of the pandemic.

I can still remember how our teachers asked us, newly enrolled students, to be on first-name terms with them, as if they were our friends. That was an absolute pattern interrupt. I had imagined the university teacher-student communication to be far more formal and conservative. HSE was like an unknown galaxy in this sense, where giving your opinion is not only possible, it is welcome.

© Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE

I have been teaching at ICEF for five years now and I keep saying that the role of a teacher is to be a senior partner, not sacred knowledge keeper. The teacher is someone who has passed the same path as the student, only that they did it earlier and are now more knowledgeable. The teacher is meant to guide their students and be there to help, but the rest is up to students themselves. This awareness of the responsibility for your learning progress is another advantage that our students experience first-hand. 

How would you define the primary goal of a teacher?

During the pandemic, self-education is the most critical skill. The teacher of today is no longer the teacher delivering portions of material at the blackboard. To me, personally, students’ motivation is important: I see my role here as inspiring interest. Couple of classes per week is too short a time to discuss even the essentials, and there’s the goal of stimulating in students the desire to learn more when they leave the classroom. 

What influenced your professional self and your choice of specialization?

It wasn’t until my third year that I starting thinking seriously about my career – I was too preoccupied with my vibrant student life. When the time came to make choices, I enrolled in the internship programme run by one of the Big Four companies and its corporate finance team. Those first weeks of the internship in the Moscow City office and its inspiring atmosphere played a decisive role in my choice of corporate finance as my current specialization.

Why is it so important for ICEF students to get into the big four or the big three or multinationals in general?

It’s not the international status that comes first. There are great employers in Russia, too. The thing is that young people seek to be employed by companies they know will have the setting where they can learn a lot, especially when their piers have already made some noticeable progress on the professional side or are planning to do so because they have competencies satisfactory to both Russian and international companies.

When awesome deals get mentioned to you from your first day at ICEF, it becomes your motive to experience them first-hand

Not only does an internship in a large company teaches skills, it instills the understanding of workflows and what it means to be result-oriented and responsible. 

Doesn’t sound easy for a student’s mindset geared toward earning grades. In this sense, internships help erase the usual perception and they set the bar higher for you. Knowledge will start to take shape as you begin distributing tasks for yourself and your team on a daily basis. But the first experience is best when it is gained in favorable environment.

What if the ‘successful success’ doesn’t happen? Students who don’t get an offer from their dream company are often very frustrated.

This happens quite often, unfortunately. I think, whatever work we do, we should do it well, setting achievable aims for ourselves and attaining them steadily to finally surpass an older version of ourselves. 

About Oleg Sobchenko:

In 2017, Oleg graduated from HSE ICEF – University of London bachelor’s programme with First Class Honours. As a student, he was a member of HSE swimming team and earned ICEF three wins. Oleg joined VTB Bank in 2018 and combines his current job as an associate in Financial Products Sales with teaching Corporate Finance course at ICEF since 2017.

I always tell my students to think beyond their major – it’s a changing world we are living in. Studying at HSE comes with lots of skills that will certainly come in handy in other fields. What you are learning now is certainly important, but if you choose to study, say, music or psychology, using the same analytical approach and same level of self-discipline, you stand every chance to succeed. 

Did you ever think of leaving finance industry?

I never really feel like I wanted to leave. I feel absolutely fine in big companies and in my current role, being a part of structured processes with clear goals and objectives and where performance timing is important. Starting my own business sounds too risky. I’m not into it. 

© Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE

What prompted you to start teaching?

Both my parents were trained to be teachers. So, this may have prompted me to take up teaching as well. I started teaching in my third year at ICEF, when it started its evening school. The course I was delivering comprised units in macro- and microeconomics that dealt mostly with market failures. I really enjoyed sharing my knowledge, which was evidence-based knowledge, with my class to help prepare for more advanced studies when they are university students. 

