— What does “Special Solutions” mean?
— It is the name of the tribe where I work. A subdivision, in other words. In turn, a tribe is subdivided into chapters, or segments. The objective of each chapter is to study the needs of various customer groups — senior citizens, young people, affluent customers, immigrants, kids and parents, security service officers, and so on.
Chapter leaders study the needs of their audience and place orders for product development. Based on these surveys, we develop a variety of service packages. My task is to interact with all the teams, understanding the needs of immigrants and young people alike; I am also in charge of developing service packages that correspond to their needs.
For instance, our affluent customers will benefit from Sberbank Premier, a premium-class service package that includes a personal manager, platinum credit cards, free SMS notifications, Skypass cards, insurance, and so on. Immigrants, however, need something else entirely: insurance for employment, a cheap mobile service to call home, and fast money transfers. Our job is to figure out how we can offer them all of the above: how to book these services in our systems, how to bill them, and which partners we need to engage. When the details have been finalised, we develop the product itself. What I do is essentially product management.
— Tribes, chapters, segments, divisions — I’m starting to get confused here.
— Tribes and chapters are our internal terms for types of subdivisions. We borrowed them from leading Western IT companies, where they have already become standard. However, if you present someone as a “tribe leader” to Russian clients and partners, there may be some confusion. This is why we use the terms “divisions” and “segments” for external communication. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter what we call them. What matters is the culture of communication, the culture of work, organisation of processes, and the products we create. Whether we are called a chapter, a cluster, or a working group is immaterial.
— How would you describe your corporate culture?
— Yesterday was my seventh anniversary at Sberbank. I came here as a sixth-year student of Bauman Moscow State Technical University, majoring in Optical Engineering.
When I joined Sberbank, I remember hesitating about how to address my colleagues — whether I should use a formal address or just their name. Today, the bank has switched to Agile: we don’t have bosses, only leaders, and communication with them should be as easy, comfortable, and painless as possible. Now we don’t have to get approval from our superior to write an email to another manager. You can approach anyone whenever you need to, simply by coming up to them and asking for what you need. The obsolete hierarchy has been made redundant, along with lengthy job titles. And that makes me very happy.
— Now that you’ve been with Sberbank for seven years, could you say a few words about the recent changes? What’s the difference between now and then?
— I have witnessed all the changes with my own eyes. Earlier, Sberbank had no procedures or clear-cut rules. I had to tread carefully because it was a challenge to understand who approves what, what the structure looks like, who I should approach with a certain problem, and whose responsibility it is. We used to have a lot more bureaucracy. Our office was located in Bolshaya Yakimanka Street, while most other departments were stationed at 19, Vavilova Street. We had to commute to multiple meetings, and then return to our office, which resulted in low general efficiency. The bank did not even use any metrics, so we had no idea whether our customers were loyal to us. Analytics was in tatters too. Whenever you launched a product, it was a daunting task to build a transparent reporting system to keep an eye on the sales, to train the network, to make arrangements with your colleagues and to work out the motivation system — everything was a challenge.
I’ll give you an example. We had to figure out how motivation works in Sberbank Premier, our programme for premium-class customers. The team’s work was organised as follows: managers had green notebooks, like schoolkids. They wrote down their progress with a pen: “Mr. Ivanov deposited 5 million roubles today…” The manager’s target was to attract, say, 50 million roubles to the bank. So he would write that Mr. Ivanov, Mr. Petrov, and Mr. Sergeev deposited certain sums. Then he would present the notebook to his superior and receive a bonus. We developed a system for automated reporting and analysis — not based on managers’ words but showing how much money each customer actually deposited and, most importantly, how much other customers withdrew in the meantime. This new transparent scheme was long overdue. It may seem rather basic. However, client managers had to move on from making notes to calling their clients and informing them: “Please be advised that we are about to introduce a new type of deposit…” This brought efficiency to a whole new level.
Last but not least, when I joined Sberbank, no statistics were available. Now we have an absolutely transparent system that enables us to see at the administrator level what is happening in any branch with any of the bank’s 86 million retail customers.
— What do the processes look like now?
