In a series of articles on INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS CAREERS, we would like to discover the career paths for young people interested in international relations, foreign policy, political science and other related fields.
In the first piece of the series, we talked with Marcus How, political risk analyst at ViennEast Ltd. ViennEast is a boutique business intelligence, corporate investigations and risk management company specialising in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus and CIS.
Marcus How is the senior political risk analyst and investigator at ViennEast, a regional risk consultancy based in Vienna. He has an MA in International Political Economy from King's College London and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Nottingham.
Let me start with a controversial question. In the world of rapidly developing technologies and big data being able to answer more and more questions, is there still a place for political analysts? Or should we rather expect a decline in the meaningfulness of this position?
I wouldn't be so radical. Obviously, big data is gaining importance and we probably will face the situation in the future that the entry-level analytical jobs, for example compiling and analysing the recent news, will entirely disappear due to automated technologies that can collect and process risk-relevant information from big data. But it is unlikely in the case of more advanced positions. An algorithm cannot match an experienced political analyst because anything it produces, no matter how informationally rich, cannot incorporate nuances (such as cultural idiosyncracies), which often play a salient role in any accurate and insightful analysis. Moreover, the era of big data is also the era of post-truth and fake news: a major problem we face now is not a deficit of information but rather an oversaturation. Only human analysis, when properly applied (which it often isn’t), can guard against these corrosive elements. Indeed, analysts have a certain set of skills and insights which are indispensable and we should expect they will be so in the foreseeable future as well.
What kind of skills do you mean? What are the most important characteristics of a political risk analyst?
The key to political analyses is, of course, an analytical mind which encompasses characteristics such as critical thinking, attention to detail, etc. But working in risk analysis demands more than that. You must be oriented towards identifying solutions, understanding what the purpose of your research is and being able to present it in a concise, direct way.
How does one learn that?
Of course, you learn most on the job. It is a very dynamic and challenging environment and it often so happens that you have to take up a completely new task, far from your main expertise. But there are other activities that may help, your Foreign Policy Research Group being one of them. Being a geek and compulsively consuming relevant news and analysing them where possible, be it via an official publication or an informal blog, is a great way of developing the necessary skills. Of course, university education helps a lot. But there is a problem with freshwater graduates who enter the field: their perspective tends to be very academic. They are very eager to demonstrate how much they know, which results in unfocused, overcomplicated analysis. The point is to answer the question or find a solution to a problem in a simple and concise way, free of academic jargon, and to avoid producing long analyses which may show how clever you are but will not be useful for the investors to whom risk companies are selling their expertise!
Private businesses are often focused on economic analyses. Is an in-depth economic knowledge indispensable in the work of political risk analyst?
No, it isn’t, because the risk sector tends to have a division of labour. Big companies usually have different departments that respectively focus on economic and political risk. They usually work together, bringing specific skills to the table. Of course, economists bring significant value to any company but they often lack an in-depth understanding of political processes or cultural conditions in a region. Their thinking also tends to be framed by orthodox economic theories the assumptions of which, as we know, do not always provide the most accurate view on a situation. To illustrate my point, those commentators who were focusing on the economic benefits of the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine did not pay due attention to the political risks in the Netherlands.
How did you end up doing what you do? Was it your initial intention or was it by accident?
Indeed, I started my work in this field rather by accident. I graduated in 2010 in philosophy, in the aftermath of the economic crisis which was a difficult time for young people looking for their first job. After a couple of months, I was offered an internship in a boutique political risk company in the UK, thereafter starting my career as a social media analyst. At that point, social media was a poorly understood technology from a research perspective. Indeed, social media was pivotal in the Arab Spring ‘Twitter’ revolutions, which no one had predicted! So this was an interesting time to begin working in the sector. However, I took a year out inbetween to complete a Masters in International Political Economy to develop my personal expertise (European political economy). After that, I worked at IHS for two years, before moving to Vienna to start work at ViennEast over a year ago.
Why did you take that decision? Lack of growth prospects?
I didn’t want to get trapped in the London working environment forever, which I found stifling and not hugely innovative. My expertise is Central and Eastern Europe, so I could not pass up the opportunity to participate in a startup in Vienna, which is a gateway city, drawing in people from across the region. You learn more by getting out on the ground than by sitting at a keyboard in an office in London or New York. The wages in the sector are also not that high. An entry-level analyst can count on GBP 20k per year; an experienced analyst will earn around GBP 40k and if you land in a senior position, which obviously won’t happen to everyone, you will be paid approx GBP 50k.
But if you are seeking more than that, you can always think about establishing your own company or a start-up and develop your own ideas and methodology. It’s extremely challenging but anyone with a laptop and a brain can do it!
Is that what gives an edge to a company in this field? A specifically designed methodology?
Yes, and different companies actively seek methods that can give them an advantage over competitors and guarantee their analyses and forecasts to be more accurate than others. For example, at ViennEast we are developing a model that is based on the measurement of ‘social mood’. We believe that the social moods are what influence/bias events, not the other way around. For example, when the social mood is negative, the probability of, say, war and protectionism increases. But when the social moods is positive, greater international cooperation, the signing of trade deals, increased spending on public services, and so on, become more likely. Of course, the biggest question is how to accurately measure and assess these moods and that is what we are working on.
What are your recommendations for students and young graduates seeking a job in the field? Is it worth trying?
Surely it is. There are plenty of interesting opportunities. You can focus on political risk analyses or on another issue like business intelligence. It is a very challenging and interesting environment worth knowing from the inside.
First of all, you should definitely focus on developing your writing skills. Practice is the best way to do that - which is why your research group is such a good exercise. It is a big advantage to have your analyses published and to share your ideas and observations.
Secondly, it's about contacts. This field is very much based on close ties and by knowing the right people you increase your chances of landing a job. It is obviously connected to networking, which is crucial. Go to conferences, try to meet the right people and don't be afraid to voice your opinions and share your insights. It may seem difficult, especially for people who are a bit shy but it is very important, so I can only advise you to overcome this attitude. The truth is that the companies working in the field are usually interested in expanding their network of contacts, for example, to gain additional analysts working on a contract basis. From there, you have a chance to be offered an internship and that's the first step to be offered a job position.
Interviewed by: Kinga Jaromin, Head of EU Foreign Policy Research Group
ViennEast is a boutique business intelligence, corporate investigations, and risk management company that advises clients globally but with a focus on Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and CIS. Using the best of government and commercial methodology we analyse using the latest open source technology, and we investigate by getting out on the ground, combining a tight regional focus with a rigorous analytical methodology and extensive contact network, to probe deeper into a poorly understood region.