Alyona Bulda, head of the Global Exchange Division at Exactpro talks about staying the distance, keeping calm and helping clients navigate.
What is your role at Exactpro and how has it evolved over the past ten years?
I am responsible for the Global Exchange Division at Exactpro. Exchanges, clearinghouses and other financial market institutions using our software testing services are located in more than 20 countries on all six continents. The geography of the division projects spans from London to Johannesburg, from Abu Dhabi to Sydney, from Osaka to Jersey City.
Right after graduating from university, I joined Exactpro at an entry-level position of a junior QA Analyst. Shortly after that, I was given the responsibility to lead a team, and later – a project. While successful projects have led to progression in the company, I’ve also experienced an evolution in terms of expertise. Exactpro is a software testing business targeted at technologically and functionally diverse market infrastructures. Today my team may work with low-latency trading platforms, and tomorrow we may deal with sophisticated post-trade systems. Along with the business areas, technology is yet another dimension, and over the years I have become an expert in more domains.
In general, what type of research have you undertaken?
My research interests lie within the software testing domain. We test complex technology platforms, and this task not only requires exhaustive technical knowledge, but also an outlook over the broader technology landscape. To keep our competitive edge, we support our software testing practice by research in the areas of low-latency and high-throughput fintech systems, artificial intelligence, and distributed ledger technologies. It is also extremely important for me as a leader to involve other people in the research. These efforts result in different forms: research papers, industry reports and use cases, as well as vision papers.
What has been the impact of Covid-19 on your company and what skillsets have you needed to navigate through the current environment?
The lockdown did not bring a dramatic change to our way of operation – our pre-pandemic model was to have 1-2 people on client premises organising the remote work of the offshore development and testing teams. The only change was that it is now performed from home rather than from offshore offices.
Navigating through the difficulties of the pandemic required the understanding that people are a crucial component of what we do, so I started to pay more attention to the overall well-being of the team, while making sure the client gets all the thoroughness they had before and even more – given the dramatic increase in market transaction flows. From the skillset perspective, it is just the ability to stay calm, be agile and tolerant as everyone is adapting to the new environment in their own way, and just being there to help whenever it is needed.
How has the pandemic impacted the industry and what trends do you think it has accelerated?
The pandemic brought a better understanding of the inevitability of disruptions in face of uncertainty. This accentuated the importance of what we do to help our clients prepare for the unexpected – simulating heavy transactional load and outages to identify points of failure in critical financial services infrastructures.
How did the firm cope with remote working or was that part of the culture already?
Agility is among the core principles that we follow at Exactpro. As the financial institutions incorporate the Agile approach, it is necessary to follow its essence rather than mimic the procedures. Strategically, we do not overestimate the benefits of co-location. Instead, we foster system analysis skills in our people and value software testing specialists with critical and independent thinking. This mindset helps us to stay operational and efficient throughout the times of the ‘new normal’.
Aside from Covid, what are some of the other key challenges that the industry faces and what do you think will be the solutions?
As the world becomes more complex and unpredictable, technology-dependent industries reflect this through a substantial increase in systems’ complexity, data volumes and automation. Enhancing the platforms with strong data analytics capabilities raises the question of finding a legitimate way to harness the data and streamline the innovation without overly relying on automation and delegating decision-making to algorithms.
To address this challenge, the industry needs to critically assess the implications of new technologies and set its mind to always prepare for the worst scenario, use and re-use data, and apply smart analytics to help humans make responsible decisions.
I see you grew up in Uzbekistan and then moved to Kostroma in Russia. What brought you to London?
The UK market is the biggest for Exactpro. To provide a better service for our clients, it’s crucial to know their business culture, their ways of operating and the overall industrial context of their work.
I moved to London in 2016; by then we were engaged in several trading and post-trade projects, so I felt the need to be present on-site, closer to our clients’ business. For me, it also became a perfect opportunity to get immersed in the British culture.
Was this the career you envisioned?
Never. I thought I would become an engineer in the local manufacturing industry, and I have never expected my career journey to bring me to Sri-Lanka, the US or Australia.
When I graduated with a MSc in CAD systems from Kostroma State Technological University, it was difficult to find a job – most companies required work experience. Luckily, I was invited for an interview at Exactpro where my path in the fintech world began. From my first days at the company I understood the value of responsibility, and it has governed my subsequent career path ever since.
What was the reason for staying with Exactpro after the buy-out from the LSEG?
The decision was driven by my aspiration to follow the principles that we’d developed at Exactpro in its early days – striving to build a software testing focused business, which was founded on the concept of independent testing. When in 2018 our management team agreed on the buy-out from LSEG, I moved from the Group to Exactpro with the rest of the team.
How does Exactpro support and foster success with respect to diversity and inclusion?
At Exactpro, we do our best to treat everyone fairly. We stay focused on providing the necessary growth opportunities for our staff. Our ideology is that the best software testing instrument is the human brain, and our business benefits from diversity of thought and opinion.
At Exactpro, women make up 43% of the company’s management, with women holding the roles of CCO, CEO of our entity in Georgia, marketing director, heads of the risk management practice, HR and accounting, and heads of three out of eight technology divisions. Women lead Exactpro’s two biggest development centres in Kostroma and Saratov. Women researchers contributed to over 80% of peer-reviewed research papers on AI, DLT and software testing authored by Exactpro, with 12% of papers authored by women only.
Are there differences between attitudes in the East and West?
From my perspective, yes, there are. I’m half Ukrainian and half Tatar, and from early childhood I was exposed to different nationalities, religions and mentalities, and I was lucky enough to see the beauty in these differences. Knowing, understanding, and respecting these differences has always provided me with a different perspective in difficult situations, enabling me to move forward and drive change.
Working at Exactpro, I was able to travel across multiple client locations globally: New York, Abu Dhabi, Milan, Colombo, Sydney. This experience helped me feel the differences between Eastern and Western cultures and use their beauty to navigate through business relations in multicultural teams.
How have things changed in terms of diversity and career progression since you started working? Did you face any challenges?
From the very inception, Exactpro was built to be a company where we would love to work. There were just around 15 of us, quite diverse in terms of nationality and professional background. As the company went through significant growth, we experienced challenges to scale up our original people-first attitude, but even now that we are over 600 people, the company retains its flat organization structure. Such hierarchy, associated with a culture of individual responsibility and ownership of the company, resonated well with me, so, gradually, I started to perceive responsibility as a value rather than a challenge.
The specifics of what we do as software testers suggest that we must challenge the established order and be assertive, which undoubtedly helps to build confidence and independence in our female employees, resulting in our management team being gender-diverse.
What further progress needs to be made?
Our diversity-related figures randomly move in different directions, reflecting individual choices and performance. We cannot predict what they will be for each quadrant in the next year – a good indicator that the company culture truly results in equality of opportunity and does not discriminate in favour of any group.