Inspirational Woman: Jekaterina Orlova | COO, Augnet

Jekaterina OrlovaJekaterina Orlova is an authority in business development and strategy, in particular in setting up early-stage tech companies for success.

Following ten years at Skype and Microsoft, where she was a Business Development Manager, Jekaterina worked as a Senior Technology Consultant at Deloitte, specialising in Cloud services, Connectivity and Digital workplace transformation within the financial services industry. Following this, she advised and scaled tech startups and SMEs.

In 2018 Jekaterina joined Augnet, founded by fellow Skype and Microsoft alum Daniel Gill (they worked together for eight years at Skype), where her boundless energy and focus have moved the company at a fast pace towards its goals, and have enabled it to push past every milestone ahead of target. Run out of City Launch Lab, Augnet tops the chart of start-ups at the Lab for level of funding received, having acquired 16 industry expert investors for its initial £1.3M seed round, including Triple Point Venture Fund. Subsequent to the investment round, Augnet received additional funding from the European Innovation Council's H2020 programme for SMEs focused on innovation and industry disruption.

Augnet is set to revolutionise the SMS and message space with its unique disruptive technology. Augnet’s technology facilitates the delivery of SMS messages from consumer-focused organisations to reduce fraud, increase accountability and improve SMS features. The company caters to an established network of organisations, from financial institutions to booking sites and airlines. For companies dealing with time-sensitive or confidential information, the ability to trace and confirm whether or not a message has been delivered has substantial cost-saving benefits.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I have lived in London now for eight years, but I actually grew up in Estonia after the Soviet Union came to an end. My mother, and other women around me were always very strong, driven and motivated and encouraged me to be brave, ambitious, to believe in myself and to pursue my goals.

I began my studies in 2004 in Computer Science. Skype was a year old, Facebook was launching, and Google had just IPO’d. Major IT developments were being born around the world and due to Estonia’s reputation for having great engineers and an affordable workforce, several big companies opened offices in Estonia. No one quite knew then what was to become of these big developments, but it greatly shaped Estonia’s future and my own.

I got a position at Skype before I finished school and straight away started my MBA – working full time at Skype while studying. Skype was booming and it was an incredible time to work there.

At 25 years old I graduated from the MBA programme and coincidentally I immediately got a new position within Skype on the Carrier Relations team, where I met and worked with Daniel Gill. I now work alongside Dan as the COO of Augnet, of which Dan is the founder and CEO.

An interesting lesson I’ve learnt over the years is how small decisions and events can lead to something bigger. If I hadn’t pursued a Computer science degree and then my MBA, I would not have made it to the role where I met Dan and would probably never have moved to London. Those decisions, big and small, truly set me on my journey to where I am now.

I joined Dan at Augnet last year. We are on a mission to revolutionise the SMS and message space with our unique disruptive technology. The technology facilitates the delivery of SMS messages from consumer-focused organisations to reduce fraud, increase accountability and improve SMS features. For companies dealing with time-sensitive or confidential information, the ability to trace and confirm whether or not a message has been delivered has substantial cost-saving benefits.

When I’m not working, I am usually spinning or running in my local Virgin Active gym. I am a strong believer in “healthy body, healthy mind”. I love the challenge. My current obsession is Flykick, a kickboxing exercise class. Otherwise I love a good book or a long walk while listening to a personal growth or thought-provoking podcast.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Yes and no. I always knew I would have a technological career, something maths-oriented and technical but I didn’t specifically plan every small detail. I was very much influenced by those around me and the opportunities that were available. I put thought into planning my future - studying subjects that I was interested in or those that I was good at, but at this point in my life I was also concerned about choosing something that would also provide me with a stable income, a continuously challenging career and opportunity to meet inspiring people.

Thanks in part to the Soviet emphasis on education, higher education in Estonia was free and there were a lot of amazing teachers and professors that influenced my decision to study technology. In 2004, I was accepted into the Computer Science engineering programme at Tallinn University of Technology, a top technical university in Estonia and a well-known university within Europe.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

One of the career challenges I have faced arose when I left Microsoft to go into management consulting at Deloitte UK.

It was a great opportunity to take my hands-on technology experience and apply it to a range of businesses. It was fun, and I met a lot of incredible people, but I didn’t realise how much I would miss the engineers and the real products. It wasn’t what I had envisioned when I first made the move and I began to see it as a personal failure.

It took me a while to realise that just because a role isn’t the right fit for you doesn’t mean you have failed. That said, the role exposed me to amazing experiences, organisations and people and I am so grateful to have worked at such a powerful and prestigious company. It taught me that one-size doesn’t fit all.

Another challenge was making the transition from a busy, large corporation to Augnet, a pre-seed start up, working on what started as just a two-person team. It was a big psychological and personal challenge that triggered huge growth for me personally.

From being surrounded by teammates in an office four to five days a week, travelling to meet partners and work colleagues in Seattle to working from home by myself five days a week, and no longer in the office, I had to learn how to work on my own.  It’s a career challenge in that you don’t realise how you click until you make a big change. It gave me time to look into myself. I started reading and listening to lots of business, personal growth, mindfulness and personal awareness books and podcasts, and ended up attending a personal growth event called MindValley in Bali. The event focused on working hard but also being mindful and aware of who we are as individuals, how we can be more productive and effective and defining our futures.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

At Augnet, for our first investment round we secured £1.3M, led by the UK-based VC Triple Point Venture Fund, and went on to be granted additional funding from the European Innovation Council's H2020 programme for SMEs focused on innovation and industry disruption. Receiving the funding in quick succession was an incredible achievement for us and a huge recognition of our work and mission. It is an incredibly exciting and busy time at Augnet, and we are looking forward to taking the company to the next level.

