Hello! What's your background and what do you do?
While I received my formal Computer Science degree from Wroclaw University of Science and Technology in 2010, I was one of the “nerdy kids” of the 90’s that wanted to change the world with technology and computers. During my early teenage years I was already building visual calculators with Visual Basic, programming (very simplistic) games, and my dream till today was making games. My parents gave me a lot of autonomy in choosing my education path, which allowed me to choose the tech-oriented highschool that I felt would help me prepare for the university education (and it indeed did).
My second teenage dream was living abroad. Initially I didn’t even consider living in a German-speaking country, but my first foreign job at Runtastic in beautiful Linz (Austria) changed my perspective, and finally I settled in Berlin (few hundred kilometers closer to my parents’ hometown in Poland). I worked here in some exciting startups like DaWanda, Versus, Caspar Health and finally decided it’s time to start my own companies: Vila Health and Cubitoo.
Vila Health is a digital health startup offering emotional and psychological support in a life with chronic disease through a conversational-interface app. It started early in 2019 and I am one of the co-founders and the CTO. We recently received the top prize in Education category at Beautiful Software Awards 2019, sometimes unofficially called “Berlin Tech Oscars”.
I’m responsible for the technical side of the company_slug: the technological stack, data security, software architecture, User Experience, Business Intelligence and marketing analytics.
I also run my own creative agency called Cubitoo offering design and engineering, as well as mentoring and management consultancy. We build custom software and SaaS products, helping teams stay organized and communicate in a more pragmatic way, too.
How was your transition from software development to management like?
My career path led me mostly through early-stage or small startups, so there was always the need of being a developer and a manager at some point. The change was almost always gradual and felt natural: I was the first engineer, or the technical lead responsible for interviewing more developers, then manage and see them grow.
It was a really nice change of perspective in my career as a software engineer. Not only am I able to do exciting things, but also have the chance to “pay it forward” and help younger colleagues grow and get better. One junior developer I managed in the past is my good friend today, so I think the transition was pretty successful.
What does your day-to-day work look like, and what motivates you to do it every day?
My day-to-day work is a lot of programming, but also organizing communication between different teams (business development, design, content creators) and checking various statistics and metrics. We try to apply the asynchronous communication rules, with emails and Google Doc notes, and for time-pressing matters just use Whatsapp. This approach helps with keeping everyone on the same page, but also gives them a lot of autonomy.
My personal skill set is very wide (I worked in the past both as a designer and as a developer), and I use this knowledge today to build bridges between various areas and departments in the company. Being able to commit to various areas, and keep things fresh every single day is very invigorating and gives me a lot of motivation. During one of my corporate jobs my manager told me “you can do too many things to do just development and you suffer doing just one thing” and he was right, that’s why I am now using all my knowledge and experience at Vila Health and Cubitoo, with great success!
What are the biggest challenges you've faced so far? What did you do to overcome them?
I have to admit I’ve been very lucky so far in my life and career, because I haven’t encountered yet a challenge that couldn’t be solved in a reasonable amount of time.
I consider my move to Germany (Berlin) more as an adventure than a challenge, even though after 8 years here my German speaking skills leave a lot to be desired, and that makes running a company here a tad stressful at times. I was extremely lucky though, making amazing friends and eventually meeting my co-founder Laura, who keeps Vila Health legal affairs in superb shape and helps me with the German bureaucracy.
Career-wise, the biggest challenge so far is staying focused on what brings the most value, and not getting too distracted by new and exciting technologies, features that would be nice to implement but aren’t necessary, and avoiding “form over function” thinking.
When it comes to managing engineers, the biggest challenge so far was figuring out the strategy to let them grow in a focused and fun, motivating way. Some of my junior developers were more inclined to try backend engineering, while some were mostly interested in the User Experience, and frontend work. There’s a certain challenge of balancing what everybody wants and the requirements of the team in a broader context of the business. My approach to this is open communication while planning the work: what needs to be done, who is the most interested to do it, while pairing them with senior colleagues having practical experience. With this approach, they felt empowered to do various tasks outside of their comfort zone, because there was always the “safety net” of more experienced engineers should they need some help or guidance.
What has been the biggest surprise so far? Something you didn't expect?
I’m always amazed how little “management” happens in actual managing when done right! Working in an engineering environment means that there are many really smart and competent people in the room. Hovering over them and telling them what to do is the worst way to utilize their energy. The amount of management needed varies a lot depending on the seniority of the team, and the tasks they perform.
I have worked with managers applying a wide range of management approaches and “tricks”, and had the best time working in teams that felt “left alone”. Working with micromanagers and “control freaks” was a good lesson, and directed my managerial mindset into a more humane, kind, and mindful approach.
A good team is not made by clones of one person, but by merging diverse and often clashing perspectives. As long as everyone keeps being constructive, mindful and kind, even the most polarizing ideas, opinions and approaches will lead to amazing results.
What's the best advice you've received about being a manager?
I’ve received two amazing advice in my career,
First one is “don’t micro-manage, you hired these people for a reason, so let them be smart”. Too often focusing on details too early or too much leads to a complete perspective loss (as in “seeing the forest for the trees” saying), great dissatisfaction, and burnout. I’ve experienced that first-hand from my managers, so I’m very aware and cautious of such behaviour when I’m managing.
Second was “hire slow, fire fast”. There’s much to be improved in the way engineers are hired these days, from simplistic test-based approach, to the never-ending series of interviews. It feels like there’s no trust between hirees and the company hiring them. Nobody remembers, that’s what the probation time is for! When I hire, I always want to see the real personality of the hiree: how do they think, what motivates them, are they intro- or extrovert? One time I was hiring an iOS developer, and because I don’t program neither Objective-C nor Swift, we had a pair-programming session working on a simple project. He got hired right after, fit great into the team, and built an amazing iOS application for the company!
What do you tell developers who are considering making the switch or new to the role?
I always ask if they are sure. Quite often a managerial position comes as a promotion opportunity, and not everyone is aware of the new responsibilities and challenges.
Another thing I say is “don’t micromanage, lead”. I have never worked in a team having more than 10 engineers, but my realization so far is that the most scalable way to lead is to generate an “internal drive”: nobody needs to be instructed what to do, because they already know what needs to be done and they are aware of the context and ideas behind their tasks. It works good with just a handful of engineers and I believe it can be scaled well beyond that number. Of course it cannot be achieved by poring over the team, breathing on their necks, and steering every single decision but through effective communication, transparency, and trust.
Final call to action! Where can we go to learn more about you?
I am currently getting ready to open my own mentoring program for junior engineers and startup founders, so definitely check my website and insight blog at https://cubitoo.com for news, but also have a look at Vila Health at https://vila-health.com, as it’s a big idea that will change many lives for the better and we have a great mission.
If you’re interested in some kitchen adventures and simple, tasty food, my personal cooking website is there at https://cookarr.com for you.
Say “hi” to me via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/pawelkomarnicki/.