Tom Priglinger, CEO and co-founder of 5G systems told his story at the “Die GANZE Geschichte” (the whole story) Event, where IT-entrepreneurs talk about their successes, setbacks, emotional rollercoasters and secrets.
Please note: This interview has been written after the event, trying to preserve the most important ideas about 5G systems. It is not a word-for-word transcription of the interview.
The interview has been conducted by Alex Rammlmair, host of the event.
Alex – Great to have you here, Tom.
Tom – Thanks for having me.
So, Tom, what’s the story behind founding 5G?
To be honest, we never had this big ambition to change the world or become the next unicorn. Actually, we didn’t have anything that investors would consider a “Big vision”. Our plan was actually much simpler: If we create a place where the best developers want to work and where they can give their best – what can really go wrong?
What can go wrong?
Well, actually lots of things *laughs*. And quite a few things went sideways.
Of course, you need customers and we didn’t have any to start with. Combine that with a number of well-paid people on your payroll and you know things have to change or the lights will go out soon. But once we got our first customer and he realized what we were able to do, the demand for our service increased. Actually, much faster than we could cope with.
Lots of development companies claim that they provide superior quality and have great people who love to work there. What makes you different?
To be fair, I have no idea what work is like in most companies and I’m sure that many do a pretty good job. What made us different is that we wanted to create the perfect place for top developers to work and put everything else second, including customers and products. Classic business wisdom dictates starting with a product or service vision, and then do your best to accommodate developers to work within these boundaries.
What’s wrong with that?
Nothing is wrong with that. But what I and Lukas have seen from the companies we worked at before founding 5G is that this setup naturally creates less-than-perfect conditions to create great software.
Product owners will always favor new features over refactoring.
Development managers avoid becoming dependent on individual developers, so they design the jobs to be as interchangeable as possible.
Operations people and security officers will – and are required to – play it safe and avoid change wherever possible.
Business managers will favor growth even if it means reducing the average skill level of employees by hiring fast.
In the end, this tends to creates an environment where product quality and the work become average sooner or later. I’m sure, most business leaders don’t do this intentionally, but accept this as a necessary consequence of growth.
And you don’t do any of these?
How do you do that?
One example: We let developers decide how much of their time they want to spend on refactoring. And it turns out that they spend a lot of it. We don’t really track the time spent on refactoring but I’m pretty sure it’s about 50% of the time.
50%? That’s crazy.
Maybe it is. But maybe less crazy than not doing it.
Point taken. What else? .
We let developers choose their programming language themselves. They should use whatever they are best in, with very few restrictions. We worked pretty hard to make this possible.
Also, we only have a single role here: Senior Software Developer. We don’t have operations people, test engineers, security officers – or any managers at all. We rely on having highly skilled people around who know how to do their work.
Sounds like you need a lot of jack-of-all-trades..
Very few people are great at a lot of things, but everyone is really good at some things. That’s what they focus on – everything else is what peers are for.
What we do differently: We don’t tell our people “This is your team” or “You need to work together with this person over there because he can do what you can’t.”
We rely on people choosing for themselves when they need support from their peers and go ask for help.
Some might say: It won’t work, people will hesitate to ask for help.
Then something in their company culture has gone wrong and people feel insecure. If people really excel in one or two areas and feel respected and appreciated for their work and the support they’re giving – they don’t feel the need to be great at everything else too.
Well, some people actually might, but such traits usually become evident during the recruiting process.
Sounds like everything becomes easier once you have lots of good people around.
That’s hardly a new insight, isn’t it?
It isn’t. But it begs the questions: How do you get only highly-skilled developers?
You interview a lot of developers and pick the best.
How much is a lot?
In the last season we interviewed over 100 people with top profiles and experience.
100? How many did you hire out of these?
To be fair, we made an offer to 5 of them. Two did not want to take it. Too bad.
Interviewing 100 senior developers sounds like a hell of work..
It is. Probably even more than it sounds. We really spend a lot of time and effort to make sure candidates are a great fit for us and 5G for them.
Top devs are in high demand and they get a lot of offers. What makes them want to join you?
For most people the biggest benefit is to work only with other top-notch people. Meaning: extremely steep learning curve and no mediocre people to drag along.
Also, it’s hard to think of an environment where developers get as much decision-making power and autonomy about how to do their craft other than here at 5G.
Others like the fact that developers here don’t have to deal with clueless business managers, endless team meetings and stone-old legacy systems.
And of course, a pretty competitive salary, a nice office and cool tech stack help too.
I can imagine this sounds good for a developer.
It does for some. Still not for everyone.
Who would not be a great fit?
Some developers like the idea of working for the next unicorn and developing this one app all their friends will be using. It’s unlikely to happen here.
Other people seem to like the whole corporate setup with meetings, management paths and lots or roles and specializations. Working at 5G systems would be a bad choice for these people.
Also, we don’t have this modern, hip startup culture here with parties, yoga classes and laundry service.
No laundry service? That’s disappointing. *laughs*
There is nothing wrong with any of these perks. We just think that it belongs to people’s private life and we pay well enough so they can afford this stuff if they really care about it.
You are no party people?
We enjoy going out for food and drinks together a few times per year. We also have a PlayStation and table soccer.
But that’s about it. In the end it’s about perfecting the craft of software development here at 5G.
People have a private life for everything else.
Guess, you can’t have everything. Are you currently looking for great developers?
We don’t have growth and hiring goals so there are not really any open positions that desperately need to get filled.
But of course, great software developers will always have a place here with us. We will never turn away a good fit. It’s easy to find work for good people.
How does someone apply if there are no open positions?
Good people will find a way if they really care. It’s not that difficult to get in touch with us, actually.
Thanks for the interview, Tom.
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