Notes from the 6th Tech Sisters’ networking event

29 March 2013

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Our 6th networking event must have been the first to have foreign speakers present, but that doesn’t mean the local ones were any less exciting. If you didn’t have a chance to come by this time, here’s a short account of what you missed!

Oksana Naidjonova. Photo by Katrin Loodus.


First up was Oksana Naidjonova from Skype. She’s currently senior IPE (international project/product engineering) Lead at the Skype division in Microsoft. To understand, what does that cryptic title mean, let us start from the beginning.
Although Oksana spent her childhood close to Tallinn, she didn’t have the vaguest idea about the world where Estonian was spoken, since she only heard Russian in the neighborhood. At the same time, her mother was teaching Russian in an Estonian school and Oksana’s grandma used to teach Chinese during the Soviet time. Oksana’s uncle (do correct me if I don’t remember it correctly) was a sailor and told her about all those far away nations and different people all around the world. That made little Oksana wonder how can the world work so well if everyone is so different.
By the time she was ten, she had gone through most of the linguistics-related literature her family had at home. She was going to an Estonian school and by the age of 13 her Russian, Estonian and English were good enough to start her own little translating business on the Web. Because, well, you can be anyone on the internet and nobody knows you’re only 13 year old schoolgirl.
After graduating came the moment she had to decide on her future plans. Plan A was to become a pilot. Well, that didn’t happen, but plan B wasn’t that bad either - she ended up studying Russian and Slavic philology at Tartu University. After all, she was so keen on languages, why not use the chance to learn about a few in depth. Unfortunately, by the end of the first year, Oksana was already bored. Imagine starting your studies at an university, only to find out that you’ve already read all the necessary literature… when you were in elementary school! So this is how diligence pays off.
Oksana decided to abandon Tartu and the university for a while and returned to Tallinn to start working at Tupperware. Her job title was translating coordinator. She had been translating the whole time she was in the uni, so this was already something she was very comfortable doing. Already back then, Oksana was interested in more than just words - she noticed the context and saw that translating isn’t enough to make something work on a global scale. For example, Tupperware catalogs included photos of dishes and meals that were unknown in Estonia. This doesn’t obviously improve sales.
She continued to translate on her spare time, while working at Tupperware, which meant that she was working about 8+8 hours a day. This is when she noticed the blue ads all around the city that invited people to apply for a position at Skype. Well, that looked exciting. But she was slightly intimidated as well, because, after all, she was only 21 years old and didn’t have an university diploma. But she applied and after four interviews, she got the job. Skype had this pure startup vibe back then and a lot of translating work had been done by volunteers. All good, but the quality wasn’t as even as it should and could have been. Oksana took matters in her own hands and she was soon promoted from translation quality manager to team lead. She began searching for partners all around the world, to adapt Skype to everyone’s local needs. Just think about how varied are the ways people address each other in different cultures. In Estonia you might use the given name, in China that would be unheard of. How many new users would you get when trying to sell Skype in Middle-East, using half-nude women wearing bikinis? Things don’t work the same everywhere and translation is only a part of adapting Skype to different cultures and customs. This in turn has a huge influance on the success of the product.
And this is how Oksana’s team grew to become the localisation team, that in turn grew into an international team.
She couldn’t share any big screw-ups with us, but one fail she did tell us, was about one Microsoft Windows product package. It included a world map, but a few pixels had been messed up, which meant that the border between South Korea and North Korea wasn’t exactly how it should’ve been. Microsoft had to call back all the packages.

Merle Lindma. Photo by Katrin Loodus.

Our next guest was Merle Lindma, who’s currently the human resources manager at Skype Estonia. Her previous work experiences include being HR at Microsoft and working in business industry, although according to her university diploma, she should’ve been math and physics teacher. Since she’s not an IT person, her task in the hiring process is to find out how passionate is the applier and what kind of attitudes they have.
I think her life and career philosophy can be summarized with the same quotes she used in her own talk.

