#TechQA: Janko Ulaga, Director of Engineering, Platform and Architecture @ Flink

In the latest of our #TechQA series, Third Republic’s Co-Founder, Mat Roche, talks to Janko Ulaga, Director of Engineering, Platform and Architecture at Flink, Europe’s leading quick commerce platform, all about tech team culture and interview success.

Janko discusses the exciting growth happening at Flink, mistakes you should avoid during the interview process and what sets an engineering team culture apart.

Mat Roche (MR): Can you give us an overview of your background?

Janko Ulaga (JU): When I do intros about myself during interviews I often say I’m a stereotypical engineer who had somewhat of a scientific background. Most of the people who end up coding and have a degree in Physics start working for banks, and my beginnings were no different. Right after college I started working for a company building software for banks and then moved to a company that was building tools for the satellite industry. All those roles required me to do some Java coding, and everyone who did anything with Java 15 years ago knows the pains of doing Enterprise Java. I realized that I should be having way more fun coding, so I got gateway drugged with functional programming, and as this wasn’t a particularly wide-spread paradigm in Croatia where I’m originally from, I decided to move to Berlin and started working with Scala for startups. When I got more experience with FP and distributed systems, I was hired by a NY based AdTech startup and worked my way up from Team Lead, Principal Engineer, Director of Engineering to Chief Architect. We were a tight unit who was building things more or less from scratch and trying to create a really good platform for realtime streaming systems with insane loads and super low latencies. After some years there, it was time to move on and then I met Dirk Daumann, who convinced me to join him at another scale up in Berlin. We’re now together at Flink.

MR: Can you also give us an overview of Flink?

JU: Flink is Europe’s leading instant grocery delivery service on a mission to give people time back. Consumers can order groceries on the Flink app and get it delivered in just minutes via E-Bikes. Flink stocks a broad range of top brands and high quality fresh products. Flink is currently one of the fastest growing companies in Europe. The company currently operates in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Austria, in more than 90 cities and out of more than 200 hubs. The problems the teams are facing here might seem like a piece of cake, but each business domain at Flink has super exciting challenges they’re trying to solve that they would be solving at any of the well advertised tech companies.

MR: On a personal note, after successful years at other high growth tech companies, why did you make the move to Flink?

JU: It was about the challenges I would be facing. My job in the past years has always been at the intersection between technical topics, management and building culture, so I couldn’t find a better Petri dish than Flink. I was invited for Friday beers before I joined, and people were oozing with enthusiasm, positivity and I witnessed a level of energy that I had seen fade away in my previous companies. I still believe that your workplace is supposed to give you much more than just a paycheck at the end of the month. What you need to get out of work is a combination of knowledge you gain there and the joy of working on interesting projects with great people. I believe we have that here.

MR: What’s your vision for the platform engineering team at Flink?  

JU: Platform teams are fundamental for us. Their tasks and roadmap are crucial for company growth in a lot of ways. Number of engineers working on solutions increases, traffic increases, the number of tools engineers use grows, and we’re here to be the empowering factor that allows all of this to happen and ensure that we provide services that keep things running smoothly, securely and reliably. When we plan our roadmap, we are thinking of our customers first. We have to ask ourselves, how are we supporting our customers and our company goals at the same time? We need to put our customers first, and make sure that they want to use our products because they’re good, not because they have to use them. In that sense, we’re treating Platform as a Product Engineering team, we’re just using different tooling. We still need to be customer focused, so Platform teams at Flink are building products that make our Engineers able to innovate and still be exposed to the technologies we’re using. To summarize, the vision is to become a customer centric platform which listens to the theeds of the business and our customers, and use the tools we have in our toolbox to make it happen.

MR: The team is embarking on an exciting period of team growth. What is driving this growth?

JU: Our company goals. We want to be the best quick-commerce platform there is. With modern architecture comes a price one must pay to reduce complexity, and complexity requires standardization and tooling. For the company to remain competitive and technologically advanced, we need to invest in our Platform teams to support that.

MR: How would you describe the engineering team culture at Flink?

JU: We’re still keeping our startup attitude. Things move fast, we try to embrace failures as learnings and we’re trying to allow ourselves to fail in order to move forward. As I said before, there’s still a lot of enthusiasm and willingness to really solve problems. We care. We care about our business, about our customers, colleagues and our ways of working.

MR: What makes your culture different to other high growth tech businesses?

JU: We’re impact driven. We cannot measure our growth by the number of people we hire. Our values are focused on self improvement, pragmatic and smart investments, organic ownership, direct and honest feedback, teamwork and customer obsession. What we believe is that these values help us create better teams, better products and services that our focused on bringing value to our customers. We’re not growing for the sake of unbounded expansion. We will get nowhere without building services that no one uses, so we want to focus on building the right products, and we want to be surrounded by team members who understand that.

MR: What type of person matches the engineering DNA of Flink?

JU: Piggybacking on my previous statements, we’re talking about individuals who want to grow as professionals and human beings every day. Individuals that invest their time and efforts smartly and understand the value of iterative development and don’t shy away from having a healthy discussion based on facts to make decisions, even when it gets heated. That requires us to also have individuals who can put the customer and the team first, let go of their egos and welcome good and hard feedback.

MR: What advice can you give to candidates set to interview with Flink?

JU: Be honest, be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, don’t shy away from saying that you don’t know something. Keep things as simple as possible but make everyone aware of the complexity of the problem.

MR: What mistakes have you seen candidates make during the hiring process that have ultimately held someone back?

JU: We’re trying to assess a couple of things, but in general we can bundle that into two groups. Does the candidate exhibit behaviours that match our values, and whether the candidate has the technical skills to be an important part of our services. That being said, it’s usually a combination where candidates over-engineer their solutions, or they just don’t have enough experience to demonstrate that they fit our values.

MR: With a tech slowdown now happening and redundancies in the air, why is moving to Flink still a low-risk option?

JU: Well, we don’t have redundancies :). We’re looking for strong contributors and leaders who thrive in environments where we value impact, commitment, ownership and being a team player. I believe that people who keep those priorities will never be redundant, and that’s especially the case at Flink.

MR: In your opinion, why would someone working in platform engineering at a reputable business consider employment opportunities in your team at Flink?

JU: IMHO there are a lot of opportunities here. From a technical perspective, we’re taking the approach of solving problems and building services that help our customers. It’s not about being a guardian or a ticketing machine… You guessed it, it’s about impact! We want to explore the tools that solve problems best, so in a lot of cases there’s quite a bit of new tooling and tech that one can touch and evaluate. That also means that there’s a lot of moving pieces so it’s a great opportunity for individuals to take the front seat and lead the efforts towards building cool and shiny things. We will never be a 50 people team, we’re here to empower and orchestrate, and I think it’s an exciting opportunity for anyone who wants to work somewhere between software engineering, architecture, security and reliability by creating software. In the end, we’re just a product team with specific customers and a slightly different toolbox than other mainstream software engineers.

If you’re looking to source top technical talent or would like to be involved in our next Q&A, get in touch with us today!

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