Exploring Cape Town with Maciej Fijałkowski

Here's to brainiacs, who love what they do where they do it!

Who is Hiring is about possibilities around the world. You look at the map, choose your dream destination and simply zoom in. You can work anywhere you please, as long as you have the Internet and power. IT industry adapts to remote work like no other and traveling has never been cheaper and more accessible. With all these in mind we bring you Maciej Fijałkowski, who is a perfect example that you can move around, work and have a ton of fun in the process. Enjoy!

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Where are you from, Maciej?

I come from Łódź, Poland. Emigrating from Łódź is not too hard. You simply come up with this idea and suddenly everyone else is leaving it, too.


Łódź Credit: Łódź, Doły Zachód in Winter, Wikipedia

How did you start as a traveller?

First, I went to Warsaw to study. I have always entertained the idea to go and study abroad, but my family was not able to support me. The idea to travel the world has always been in the back of my mind. When I was 16 I used to hitch-hike a lot around Europe to climbing spots, so I caught the travel bug early on.

And then it just happened. I started working at the University of Warsaw at the Center for Mathematical and Computational Modelling. While working there and being a student at the same time I got into Google Summer of Code, and became interested in PyPy. Back then the project was largely funded by the EU and it so happened that I could work on it remotely. At the beginning of PyPy we had a lot of sprints. We would meet in different places around the world and work together for a week or two. For me it meant business trips to Germany, France, Switzerland. When you work remotely, it is relatively easy to leave and move somewhere else. Considering my interest in great outdoors, Poland is not the best place to be.


Tell us about the great outdoors!

I’ve been climbing for 20... 30 years. Actually, since always. My mother was a climbing instructor, my dad used to climb a lot, too. I inherited it. Now I’m building a climbing wall. The project is about building something out of wood and steel, rather than lines of code. Interesting, fun, and a little different.

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I’m building it with a buddy of mine, whom I met here. He is from Lithuania and has lived in South Africa for 20 years. Believe it or not, there is no decent climing wall in Cape Town, so we decided we will start one. This is a big undertaking. Sitting in front of a computer can be a little crazy, so I thought of doing something different.

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When I got into Summer of Code, PyPy has already been around for 2 or 3 years. I think it was 2007, a long time ago. So I haven’t yet participated in the project as it took off. Because of university cooperation and international aspect of the project, PyPy got one million of EU funding for R&D.

I have a consulting business, based on open source technologies. It’s called Baroque Software and it is the only commercial thing I do at the moment. Some of the money we earn goes towards further development of open source projects.

You tweeted once about your lifestyle causing problems for banks. What is the background?

True! My living pattern depends on many things, the tides of the oceans included ;) (Maciek is also an avid surfer - Ed.) This way of life - and I really do travel a lot, just got back from Korea - makes many organizations automatically classify you as a criminal. This means that half of my credit card transactions are erased. Definitely all I made with British card. They obviously think that it must be a scam. Same goes with customs officers. They are always very skeptical when they look at my passport. Who I am, what I do and where I do it, it all seems a bit fishy to them. To avoid the suspicion that I’m up to something, I learned to travel in flip-flops and shorts, because then everyone assumes that I’m a tourist from Bermuda and all is well.


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How much do you work?

It varies. Work comes in phases. Sometimes I work like a maniac, other times not so much. I usually work lot at home, including the weekends, but I do it to at some point in a year take 3 months off and go somewhere.

For one year here I have worked on a telescope. And the fact that I had to be at work in very specific hours meant that once the clock hit 5 I was already getting into my car. There is no sense in that.

I do not measure time at work now, and I consider it a privilege. I hate to spend time in a meaningless way.

Not everything can be solved by sitting in front of a computer. Sometimes it’s just a matter of 3 lines of code, but they might require a week of thinking. It’s not like hammering a nail, where every work hour translates into hammered nails.

I have my own takes on how working should look like and I really don’t like the current trend of 9 to 5 office work. It’s not good for anybody. Neither the employer nor the employee.

Maciek_surfing

Before I moved here I have lived with only my backpack for 4/5 years. For example I spent half a year in Colorado for 3 years in a row, so the idea that you can move and live wherever you please was with me for a long time. That’s what remote work does to you. And then I took a break from digital nomadism to work on the telescope, but you already know the story.


Are you staying put, now that you've found your home?

I still travel a lot. You can meet me anywhere. Several times a year I climb in Boulder, Colorado, and in France. Portugal, too, but that’s mostly for surfing. Conferences are a nice motivation for travelling as well. They are mainly related to programming languages, like EuroPython or PyCon where I talk about PyPy, which we are actively developing.

Recently I was a speaker at PyConAPAC, where I talked about financing open source projects. This is a very important subject.

For example we have a consulting business that sustains us, but it is not the right model for everyone. There are many open source projects in need of funding.


What is this telescope business? Can you tell us more?

I’ve been in South Africa for 6 years. The adventure began with the telescope. The project is highly interesting, but unfortunately it is being managed by the government organization and it always causes friction. So they have a telescope called MeerKAT. They recently launched the first few of 64 antennas and the plan is to build a telescope, which will have more than 1,000 antennas (Square Kilometre Array, to be completed in 2024). The entire system for control, inspection and monitoring is written in Python, and this is what I was working on. You have giant telescopes, which you can rotate from the Python console. Absolutely mindblowing.

alt Credit: SKA South Africa


It’s all very cool. For example you can fire up the simulator of the entire telescope on a laptop. Of course, it will not observe the sky very well, but at least you can test everything. Normally, for such things you use technologies that require special hardware and you cannot do much without a lab. And here it was possible to play with it without any particular problems.

