Building the next big thing at AhoyConnect

July 17, 2022

Building the next big thing at AhoyConnect – an interview with Alex Romanov

 

Meet Alex, our senior engineering manager. When he’s not jumping out of airplanes in the middle of Siberia dressed in a bear suit, he’s building outstanding engineering teams – and we’re lucky to have him here at AhoyConnect. 

In the second installment of our Humans of Ahoy series, we caught up with Alex to discuss his path to engineering leadership, the principles that guide his work, and why Ahoy is a great place for engineers to grow their careers. 

Hi, Alex! Before we discuss your work here at AhoyConnect, could you tell us a bit about where you grew up and your early life? You’ve lived in 12 different countries, right? 

Sure! Both of my parents are from completely different backgrounds. My dad is Russian. My mom is from Syria. I was born in Syria, even though I'm not Syrian. It was just where my family was back then. 

We traveled a lot through my dad’s work, mainly in North Africa and Europe. So I was exposed to lots of different cultures and languages. It affected me in many ways, both negatively and positively. 

I didn’t have a stable life or a place to call home, and it was hard to make long-lasting friendships. But on the other hand, I got to meet lots of different people from different backgrounds and cultures. So at a young age, I learned to understand people, even if I didn’t fully understand the language.

There's a theory that when you lose one of your senses, the others become stronger. So even if you struggle to understand the words, you can still pick up on body language and the pattern of speech, and you can connect with people that way. I would say that was the biggest benefit. 

Do you think your exposure to so many different cultures at an early age has made you more open-minded?

I wouldn't call it open‑minded, because that can sometimes mean that you accept everything and aren’t willing to criticize anything. It's more about understanding that people think differently. They have different cultures. And even the smallest gestures can mean something different. 

For example, in some countries, the thumbs-up gesture is something positive, while in others it’s equivalent to showing the middle finger. So it’s about understanding that these differences exist and that it’s necessary to find a personal approach for everyone. 

What made you decide to pursue a career in engineering? Were you always interested in tech as a kid? 

My dad is an engineer. My elder brother is an engineer as well. There's a huge age difference between me and my brothers. The eldest is 12 years older than me. The middle one is nine years older than me. So they were close together when we were growing up. Since I didn't have the chance to have lots of friends or stability in my life, you could say I found a brother in computers. 

From the age of about five, I used to spend time watching my brothers working with computers, even though they didn't allow me to touch them. They had this habit 

of disassembling their computers, reassembling them, and then reinstalling the operating system. Back then it was MS-DOS or Windows 95. 

Alex together with Jeff Sutherland – co-founder of Scrum. 

This one time, I was nagging them to let me have a go. My dad came in and said, “Why are you making so much noise?” So I told him that I wanted to disassemble and reassemble the computer without breaking it. And my brothers were like, “No! Don’t let him do it! He’ll break it!”

My dad is my hero. He’s a very wise man. He looked at me and said, “What will happen if 

you can’t do it?” I didn’t know what to say in response. So he continued, “I'll make you a deal. If you do it, I'll get you your own computer. If you don't do it, you’ll stop nagging your 

brothers.” So I went ahead and did it – and I got myself a new computer. 

Could you tell us a bit about your early career? How did you find your feet in engineering? And how did you eventually transition to more senior positions?

When I moved to Russia about 15 years ago, there was a trend where normal people would have their personal websites and put them on business cards. It was very aspirational at the time. I used to charge $100 for a website. It took me about 30 minutes to do one. That was my sole income for the first couple of years, and it helped me pay for my tuition. 

I also used to play World of Warcraft. I was one of the best players in a realm called Agent Down. I even had my own blog talking about how to improve your tactics and skills. I gained a lot of followers. Then I was approached by someone from England who had an outsourcing studio that did a lot of testing for big companies. He asked me if I wanted to work on World of Warcraft. I said yes without hesitation.

I led a QA team of about 20 people, and with time it grew to almost a hundred outsourced engineers. It was a dream come true, working in the gaming industry, and getting my hands on all the new games before they got released. But it wasn’t as good as it sounds. When you’re stuck playing the same level for 12 hours and coming up with QA reports – after a while it made me hate gaming. 

What did you do next?

I had to apply for Russian citizenship, which required me to provide proof of income. That meant I had to get a full-time job. So I reached out to my friends that I met at university, and through them, I got a job at a company called Game Insight. Back then it was one of the leading companies in the world for mobile and social media games. 

When I told them about my background and my work experience, they thought I was lying and they offered me the position of junior QA engineer. The salary was super low, but I needed the job to get Russian citizenship. 

In the first few days, they assigned me to a project. After three days, I compiled a huge 

proposal on what was wrong with the project and how we could make it better. I went to the director of the branch and said to him, “I know that to you I'm just a junior QA engineer, but here's my proposal. Read it.” He started laughing. Then he started reading it. When he finished, he said, “You are our new producer and game designer.” 

After a while, I realized I was sick of working in gaming. So I decided to move on and joined a software outsourcing company called Distillery. They were looking for a manager who spoke English and Russian. The company was scaling rapidly at the time, and it was a fun experience, but I decided to move on after a year or so. 

