Olga Sokolova
General Director of Linxdatacenter in Russia
21.09.2021

MBA, based on personal experience: diversity, academic approach and self-understanding

What is an MBA right now – a fundamental academic education or a course on diversity and inclusion? Why do we need an MBA today – for a new approach to business or self-development? Olga Sokolova, CEO of Linxdatacenter, answers these questions based on her own MBA experience.

Olga Sokolova
General Director of Linxdatacenter in Russia

My career path   

As a specialist in the field of data center management, I grew out of the financial industry. However, my growth and development were limited by the specifics of my education and experience. I looked at the company and the IT industry from a financial perspective. One day, I realized that I needed to develop a so-called helicopter view: a comprehensive view of the company's future.

The data center market is highly competitive, with an abundance of services and products. If you want to have a deep understanding of this challenging business, you should train yourself to have a broader view in terms of multiple business directions, such as technologies, marketing, HR, project team management, etc. And that was the main purpose I had in my mind when I applied for an MBA.

Linxdatacenter’s historical connection with the Netherlands and my awareness of the regional business culture were two main factors that greatly influenced my choice of business school. In the end, I chose to study in the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) at Erasmus University. The key point for me was to explore the historical secrets of the Dutch business acumen.

Requirements and challenges

I will be direct: an MBA course is not a pleasant pastime for general development. It is important to start the course as an established leader with profound business experience. For the younger specialists, who were my classmates, it was a challenge to be focused on the process all the time and complete the training.

My real business experience helped me understand the course content much better and learn more quickly through sharing best practices with fellow students with a similar background, even though they were from other countries with different approaches and business culture.

One thing that was quite uncommon for me as a Russian was the program’s focus on the topics of diversity and inclusion with an emphasis on women. It was unusual for me to pay an increased attention to these issues because in Russia almost all career paths have been open to women since Soviet times.

At the beginning of my training, I felt a skeptical attitude with regard to my Russian origin. However, it quickly disappeared, as soon as I started showing my first results as a team member. Moreover, all the Russians who studied at the course shared a similar experience.

It is also worth mentioning that despite my educational background as an interpreter and experience working in an international company, it was a challenge for me to process the huge amounts of data in English at the beginning of my training. It took a certain period of time to adapt to it, but everything quickly returned to normal.

It turned out to be quite easy to combine study and work. It was rather a challenge, however, to combine intensive training and work with family life. It is very important to understand that getting an MBA diploma is a family matter. It would have been impossible to cope with the program without the support and understanding of my loved ones.

What I discovered while being an MBA student 

The most important insight I got on the completion of my MBA training was the return of my faith in an academic approach as a business tool. It happened right after a course on mergers & acquisitions, which was delivered by a lecturer with no business experience. The topic was extremely engaging, since our company was acquired by a consortium of three investors, and I had observed all the analyzed cases in practice.

Despite his lack of practical experience, our lecturer examined the topic in depth, as well as conducted a number of studies on mergers and acquisitions, bringing to light the fact that 90% of all M&A projects are unsuccessful. This happens due to a lack of informed goal-setting (for example, to reduce costs or increase revenue share in a particular market segment), as well as insufficient integration at the early stages of M&A transactions.

This original course on M&A showed the possibilities of using a systematic approach in the processes of asset mergers. If you as a leader look beyond your company’s position on the market and consider several points – global and industry trends, regional specifics and market players’ positions – you get a more accurate understanding of the best ways to cooperate.

I used to make decisions based on my own experience and after consulting my team. Now that I’ve got an MBA, the path to a decision lies through analyzing trends, statistics survey and other external data. The intuitive approach to decision-making has been replaced by an informed one.

This change has led me to reevaluate Russian academic education with its aspiration for global analysis and generalizations. Yes, our experts often lack a focus on a specific area and the ability to apply their knowledge in practice. But with a deep academic foundation, it is not so difficult to master it.

