Within the framework of the Psychology in IT course, first-year students of the Computer Science faculty at the Higher School of Economics (Moscow) are given the task of interviewing a top manager from a company working in the IT sphere. The task is highly creative and provides lots of freedom of action. On the one hand, the students could just follow the path of least resistance and, for example, simply make up an interview. On the other hand, it is a great opportunity to get better acquainted with a large company and its professionals, to find out how it works and question someone from the industry. That’s what Alexander Proskurin, a student specializing in Applied Mathematics and Informatics, decided to do.
- What do you like about your job?
The international IT security business is a very interesting sector. It touches just about everything: from the technologies that protect our digital systems from cybercrime, the development of international business, and aviation, to interaction among new business partners and the cultures and traditions of the world. In addition, we render regular assistance to law enforcement agencies by providing advice and technical expertise in investigating cybercrimes. Without us it would be very difficult to catch a great many criminals. This work is really challenging because we often have to deal with very advanced, savvy criminals, and in fact we become participants in detective stories. And we’re helping to make the world a better place.
- What kind of difficulties do you face?
My biggest issue personally is a catastrophic shortage of time. I want to do as much as possible, but there are only so many hours in a day – and days in a year – to implement all my plans. The more successful the company becomes, the more I’m flying here and there all over the world – meaning there’s less time I get to be at home. And as regards the company as a whole, one particularly persistent difficulty it has always faced throughout its existence actually comes from a very positive thing – its very rapid growth: a consequence has always been a lack of office space.
- How do you overcome these difficulties?
That’s a very general question, so it’s difficult to give an exact answer. Problems are solved as they arise, each in a different way, but it’s important to never give up. We all face hard times every now and then, but we overcome all the tricky issues sooner or later. I prefer them to pass by as quickly and smoothly as possible. If there are problems or difficulties, you just need to take a step back or divert your mind. Work can be very helpful in that sense, especially if you love it.
- What role does proper communication play?
It plays one of the most important roles. In order to succeed, you not only need to know how to do something very well – better than anyone else does – but you should be able to convey the result to the rest of the world. Thus, personal communication skills and the ability to present our technologies, our products, and our company in its entirety are key factors to our success.
- Could you please give an example of a situation when communication skills helped in the implementation of a complex project?
Any complex project involves constant communication and the participation of different departments that aren’t necessarily based in the same office, or even in the same city or country. Therefore, while working on the project, it’s important to know and consider the mentality and traditions of other countries. This is especially true of so-called ‘exotic’ cultures and languages.
- Who are the most difficult to communicate with (colleagues, customers), and why?
Geographically, the Japanese. Their way of thinking is very different. Of all the Asian countries, Japan is the most unusual and difficult for us in terms of business development. There are situations when it’s very difficult to understand the position of the other side, its motivation. At the same time, it’s a wonderful country – one I love to visit, which I do, several times a year.
- What do you do to achieve mutual understanding and find a solution?
Special effort is rarely required to achieve mutual understanding, because our partners and customers are normal, reasonable, understanding people and companies. So, situations where there’s a lack of understanding are uncommon. If it does happen, we just sit down and talk and try to examine the nature of the disagreement, look closely at the arguments, build a dialogue, and try to understand the other side while looking for ways to convey our position to them.
- What aspects of your work require an understanding of psychology and law?
Easy – the fight against cybercrime. In order to succeed, we can’t just develop good products and technologies and create anti-virus labs. We also need to understand the logic of our enemy, its goals and motivation. This is one of the most interesting aspects of our work.
- What do you consider a key skill of a successful software engineer?
Perhaps this doesn’t apply just to software programmers: the ability to learn and work hard. I love to work. Programming means learning and developing continuously. If, for some reason, you stop doing it for a couple of years, you’re out of the game. You have to start from scratch. So here, as in any other business, it’s important to keep moving forward.
- What advice would you give to a novice software engineer?
Determine straightaway what you’d like to be and what direction you’d like to move in: to become an outstanding specialist – an advanced developer or expert in your field – or to climb the career ladder and go into management. Both of these models are worthy of respect and offer opportunities for self-realization, but they are different roads. You should be constantly learning and improving your knowledge and skills, though in slightly different ways: either as a technical expert, or as a technical manager. The main thing is to not be afraid of making mistakes, experimenting or being prepared to work hard.
- As a graduate of the Specialized Educational and Scientific Center (at Moscow State University), I’d like to know how your studies here affected your future career.
Directly and very positively. My physics and mathematics background helped me organize my thoughts and taught me how to work.
- I don’t know if you ever had to personally hire employees, but if so, what was the first thing you paid attention to (in addition to their specialized knowledge)?
Of course I have, and more than once. My favorite questions are: what’s your biggest achievement in your professional life, and your biggest failure? I like to watch people’s reactions to these questions, the way they respond, and listen to what they say. In mathematics, we call this ‘extreme conditions testing’.
- What’s your attitude toward competition programmers and their crude, ad-hoc programming style?
I respect professional programmers. In the course of their work, different situations may develop. Sometimes we need good code to run on millions of computers; at other times, we need to quickly solve an urgent problem, and so here creativity is important. In some cases a solution must be found immediately for a particular client. It appears that both skills – to carefully develop quality products, and to offer quick solutions that might contain some errors – are in demand.
- Do you think artificial intelligence is achievable? If so, how soon will we see it?
I haven’t heard a clear definition of the term ‘artificial intelligence’ that I’m comfortable with. If we’re talking about the creation of a full artificial intelligence, I don’t know when it will happen. But I hope I’ll be no longer alive when it does.
- Why did this particular field attract you? I know when you started developing antivirus solutions they weren’t as relevant as they are today.
Back in 1989, my computer got infected with a virus for the first time: the letters on the screen just began to crumble. Before that, I had only read about viruses in newspapers. I didn’t get angry, I was just curious, and wanted to understand how this infection worked. As a result, I cured my computer and I was hooked. More than a quarter of a century has since passed, but things are still getting more and more interesting for me.