After I got a job in corporate finance, which coincided with the start of Corporate Finance course at ICEF, I chose corporate finance to be the topic of my thesis. But I wanted to go further and share my experience. Without waiting for my London exam result (Note: The University of London international examination results are announced at ICEF in August), I asked my lecturer if he thought there was a chance for me to join ICEF teaching team. After a series of interviews, in September ICEF welcomed me aboard. It was a very interesting experience. Fresh out of college, I was adapting my course for better understanding by the students.

HSE and VTB are one particular example of university-bank partnership. Where do you think partnerships like this should be improved?

I am actively working with young specialists at my bank, participating in pre-employment screening. I often hear candidates give cliché answers they’ve probably picked from lifehack blogs. Many students seem to lack the understanding of where they want to work and in what capacity. That’s because they don’t have a competent source to tell them what their future job will actually be like, since this source is nowhere in their curriculum.

Degree programmes would benefit greatly from being divided into theoretical and practice-oriented parts

The practice-oriented part should, logically, comprise courses by practicing experts of partner companies, banks, foundations, consulting companies. All practice-oriented activities are currently optional and delivered as part of evening classes. 

HSE, as a research university, is naturally working to enhance its academic status. But with more intense involvement of the practicing experts, it might be possible to have the optional practice-oriented courses delivered during daytime working hours. This would make students reconsider the importance of optional courses and stop giving up on them.

How did you career start at VTB and what makes this bank a great place for finance specialists?

At the Bank of Russia, where I dealt with derivatives, I could look at the financial markets through the regulator’s eyes. But in 2018, when sanctions hit hard, the market activity changed and some transactions became quite difficult to track.

As a derivative analyst, I was looking into the structure of transactions and their neatest execution. My duty to inform my management of the nature of those transactions involved communicating with traders in specific banks, and I liked it tremendously. I realized I was more into the communication part of transacting and final buying-in rather than market monitoring.

© Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE

This led me to start looking for a position in sales. In 2018, I joined VTB Bank financial products team, and my current job deals exactly with communication with clients and meeting their financial needs.

Is having a background from HSE an advantage in the banking sector?

The financial market has a lot of experts with a background from HSE, I should say. When you are a fresh graduate, the financial world looks immense to you. But as you start to meet people, you soon realize that this world is small. It’s always nice to hear your transaction partner mention they are graduates of HSE finance programme. It’s great and eases the communication. It helps to build rapport, both professional and personal, and has a positive effect on business. 

Every recruitment wave at VTB has a hire with a degree from ICEF. I must say that ICEF graduates always set themselves apart from the competition. Sometimes, when I and other managers are interviewing candidates online and I’m kind of half-listening, there’s suddenly someone giving convincing answers and I think they are an ICEF graduate. I look at their resume and bingo! 

Do you think cryptocurrencies are a threat to traditional banking? Will the future finance majors be able to find their place in the digital age?

A completely cashless economy is hard to imagine any time soon. It would mean a fundamental shift in our civilization. Banks do evolve, but they will definitely stay in the foreseeable future, since their role is not limited solely to payments. As complex systems, banks redistribute risks within the economy and have sole jurisdiction over this redistribution.

Students shouldn’t worry over “insufficient” fintech skills. At the basis of fintech lie conventional financial and economic instruments. There is an opinion that AI will replace analysts eventually, but I wouldn’t agree. It’s one thing when neural nets collect data and process it. It’s another when they do decision-making as decisions should be always based on personal experience and expertise. It’s too early for customer service teams to worry about robots taking their jobs: as long as clients are humans, banks won’t do without human employees.

© Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE

For now, many of us fell vexed when they have to talk to voice assistants. We sometime wish we could talk to human beings, not robots. 

Many ICEF graduates choose jobs abroad on the global market. Didn’t you ever consider wider options available to you thanks to your international diploma?  

ICEF graduates are, indeed, competitive enough to succeed both in Russia and abroad. They do have more options to choose from, based on personal preferences. But it’s important to know what you want out of life and, based on this, make decisions about your career. I do not rule out the possibility that I might move one day. Our alumni live and work in many different places, and I am glad that their fellowship is growing internationally.