Welcome to the next feature in our Leaders in Tech editorial series. Speaking to leaders in the industry to capture their stories, career highs and lows, their trials and successes, their current company and their role, most recent projects, advice to others, and the individuals who they most look up to in the industry.
This week, we talked to Gustaw Fit, Engineering Manager at Zoopla, to find out more about why he joined the tech industry, what his role entails, what are the challenges he faces as a tech leader, and his advice to aspiring engineers and developers.
Welcome and thank you very much for inviting me to answer this set of questions. Hello everyone, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to share some of my insights.
What is your current role and responsibilities?
Twelve months ago, I had started a new adventure with Zoopla. I am an engineering leader of the team responsible for listings data. We are a backend team and our DNA is very much being the brickmakers. What that means is building APIs, which will expose normalized and high-quality data sets. This is an important process as the property industry has a large variety of different data formats.
To be more specific, as a team, we are currently working on significantly upgrading our capabilities to better support the unique needs of new home developers. This challenge has a lot to offer. From agreeing to new journeys and UX through to architectures, data schemas, and writing code.
We are working hard to gain insights from the industry and our customers. I can’t wait until we’re able to start releasing some of this new functionality. Especially that we plan to use a lot of the AWS Well-Architected framework best practices to deliver and operate.
Can you tell me a bit about your journey?
I would say a lot of how I got here is thanks to my wife. I was quite, what to call this, a party-going and a distracted student. I never gave a lot of thought to my career or future after the university. My wife successfully convinced me I could achieve more if I focus.
My first job was in a small company as an embedded systems engineer on passive optical networks. I did some assembly and c. Here, I learned I had a talent for responsibility, strategy, and talking to people. I also call it my curse :).
Not wishing to stagnate, I tried my hand at being a contract web developer, then went on building internal systems for hosting and domain management companies. From there I got into finance and now into the property industry.
I’ve changed the place I called home about 6 times so far. I am a strong believer that higher mobility increases your chances to build an interesting and satisfying career.
Today, I am working more towards becoming a better mentor and a coach. Both on technical and life levels. This comes in line with me building on my experiences as a manager. It is still early for me on this journey. Fantastic, new opportunities await.
What drew you to the tech industry?
I had my first experience with technology when I was 8. My grandparents got a VHS with lots of buttons, but no manual. I learned to program it in about an hour. Then came basically on Atari, then c, and so on.
It was a natural push towards technology. I must say though, I was always caught in two minds. I did my high school exams in history and chemistry. I always liked psychology and philosophy.
Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship?
I was lucky to always have had smarter people managing me. It is the same at Zoopla. There are lots to learn from people with more experience and the natural relationship between the leader and the follower helps.
I’ve also been mentored and coached outside of the work relationships. I learned a lot. People who have worked a lot in sales and marketing make the best coaches in my personal opinion.
In terms of external influencing factors, I am amazed by the work of Milton Erickson. I would highly recommend reading The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell and further work on myths. How well they describe any new enterprise or a challenge with new ventures.
In terms of technology, I am very much inspired by the DevOps Research and Assessment group. I truly believe in the data they are gathering and how relevant it is for the IT industry.
How do you keep your team motivated despite conflicts and obstacles?
I am open-minded, listen and prefer direct communication. This requires a lot of groundwork and building trust and confidence upfront. Including acting on what people tell you. Showing them you listen, not just telling them.
With this approach, when a conflicting or difficult situation occurs, you have built enough credit with your team, to be able to take a ‘loan’. And to survive. I do not believe in magical methods to make it work.
It is just hard work upfront before conflicts start. Then keeping the same attitude throughout the conflict or difficulty.
What are your current goals?
Me and my team are working on reimagining the offering for the new homes developers. This has multiple challenges. Understanding what was done before in the years-old codebase. What to migrate, what to write new?
Then come to the challenges of agreeing on the roadmaps, what is the most valuable offering for our customers. Going through hours of interviews with the customers. Understanding expectations from our consumers (people who use our products to find a new home).
Separately, I am actively involved in our first-ever software engineering apprenticeship program. This is a key area of focus for Zoopla and 70% of our recently recruited cohort of software engineering apprentices are female, something we are very proud of as we work to create a more diverse workforce in tech.
What are you the proudest of in your career so far?
