Step back in time story #9 – Wojciech Kozak
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 better to tell their story than the main characters themselves? That’s why we decided to give the floor to our colleagues who’ve cooperate with us at Software Mind for more than 10 years. Their memories are humorous, but also do a brilliant job of showcasing the reality of the IT business of the past decades.
1/ How many years have you been working at Software Mind and what do you currently do?
I joined the company in September 2005, so I’ve been here for over 16 years. I am currently the Software Delivery Director for telco services (I started out as a programmer) – I manage a department made up of software development, maintenance, test and BA teams. The telco services business unit is split into 3 smaller units, and I am responsible for one of them. Next year it will become a complete service unit. That’s the plan.
2/ How did you get here and what did your path to becoming a software delivery director look like?
I came to Software Mind after a call from Marcin Sieprawski, my friend I worked with before and who started working here before me. Marcin let me know about an opening for a Java Developer. In 2005, Software Mind employed around 40 people. I remember that on the website each employee had their “profile” – a photo and a bio of a few sentences. When I was thinking about applying to the company I scanned this list, and since I saw a few friends on it who were happy working at SM I decided to try to join the company. Now, with our current scale, creating such a subpage is practically impossible, but I remember that at the time it was an important factor that influenced my decision.
That September was a time when the company grew rapidly – within a month about 10 people came in, so it was an increase of about 20/25%. I remember that the first team I joined was led by the first SM employee ever. If we put aside the founders for a moment, my team leader was the first person they hired, and what’s more, he’s still working with us ?. As I said, I started as a Java Developer, after about a year I became a leader of a small, 3-person team. Then I took part in a large and complex program for an innovative telco company as Technical Project Manager. The Program Project Manager responsible for this cooperation decided to leave after a few months and I got the chance to take his place. That’s how I became a Program Project Manager and for several years I managed the whole program and all the projects within.
It was a very interesting time; I learned a lot. Apart from the business and technical aspects themselves, I remember, for example, having to buy 2 cars for my teams. Our client was based in Wrocław, and we travelled there quite often, so as the person responsible for the program, I had to take care of the purchase of these cars. For some that might not be rocket science, yet until then I had never bought a new car directly from a dealer, so it was a very interesting experience – how to choose, buy, check, etc. At the beginning of the project, we worked a lot with the client at their headquarters, and we often went there for 4 days, we even had a rented flat in Wrocław where we stayed. After some time, we got to know each other very well and worked out such methods of work that allowed developers to work practically 100% remotely, while I travelled alone to Wrocław almost to the very end to attend status meetings at least once a week.
After finishing this project, I continued to run project programs and be responsible for multiple projects at once. For some time, I worked in parallel for two clients – one from the telecommunications sector, the other from the financial sector. At some point, we started to specialize more and more, and the division between these two areas became more pronounced, so I had to choose whether to focus solely on finance or telco. I chose telco and spent the next years working for one of the market leaders in Poland. Apart from the projects we did, I remember that the Warsaw office of this client was arranged very strangely; it was very difficult to move around it and to be able to get into the place you had to obtain some “secret knowledge” :). After some time, Software Mind merged with Wind Mobile, Ailleron was created, and the part of SM that focused on telco products and services came under this new brand.
Almost simultaneously, the client I had been working with decided to consolidate their maintenance and development services vendors for their systems. Since at that time we were too small to take on the whole contract, we decided to team up with a bigger, global subcontractor. Fortunately, we backed the right horse and that company managed to win this contract. It was again a very interesting period since, although we were familiar with a large part of the systems we had to work with, we also became involved in completely new areas – we had to take over many projects from other vendors and it was a very challenging experience.
I managed these projects for a few years until the COO of the telco business unit decided to leave the company and a new operational division was introduced. As a result, all Program Project Managers (including myself) became Delivery Directors. Since then, my role has not changed that much, but as a result of the investment from Enterprise Investors and our return to the Software Mind brand, we now have very ambitious plans and goals for the upcoming years, which will require a lot of work and changes – but we can talk more about that once we transfer these from objectives to deliverables ?.
3/ Did the company and its organizational culture change over the years?
It is obvious that some changes had to take place, after all, we had grown from a small company to a large organization. To illustrate this, let’s use an example of what now may seem simply bizarre ?. I remember that when I came to the company, I had to prepare my workstation – I was given a desk and a chair in cardboard boxes which I had to unpack and assemble, and a new laptop that had to be fully configured and required the installation of all the necessary software. Now, when a new employee comes for their first day, everything is already waiting for them and ready to be used ?.
As for the culture itself, it’s hard for me to describe its changes because, in my opinion, you look at it differently at every stage of your life, but the biggest changes that have taken place are related to the growth of scale on which we operate. I remember that for the first integration trips everyone could take along their partners, there were so few of us that it was possible. We all knew each other very well and we were all very close. Now, with several hundred people, not only are such trips impossible, but also it is unlikely to know every person in the company and be aware of what exactly they do. Clearly, we are constantly taking new measures to equalize the knowledge of what is going on in the company among all the employees – we organize all-hands meetings and so on – but it is not as easy as it used to be when you could just talk about all the details with everyone in the kitchen.
