A visit to Yandex

Yandex is everywhere — it is scary but you get used to it.

On the 29th of July, we have visited Yandex, the largest technology company in Europe. Yandex provides many Internet-related products and services, starting from search and information service at its beginning in the nineties going to online advertising and transportation today. The presence of Yandex has drastically changed Russian cities in the past ten years — especially, Moscow. It is hard to spend one minute on Moscow streets and not see some Yandex-related activity: Yandex-taxi is the most used taxi service in the city, and people walking with big yellow cubes of Yandex-food delivery invade the city at lunch time.

You do not have to program well to be a CEO of Yandex

Elena Bunina holds a doctoral degree in higher algebra, she is an author of more than fifty research works, and a professor of Moscow State University. She taught me programming when I was myself a student at the mathematical faculty of MSU only… ten years ago! Today Elena is Chief Executive Officer of Yandex in Russia, and as she says, she has a “very funny experience with programming”.

In school, we had a wonderful programming teacher — I was one of the best students but only for one quarter. Then he left to Israel and another teacher came whom I didn’t like. The rest of the time I didn’t do anything since I didn’t like the process nor the teacher. Moreover, at that time it was not prestigious to program for a “real mathematician”. After, when I entered the mathematical faculty, it was even said explicitly: if you are a good mathematician, you can copy programming from someone. So since I already didn’t like it, I would copy it intensely and didn’t learn anything at all. All the years at the mathematical faculty, it was an empty set of knowledge for me in terms of programming.

Then, when I finished my PhD in algebra, I wanted to teach in the algebra department, but there was no place there. Yet there was some place in the computational methods department. As my supervisor said, though, there was one nuance — you had to teaching programming! But I couldn’t program, you understand? So it was the end of June, and in the beginning of September I had to go teach. So I installed C on my laptop and tried to write some programs in order to prepare. When the classes started, I had no problems with explaining any algorithm at the blackboard — it’s mathematics. But I was very scared to teach programming — I do not like the technical side of it neither, I always break all technology I have! The only joy I had is that there always was somebody in the group to which I thought, usually a boy, who loved programming, did it well, and I would take him as an aid. In your group there was Dan, he would check the code of others and find mistakes. He really did save me! Otherwise, I would have died there! Finally, they would let me teach algebra, and only algebra, and since then I am very happy.”

We walk through Yandex, and Elena writes a message to Dan Ozornin (yes, that same Dan!) who runs in for a couple of minutes to say hello. Today he works at Yandex, and supervises a group of smart devices’ product development. Then Dan leaves to go to another meeting, and we continue our tour.

I think if my life would go differently and I would need to learn money by programming, I would probably be some mediocre programmer. But I think it is not what I am good at. I am good at speaking with people who work in Yandex, in the same language.,” says Elena.

So you do not need to program extremely well to be the CEO of Yandex… “No, you do not ! But you have to understand what it is all about. And I do understand it,” smiles Lena and paraphrases a Russian proverb: “I do understand, I just can not say.”

Creating the Yandex world

After a tour through colored Yandex floors, and their wittingly proverb-named rooms, we visit Yandex shop and its museum of old computers. Elena buys a doll dressed like Elisa from Frozen for her youngest daughter — it is a doll with Alisa inside (a vocal assistant developed by Yandex).

After a tour, we take a sit with Elena in the interior garden of Yandex to talk about how Elena looks at her life today. Fifteen years ago, she was invited to Yandex to create a Yandex School of Data Analysis that would give an additional training in programming to students of mathematical faculties for them to be able to enter Yandex afterwards. Today, this school is very successful. It helps Yandex to renew its employee base which has almost reached 15000 people today. Elena became, from a director of the Yandex School in 2007, an HR-director in 2011 and then CEO for Russian operations in 2017. Today she is especially working on numerous educational projects inside Yandex.

I am used to Yandex now, I love it, and I create this Yandex-world today myself, she says. Even though of course, I suffer that I do not do enough research. But I do not think that I could really become a really great scientist — I do not like to read scientific articles, and you should do it to become great. I only like to write articles and to tell about mathematics to others!… “

I am very happy how my life went. I think I am where I should be.”

Thoughts on our Alma Mater

Both Elena and myself studied at the Faculty of mathematics and mechanics of the Moscow State University.

Sixty years ago, the mathematical faculty of MSU was arguably the best place to study and do mathematics in the entire world, these times are called its golden age. Pavel Aleksandrov was responsible for the mathematical faculty, and many great mathematicians such that Petrovsky, Kolmogorov, Kurosh and Markov, were leaders of specialized departments. Manin, Sinai, Alekseev, Arnold, Kirillov, Anosov, Fuks, Tyurina, Tikhomirov, Vinberg, Novikov were students at those times, between 1957 and 1967. I have entered the faculty in 2007 — 40 years later but many traditions of love to mathematics and atmosphere of sharing and studious discussion persisted. The best students of the country wanted to study mathematics there. Although, in 2021, this is not the case anymore and best students go somewhere else — the alternatives are abundant.

Elena continues to teach specialized courses in the department of algebra of the math faculty of MSU. “Students come to me as if they wanted to get some breath of fresh air there, and this scares me a lot. It feels as if I were one of the few good professors… And this frightens me!”, Elena says. But she believes in change.

There is no possibility anymore to make slow change in positive direction. To be able to change what is happening with the mathematical faculty of Moscow State University today, we will need not an evolution but a revolution — rebuilding it from the start”, Elena says.