Next, I started a small startup with my friends. We grew from four people to over 20, but unfortunately, it turned from a startup into another outsourcing project to get more funding. It was a great experience, though. I got to work with my best friends and try something different. 

Alex is fan of some adrenaline experience such as skydiving

After that I worked at a software startup called Atlas Systems, working on a security program, before accepting a job offer in Siberia, 4,000 km away in the middle of nowhere. Back then, Siberia was like something out of Grand Theft Auto, but it was getting better every day. The highlight of this time for me was jumping out of an old Soviet-era airplane in a bear suit. Why not?

After this, I joined a company called InCountry. They allowed me to build everything I wanted to build, from culture to processes and controls. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot there.

Alex together with the founder of InCountry Peter Yared (in the middle)

Could you tell us the story of how you joined Ahoy? What was your motivation to join this company over any other?

I wanted something similar to what I had at InCountry. I wanted to work with smart people on an interesting idea. I wanted to work with founders who hire people not to tell them what to do but to listen to them. I also wanted to jump on the next big thing – and that’s Ahoy. 

The opportunity at Ahoy covered community, web3, data – everything that I was looking for. Plus Becky, the talent lead at the time, was amazing. I had one of the best interviews of my life with her. She was very open‑minded and answered all my concerns. She understood me for who I am – someone who likes to laugh and joke. She got me hooked.

Then I spoke with Mika, our CTO. I looked him up and heard good things about him. I met him, and we clicked. I met with Dusko, our CEO, and had the same experience with him. He was very honest and open with me. 

Looking at the other offers I had, I thought, “This is where I want to be. These are the people I want to work with. Everything they are presenting right now is going to be the next big thing in the next couple of years.” Denying myself the opportunity to be a part of that just seemed crazy.” 

So you run the engineering team here. Does that mean you are responsible for building the processes and culture as well as the team?

Everything. And that’s what I love about it. I tried to understand where we are right now, not even from the product perspective, but in terms of processes. How do we deal with the product team? Where are we heading? How do we operate? 

I tried to bring all the best practices that I’ve learned over the years to make sure we have the right process, then build the culture. Because culture isn’t a one-person job. It takes time to build a culture, whereas processes are easier to implement. You can simply analyze what you are doing now, understand the bottlenecks, and connect the dots.  

Culture is basically about people. As more people join the team, does the culture evolve on its own, or do you constantly have to steer it back to your idea of what the culture should be?

There are two things to consider here: The culture you build for your team and the culture you have in the company. At Ahoy, we have the company culture – we love it, we respect it, and we follow it. But we also have something on top that is specific to engineering. 

Getting the right people to join your team is something we always aim for, but no one will 

show you that they aren’t a good cultural fit from an interview. It takes time to reveal that stuff. So you've got to keep an eye out. Toxicity will thrive where there is an environment for it. But if you remove the conditions it needs to thrive, then toxicity cannot survive. 

Alex is not only our “captain” of the engineering team he's also a true joker – this is how he held all the first 1 on 1 calls with his team 😅

In a senior engineering role, how do you balance your leadership responsibilities with hands-on engineering work? Do you still get to do both? And if not, do you prefer where you are now?

Honestly, I love where I am right now. Sometimes I wish that I had kept coding, but at the same time, it’s like learning a musical instrument – if you don’t keep practising it and getting better, there is no point.

Now, I prefer to focus more on processes, the engineering culture, and the best practices that allow engineers to thrive. While many will disagree with me, I honestly believe that engineering managers should manage the engineers, but how those engineers do the work is their thing. They are the experts. They are the ones who are building the product. I don't want to shove my nose where it doesn't belong. 

I understand the basics, but we brought them into the company to build the product the right way. I have complete faith in them. When it comes to management, I'll deal with it, so they don't have to worry about it. 

How would you describe your approach to management and leadership? Are there any principles or values that guide your work? 

First, we are all human. We are all different. And I need to find what allows people to function effectively and be happy. That's one of the most important things for me. 

The second one is that there’s no right way or right process. Every company, product, and team is different. So you should tailor best practices to your needs to find what works for you. I will always fight against getting a ready-made solution and just fixing it on top of us. I would rather we build our own solutions to make our lives easier.

The third one is to make sure that every engineer that works with me for two years gets at least one step further in their career. I fight for this all the time. I know that we are compensating our engineers to do the job that they are supposed to be doing. But at the same time, two years of your life is a lot. If I don't help you progress with your career, I have failed as a manager.  

How would you describe the differences between life on an engineering team in an early-stage startup compared to an established enterprise?

The beauty of early‑stage startups is that you get to decide everything, and you get to experiment with what works best for you and the company. Enterprises are very different. There's almost no space to experiment and change things. 

If you join an enterprise, most of the time you have to fit into an existing framework or culture. In a startup, you play a direct role in creating those things. 

What would you say to any engineers who are thinking about joining Ahoy? 

I would say that if you want an experience to remember, to advance in your career, or be part of the next big thing, then go ahead. You won't regret it. Seeing how things are being built from the ground up, I think it will be a great experience that will help you in your future.

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