In the end the essay format, so popular in MBA training, played an important role for me. Most of the tasks were based on this approach: we had to express our thoughts and assessments of various practical challenges and global trends. It left me with a very good impression in comparison to cramming and repeating other experts’ thoughts, which is widely used in Russian education.

I was also excited to experience the great efficiency of multinational teams in terms of communication. Professionals from all over the world work in their own way, based on their own habits, established patterns and national mentality.

For instance, Mexican and Brazilian professionals are sensitive to personal contacts and relationships. My Chinese classmates were undeservedly modest about their successes and achievements, relying on more experienced colleagues when solving problems. Colleagues from the US know how to do PR on a professional level and are very result-oriented. The Dutch tend to have long discussions and weigh the options before making decisions. As for the Russians, we, on the contrary, start performing the task immediately, often skipping the analysis stage. As a consequence, it can affect the results. The best possible outcome is achieved when the team consists of the professionals with the various work styles balancing each other. From my perspective, the success of so-called “diversity” in teams is achieved in such a manner.

Dispelling myths 

An MBA is not a silver bullet. No one will become Steve Jobs or Elon Musk right after the training. Of course, there are born geniuses, but as for the rest of us, we have to achieve outstanding results step by step through training and personal effort. Getting an MBA is a useful learning experience, at least for getting rid of tunnel vision.

The impact of the MBA training on my personal leadership qualities was unexpectedly strong. Along with the large amount of knowledge, the training helped me a lot in improving my leadership skills, and gaining insights into how managers from various companies, industries and regions work in one direction: it’s about team motivation, self-development, and building partner relationships.

Such a strong impact was achieved through joint projects in various teams varying by task profile and national composition. It was gained through the cooperation of the RSM with business schools in several countries, such as Miami Herbert School of Business (USA), EGADE Business School of Tecnológico de Monterrey (Mexico), School of Management, Xiamen University (China), and FGV São Paulo School of Business Administration (Brazil).

Thanks to the heavy communications practice, it became clear that almost any task can be completed when you build productive relationships with your teammates and stay in sync with them. If your colleagues and subordinates are of different genders, nationalities, ages and locations, that all helps to get outside-the-box thinking and achieve the best possible outcomes.

My new skills and key takeaways

First of all, I improved my presentation skills. Though I have been promoting the company's solutions and its brand for a long time, I felt this was a particular point of growth for me.

Secondly, networking skills: this term is commonly defined as the ability to get the right types of assistance from the right people. Over the course of my MBA training, I came up with another definition of networking. It is rather the ability to verify your decisions with the right professionals and collect their feedback into a single vision.

It allows you to get rid of the straightforward managerial approach and become a leader who knows how to attract the required talents to develop solutions of the highest quality.

The most valuable insight I gained was that in the course of the training you discover your strong points and start realizing which kind of teams and communication styles help you show them. It helps you to better understand yourself, and to get your business processes and your life in general to the proper place and with the right people.

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How we optimized customer data center management

Data center is a complex IT and engineering object, which requires professionalism at all levels of management: from managers to technical specialists and executors of maintenance works. Here's how we helped our client put operational management in corporate data centers in order.
 

Taras Chirkov, Head of Data Center in St. Petersburg  in St. Petersburg 

Konstantin Nagorny, chief engineer of data center in St. Petersburg.  in St. Petersburg 

Data center is a complex IT and engineering object, which requires professionalism at all levels of management: from managers to technical specialists and executors of maintenance works. Here's how we helped our client put operational management in corporate data centers in order.  

Management is in the lead 

The most advanced and expensive IT equipment will not bring the expected economic benefits if proper processes of engineering systems operation in the data center, where it is located, are not established.  

The role of reliable and productive data centers in today's economy is constantly growing along with the requirements for their uninterrupted operation. However, there is a big systemic problem on this front.  

A high level of "uptime" - failure-free operation of a data center without downtime - depends very much on the engineering team that manages the site. And there is no single formalized school of data center management.  

And there is no single formalized school of data center management.    