I would also list working for Skype for ten years and eventually being part of launching Microsoft Teams, formerly called Skype for Business. To date it remains the biggest unified communication software out there. Bigger than Slack in terms of daily active users (13 million as of July 2019). I was in a leadership role orchestrating the entire the launch. The whole environment had to be formed and it’s amazing to have been instrumental in something that millions of people use on a daily basis.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Lauri Paal – who is an advisor to Augnet - was both my manager and Dan’s at Skype and a large part of why I stayed there for ten years. As a manager he was always supportive and never micromanaged.

Lauri treated us as entrepreneurs within the Skype organisation. We had the flexibility to explore our ideas and it gave me the skill, confidence and freedom to look at things differently. If you look at Dan’s work style, and my own, you can see how this style of management shaped both of us. There is a lot of autonomy and trust between us.

There were so many opportunities within Skype, people were moving from department to department, changing products, changing business areas and teams. It was a really exciting time because if you wanted to try something you could go and try it without leaving the company. That’s what shaped my career because I had the continuity of working for the same company combined with the opportunity to take on new challenges and roles. You don’t apply for the job, you just take on more responsibility and it evolves into a new role.

It was such a natural progression that I didn’t notice how it happened at the time. I didn’t notice 10 years had gone by. It was always challenging and such a fun environment working with extraordinarily talented and motivated people. A lot of those people have started their own ventures or run their own teams at places like Microsoft, Google or Amazon. You always run into a Skype alumnus, that we call Skype Mafia between ourselves.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

  1. Be obsessed. You can do whatever you want – there are no barriers for men or women. It comes down to being obsessed, more than just passionate, and focused on achieving your goal. It’s all about how driven you are – so toughen up and go for it! Be hungry and aim to create something different. If there is a will, there is a way - one of my favourite, old-school and wise sayings.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Learn from others and from their mistakes. There is so much to learn out there and we must not be afraid to ask for help or seek advice from someone who has tried it already and knows better. People are so willing to share their experiences with others; we just need to ask. Don’t be afraid to look stupid, it is worse to stay unknowledgeable and miss out on an opportunity to learn.
  3. Having something as simple as a routine for me removes distractions and keeps me laser-focused on what I am looking to achieve. When I progressed the most, from being just an analyst to someone in a role who defined business strategy and ran projects, was when I was massively busy working a full-time job while also completing my MBA and also training in the gym four days a week.
  4. Live by respect, openness and trust. When working with others, it’s important to treat others as you wish to be treated. Human relationships are the key to success. Creating a working organism – creating a team feeling that you are in this together. No one is working by themselves.

You need to be able to communicate if something goes wrong or tell colleagues if something is not good enough. And they should be able to communicate back to you if they feel you aren’t doing the right thing.

And respect is a two-way street – you need to do your homework and be knowledgeable of your subject to earn respect while also showing appreciation for others. You need to make sure that you are grateful for what people do. You must show and vocalise appreciation to people you are working with.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

I don’t believe there should be barriers for anyone. Women aren’t only good or better at one thing just as men aren’t only good or better at one thing, but stereotypes don’t die easily. Back when I was studying, it certainly wasn’t sexy to study computer science and it was far from mainstream.

When I was growing up, it was believed that maths and physics were for men. And biology, geography and literature were more appropriate subjects for women. I was advised that a subject with a business element rather than purely computer science would be more appropriate.

The landscape has changed somewhat over the past ten years to one that is much more encouraging and inclusive, but we need to continue to break down the stereotypes and shift thinking at a much earlier stage in life. University time, when commitments have been made, is too late.

Young girls need to see success, see people like themselves in the roles. From bring your children to work days to early career workshop opportunities to work experience. We need to promote technology opportunities among young women early on and be consistent about it.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

The first thing is accessible learning. Companies should be proactive in encouraging employees to learn, whether it’s studying English or about new technology or business strategy. Internal learning programmes that allow employees to get additional applicable knowledge and to expand their minds are a great way to support people working in technology.

The next thing is internal flexibility. We grew so fast at Skype from 150 to 1,500 employees. Skype was so successful because it created a culture that encouraged learning and trying new things. You could have a chat with a different manager and start working with them between departments. The company didn’t have rigid boundaries on roles within the organisation and I know it personally helped a lot of people to progress in their careers because they were able to explore new things and find the best place for them. Yes, you need to learn the tools, but companies shouldn’t be so stuck in the mud about keeping everyone in boxes.

There is currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

Gender balance is important. We can see a huge difference when there are women in senior positions. Women with voting power make a difference, they bring different outlooks to situations and alternative approaches to solutions.

Disruption does not come from applying the same criteria all the time. Innovation comes when someone comes from a different place and shakes things up. We need to change from the old school thinking.

I believe the three most important factors are:

  1. Education – The percentage was around 10-12% when I started, and it is changing because women have more access to education.
  2. Communities – mentorship between women. I strongly believe in women helping women.
  3. Remove hard barriers – flexibility within a company. Remove the outdated, old-school barriers within a company. Let people move more freely and with flexible hours.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, eg Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

Engaging with a global tech and business community has been incredibly helpful for me – I listen to a lot of podcasts, receive audiobook recommendations from friends and network a lot. I do not read fiction books lately due to life priorities. My list is:

Groups:

Podcasts:

  • Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations Podcast
  • The Goop Podcast
  • Mindvalley Podcast
  • A16z Podcast - about investments
  • InvestED Podcast
  • How I Built This Podcast – about different businesses
  • The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast - with super influential and inspiring people.

Conferences:

  • Unbound, Women of Silicon Roundabout.

Books:

  • Atomic Habits
  • Sapiens
  • Quirkology
  • Start with Why: how the great leaders inspire everyone to take actions
  • Chaos Monkeys
  • Yes! 50 secrets from the Science of Persuasion.