On a technical level, my first program written in c. The code I wrote had enabled communication between a set-top-box and the central management console for gigabit passive optical networks. It was the first commercial code I ever wrote.
On a managerial level, I am proud when I can heal issues for my team. On a personal or organisational level. I have a long list of these. I truly believe this is the purpose of a people manager.
What is the favourite part of your job?
Building solutions used by other people and solving well-defined problems.
There is nothing more hurtful to any engineer than a project that got canceled, a project that is not used by anyone, or a project built without understanding the needs of the end consumers. In other words, any project that results in dead code.
For me, all parts of the building are satisfying, but the initial stages, when we ask ourselves why and perform the initial inception with the product, is the part that I thrive in the most. This helps to increase the likelihood that the first version of the new product will not result in some dead code later.
What has been your greatest challenge from working as a tech leader?
Getting the priorities right. On the best of days, a technical team will have anything between 2-10 ready product hypotheses to work on. Then comes the ever-prevailing tech debt (or for use of a better word – product debt).
Juggling priorities and making sure you decided on the right one, is the most challenging part of being a tech leader to me.
What’s the most important risk you took in your career?
Taking a job offer, without any relocation package, back in 2012. I have moved from my hometown of Szczecin to Krakow. I took my family with me, while I was still on my probationary period. I had to take a loan to do it.
It was a huge personal risk, but it paid off well. My career moved in a much better direction since.
How do you continue to grow and develop as a tech leader?
First, I keep on doing code katas. I am using an online system called Codingame, to solve simple puzzles in various programming languages.
Second, I read a lot of research papers. Not just articles, that might be biased and might miss some of the data. I like to build my own opinion on things.
Then third, I learn a lot on the job. I code at work. Code reviews and talking to other engineers, having constructive disagreements, is one of the better learning tools.
Fourth, I experiment. I am currently trying deep learning. I’ve never tried it before.
Fifth, I attend conferences, speak at them, and just talk to people outside of my workplace. It is interesting how one problem can be solved in multiple ways in different companies. I do believe that re-inventing the wheel to your specific needs can pay off greatly. Though it can also terribly fail. Not all of the experiences I hear of are positive.
Sixth, I coach and mentor. I also have my coaches and mentors. Validating the knowledge you have with a third party helps.
And last – seventh, I run my own blog. It helps me to refine my thinking and put it to external, community feedback.
What have you learned from your experience so far?
My key learning so far was that you need to learn to appreciate what people, who were before you in a company, had built. It is easy to throw away the company’s legacy or criticise it.
We are working in an industry, where rapid change is everyday life. Engineers switch jobs with a market average of 3 years. It is more than likely you will be working in a place, where the systems were built by someone else.
In most cases, this legacy is also the main source of income of the company you have started to work for. It is a bit immature in my opinion to just criticise it, before getting to know it.
One needs to learn, try to change the code, see how it works. Appreciate it, as we appreciate the landscapes created by nature over thousands or millions of years. This will get you the feel and understanding of what might be wrong.
Only then you can start thinking about which elements of this landscape should be amended, which replaced, and which just left as they were. It works well with code.
And to add, in most cases, you will notice that a lot of this legacy landscape might be waste. Just cleaning it up by removing dead code or infrastructure, might work wonders.
Do you have a memorable story or an anecdote from your experience you’d like to tell?
In one of my jobs, I was asked to end the contract of a colleague. It was my third day at work as a manager. I was out sick for the first two. Everybody I spoke to was convinced this is what needed to be done. They had the experience. I felt a strong disagreement in my gut. I managed to convince them that this person needs another chance.
It wasn’t an easy experience, including providing corrective feedback, but in the end, I followed my instinct. I was right and that person worked as a valued company employee for quite a few years after.
I learned to trust my intuition and that everyone, no matter the circumstances, deserves a second chance.
Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring engineers and testers who want to grow in the tech industry?
- Patience – your career will be a mix of hard work and the right opportunity at the right time. Work to be prepared to take that opportunity. Build an understanding there will be ups and downs in your career.
- Listen – especially to the engineers who have been around longer than you are or who are able to bring more diverse perspectives to the discussion. Their experience and constructive criticism can help you to avoid the mistakes of the past.
- Learn – our industry will be ever-changing. You won’t be able to keep up with everything. Build a passion to learn and through this drive get to explore more. This will be one of the most important things that will help you to grow.