  1. Everyone has the right to choose where and what to do. When it comes to human resources, it goes two ways - just like the people who have to decide whether to hire someone or not, the potential employee should know what and where they want to do.
  2. You don’t live forever. Merle came to this realisation when she got 40 and this is when she abandoned her career in banking. She had always loved people, so a position in Microsoft’s human resources wasn’t something very unexpected.
  3. You can’t be smarter than you are.
  4. People hire attitudes and values, not necessarily skills. Values are something that you either have or you don’t, unlike skills that can be taught and learnt. When looking for a job, make sure you share the same values as the company you are interested in applying to. Even if you get hired, while not sharing the same attitudes as the employer, you can’t deceive yourself for a long time, it will come out eventually and then everyone will be unhappy.
    Think about it the next time you’re at an interview and you are asked to give three good reasons why you should be hired and three reasons why you shouldn’t be hired. Take it as a good chance to show off you values and maturity.
  5. You are your own greatest creation.
  6. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

A subject that came up in connection with women, was the enormous gender pay gap in Estonia (it’s around 30% these days). That means that women earn on average 70% of the men’s wage. Lots of people and institutions can be blamed for that, but the fact is that women ask less than men. According to Merle, women can ask as much as 20% less than men, while Oksana added that the percent can be as big as 40. Why is that? Is it because women prefer less risky behaviour and therefore are willing to accept being paid less, if it increases the chances to get the job? It will take a very long time for things to change if women won’t take that risk and won’t learn to evaluate their skills and worth adequately. Take the time to do some research: how high are the wages in the sector you are interested in, how much do the people on similar positions earn etc. There are companies who are going to pay you as much as they planned for the wage on a certain position, even if you asked for less, but don’t take that for granted, yet.

I personally think people like Merle are the reason why you should come to our networking events instead of reading about it later. I have trouble putting her positive and inspirational aura in words, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t leave anyone indifferent.

Sesselja Vilhjalmsdottir and Vala Halldorsdottir. Photo by Katrin Loodus.

Last but totally not the least were Vala Halldorsdottir and Sesselja Vilhjalmsdottir, the creators ofThe Startup Kids documentary. As you probably already know, they’re Icelandic entrepreneurs with a passion for entrepreneurship and tech. This time they had a bit more time to talk about their entrepreneurial adventures than after the film screening on Monday.

First there was the economical crisis that hit Iceland in 2008 and 2009. Vala and Sesselja had gone to school together and when Sesselja came back from the US in 2009, they came up with a boardgame idea. The girls explained that boardgames are super popular in Iceland especially during the Christmas season. This is why they put all their effort in releasing the game before the holidays. They used every thinkable and unthinkable way to get enough money to produce the game in China. The stakes were high, because even their grandmas chipped in and who would want to disappoint their grannies during the festive season!? Obviously no one. So, everyone involved held their breath and just five days before Christmas the boardgame arrived from China. It was sold out during the next five days!

Their next adventure was producing “The Startup Kids”. Vala and Sesselja got funding from the European Union and bought one-way tickets to New York. Their initial goal was to concentrate on the differences between entrepreneurship in Europe and the US. Vala and Sesselja visited New York, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Copenhagen and Stockholm and conducted around 80 interviews (14-15 made it to the final cut). At one point they ran out of money, which led them to upload the movie trailer to Kickstarter to find additional funding. Maybe things hadn’t gone as well as they did, if TechCrunch hadn’t published an article about the movie and its producers (one reason behind the decision must have been the fact that the guy at TechCrunch was featured in the movie himself). Anyway, it only took five hours to get enough funding to continue shooting the movie.

The movie turned out to be a great way to learn about founding and running a start-up. They used the know-how they had acquired to found their own start-up. It’s an iPhone app that could be described as a real life Sims game. The app turns the user’s life into a game: instead of checking in locations, you check in actions, you acquire new skills and have to balance them. So you could say Vala and Sesselja’s activities are aimed to gamifying real life.

When talking about their future plans, the girls said they want to continue with “The Startup Kids’” brand, but the two of them won’t be enough to run all this anymore. So we can anticipate more people getting involved in perhaps producing similar movies, like “Startup Asia” or even “Startup Estonia”. Anyway, it looks like we should be keeping our eyes on their doings, because looks like they have a lot of interesting to offer in the future.

I promised a short account in the beginning, oops. Sorry for letting you down if you came here for a quick overview. I just got carried away while recalling the stories of those inspirational ladies and, as a philologist myself, I got especially immersed when writing about Oksana’s story.

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