Step back in time – story #3 Grzegorz Młynarczyk
The IT world is a fast-paced environment with constant turnover and short-lived relationships. However, every now and then, a brief narrative becomes an epic story. What makes a tale special are the protagonists, and who’s better to tell the story than the main characters themselves? That is why we decided to give the floor to our colleagues who cooperate with us in Software Mind for more than 10 years or as in this case a person who is not only a character of the Software Mind’s tale but also its creator. So it won’t be an overstatement if we call this episode a special one. We gladly present you “Step back in Time” featuring Grzegorz Młynarczyk – businessman, developer, and most importantly the person that established Software Mind and is leading it forward since day one.
Why did you establish Software Mind and how did the IT market look back then?
Let me start from the second part of the question – at the turn of the century, the IT market looked completely different than it does now. Both in terms of companies operating in this area and the possibility of acquiring knowledge. Now, as we know, Kraków is an IT basin, this city is number 1 in the CEE in software development outsourcing, BPO, or generally IT-related services. But in the nineties (when I finished my studies), first companies with foreign capital/owners involved in software development started to appear in Krakow. During that time, it was difficult for Polish students to access knowledge and best practices. Now we can throw a topic that interests us in Google’s search and a thousand different articles pop up so if we want to devote time and effort to acquire a certain skill it has never been easier. Then it was nothing like that. I remember the first project we did for a client from Poland as WebSoft (that was our company’s first name, later we became Software Mind and finally joined the Ailleron group), which took place during our 5th year of studies. At that time, we were young, wild, and sure even sky was not the limit, so when during the meeting the client asked us for a week-long PoC we immediately agreed. But the project we were supposed to create was to be done in Delphi and we didn’t have any clue about this technology, so straight from the meeting we went to a bookstore on Hetmanska Street in Krakow and bought 2 books about it to get any information and start working over the PoC. We knew we could move mountains so after 7 days and nights we delivered the PoC.
Nevertheless, time to get to the reason why we founded the company and its first-ever project. The first contract we got was for a client from Sweden. Our primary goal was to build interesting business apps using cutting edge technologies, which not that many Polish companies did at that time that’s why we turned to international markets. Back then it was Sweden, and especially Stockholm that was a melting pot in which many startups operated and worked with the latest technologies. Mainly, these were projects in the area of mobile applications, if you can call them that at all, because at that time smartphones didn’t exist ;). These were WAP applications, which practically weren’t developed in Poland at all. The approach to mobile technologies and the phone as a basic communication and entertainment center, in general, was something fresh and tempting for us. Besides, while working in multiple Polish companies during our studies, we met with an organizational culture that was far from our expectations. We wanted to have the freedom to make decisions, shape the directions of our development and create an organization which people would see not only as a working place but rather as a place to meet others with similar interests, approaches and to make sure that something cool would come out of those meetings. As a result, we came up with the idea of establishing our own company during the 4th year of our studies at the AGH University of Science and Technology. We had formally created it and started working under our own name one year later. Although at the beginning we didn’t assume that we would develop from 2 people to over 700 because that was not on our agenda. We wanted to develop something useful and have some fun at the same time. The beginning was a bit like in the American Dream – only instead of a garage, we had a basement with only one tiny window through which the sunlight came in. Later we moved to the attic with no air conditioning where it was impossible to stand the heat during the summer but that’s another story 😉
How did the daily work look like at the beginning?
In the beginning, there was no division on managers or business or technical people. We played all these roles in parallel and we had to learn quickly because technical universities did not teach how to set-up and run a company at that time. When there are 1/5/10 people in a startup, everything is done by everyone. From dawn to dusk we were creating software and during night-time, we were dealing with the company development and mundane topics like accountancy. We were a small team; everyone had their own “business” tasks, but everyone also had technical knowledge and wrote code. I remember at that time we were sitting in a small office, and in the middle of the room, there was a whiteboard, in front of which we had long discussions until midnights on how to build platforms and how to scale them. We were lucky because these Swedish companies got good funding for the development of highly scalable web platforms, which were meant to deal with very high traffic. That was a novelty since at that time the market was dominated by desktop platforms, which would rarely allow multiple users to access it simultaneously. Therefore, the projects we worked on were very interesting for us and posed many challenges that we had to solve. I would say we were lucky to have a very strong team of brilliant people who always at the end of the day came up with a solution fulfilling clients’ expectations. This approach to cooperation was already distinguishing us at that time and I know that our current team, which is growing all the time, still maintains it. Working with top talents we attract similar ones so we can develop and learn from each other creating such a small “technological melting pot”. It all makes people want to first join us and then stay and work with us. That’s one of the most important factors in the business we are in.