Nationwide  

In practice, the situation with the operation of data centers in Russia is as follows.  

Data centers in the commercial segment usually have certificates confirming their management competence. Not all of them do, but the very specifics of the business model, when a provider is responsible to the client for the quality of service, money and reputation in the market, obligates them to own the subject. 

The segment of corporate data centers that serve companies' own needs lags far behind commercial data centers in terms of operational quality. The internal customer is not treated as carefully as the external customer, not every company understands the potential of well-configured management processes. 

Finally, government departmental data centers - in this regard, they are often unknown territory due to their closed nature. An international audit of such facilities is understandably impossible. Russian state standards are just being developed.  

This all translates into a "who knows what" situation. "Diverse" composition of operation teams composed of specialists with different backgrounds, different approaches to the organization of corporate architecture, different views and requirements to IT departments.  

There are many factors that lead to this state of affairs, one of the most important is the lack of systematic documentation of operational processes. There are a couple of introductory articles by Uptime Institute which give an idea of the problem and how to overcome it. But then it's necessary to build the system by your own efforts. And not every business has enough resources and competence for that.  ⠀⠀  

Meanwhile, even a small systematization of management processes according to industry best practices always yields excellent results in terms of improving the resilience of engineering and IT systems.  

Case: through thorns to the relative order 

Let's illustrate by the example of an implemented project. A large international company with its own data center network approached us. The request was for help to optimize the management processes at three sites where IT systems and business-critical applications are deployed.  

The company had recently undergone an audit of its headquarters and received a list of inconsistencies with corporate standards with orders to eliminate them. We were brought in as a consultant for this as a bearer of industry competence: we have been developing our own data center management system and have been educating on the role of quality in operational processes for several years.  

Communication with the client's team began. The specialists wanted to get a well-established system of data center engineering systems operation, documented on the processes of monitoring, maintenance and troubleshooting. All this had to ensure optimization of the infrastructure component in terms of IT equipment continuity.  

And here began the most interesting part.  

Know thyself 

To assess the level of data centers in terms of compliance with standards, you need to know the exact requirements of the business to IT systems: what is the level of internal SLA, the allowable period of equipment downtime, etc.  

It became clear right away that the IT department did not know exactly what the business wanted. There were no internal criteria of service quality, no understanding of the logic of their own infrastructure.  

Colleagues simply had no idea what the permissible downtime for IT-related operations was, what the optimal system recovery time in case of a disaster was, or how the architecture of their own applications was structured. For example, we had to figure out whether a "crash" of one of the data centers would be critical to the application, or if there were no components affecting the application.  

Without knowing such things, it is impossible to calculate any specific operational requirements. The client recognized the problem and increased coordination between IT and the business to develop internal requirements and establish relationships to align operations.  

Once an understanding of the IT systems architecture was achieved, the team was able to summarize the requirements for operations, contractors, and equipment reliability levels.  

Improvements in the process 

Our specialists traveled to sites to assess infrastructure, read existing documentation, and checked the level of compliance of data center projects with actual implementation.  

Interviews with the responsible employees and their managers became a separate area of focus. They told what and how they do in different work situations, how the key processes of engineering systems' operation are arranged.  

After starting the work and getting acquainted with the specifics of the task the client "gave up" a little: we heard the request "just to write all the necessary documentation", quickly and without deep diving into the processes.  

However, proper optimization of data center "engineering" management implies the task to teach people to properly assess the processes and write unique documentation for them based on the specifics of the object.  

It is impossible to come up with a working document for a specific maintenance area manager - unless you work with him at the site continuously for several months. Therefore this approach was rejected: We found local leaders who were willing to learn themselves and lead their subordinates.  

Having explained the algorithm of documents creation, requirements to their contents and principles of instructions ecosystem organization, for the next six months we controlled the process of detailed writing of documentation and step-by-step transition of the personnel to work in a new way. 

This was followed by a phase of initial support for work on the updated regulations, which lasted one year in a remote format. Then we moved on to training and drills - the only way to put the new material into practice.  