— Earlier, we had to start a project to launch a new service package. What does it mean to start a project? You spend two months on paperwork, secure everyone’s approval — Financial Control Administration, risk assessment team, security team — and prove that your project is beneficial for the Bank and financially efficient. Then you present it to the committee for approval. However, even after your project has been approved and its funding secured, your resources remain limited. IT developers are scarce. If the priority of your project is slightly lower, it can lead to a delay of three or even six months. Once your project has been postponed for six months, it affects all your deadlines as well. As a result, you end up wasting another two months getting the revised paperwork approved by every committee. Such conditions made it hard to work because you wasted a lot of time on bureaucracy and on proving to everyone that you were doing the right thing.
However, there was more to it. When my project finally took off, I had to draw up a requirements list: for instance, that I needed a certain button in the interface or that a customer needed to have access to a certain banking card or plans. This list was then processed by an analyst who transformed it into a technical assignment, which was submitted to the developer team, who coded the entire thing. Three to six months later, they invited me to an acceptance test and I could finally see the result. I looked and realised that certain features needed to be revised. However, the developers already had to move on to another project. So I had to either launch the project “as is” or put off the launch even further.
Now the workflow is different. We have our own developer team and a pre-approved tribe budget. We are the ones responsible for our business result. The developers are always within reach and keep me posted about their progress, making adjustments if necessary. I don’t have to run around asking for resources; I’m fully in control of what’s going on. Consequently, the quality of our end product is drastically higher than before.
— What is your team’s attitude to work?
— In this respect, I have a favourite story to share. We work in an open space, surrounded by a lot of other teams. So we’re working, and our manager comes in and says: “Hey, how about a contest?” We say, “Yeah, fine.”
“You’ll have to do what I say. But you won’t know the specifics in advance.”
“Do what, for instance?”
“Anything. And you’ll have to do it immediately.”
“Okay. What’s in it for us?”
“The prize is a bottle of wine.”
“All right, we’re ready.”
“As soon as I clap my hands, you have to jump on the desk, raise your hands and shout: ‘I’m the man!'”
And he claps his hands right this moment. Two guys out of three jump on the desk, but the third guy is too big, so he’s afraid he’ll break the desk and he simply claps his hands and shouts the phrase. We had a laugh and got a bottle of wine each.
That’s a story I won’t soon forget. A great test of leadership and team spirit. When you have a true leader in your team, someone you are ready to follow, it always inspires you and motivates you to reach goals. This is the ultimate component of success. As our manager explained to us later, this test is often used in cutting-edge IT companies. So we are breathing down their necks.
— Young people are more likely to choose a product manager position in a vibrant, dynamic start-up developing an international product. Giant corporations do not look very appealing to young professionals. What do you think Sberbank has to offer to this group?
— The start-up market is indeed very appealing and rich in fresh ideas. The workplace conditions are flexible — you can come and go whenever you like as long as you deliver the results. Admittedly, there is a stereotype about Sberbank being a bulky, outdated, and inert structure. However, things are not so simple.
A start-up is always a gamble. Statistically, 9 out of 10 start-ups cease to exist shortly after they’re founded. If you only have a couple of long-dead start-ups in your CV (again, any start-up runs a very high risk of failure), you might find it hard to position yourself as a promising professional who has successfully completed any projects.
By contrast, Sberbank is a company with decades of history, a steady presence, and bright prospects. It is a top-ranking company, and not just in banking or IT — it offers immense opportunities of growth to professionals in many spheres and employs a multitude of experts you can learn from. Here, you can implement unique, ambitious projects end to end and watch the entire country — literally millions of people — use your creation. I am personally inspired by this. Not to mention the fact that a start-up is unlikely to offer a young professional a salary comparable to that in Sberbank.
Once you have accumulated the necessary expertise, nothing will stop you from launching your own start-up. In fact, Sberbank facilitates the creation of start-ups by running the “start-up school.” However, do not fall into the trap of survivor bias — everyone likes a good success story, while failures are normally downplayed, though they are far more numerous. For a young professional, it can be detrimental to think that you know everything better than others and your business is bound to explode. Most likely, it won’t. It’s best if you start with learning, gaining experience, and broadening your outlook. Working for a major organisation ultimately increases your chances of founding a successful business of your own.