Last October, Roman Pichlik joined Ataccama as our Head of Engineering. A half a year in, we wanted to check in, see how it’s been going and what’s new on our engineering horizon. What’s it like managing a rapidly growing team, remotely? How has the remote onboarding process gone? Why does he reject 5pm meetings? And most importantly, which fellow Ataccamer is he going to challenge to an Ironman race? Read on to find out.
You’ve been with Ataccama for 6 months now. How’s it been going?
I still cannot believe it’s been 6 months already. It’s gone by so quick. I didn’t have any particular expectations because it was a new product, new people etc., it was all new. It took a while to get up to speed on everything that was going on. The most difficult part was exploring and learning everything virtually. If I needed something, I had to schedule a Zoom call. There was no chance to meet anyone in person.
Some days, I was so exhausted, it took an hour and a half to shut down my mind and switch from work time to family time. My brain was still engaged and thinking. I learned quickly it’s not a good idea to schedule difficult topics at 5pm because there’s no time to shut down. But, homo sapiens can adapt quickly, so I do.
What’s it been like trying to meet and manage an engineering team of 100+ people remotely?
There are a couple of challenges. I spent a good amount of time learning as much as possible about the people. Knowing who they are was one thing, but having a relationship with them was another. I tried to listen to them, but sometimes I would jump straight into execution. Things didn’t always go smoothly. People were sometimes confused and it took a while to fix that. I didn’t have the strong relationships needed at the time and it was difficult for me being responsible for something that was out of my control. But everyone was helpful and very supportive. It just took a while to get used to.
What’s your strategy going forward?
“It’s more about giving them a compass, putting a finger on a map (that’s my role), and kindly asking them to please get us to that point.”
As the engineering department continues to grow, your contribution is a less tactical one because you see the problems from 10,000 meters up; you tend to be biased. The tricky part is letting the talented people who are responsible for the day-to-day operations do their job without managing them. Because it doesn’t work at scale. It’s more about giving them a compass, putting a finger on a map (that’s my role), and kindly asking them to please get us to that point. It really doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about product development, or migrating to a new infrastructure, or so on. Not jumping into it and telling them exactly what to do is a challenge. But we’re back to relationships, and mutual trust is best.
We’ve hired approximately 50 new people to the engineering team in the last couple of months. How have you approached online onboarding?
It’s like summiting Everest without oxygen tanks. Everyone has done an amazing job. Starting from HR sourcing candidates and making sure everyone signs a contract, to IT ensuring laptops, having engineers join interviews to convince a candidate, and finding the right team fit. Last but not least, we set and keep the bar high. After that, the actual onboarding can happen. We’ve done a couple of iterations of the onboarding process and we evaluate it regularly. There are mandatory training sessions, for example, a product overview, architecture overview, and so on. Then, each newcomer gets a buddy to help them, and a checklist covering what they’re supposed to do and achieve over the next three months.
How do you make sure people understand the product/processes and get to know the team properly?
The main challenge is almost everything needs to be ready for remote working and it has to scale to some extent. You cannot simply tell 10 new engineers, just ask these 5 people. Creating a minimum amount of distractions for the current team while keeping newcomers on track with a buddy as a safety net, and then improving things for the next iteration. This is how we approach it.
What are your personal tips for WFH? Any best practices to stay sane?
I mentioned 5pm meetings discussing tough topics are an insane idea, didn’t I? I try to stay equally flexible for my colleagues and for my family. If my wife tells me she’s going running while our son is sleeping, I support her even if that means he might wake up in the middle of my meeting. She understands and supports me when I decide to work in the evening for whatever reason. She arranges their time accordingly. I was shocked when I saw the data comparing my daily steps year on year. I try to walk as much as possible to improve that. So instead of driving my son to kindergarten, we walk.
A couple more hacks. If you need to focus on work, put an out of office event in your calendar. It automatically declines invitations to any other meetings. Sometimes I even block an hour on my calendar to exercise during the day because it energizes me. But it really doesn’t matter if it’s for exercising or lunch or just taking the kids outside.
What do you plan to focus on in the upcoming months?
“We need to build an organization, processes and software in an evolutionary way — to survive, adapt and improve from each and every failure because failures are inevitable.”
Building relationships is an ongoing goal. Engineering is a living organism. Whatever works now might stop working tomorrow. I think about it in terms of The Black Swan and Antifragile, two books by Nassim Nicolas Taleb. We need to build an organization, processes and software in an evolutionary way — to survive, adapt and improve from each and every failure because failures are inevitable. I do have personal goals too, for example, beating our Chief Growth Officer Martin Zahumensky’s personal best in an Ironman distance.