The introduction of Agile has also changed a lot in our everyday work, we used to work practically only using Waterfall, now we run both projects for clients and internal activities in an Agile manner. Yet, what I believe is worth mentioning, is there is still no top-down imposed methodology, let’s say “corporate standard” – we always customize the work methodology to make it work for a particular scenario. But what’s more important, despite the increase in scale, and the loss of, let’s call it “family atmosphere”, I still feel that I’m close to the people making the most important decisions. I’m sure that if I have a good idea, it won’t be a problem to present it to the Board, and what’s more, I’ll even be able to persuade them, and I hope that every one of us in Software Mind feels the same?.
What’s more, this increase in scale has allowed us to take on much more ambitious projects. It’s a well-known fact that even the best people, who have extremely broad knowledge, can think everything through, create plans, design complex systems, and so on, will never be as effective as a team that has the accumulated experience and knowledge of many people. In our company, teamwork is highly valued, and this is what allows us to keep moving forward and to tackle projects that years ago would have been far beyond our reach. We work together, people feel they have an impact on what’s going on, they share their experiences and knowledge, are always ready to give a helping hand and that approach is exactly what allows us to keep pushing forward.
4/ What’s the first anecdote connected with working at SM that comes to mind?
This may not be an anecdote but rather a flashback, yet I have great memories of our first Warsaw office, which was a little unusual. Since at that time our biggest client was located in Warsaw, we needed to have some space there and, to effectively use limited resources, it was not what most people imagine when thinking about an office. Instead of renting an office and accommodating employees in hotels, we rented a villa. In the villa, we had not only the office part and “hotel rooms” but also a garden, where it was possible to organize integrations both for us internally and our clients. What’s more, our villa was located right next to the client’s office, where over 1,000 people worked, so it was a bit of a David and Goliath – a small villa next to a huge office building. In the beginning, some of the client’s employees thought that we were subletting some space in their office building, because if we needed to discuss something and we were in Warsaw, we were able to say: “ok, in 5 minutes I will be in your room/conference room”. But as time went by and we got to know each other better, the situation reversed – the client’s employees preferred to come to our villa because of the great atmosphere and garden which combined to create a much more creative environment for meetings ?.
And since I’ve mentioned working with our clients on-site, I have one anecdote related to the 2 cars I bought for our teams to travel to Wrocław. Using them was the origin of many funny stories, but one is particularly imprinted in my mind. These cars were at the disposal of all team members who needed to travel to our client, and as you surely know, all people are different and sometimes have a completely opposite approach to the same thing. While most of us utilize windscreen washer fluid in a, let’s say, classic manner, we had 2 extreme experiences. Once there was a suspicion of fraud since someone bought and used 15 litters of this fluid during one trip ?. However, almost 300km in nasty weather may require constant cleaning for those “ultimately clean window” addicts, so eventually we concluded that rather than fraud, we were dealing with a cleanliness aficionado ?. On the other hand, I remember that once I took this car from my colleague and almost instantly found out that the windscreen washer fluid was completely gone, so after a forced break for a refill I called and asked him why he didn’t refill the fluid tank and how could he drive without it. Especially since the weather was really nasty – a lot of snow and dirty water pulled up from the road. He said that he didn’t need it (why ??) because during the whole trip, which is mostly highway, he simply drove behind a truck that splashed the windscreen with water from under its wheels, used it to clean the windscreen, and once it was dirty again, the hunt for the next truck started all over again. So, as you can – even such a piffling matter may show how different we all are ?.
5/ Why didn’t you change your job these last 15 years.
Although “on paper” I haven’t , in practice, I feel like I have been changing it constantly, simply without changing the company. During all these years I’ve never had the same role, I’ve never worked on a similar project, and so on for more than 2/3 years. There was always something new, so I didn’t have even a chance to feel stagnant. What’s more, if we were to be 100% precise in term of formalities, I started working in Software Mind, later I was a part of Ailleron and now I’m back at Software Mind.
6/ What do you plan for the following 15 years?
As I have already mentioned, in connection with the Enterprise Investors investment we have prepared a plan for the next few years and executing it will be demanding for all of us, but at the same time it will also be very interesting –we will have to change our way of thinking once again ?. So, I think I will continue to work here for these years because it will all be interesting and it’s a chance to develop new skills. But if I were to plan the whole 15 years that’s a much harder task. To be honest, I can’t tell you what will happen. Looking at it from a different angle; the first smartphone came out in 2008 and revolutionized the market. Now, can you imagine your life without a smartphone? A huge change of habits and new opportunities, and this is only a dozen or so years. And life without a PC / Laptop? It was only 30 years ago … so I think in such a period we will experience changes that we can’t predict yet and these will impact what I’ll be doing. It will be very interesting and exciting. I’m already looking forward to it ;).