Alina Verbenchuk obtained a master's degree from the Graduate School of Management of St Petersburg University and went to Poland to work for Google. Now Alina is in charge of operations with their European partners in YouTube. In her interview Alina shared her experience of: how she built a career in IT without a prior technical education; what the 'owner approach' is; and why one should not be afraid of taking responsibility.
You graduated from the Faculty of Asian and African Studies and then completed a master's programme in the Graduate School of Management at St Petersburg University. Could you tell us how to get to work in the IT sphere without having a technical education?
Try to get the most out of your university courses. If you feel that you are not 100% satisfied with your course, do some extra work, join a start-up. If there is an opportunity to do some practical training somewhere, go for it. It doesn't matter if you don't get paid at first. This experience and a record of it in your resume will give you a head start, especially if the job relates to the technology field. Let it be some small IT company, maybe do something that may not be your dream, but may give you good experience. For example, in my final year I joined a start-up – a very small project, but it taught me a lot as a professional, from product management to team management.
Why is it so difficult to get a job with Google?
The main difficulty is probably to make it through a huge pool of other applicants, especially if you have no references. The competition is quite high. The second challenge is to undergo an interview. Here you should be aware of the selection process at Google. I would recommend reading the book 'How Google Works'. I read it when I was already working with the company. It gives a very good description of how Google selects candidates, how the interview process goes, and how it is all built up.
Which skills and experience do you consider most useful for your work?
I used to participate in many student projects, where I took part as the main organiser, chairman or founder. I mean, I was quite entrepreneurial. I believe that the 'owner' or 'host' approach helps a lot. In English it is called 'ownership', meaning that you can assume responsibility. The further you move, the more important your leadership skills will be. In the initial positions, no one expects you to be a global leader, but in the end, the people who do more than what is required and see things in a new light are moving forward.
How can you develop ‘ownership’?
Don't expect that anybody owes you anything. Don't expect the company to come and bring you everything on a china plate, or that your manager will take care of you. Compared to Europeans, for example, we have to try harder to get some opportunities because of visa restrictions. So you shouldn't expect it to be easy. At the same time you need to be optimistic: do not give up, keep going, and develop. This is the first point.
The second point is to take responsibility for a project or undertaking. You have to take the initiative. 'Leadership belongs to those who take it'. Don't expect that someone will come and offer it to you.
Outside work, you manage to develop your own career consulting and mentoring project. Tell me how it came about and what its purpose is.
Since my graduation from the Graduate School of Management at St Petersburg University, many people have approached me with questions about how to write a resume, how to pass an interview, what to do about their career? I gradually started advising people on the Evisors.com platform. There was a demand for my skills, and suddenly I realised that, in fact, this is knowledge that is worth passing on. The second story is mentoring. I was involved in various scholarship programmes and projects where other people played a very big role. I was taught something and helped, I listened to stories and examples, and I thought 'I want to be the same!' It motivated me very much.
Mentoring is now actively developing: there is a demand for counsellors, coaches, psychotherapists and people who are interested in mental development. In my opinion, there is a need for specialists who will help you to grow professionally, like mentors. Big companies are trying to create mentoring facilities, but it’s not universal. So I came up with a project called Verbetcetera. Now we have a group of mentees who we train and prepare for working as professionals.
What inspires you in your work and what would you like to do in the future?
I am inspired when I can use my knowledge to change someone's life for the better. For example, we polished a resume for a candidate, and the person got a job at a top company. Or after a consultation, the client looks at himself in a different way and thinks: 'Wow, I'm actually doing great'. Most of the time, a lot of people are just confused: 'I was doing something...' You just have to show them: 'You did a great thing here and here, let's tell other people about it'. As a result, their morale improves and they're looking for a job in a better mood. These stories are very inspiring.
In the future, I'd probably like to have my own business, maybe in the technological field, but not necessarily. I would rather concentrate on the challenge. I am very much concerned about educational issues and problems of social mobility, i.e. education as a social elevator. To some extent, mentoring is also about these issues.
Is it possible to maintain a work-life balance in London?
Yes, quite. My workday lasts on average until 6-7 pm, but then I start on my own project. If you want to do some projects inside the company, 'launch missiles into space', you can do it, but then there is no work/life balance. The company and the team culture promote the idea that you have to be able to relax. You are among equally motivated and talented people. For example, at the Graduate School of Management at the University, everyone stayed at the library until closing time (laughing – ed.), while at work they would be sitting at their office desks. Your job is to handle this peer pressure. You have to understand exactly what your strengths are, what you want to achieve. You might need the help of a mentor for that.
What helps you take your mind off work? Do you have time for hobbies?
Well, I have less of them now, my project is my hobby. In general, dance and sports have always helped me: a dance class, the gym, or just jogging. When I went on an academic exchange programme to study in Hong Kong, I had a very good jogging track. Now wherever I choose to live, I try to be close to the park. For me, running is kind of dynamic meditation, it helps me keep my mind from work. Another thing is good literature.
Which books would you recommend?
If you want to know about the ins and outs of the IT-business, you can read 'Chaos Monkeys' by Antonio García Martínez, but it is a bit provocative. I know that many people disapprove of Ayn Rand, and although I don't quite agree with her philosophy, I like her book 'The Fountainhead'. It explores the ideas of ‘creator’ and 'ownership'. I enjoy all the Russian classics, the books for all times, and I rejoice in my heart when I read them. From the most recent books I would like to mention '21 Lessons for the 21st century' by Yuval Noah Harari. This is a book that helps you to understand what's going on in the world. It's at the intersection of social science, anthropology, politics, and economics.
What values and benchmarks do you think help you move towards your goals?
Oh, that's my favourite question. I think it is important to make the world a better place, no matter what you do, to make a difference, to stay true and honest in any situation. It is important to me to be able to create opportunities for others – that's why I am interested in education and mentoring. It is about destroying mental barriers: first your own, and then those of others.