The Bulletin Interviews Brandt School Alumna Maria Sheviakova

A Little Bit of Everything

Interview by Maximilian Sänger

Brandt School alumna Maria Sheviakova graduated from the Master of Public Policy program in 2014 and has since been working as a consultant for Governance and Economic Development at GOPA (Gesellschaft fuer Organisation, Planung und Ausbildung) in Germany. With an academic background in International Relations, she came in contact with the consultancy during the mandatory project group at the Brandt School and quickly found interest in the field of European Project Management.

The Bulletin: What made you want to work in development consulting?

Maria Sheviakova: In my second year, the Brandt School offered the project group within the framework of the large EU-funded project “NOPOOR” for the very first time. I became part of it and together, with three other classmates, we were tasked to coordinate a group of 18 people and to put together the deliverables for the client. To me, the project group was an introduction to the topic in general and also to the basics of project management. That was my first contact with this type of work, and although it was very difficult and stressful, I found that I actually liked this type of job.  Afterwards I started digging deeper into this whole world of development cooperation and consulting and found some specialised companies. Compared to the rest of Europe, Germany offers quite a lot of possibilities. So I applied to many places and it just worked out with GOPA.

How would you describe your job as a consultant?

We mostly work with clients that operate internationally, such as the European Commission, the World Bank, KfW and GIZ. These organizations conduct multiple projects and are looking for companies as service providers. To find their project partners, they organize tenders. That implies that we have two distinct types of work: One is project acquisition, where we have to prepare tenders with a technical offer, a financial offer and where we have to find experts who’ll do the job. The second part is, if we win the tender, implementation.

The tasks of a consultant depend on these two groups of activities. For the preparation of a tender we usually have eight weeks, which is from the time we receive the terms of reference (the description of the task) until the deadline. But if you start working on it eight weeks before, you might as well lose it because you have to do a lot of preparation work before. This includes going to the country, talking to people, reading all kinds of background material on a certain topic, getting in touch with experts and seeking partners who would be helpful during implementation.

The implementation phase of a project usually takes up to three to five years and we at GOPA are basically responsible that the project runs smoothly. That includes risk assessment, financial management, working with the experts in the field, setting up a local office and all kinds of logistics and administrative support to them. Also, we have to do documentation; as in most jobs, writing reports is a big part. At times, we also get to go the field to implement specific assignments. But mostly we deal with the project management, in that sense we are the people in the background – as a backup to the project.

How narrowly do consultants at GOPA specialize?

Within GOPA we have different technical departments – I personally am working in the Governance and Economic development department and within this I try to specialize in economic development. That helps to narrow it down a little bit. And then somehow automatically we tend to focus on certain regions, usually due to language knowledge, so specializing in Eastern Europe came naturally to me. But we are still dealing with a vast variety of topics, starting with small and medium sized enterprises, through to competitiveness and business environment reform. It’s a little bit of everything but I think if you start your career and want to experience as many different fields as possible, this is a very good opportunity.

What in particular do you like about the work at the consultancy?

I think it’s very dynamic, which has both pros and cons. Dynamic means that you’re never bored, there is always something to do – it’s not the job where you would sit, look at the watch and wait for the day to end. It is a job that allows you to learn about a variety of different topics. And you have to learn it really fast. It’s a little bit like journalism: you’re given a topic, you’re given a country, you might have no clue about it and you have to learn it really fast because during tenders you only have a couple of weeks to prepare an offer for the client.

This is often quite difficult. Especially when writing the technical proposal, you have to put together quite a complex document with the analysis of the background, with a good understanding of what the client wants and what kind of human resources you’ll need. The financial proposal requires different pieces of information. The work is very diverse and I think the distinctive feature is that you cannot do it alone. At this point I’m very grateful for the Brandt School that they gave us a lot of teamwork during the studies, which at the time I wasn’t very fond of: why would you need three people to prepare a three-page text? But now I think that this was one of the most valuable lessons. Once you learn to work with people from different cultures, in different languages, with different expectations for the final product, you will have it a lot easier in your professional life. You learn to disagree in such a way that you don’t offend anyone, and you’ll be able to fulfill tasks on time and stay a decent person. When you work in this environment, you’ll have deadlines and stress, and there sometimes is this temptation to snap. I think the training at the Brandt School really helped me here. It also helped through the networks. Because at the end of the day, the diversity of the school translates into connections all around the world. If we need to do for example a project on security in Pakistan, I have a friend whom I could contact just to ask which organization to work with. This is a shortcut and it is very valuable, especially when you have time constraints.

What are the main challenges for project management in the field of development?

I think that one of the features of development cooperation is that any project takes a long time to develop. Before it even comes to consultants as a tender, it usually takes several years to develop and approve the project by the donors and the recipient governments.  By the time it’s done, it may not be relevant anymore. Right now, we are dealing with some projects in Ukraine, which were developed in 2012/13, when the situation was completely different. Now these projects come to the stage of tendering and implementation but after all that time the beneficiary now needs something completely different. So the bureaucratic machinery of the donor starts working again, which might take another two or three years. I think the main challenge for us is the duality of having to be very quick in a rapidly changing political situation on the ground, while sometimes donor procedures are rather slow. As a consultant you are in between, balancing and anticipating as much as possible.

What would you tell prospective Brandt School students on why they should study in Erfurt?

MS: I think it’s rare to have such diversity in your class and to work with people from so many nationalities and academic backgrounds. I think it is very valuable to study for example together with a mathematician and an international relations person, and they would have a completely different viewpoint on a given social problem. I think in the end this is what enriches you a lot. If you go to some other school, most likely you would be together with students from the field of international relations and political science only, and that might limit your perspective. In my class, we had people from all walks of life: a guy who was an architect, one who was in the military, another one from IT. When you merge this together, a whole new thing is born. I have definitely enjoyed being a part of this.

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Max is in his second year of the master program at the Brandt School. He holds a Bachelors degree in communication science from the University of Hohenheim, specializing in political communication and public affairs. His interests include sustainable development, social progress, the influence of technology on societies and agile methods. He is currently writing his master thesis on the engagement of the private sector in sustainable development efforts.