When did you stop being a developer?
Being a developer is in my blood to this day, people who work with me every day see that I still have a thing for it, although now I am mainly an Excel and PowerPoint developer ?. The moment I left the developer’s job was when the company grew up to 40/50 people. This is the moment when the number of tasks related to making the company operate well and grow makes it impossible to combine with code craftmanship. Previously, we programmed even on our way to meetings with clients in trains or planes, but from this stage of Software Mind development, it was impossible to do both things well. I could probably have had some single moments to write code, but I didn’t want to delay the teams’ work by taking part in the project and then making them wait for me because I had to focus on business activities. This is the moment in a company life when you have to invest in sales and gain ‘mass” to work with long-term projects. The workload for signing a contract for a short-term project does not differ much from the workload necessary to get a long-term one. You have to prepare an offer, presentations, meet, negotiate conditions, and so on. However, the time from the beginning to the end of the process in the case of long-term projects is much longer, so in order to fill the pipeline, you have to focus on sales and, most importantly, set a good direction of development for the company.
What stayed the same and what changed during these years?
The key element of development, which didn’t change and should never do, are exceptional people who are not afraid to take risks and are willing to develop themselves. Having such people in your team makes the development of your company much easier. But what has certainly changed, is the market around us. The IT area has always been changing rapidly, but now it is particularly noticeable. It is not enough to learn something once and use the knowledge, we all have to develop our skills constantly. It’s possible because nowadays people have better access to education.
What also changed is the labor market. There are many more interesting job openings, so to attract the most talented ones from the market, you need to have a really good offer. This does not mean the highest salary because there will always be a bigger shark in this ocean, which can afford a higher wage because the particular role is connected with a critical goal for the business at that moment. But I think, looking at all these years, that we don’t look at work just through the prism of money. We care about development, technologies, projects and the team we work with every day. Of course, money is also important, but I think that many of the people we work with, do not overstate their value. We have seen people leaving us tempted by higher salaries and after a year or so they changed jobs again because the higher pay couldn’t make up for what they had to deal with on a daily basis – whether it was an organizational culture or simply uninteresting projects. On the other hand, when we talk about the possibilities to develop within the company I have some stories in the mind of people who worked with us and after some time they gained so much experience they said they would like to try to set-up their own businesses . Some really interesting organizations came out of it. We are not offended by this, and even treat it as a form of appreciation – I am glad that by working with us they managed to gather so much experience, that in the next step they throw themselves into very deep water and not only stay afloat but perform well.
And what about the organizational culture that you’ve mentioned several times and its changes over the years?
The culture has certainly changed, but mainly in aspects related to the size of the company. At the beginning we were able to meet once a week, every few days or even every day going out somewhere together after work. We could jump in a car after work, go together for skiing and return in the evening. Now we have more than 700 people and offices in different locations, so there is no way to meet everyone in person regularly – although I would love to. In this regard, the relationships within the company used to be very one-to-one. We used to sit in small rooms next to each other and talk face to face, now a large part of these conversations has moved to the Teams. This had to change with the company growth, but we are constantly improving our communication models and trying to maintain close contact with all people, taking into account the current scale of our operations. For example, we do not have, and do not want to have a Human Resources department – we never treat our people as “resources” so call the department responsible for taking care of them simply “People”. We don’t have halls or extensive machines that need to be operated. All the technology and all the IPRs that come out of Software Mind are created by our people based on their knowledge and experience, so they are our greatest value. And I hope that this can be seen in our actions. However, the scale causes mundane problems such as the fact that there are practically no hotels that could accommodate the whole company at once, so we need to, for example, divide our retreats into smaller ones, business line by business line and when it comes to communication with all employees we look for substitute forms such as e.g. regular remote all-hands meetings.
