The following is a guest post about starting a career in Russia as an American expat by Evan Johnson.
The first part of my career in Russia started about six months before I arrived. I had a few months left in my bachelor’s degree in Russian Studies and Government at a liberal arts college. I was determined to find a way to live and start a career in Russia.
Teaching English in Russia
A friend of mine who was a year ahead of me at college and with whom I studied Russian was working at the time as an English teacher in Moscow. She and I had been talking and she mentioned that the chain of language schools where she worked hired new teachers every year. No previous teaching experience or knowledge was required, just having English as a native language and a willingness to try.
My friend directed me to submit an application on the school’s website, and soon after I had a brief interview with one of the teacher-administrators at the school, another American. I then got their standard offer to become a teacher via email, and I actually remember trying to negotiate the salary but being shot down pretty readily. I was told these were standard conditions with no room for negotiation.
This was before the ruble lost 50% of its value in 2014, so these kinds of schools always had a steady flow of applicants. Getting to Russia was my first priority, however, so I accepted this without any second-guessing. The biggest advantage of working for a language school is that they take care of everything to make the move as frictionless as possible. They provide a work visa, an apartment (or a room in a shared apartment), and training.
The moment finally arrived, and I flew to Russia on July 29, 2013. It was my first time outside of North America, and the sense of wonder I had highlights every memory I have of arriving in Russia. It was my first chance to use my (limited) knowledge of Russian to speak outside of an academic environment, so leaving the airport I peppered my taxi driver with questions and yawed on about everything I could possibly say in Russian.
After having a few days to settle in, I started the training, which was a month-long program in which several of the established teachers at the school held intensive training sessions on not only how to teach English as a foreign language academically, but how to hold the students’ attention, particularly children. It was a stressful time but ultimately helpful, and it gave most of us a good base and the confidence to handle groups of middle schoolers.
I taught for a year at this school in the Moscow suburb of Korolyov. My classes were mostly five to eight students large, with a pair of individual lessons at the school. I had nine different classes and only one of them was made of adults. I worked about 4-5 hours a day Tuesday through Saturday. Kids classes were held after their normal school finished, so I didn’t have to be at work until four in the afternoon and left around 9. Most of the kids were well behaved, and we had standard textbooks and workbooks for lessons, tests, and homework.
The curriculum was pretty much to walk the students through the book, and then add different games/activities to have them constantly talking. Teaching is a job that requires a lot of preparation, and I would always have a plan before every lesson in order to avoid dead time, which would let the attention of the class slip away from you. At the time, my contract specified that I wasn’t allowed to teach private lessons outside of the school, but this wasn’t enforced and one of my fellow teachers even made some recommendations on my behalf.
I taught three teenagers individual lessons on Monday, where I would select articles and we would read and discuss them. The money I made teaching privately on one day was equivalent to half of my salary, and I quickly understood that teaching privately is the way to go.
I enjoyed teaching, especially creating a routine and engaging all kinds of people in active conversation, so I decided to pursue it further as a way to stay in Russia. At this point, some of my Russian friends really stepped up to help me out. I wrote a Facebook post mentioning that I was now living in Moscow and looking for individual students to teach, and another of my friends re-posted it amongst his immense circle of acquaintances, leading me to several one-on-one lessons.
I also spoke with a few English schools and teaching agencies in Moscow to find a few students, including a family of three whom I each taught individually for five years in a row on the weekends. I took my job seriously and prepared lessons, articles, conversation topics, and activities for every lesson, and I had a comfortable, steady income by working no more than 25 hours a week, including travel time to the various students’ homes and offices.
Studying at a Russian University
In parallel to this, in September 2014 I enrolled in a master’s program in Change Management at a Moscow university. One of my expat friends had finished the course a year prior and recommended it to me. I was able to register and take courses for free, and the university provided a student visa for the duration of the two-year program as well as dormitory housing for about $50 a month, which was a total steal given that in these dorms you only had one roommate and the two of you had your own bathroom.
The courses were during the evening for the most part and were a grab bag of various entry-level business courses with a few courses about Russian history and politics. The program was in English, not all the courses taught me something new, but I valued them as a different perspective from my liberal arts bachelors, where I had no exposure to various business concepts and methodologies. I managed to get an internship with my finance professor who was working in a small M&A firm.
As the first year of my master’s program finished, I decided to try my hand at getting an office job. When I had worked as a teacher, I enjoyed it but I never thought that I would do it all of my life. I wanted to try something new to start finding my new path. So, I decided to lean on what stood me apart in the labor market, and I opened up HH.ru (Russia’s leading job-hunting website) and searched for any vacancies requiring “native English”.
Most of them were teaching jobs, with a scattering of translation and text-editing jobs, but one stood out – a vacancy for a PR manager at a cool sounding futuristic media group. I went in for the interview not really knowing what to expect but determined to put my best foot forward, and I was surprised to be met with questions not about my writing capabilities or PR/marketing knowledge, but rather on my views on artificial intelligence. By a stroke of luck, I had been reading about the topic over the previous weeks, and I was starting work the following week, pleasantly surprised at my good fortune.
