Maria Ulyanova is a Russian project manager who got opportunity to choose between some very different countries when selecting her next assignment. There were three alternatives: Egypt, Hungary and Finland. She chose Finland, and we asked her why.

Maria Ulyanova comes from a small rural town in central Russia. However, she currently lives in Moscow, a teeming metropolis from which she commutes to her post in Salmisaari, Helsinki, Finland. She started working at Fennovoima in September 2015.

Previously, she had spent long periods in Finland while negotiating the plant supply contract between Fennovoima and Rosatom. At that time, she got to know Finland and the Finnish people, and both made a good impression on her.

- The negotiations with Finns, as well as other interaction with them, gave me the impression that they are people who are easy to get along with. When you agree on something with a Finn – and no matter if it’s an oral or written agreement – you can be sure that it will hold. Of course, some details may be ironed out later, but what is agreed is agreed, says Ulyanova.

She has experience of similar negotiations from two other Rosatom nuclear power plant projects in Egypt and Hungary.

- If you compare the Finnish negotiating culture with Hungary or Egypt, the difference is clear. In those countries, you may agree on something, only to wake up the following day and find out that your negotiating partner has completely changed his or her mind about the subject – and then you have to go through the same negotiations over and over again. That kind of negotiating strategy makes it difficult to achieve any progress, and even more so as schedules are often very tight. When I got an opportunity to choose whether to work in Finland, Hungary or Egypt, the choice was easy to make.

The nuclear power plant is built in meetings, memorandums and offices

Currently, Maria Ulyanova works as a project coordinator, attending to the Nuclear Island of the Hanhikivi 1 plant. Major part of her work is arranging topical meetings. They are not any meetings, either; the number of participants in joint project meetings between the Finns and Russians is often expressed in three digits.

In order for such meetings to produce the necessary decisions, they must be planned with care. In practical terms, this means that Maria Ulyanova must be aware of every work task involved and know the background of every topic discussed in the meeting. She must know who are summoned, from Finland as well as Russia, and which matters will be chosen for discussion. And the main thing is this: it is her responsibility to ensure that these massive meetings produce the necessary decisions and outcomes.

In addition to meetings, Maria’s schedule is filled with reporting, budgeting and a good number of travel days. So, for the time being, the building of a nuclear power plant takes place in the office environment and involves a lot of paper-pushing.

Russian technology, European requirements

- This project is a fantastic opportunity for me to take part in a huge project. And, as a Russian, I am of course proud of the fact that we implement the project based on Russian technology. This plant demonstrates that it meets the extremely strict European safety requirements, Maria muses.

According to her, there is another aspect to the uniqueness of the project:

- All other Russian nuclear power projects are led by the states of both sides of a project. In contrast, the owners of the Hanhikivi 1 plant are commercial companies. In my view, private ownership brings yet a new level of responsibility to the project.

Maria Ulyanova caught her first glimpse of Pyhäjoki plant site as early as in 2014, when she was still working for Rosatom. At that point, the plant supply contract between Fennovoima and Rosatom had just been signed, and Maria traveled to Pyhäjoki to attend a public meeting and give a presentation on Rosatom, chosen technology and main features of the EPC contract.

- I felt that the event was a success. People showed interest in Rosatom and the project. Many people supported the project and were eager to know how to become a subcontractor during project implementation, reminisces Ulyanova.

Project management – the Russian way and the Finnish way

In Russian projects, the main project management principle is: “Trust is good, control is better.” The progress of the project is monitored on a daily level. That is without a doubt the biggest difference between the Finnish and Russian styles of project management.

- As a project manager, I am used to not being able to just sign a contract and then sit down and wait for the work to be completed in schedule. In Russia, we know that even if a work phase or task has been signed off as completed, that is not necessarily always the reality. My job involves following the progress of work every day and collecting detailed evidence proving that even the smallest tasks are performed exactly as agreed and reported.

According to Maria, Finns show more trust in the work progressing, or at least are more prone to wait for the final outcome. The realization of having to discuss exceedingly minor details when communicating with Russians has presented the Finns with some difficulties.

- From my point of view, this has been the most difficult part of my job, says Maria.

The subtle differences between Russian and Finnish engineers

The job descriptions of Russian nuclear power plant engineers are somewhat different than those of their Finnish colleagues. In Russia, the engineers often take part more in practical manual work. They mostly work at power plants and research centers. According to Maria, Finnish nuclear engineers seem to be more focused on research.

- Of course, there are historical reasons for this difference. In Russia, there are many nuclear power plants where the engineers can find employment and gain practical experience. In Finland, the opportunities to engage in practical work in the nuclear power industry are much scarcer.

Maria encourages nuclear power professionals in Finland and around the world to get involved with the Hanhikivi 1 project.

- To any foreign citizens thinking about applying for a job in the project, I can say that I warmly recommend it. You could not send your application to a better place; this work enables both professional and personal development. Living and working in a foreign country and foreign culture requires a lot of adaptation, but you will also learn a great deal from it, says Ulyanova.