From Theory to Practice: How University Education Helps Students Find Their Calling

Many graduates of Soviet schools dreamed to do three important things: create a perpetual-motion engine, a teleporter, and a time machine. The then tenth grader Leonid Vakhrameev, like the majority of his peers, grew up on the science fiction novels of the Strugatsky brothers. Today, the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Intersvyaz is launching a time machine and sending readers to the time when he was an upperclassman choosing his future profession. What to become: a doctor, like his mother? Or an engineer, like his father? He relates why he chose the Institute of Engineering and Technology (SUSU) and never regretted this decision. How he was building a thermal power plant in Moscow during his summer internship. And how he was placed on a job on the North after university. In his interview, Leonid Vakhrameev tells us about how important it is to choose the correct university.

Money Isn’t Important

— Today’s applicants are deciding where to enrol after school. What, do you believe, motivates modern graduates? The desire to earn a lot of money?

— You’re mistaken. Today, school children aren’t so mercantile; they’re not fixated on money. For them, the goal is success and interesting work. “I am doing what I want. I’m good at it. The amount I earn is secondary”. That’s the kind of thought process today’s students have. Graduates are choosing good universities, studying the university’s offerings, and focus on their prospects and in-demand professions.

If You Want to Be an Engineer, the IET is the Only Choice

— What program did you study in?

— I am an electrical engineer, I graduated from the SUSU Faculty of Energy and Power Engineering from the Electric Power Systems programme.

— When you were finishing school, many dreamed of becoming astronauts. Did you ever happen to think about going to the Moon?

— Imagine it: a 10th grade; and a classic issue of where to submit documents. My mom was a surgeon, my dad – an engineer. So I had a decision to make: go along the medical path or the engineering path. I believed that medicine was for girls. So I decided to become an engineer at Chelyabinsk Polytechnic Institute. At CPI, I liked everything from the external appearance of the building and its size to its status and the prestige of studying at one of the major and best universities in our region. In terms of my specialisation, I knew for certain that I needed to enrol as an electrical engineer. At that time, electrical engineering was the same as modern IT fields.

— Did you imagine where and who you would work as?

— In the Soviet Union, if you enrolled in the Polytechnic Institute, then you were definitely hoping to join the engineering and technical workers. Universities are not vocational training schools, they are a serious level, the intellectual elite. You study, obtain your specialisation, and then you decide where to go work. It’s more correct to say that your country decided that for you: they placed you on a job to this or that city or enterprise where you were most needed for that moment.

— Was it easy to enrol at university?

— For me, the most frightening exam was Russian. I passed mathematics and physics with excellent marks without any special additional training, but got a C for my essay, and I was happy it wasn’t a D. My scores were sufficient. The contest then was five people for one vacant place.

“Learn to Be a Good Person”

— Was it difficult to study? What scores were most frequent in your gradebook?

— Student years are the golden years. And grades are by far not the most important thing. The most important thing in the institute and in life was to learn to be a good person.

— How do you understand this concept?

— The correct kind of person is definitely not a social climber. In our time, the words “leader”, “career”, and “ambitions” had a negative connotation. In people, we valued such qualities as the ability to be honest, keep your word, and be decent so that people respected you.

— Student years are more than just training. You always remember your friends and time spent together. How full was your life outside of the lecture halls?

— In my school years, as an upperclassman, I was interested in science: mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. My friends and I were always blowing things up, making tear gas, creating little bombs. Even hooligans were scared of us. In university, my interest in science remained. They thought I was quite smart and even kept me on at the Department. Tourism was then added to my circle of interests. Climbing Sugomak mountain in winter and summer, traveling to work the fields, singing songs to the guitar, vinyl records – all of these are excellent memories. At some point the new album by Pink Floyd was released. Someone brought it from Moscow to listen to it, just for one night. My classmates and I gathered in the dormitory, we sat and listened while making some drawings and soldering disco lights, like real electrical engineers.

On-the-Job Training Is the School of Life

— Today, SUSU is taking a practical approach to education. Was this tradition born in your student years?

— We were regularly sent to practical training at enterprises around our country. After our third year, many students went to join construction crews, but three of my classmates and I chose Moscow, we wanted to build a thermal power plant. We worked there and gained life and professional experience. We had no one close – no acquaintances, no family.

— What did you do exactly?

— I worked as a fitter, welder, and climber. After one month, I was named deputy foreman because I understood schematics well. A team of eight men was under the leadership of a second year student. One day, the brigadier got sick and left me as the acting brigadier. And a 19-year-old student, I supervised the construction of a thermal power plant for a whole week.

— Did it go well?

— I didn’t make any mistakes, I spoke honestly. The brigade trusted me and listened, so everything worked out.

— Was there any desire to not just head the construction of a TPP, but make some discovery of your own?

