Ekaterina Marinova is а Data and Innovation Strategist at Raiffeisenbank Bulgaria. She is also teaching at the American university in Bulgaria and is going to be one of the judges of this year’s edition of the HackAUBG – the hackathon that incorporates great tech ideas with the right entrepreneurship solutions.
Ekaterina, tell us about your journey and connection with AUBG.
I have a long history with AUBG. Back in 2011 I started there as a freshman, eager to learning about politics and economics. But actually, AUBG gave me the flexibility and the opportunity to develop talent and actually be who I am right now. So I shifted my majors and I continued with Information Systems and Business Administration. After finishing my masters after AUBG, in Rotterdam, I came back and started working in the IT sector. I started developing in the area of artificial intelligence and data science and at some point, while I was constantly with the university, there was an opportunity for this new field – AI knowledge, that was going to be explored in AUBG. I decided to take this opportunity and started teaching there. It is now 2 or 3 years as an adjunct professor. I’m teaching short courses with students that vary from junior and senior level and I’m teaching them Big Data and Machine Learning. At the end of the day, they know what that is and can perform and do a module on their own. At the same time, I’m working in Raiffeisenbank and I’m dealing with Data and Innovation Strategy and right now we’re working and looking at the digital transformation of the bank.
How do you feel about teaching where you once studied?
It’s amazing because I know what they’re thinking. I know what is valuable for the students because it’s not that long since I’ve been there. I try to give them the practice and the real-world examples – to show them that what they are doing in class is valuable afterwards. There was this understanding back when I was a student, and now they still have it – we were studying so much theory and this is not applicable in the real world and it’s very nice to look at them, to take this theory that they are having and to show them how this thing that they’re doing right now is going to help them in the future and how to value more what they’re receiving from AUBG compared to other universities. AUBG is different – everything that we’re doing there has value and I’m super happy.
Do you think this is a big problem for the universities – not showing enough the practical stuff, where the fun is, but concentrating more on the theory?
That’s true. But you should be prepared for fun. The thing is that theory teaches you something valuable. You’re exposed to different situations and you might think that it’s not practical enough. But when you’re in a practical situation you’ll have the knowledge to deal with things and learn from them. And there’s something else – you can learn 5 or 10 practical things but the industry is changing, technology is changing, also the jobs. The situation right now is not the same as 5 years ago. And if you don’t have that thinking, if you don’t know the logic and the based, coming from the theory, you won’t be able to be that competitive. And you should know how to change yourself. You can see the big vendors like Microsoft, Oracle, Amazon, IBM – they are developing the technologies to do automated things that we used to learn to do in practice. So if you have the theory and you have different knowledge, you’ll be able to adapt quickly.
You’re a judge on the HackAUBG hackathon. What’s the feeling and is it your first time?
It’s my second time. They’ve invited me and one of the girls on the hackathon is one of my students that I’ve been teaching the last semester. They’ve invited me because the topic is very relevant to what I’m teaching as well and what we’ve been doing with the students. Being a judge is extremely interesting and supercharging. I do believe that the organizers really want to make it really practical and to have judges and mentors that actually have a lot to do in the practical world and companies.
And what will you look for in the participants and their products? What will be of leading importance for you?
It’s a passion. Passion is super important even when we’re talking about IT or business. It’s not pure IT or pure business. When you have the balance and when you have the passion in people to develop something, you can have just a business prototype but not the perfect code. Or you can have the perfect code, but then lack the proper business case to sell it. It’s the balance and the passion. If one person or a team believes in their solution you can feel that and you can see it in the code, the business case and the presentation. If they see the future in their solutions then the companies will see it too.
Let’s say that two products on the hackathon are equally good, but you have to choose one, what will be the determining factor?
We have a very clear set of criteria, so it’s not that subjective. We’re going to evaluate these technical criteria and at the end of the day, we’re going to combine our knowledge as judges and collectively come up with the winning team, based also on our observations.
Do you think that projects and ideas from hackathons like AUBG have a great future in Bulgaria or maybe it’ll be better to start here and then take the chance and go abroad?
That’s interesting and I think that COVID proved that it doesn’t matter where you are. The startup ecosystem in Bulgaria is good and gives the younger generation the opportunity to develop. If this opportunity is hard to find within Bulgaria, then it’s nothing wrong to try to find it outside of the country. But in Bulgaria, I think a startup can be successful here too.
I’m asking because you can see these really great ideas coming from hackathons and events, but they don’t get any further development.
Great technological ideas and a proper business case are two different things. If you build a really good business model – if you have the time for it – and do a good PESTEL analysis then you won’t shoot around with the technology solutions, but shoot at the right point. We’re a smaller market, not like in the USA where you have so many accelerators and hubs. Here we have areas, where your idea really can explode and be great. It’s a lot of work to implement a great idea.
Well, there are a lot of hackathons that you can see, two or three guys code non-stop, but don’t have that business inside of how things work.
When we were doing entrepreneurship courses in AUBG, there were more business people than technical people. But after that, we found a balance by setting the rule that you need a technical person, but also a business one. You need a variety of talents for your idea to be successful.