Not Everything that Glitters is Gold
This job, however, turned out to be too good to be true. The company I was working for was ostensibly the media/PR arm of a venture fund that was investing in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, and there were so many cool themes that were being thrown around the office like futurism, life extension, and AI-predicted investments. I was directed on various projects meant to generate hype for the fund overall. As I soon learned, this hype was all being generated without any substance, as the 50+ people working there were being bossed around by the erratic “general partner” in an attempt to get more and more attention.
Things took a big turn for the worse when he decided to open up a bank, and suddenly there was equal pressure to fabricate more yet make it presentable enough to hold up to scrutiny. At the time it seemed like 80% of the work being done was on surface-level fluff like Wikipedia pages or website design, with very little of the work that a true venture fund would actually do. Things reached a head when we stopped getting paid, and I decided to quit a week before the whole thing went belly-up and the “general partner” fled Russia.
Pivot to Business Development
In January of 2016, I was in a pretty rough spot, as I was quickly running out of money due to not being paid the final two months at my previous job. But, I had “Business Development” on my resume (having been given a new title in lieu of salary during the final month at my old job), so I started applying to relevant jobs on HH. After a few weeks of speaking with various startups, few of which actually had the means to pay the salary I was asking for, I noticed a spot for International Business Development/Marketing at a digital agency that specialized in making mobile apps.
I put together a presentation about how I could use the strengths of the agency (as I found doing research online) to bring them more international clients. This preparation, combined with my communication skills and native English, impressed the interviewer to select me over candidates with better technical knowledge. The job was mine.
Working at the mobile app agency was a breath of fresh air after the chaos of my previous job and the job-hunting that followed. Even though I was the first person at the company to be focused outside of Russia, everyone there made me feel like a real part of the team. My boss in particular went the extra mile, assigning me a number of projects to interview/shadow different people in the company and read books on strategy and startups to get a solid sense of the overall business of the agency.
The sense of personal development tied into a stable routine was exactly what I wanted, and a steady paycheck didn’t hurt. However, looking back, there was a key flaw that would later become obvious – nobody really had a good plan on how to sell the agency’s services internationally. The agency was winning clients in Russia quite easily, but companies in other countries largely preferred to use local agencies due to the close communication required in turning an idea into a well-designed and functioning app. We tried various things from both a sales and a marketing perspective, but nothing seemed to stick. After working there for 8 months, I was let go, but there were no hard feelings.
It was October 2016, and I should mention that throughout all of this time I was still teaching the family whom I had mentioned earlier, so I had been able to build up a bit of a financial cushion. I was selective with my applications through HH, and I ended up interviewing in Russian with a large digital advertising company for an International Business Development position. Although the company itself was large and well-established within Russia, I was working on a small “startup team” of seven people to sell a tool designed to help other agencies manage ad campaigns on social media platforms.
Working on a small team brought me quickly up to speed with the product and the specific sphere of advertising it was built for, and I was soon contacting other agencies and finding my first successes in getting them interested in the product. However, it turned out that I was brought on during the waning days of this particular product, as it had lost internal support in the company at large and two of my team were suddenly let go by the end of the year, with another leaving of his own volition the next January. The guy who had gotten him that job reached out to me, and I had an interview at what would be my next and best job in January 2017.
Career Taking Off in Russia
The man interviewing me was the head of sales for a digital advertising network, and I distinctly remember the back and forth we had to be like verbal fencing. I got a job offer that evening, and soon afterward started to work in the sales team of a dozen people. There were established methodologies in place for selling to Russian clients, but a whole different perspective and skillset was necessary for international clients.
I really put my nose to the grindstone for several months before identifying exactly which companies would have the highest conversion rate to sell to. These successes, combined with the mix of camaraderie and rivalry in our sales department, led me to tinker more with my own selling techniques, and it was around fall 2017 that I really could call myself an accomplished salesman.
Over the months and years that I’ve been with this company, I’ve grown not just as a salesman but as a manager. The success I found and the trusting relationship that I built with the leadership of my company has led to me establishing various processes and training other salespeople. I began focusing on a smaller number of more valuable deals, and eventually became the head of the newly formed USA Operations department.
Currently, I am responsible for a team of six colleagues, focusing not just on sales but also client relations, analysis, and marketing. Management is a unique set of challenges and opportunities, and it has only further emphasized the importance of clear communication and detailed planning.
Advice for Starting a Career in Russia
In general, my advice to those seeking to start a career in Russia would be to not let their current perspective limit what opportunities could be open to them. I myself had no idea what a salesperson actually did when I was in college, aside from some less-than-savory portrayals of used car salespeople, but I found that my personality and skills lent themselves well to the role.
Expats looking at starting a career in Russia can have the best leverage in looking for roles that demand native English knowledge and communication skills, as by definition they will be better than the local competition. I certainly found that this gave me a leg up in my journey. Expatriant Jobs is the best job board out there with a collection of jobs specifically for native English speakers.
Finally, one thing that really helped me was being able to speak Russian fluently with my co-workers. Although to be honest, most people in the digital sphere have a basic grasp of English. Being able to communicate in Russian simply meant that I could learn much quicker and get to the bottom of things much faster.