What’s the first anecdote connected with working in Software Mind that comes to your mind?
Most of the stories I can recall immediately are from the beginning of the company’s operations just like the one that I mentioned at the beginning. We were young and looking at limitless opportunities which is always linked to great memories, and although 20 years have passed this is still relevant and I’ll even say more – with the team like ours we can move even bigger mountains. As far as other memories are concerned, I remember, for example, how we once moved to work in our client’s office in Sweden and literally became champions of table soccer. We stayed there for about a month and that was the time of long nights. Since Stockholm was emptying out during the evenings, we spent practically all the time in the office, both while we were working and afterward – polishing our table soccer skills. I also recollect that the Swedes had big fridges with drinks and snacks for the employees, which we regularly cleared out while sitting in the office for long hours. When we were leaving I remember them saying that they probably had to put in one extra because supplies were running out too fast ;D
I also remember workshops in London that started very long and rewarding cooperation – we made the largest semantic database in the world at that time. We agreed that a part of our salary would be the success fee, so we wanted to understand how the project would make money ?. Therefore, during these three/four days of workshops, apart from going through all the assumptions of the project and understanding how it would work, we notoriously asked how it would earn money. I remember that in the end, the founders of this startup founded us a medal, as a reward for being consistent in asking one, important question notoriously throughout the whole workshops – “show me the money” ?. Such things are very helpful in building a positive attitude in the team and great relationships with clients.
I also remember one project related to the premium text messages in which we were responsible for the technical side. The project itself was nothing new to us – the usage of premium text messages as a form of payment or to conduct a contest was common at that time and the latter was the case here. However, the form of this competition was very unusual 😀 The organizer hung a premium car in an accessible place and people passing underneath could vote using premium text messages whether it should be dropped or not. Of course, 99% of people wrote “drop it” and the car was finally released of the crane. But most importantly, the organizer managed to earn much more than it costed him to organize the action.
What about the future?
For me, the most important thing is to continue what we do and to maintain the values with which we started. We want to build a workplace where we feel good and cooperate with exceptional people creating projects that make life easier for their users. From the point of view of what we do internally, we want to even faster develop internationally because this way we allow our people to meet with different cultures and collect experiences that can be used in the future. We don’t set ourselves goals such as “have 100k employees until X” – we want to build a company that will match our values, and if it grows to this size – great. Looking at our development over the last 2,5 years we have practically doubled our business and we see the potential to keep growing. Of course, apart from organic growth, we can also expand through acquisitions, but if we decide to make such a move, we will look for companies that will fit and bring something to our people and culture. The challenge will be to find the right model so the merge would not only increase our size but create synergy as well.
As for the impact of the pandemic on our activities, looking at the potential and commitment of the people we work with, I see a good future. In the areas where we work – we can describe it as a digital transformation in general – the workload intensifies. Last months changed the importance of having a way of reaching customers through digital channels from “nice to have” to “must-have” and our services become increasingly important. We have partners who provide a service or product based on the knowledge and experience of their people, but they were offering it in the face 2 face meetings model. Now they are switching to the digital model and the challenge they encounter is to convert the knowledge and experience of their people into IT systems so they will be able to provide their services in the SaaS model.
Furthermore, we don’t perceive digital transformations only as the evolution of products or services. We look at the process as a whole and know that it often involves changes in the structure of our clients’ organizations, or even in their culture, switching from the Waterfall-like model to Agile one. The times when you could gather requirements, hide in the proverbial basement for half a year, and then pull the rabbit out of the hat are gone. To be ahead of the competition, new functionalities have to be delivered weekly not quarterly. It seems to me that in the future this interval will be shorter, even such cycles will no longer exist, and new functionalities will be delivered to our partners continuously, every day so that they can provide these at the same pace to their end customers. So, we will have a lot of work to do in the future ?
Over 20 years have passed but our team is still young and wild, we just had to extend the definition of “being young” a little bit?