The interview with Jan Vacata, the Engineering Manager
Jan (Honza) Vacata joined Kiwi.com as an Engineering Manager in the middle of January 2021. He works in two very different domains, Account, and FinTech. Before joining Kiwi.com, Honza worked for Avast. “I have always been attracted by technological product-oriented companies, having a strong story, originating in the “Czechoslovakian” space,” he shared.
Honza is very passionate about his work and in his spare time, he likes to travel and explore the world with his family, meet new cultures and interact with local people. We talked with him to find out more about his role, about plans and rules for his team in the upcoming months and years, his opinion on the travel industry, and so on.
Hi Honza, would you mind sharing a bit more about your role at Kiwi.com?
One domain I’m responsible for is related to customer identity and personalization of the customer experience, and the other one, FinTech, is related to all the payment flows in Kiwi.com.
Customer identity a.k.a. Kiwi.com Account is one of the core building blocks in Kiwi.com’s focus on the B2C market. Building a strong relationship with our customers, understanding their specific needs and preferences, and providing a personalized experience to them, that’s our mission.
FinTech, on the other hand, is a very different story. Backend heavy processing of all incoming and outgoing payments, the need to parse data from various service providers, strong focus on resilience, security, fraud checking, that’s the fun we’re dealing with. And my personal role in all that? Finding top talented software engineers, mapping business needs to engineering capabilities, helping the teams to keep and extend the technical excellence through never-ending learning and knowledge sharing, empowering people to make smart decisions, are some of my responsibilities. I personally love the combination of understanding the business needs, building a consensus around technical solutions, and working with smart and energizing people.
You joined our company at the beginning of the year. Wasn’t it risky to join a company that works in the travel industry in the middle of the pandemic?
Not at all. First of all and fully honestly, software engineering is a super dynamic and rapidly growing career space, there are no wrong steps and even the shortest steps bring some additional knowledge and experience.
Second and more importantly, I’ve always believed people’s need to travel, meet and explore the world hasn’t disappeared anywhere during the pandemic. It was just artificially “blocked” like a lid covering a boiling pot of water, waiting for a chance to “explode” again. And who else than Kiwi.com and its ambition to apply technology to travel should be there when it happens :-)?
What do you perceive to be the biggest difference between working at Kiwi.com and other big successful companies?
Hmmm, what I find kind of unique, considering the size of Kiwi.com, is the number of bottom-up decisions that are being made in many aspects of the work. This offers many opportunities for those who are seeking them. Curious and energetic people shouldn’t feel detached from the direction their team or even the company overall is taking. But, because there’s always some but, it’s going to be difficult to find the right boundary between autonomy and alignment as there are so many parallel activities running that can eventually cause some collisions to happen.
Another important thing to mention is the domain itself. There are not that many successful companies applying technology heavily to the travel business. It leads to interesting challenges, some of them being quite unique. Imagine how difficult it is to handle the changes in travel itineraries caused by extreme worldwide situations like the pandemic. I definitely wasn’t able to imagine that complexity before I joined Kiwi.com :-).
What do you see as the biggest challenges in the upcoming months and years?
Well, that’s a tough question as I see the working life and even the personal life as a never-ending sequence of challenges. But that is the fun and that is the meaning of “being alive”, processing new impulses every single day. So picking the biggest one? We, being Kiwi.com, need to explain why we’re not just one of many travel providers, what makes our approach unique, why tech matters so much in exploring all the available travel routes, and what are the true benefits for our customers.
Speaking about Kiwi.com engineering, we need to attract top talented software developers, data analysts, system engineers, and many other people representing all those roles required for a modern, high standard and sometimes a bit unorthodox software engineering. And while we keep succeeding in that, we need to push for two different and sometimes a bit colliding directions.
First, we need to empower and motivate people to be curious, find solutions, make decisions and work autonomously. Second, as the previous can lead to an existence of isolated engineering “silos”, we need to strongly promote knowledge sharing, mentoring, providing feedback and we need to encourage people to be reasonably challenging themselves, and also others, in a strive for finding the best available solutions. And we need to do all that while growing and with the fast-changing nature of the travel industry.
What would you identify as the rules of your team?
There are not many rules, if any, generally applied to all our teams. Speaking about the people we’re looking for, the hard rule is simple: we can teach you technologies and hard skills, we can’t teach you how to be energetic, passionate, and curious. Those abilities you need to bring with you. For the people on board, the rules are also simple: be transparent, always looking for feedback, decently giving feedback, and never hesitate to ask why. There’s no meaningful task to be given or accepted without understanding why first.
Where do you see your team in 2 years’ time?
This is yet another challenging question as I’m still building the vision in my mind. But generally speaking, I’d like to promote the domain and knowledge sharing between my teams and also between various other teams in Kiwi.com to create a never ending cycle of opportunities and impulses. Every engineer should have, if interested, a continuous flow of new things to learn, new responsibilities to take, and should be able to grow in a direction he or she likes.
What is the home office policy in your team?
There is no policy in place. One of my teams used to be working fully remotely, from home or from one of the multiple Kiwi office locations, long before the COVID19 came. Another of our teams is still very much located in Brno HQ, used to be meeting physically and designing most of the new stuff in the office together. Whenever we find smart people we try to assign them to existing teams or form new ones and then it’s their freedom to choose the way of working.
Generally speaking, remote cooperation is the new standard and the pandemic just accelerated this in some environments. People should be free to choose from where they wish to work. On the other hand, human beings are social species, and relationship building, conflict resolution, having fun together and some other aspects of work are hard to do over video calls. So we’re trying to keep and even extend the list of Kiwi.com offices and locations to make that social aspect of work possible, and even promote it to some extent.
Are you into traveling?
Yes! I love exploration. And since me and my wife have two sons, I even love showing the world to them, in all its colourfulness and variety. And the distance doesn’t matter, I love exploring our country, neighboring parts of Europe, Southern America, … the whole world basically. But I prefer quality over quantity, meaning getting in touch with places we visit, staying longer, meeting local people, staying aside from hotels and tourist attractions, learning bits and pieces of the local language, things like this.
The last question for today, how do you usually spend your weekends and vacations?
With my family, exploring the world. 🙂 But in the rare moments of being alone, I sit on my motorcycle and ride somewhere, the destination doesn’t matter, the path is the goal. Thanks for interviewing me.