Amazing project. And a lot of things needed to be physically build, like burying 60 km fiberoptic cables in the desert or ensuring sufficient power. Obviously there's no power station. After all, radio telescope requires a specially selected piece of land with nothing on it.

Thanks to this telescope you can observe continental drift, because you know very well where your telescope is located and it moves about 12 centimetres per year. Resolution of these things is cosmic.


MeerKAT Credit: SKA South Africa


There is radio silence in the telescope area. No laptops or cell phones are allowed. For communication you use walkie-talkies that operate on a non-interfering frequency. It also makes for an interesting trip - the one into nothing, the complete radio silence.

I was only once near the telescope I worked on. But we made several trips to the other telescopes in the world: New Mexico, the Netherlands.


Any surprises after you’ve arrived?

The biggest shock for me was that Cape Town is like any big European city. Of course, we have shanty towns with shanties made of corrugated metal, which I believe are the equivalent to our Polish blocks of flats. In this climate, you don’t need an actual building to survive the winter. If you are moving from a place that is worse, from another province or Zimbabwe or any other country - and there are plenty of immigrants here - you simply put together a shack made of metal, that’s how it is.

But I have to say, the roads here are much better than in Poland. And when it comes to territory, everything here is huge. One province is like one third of Poland and there are 9 of them. South Africa is a vast country, really terribly big.

Life here didn’t come with any big surprises. Of course, this is Africa, and you don’t do certain things here or you do them differently, like, say… parking. Parking signs here are only a suggestion, because you just park anywhere. Also, this is a very European city, which means that it also is a big tourist attraction. I think the biggest shock for me was that it is not the Africa I had imagined. Last year we went on a trip to Mozambique, and that was the real thing! Completely different world.

I do not recall getting into any trouble in Africa. Nothing bad has ever happened to me here.

Life is treating you well here!

Yes! Cape Town has a great climate, there’s approx. 20 degrees all year round. In the winter 15 and in the summer 25. Hot sun and freezing ocean seem like a good marriage.

For now I’m staying here. I want to finish building the climbing wall. Besides that, I want to do a lot of other things, for example play with virtual reality systems and see what's possible there. I always have plenty of ideas.

Right now I’m leaving to see the builders and show them where to weld and hammer nails. I learned that three-dimensional trigonometry is not easy. I taught myself SketchUp to design the wall. Super simple software. This is of course an advantage.


Do you have bucket list of dream destinations you haven’t checked yet?

I try not to plan too much but of course there are places I dream of visiting. There are a couple of places I would like to see, but you can't be there by accident, while visiting something else or attending a conference. One of them is the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. I'd love to see it. But people don’t just show up there. It needs to be well-planned.


Baikonur Cosmodrome Credit: Soyuz TMA-5 launch,NASA/Bill Ingalls

Or maybe some strange industrial place, like Shenzhen in China. I’d like to see how iPhones are made, where it all happens. These kind of places.

Shenzen Credit: Electronics factory in Shenzhen,Steve Jurvetson


What are your thoughts on Silicon Valley? Will it end?

What do I think about Silicon Valley? On the one hand, it is this typical American approach - only here, only us. On the other, they have developed this ecosystem and the cluster has formed. In this sense if there is already a lot of people doing something in one place, why would there not be more? Predicting the future is an interesting game, but it is hard to speak on this subject. If not Silicon Valley then what? Many factors need to come into place for such a thing to occur.

There's a good chance that they themselves screw it up. It’s not even about valuation of these businesses although some of them seem totally meaningless.

I still do not understand why yet another system for sending messages is worth more than the largest logistics provider in the world, which ships hundreds of thousands of containers around the world every day. You bury the first thing and nothing will happen, you bury the second one and there will be no Christmas. Literally.

America is quite weak recently when it comes to politics. It’s strongly polarized. The same thing is happening in Poland, there are fewer and fewer people at the centre. Either you are with us or against us. This type of rhetoric makes people fall into political traps. And that’s where America might shoot herself in the foot.

SF is a terrible hole, with an outstanding number of homeless people. You're there and you think: Damn, and you want to rule the world? Why don’t you clean your own backyard first!

How do you compare such a thing to Copenhagen or some other egalitarian city in Europe like Zurich. It is not so that in Zurich everyone is equal. On the contrary, there is plenty of very rich people, but no one is drowning in poverty.

What happens when the poverty level increases? An increase in crime. And then instead of fighting the actual problem, you focus on fighting with criminals. And you militarize your police.

I think that there is no such thing as the next Silicon Valley. I think they will mess it up and the Valley will move somewhere else. Look at the UK and Brexit. There is no way London will be the European capital of startups now. And they willingly did it to themselves. Same will happen to the Valley. This is my prediction of the future.


Uh, grim picture. And how are startups doing in Cape Town?

Tech scene in Cape Town looks quite well. There is a lot going on. A few interesting global startups started here. There are also some local ones that operate here and are doing great. The fintech sector is very well-developed. Payment systems using bar code scanning, cards or phones, it's all happening in Africa. There’s plenty of those startups and they have good financing.

There are also many startups dealing with money transfers. For some reason the global banking system is happily leaving Africa behind.

Not without any trouble, but you can transfer the money in South Africa. But to Kenya or Somalia? Nearly impossible. Therefore startups learn how to work around limitations here and deal with it differently, for example with bitcoins.

It is so, that we try to use what we have and not what we don’t have.

What do we have here? Good cellular network. Phone in every shop. We don’t yet have the power everywhere, but you can always find a guy who carries a portable unit and will charge you phone for a dollar.


Phone charging station Credit: Oxfam East Africa



Header photo credit: Oxfam East Africa

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