What's been done 

In the process, we were able to resolve several serious issues.  

First of all, we avoided double documentation, which the client's employees feared. To this end, we combined in the new regulations the regulatory requirements applied to various engineering systems as standard (electrics, cooling, access control), with industry best practices, creating a transparent documentation structure with simple and logical navigation.   

The principle of "easy to find, easy to understand, easy to remember" was complemented by the fact that the new information was linked to the old experience and knowledge of the employees. 

Next, we reshuffled the staff of service engineers: several people turned out to be completely unprepared for the change. The resistance of some was successfully overcome in the course of the project through the demonstration of benefits, but a certain percentage of employees turned out to be untrained and unresponsive to new things.  

But we were surprised by the company's frivolous attitude to its IT infrastructure: from the lack of redundancy of critical systems to the chaos in the structure and management.  

In 1.5 years the engineering systems management processes have been pumped up to the level that allowed the company's specialists to successfully report "for quality" to the auditors from the headquarters.  

With the support of the operating component development pace the company will be able to pass any existing certification of data centers from leading international agencies.  

Summary 

In general, the prospects of consulting in the field of operational management of data centers, in our opinion, are the brightest.  

The process of digitalization of the economy and the public sector is in full swing. Yes, there will be a lot of adjustments in the launch of new projects and plans for the development of old ones, but this will not change the essence - the operation should be improved at least to improve the efficiency of already built sites.  

The main problem here: many managers do not understand what thin ice they are walking on, not paying proper attention to this point. The human factor is still the main source of the most unpleasant accidents and failures. And it needs to be explained.  

Government data center projects are also becoming more relevant now and require increased attention in terms of operations: the scope of government IT systems is growing. Here, too, the development and introduction of a system of standardization and certification of sites will be required.  

When the requirements to public data centers in Russia at the level of legislation will be reduced to a standard, it can be applied to commercial data centers, including for the placement of public IT resources.  

The work in this area is ongoing, we are participating in this process in consultation with the Ministry of Digital and by building competencies for teaching courses on data center operation at the ANO Data Center. There is not much experience on such tasks in Russia, and we believe that we should share it with colleagues and clients. 

MBA, based on personal experience: diversity, academic approach and self-understanding

BEST, money transfer and payments operator

business challenge

The customer faced a technical issue with a persistent BGP session flag with Linxdatacenter hardware. We examined the problem and found out that one of customer’s hosts was under a DDoS attack.

Because of the distributed nature of the attack, traffic couldn’t be filtered effectively, and disconnecting the host from the external network wasn’t an option. The attack stopped after changes in the server configuration, but resumed the day after. A 5.5 Gbps attack overloaded the junctions with internet providers, affecting other Linx Cloud users. To mitigate the effects of the attack, we employed a dedicated DDoS protection service.

Solution

To ensure the continuous availability of resources hosted in Linx Cloud, we rerouted all the customer’s traffic through StormWall Anti-DDoS system. The attack was stopped within half an hour. To prevent future cyberattacks, we organized all connections to the customer’s resources through the StormWall network.

client:

BEST, money transfer and payments operator

business challenge

The customer faced a technical issue with a persistent BGP session flag with Linxdatacenter hardware. We examined the problem and found out that one of customer’s hosts was under a DDoS attack.

Because of the distributed nature of the attack, traffic couldn’t be filtered effectively, and disconnecting the host from the external network wasn’t an option. The attack stopped after changes in the server configuration, but resumed the day after. A 5.5 Gbps attack overloaded the junctions with internet providers, affecting other Linx Cloud users. To mitigate the effects of the attack, we employed a dedicated DDoS protection service.

Solution

To ensure the continuous availability of resources hosted in Linx Cloud, we rerouted all the customer’s traffic through StormWall Anti-DDoS system. The attack was stopped within half an hour. To prevent future cyberattacks, we organized all connections to the customer’s resources through the StormWall network.

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