— There were three things that were considered important: teleportation, time machines, and perpetual-motion engines. All of us dreamed of inventing one of these things. At that time, the Strugatsky brothers were popular, so everyone was dreaming about fantastic, high-tech ideas.

— Nonetheless, you didn’t want to work in science?

— After defending my qualifying paper, I had a few alternatives for employment. First, the university asked me to stay at the Department. Second, I was called to work at Chelyabenergo. Both were considered prestigious. However, I turned down these tempting options.

— Why?

— I decided that office work wasn’t for me. A full troop of eight of us came to an agreement and went on job placement to the North – to Tyumenenergo in Surgut. Unexplored lands, no roads, people flying helicopters, the taiga, bears, the northern lights, 200 km to the nearest town and minus 40 degrees Celsius outside… There was a great need for workers in those distant areas. All roads were open to young specialists with a degree. I was sent to the town of Sentyabrskiy, to the 101st kilometer, where 1.5 thousand former convicts lived. I assure you, it was never boring. After two weeks of work, I was named the master, and six months later – the boss. That was my school of life. To this day, I tell my colleagues: ‘If you want to become a real man, go to the North’. 

— You weren’t pulled towards civilization?

— After three years of working in the taiga, I returned to Chelyabinsk, to my parents. I got a job at TPP-2 as an engineer in the electrotechnical laboratory, and after half a year, I returned to the North and stayed there for 10 years. I was much more bored in the city. Over one day of work at the TPP-2 I could drink up a whole teapot of tea. You can imagine how this work went. In the North, there was absolutely no time for drinking tea.

Do What You Must, and What Happens, Happens

— What condition was Intersvyaz in when you joined the company?

— The history came together in a circular plot. In 1997 I came to South Ural State University in Chelyabinsk. The company Intersvyaz and its servers sat on the eighth floor of SUSU (all seven people were graduates and postgraduates of the university). At that time, the Internet didn’t exist. In its place we had the X.25 data transfer system. A couple banks used the company’s services.

— You bet on something abstract, little-understood, and you guessed correctly?

— I came from the North with a certain amount of capital saved up. I understood that I needed to invest in business for my work to begin to bear fruit. I invested everything I had. We bought equipment and began to build the infrastructure. I distributed different roles among just seven people: you’ll be the head engineer, you’ll be the communication centre chief, you’ll be the chief of security. Plus, we need a newspaper and an editor. Slowly, we began to develop. At some moment, the university became too small for us. We changed our registration and the company began to develop towards offering services to individuals.

— Your partnership with the university continues today. How do you support SUSU students?

— One of the reasons I chose Intersvyaz at that time was that this was a little-understood but very promising and emerging field which needed constant development and promotion. Right now a very similar situation is occurring with the Smart City system, with the Internet of Things, and many other fields. When we were Internet providers, and then operators, we intuitively understood that the Internet would reach all corners. In 2015, these expectations became reality, and we needed to take the next step. Then, ahead of its time, Intersvyaz initiated a joint project with SUSU, becoming an industry partner of the university, and we began to invest in IT specialists.

— What is the goal of investing in future specialists and their projects?

— Three years ago, it still wasn’t really clear what specific goals we were moving towards, and what sense there was in investing in something abstract. Last year, when they began speaking about digital economy and smart cities at the governmental level, our prospects and directions of development became absolutely clear. This is exactly what SUSU students work on in our laboratories: they conduct experiments, fulfil their own projects, and implement their own know-how.

Breakthrough developments are already being used in various fields: electrical engineering, utilities, medicine. Such services as “Video Intercom”, “Speak to Utilities Companies”, “Free Wi-Fi”, “Video Surveillance”, “Set up a Doctor’s Appointment”, and the “Gorod” system are very popular. And this isn’t the limit of what’s possible. Our scientific potential is only growing. We understand the direction we are headed, what products we’ve created, and which products we’re scaling up. Today, 80% of apartment buildings’ entrances open from smartphones, and smart parking lots are appearing. This is the future.

— What will be the next step?

— We are developing a project under the codename AO2. Since IT companies work in the context of an Internet arms race, we need to have our finger on the pulse. Right now, students are working on systems for monitoring the environment, computer vision, and machine learning in our laboratories. All of this seems beyond the realm of reality. The Internet of Things is a field that the university is actively promoting. At the same time, SUSU is developing its scientific potential and the project-based training of students. Up to 20 IT specialists and programmers can participate in each project, so it is 100 people overall.

The most important thing is that our company and SUSU have great desire to move forward and develop technology. Intersvyaz is lacking fundamental knowledge in certain fields, which one of the best universities in the country has mastered. And if we will develop our projects in tandem, then the whole city and region will move forward with us. There will be a place for each of us in this high-tech future.

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