January 13, 2020 · #artificial-intelligence #data-science #internet-of-things #startup
Hello! What's your background and what do you do?
Hi! My name is Olav, and I’m the Head of Data Science at KONUX, an IoT/AI startup based in Munich, that enables intelligent infrastructure for the rail industry.
I’m a statistical physicist by training, and did my PhD applying those techniques to neuronal networks in the brain, to understand what we can learn about our internal wiring. Beyond that I’m a startup person, founded my first company when I was 18 and have worked in numerous startups since. I just love the speed, the flat hierarchies and the learning curve.
How was your transition from software development to management like?
So I never formally worked as a software developer, only during internships at the university. I guess you could say that I learned professional-level development by working with the people that I later led as a manager.
For me management started when, based mostly on those research internships and working at a management consultancy, I was asked to lead an 8-months Ruby on Rails project with 2 developers for a consultancy that didn’t until then have software know-how in house. That was definitely a learning experience, but in a good way.
That experience, plus a PhD in a relevant field got me my first position as a CTO (Chief Technology Officer) for a small but rapidly growing startup in Munich, where I built and led the development and data teams for almost 3 years. In that time the company grew from 7 to 90 people. In many ways this was where I learned management for real, and I was working long hours and most weekends to make up for my lack of experience. There was a lot to learn: I had to understand to give architectural directions to a team, work with remote teams, understand agile, and how to not take criticism personally, just to give a few examples. I personally enjoyed this time very much.
What does your day-to-day work look like, and what motivates you to do it every day?
The team is now 12 people and growing quickly, so in terms of my management role this is the next level of indirection: I’m not only not doing development any more, I’m also not typically involved in the regular agile meetings. Instead, I focus more on the long term strategic things that we do as a team: Find ways for us to explore new research directions and define processes that accelerate the team. Explore partnerships for the company. Understand new technologies or data sources that could help the team in the coming months and years, sometimes even form a small team to prototype a research idea.
A big part is of course helping everyone in the team to grow individually in terms of tech and soft skills, in 1-on-1s and otherwise. One of the joys of doing that is that I get to teach younger developers the principles of coding, typically in the context of code reviews or architecture discussiones.
Beyond that, I am talking to the rest of the company in order to align with everyone about where we are headed. Typically about half of the day I’m in meetings, with the other half I am at my desk and am available for discussions with anyone in the team or the company.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced so far? What did you do to overcome them?
In terms of software, a big challenge was knowing which tech debt to work on first. Most projects have bigger architecture questions that can be quite challenging to figure out, especially when you are less experienced and are not 100% sure about the high-level goals.
One of the interesting aspects of working in a smaller startup, as opposed to a corporate, for example, is that there is usually not someone there that you can teach you how to do it. Thus it is crucial to have a network of peers that you can discuss your ideas with. Meetups, conferences and the networks of investors can be priceless for that.
What's the best advice you've received about being a manager?
Should I ever write a book on management then this would be the first rule: Don’t do stuff yourself. As soon as you have a small team then your individual contribution does not really matter any more. What matters is that you provide the right compass and make everyone on the team better and faster.
Beyond giving direction, your primary role as a manager is to amplify the team, and way too many managers are stuck in doing things themselves rather than delegating. I’ve witnessed this so many times even from a lot of smart people that should really know better.
What do you tell developers who are considering making the switch or new to the role?
Try it out! Maybe volunteer for onboarding new colleagues, supervise an intern, or take over some of the more project management tasks in the team like analyzing team velocity. Management is not for everyone, and the days where you could only get a good salary trajectory in management are mostly over.
If you’re like me then you’ll find out you love teaching and building talented teams and find that the lever regarding output is so much bigger than as an individual. But go out and see for yourself!
What’s important to understand up front is that the skill set to succeed as a manager is quite different from the one that makes a great software developer. The focus is on communication, empathy, strategy, teaching, process thinking. The technical skills are just required to get there.
Final call to action! Where can we go to learn more about you?
Well definitely check out KONUX! We’re always hiring, and it’s a very cool company in one of the most beautiful and liveable cities on the planet. If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch via LinkedIn.