"I always buy a one-way ticket." - Wojtek Zając
Hi Wojtek, you’re quite the photographer!
Many front-end designers/developers have a passion for photography, neon art, calligraphy, and aesthetics, broadly put.
Do you think they’re linked because they're both visual?
Yes. Most people I know are perfectionists, so that also might have something to do with it. What inspires me, for example, are nice surroundings. Beauty and the aesthetics are important to me, so I tend to surround myself with nice things. Neighborhoods and streets are also important to me. I really commend the initiatives of people in Krakow working to reduce advertising and making the streets cleaner.
Do you have any favorite places in Krakow that you come back to eagerly?
I like good coffee, so I enjoy going to cafes. In Krakow my favorites are Karma or Wesoła. I also like the bookstore here at Mocak, it has great magazines, like Monocle, for example. I’m also into the slow living trend. A good environment is inspiring, the hustle or bustle of people going about their business doesn't bother me either, often it helps. Actually, I find that new people and new environments help me concentrate.
Do you often work from cafes?
Yeah, most of the time. From 2006 to 2010 I worked from home. After that, I set up an office and worked from there, because I was responsible for managing it. In 2014 I moved, and since then I’ve been working almost exclusively from cafes and AirBnbs.
How did that happen?
Basically, since 2010 I’ve been working for two clients (FOX and Riot Games) in the US and I would visit them in Los Angeles several times a year. That’s how all the travelling began.
Actually, I started working as a freelancer when I was 14 -- four years after I created my first web page. I started getting paid in 2005. The contracts were already coming from foreign customers, because I realized fairly early on that if I wanted to grow, I would have to think about working on a larger scale and for the English-speaking world. Around that time I got a contact to a person in Australia, who was putting together X-team, the company I work for now. I joined the company officially in 2006 when I was 16 and as a high school freshman (I started school one year earlier). From then on, I worked for them every day. Of course I wasn’t working full-time, as I was attending school, but I kept doing a project after project in my free time.
Did they know that you were a student?
Yes, of course. Our working relationship was very good. In 2008, for my 18th birthday, my boss gave me a gift. It was a ticket to New York City and it meant my first solo trip. I remember that it has really changed me. Until then I had lived in Trzebinia, a small town about 50km outside of Krakow. In NYC I met several people from the company, with whom I closely worked, for the first time. We spent three days together. For another three days I was by myself and I remember how struck I was by the openness of the American people and kept engaging in small talk with everyone. It was a completely different environment from what I was used to. Even though I didn’t spend much time in NYC, I returned to Poland with a completely different outlook on the world.
What happened after that?
Shortly after I finished high school, X-team asked me to open an office in Krakow. My boss trusted me to an amazing degree. I agreed.
I had a lot of things to take care of. I started with recruiting people. I posted a job offer, did technical screening and selected 14 developers. Then I rented a temporary office for two days and organised job interviews. One of my colleagues came from Portugal to help me with the evaluation. He had a business background, so we complemented each another. Later, we presented six people with job offers.
I started hunting for office spaces, we chose one and then signed the contract. The paperwork connected to starting a company with foreign capital was really complicated due to differences in Polish and Australian legal documents. I did not have the faintest idea how to go about these things, but I learned everything in a very short time: employment law, contracts, company accounting. It was a really intense few years.
I learned a ton. The office opened in October 2010. I scaled it up to 16 people. During that time I’ve been combining running the office and working as a front-end developer for FOX.
In 2014, we did some restructuring at X-Team and the local branch, called XHTMLized and later Xfive, became an independent entity. At that point, I switched to an advisory role there to focus on X-Team. I still help Xfive when it’s needed, but I'm not there every day. At the same time, X-Team has become a separate entity and started focusing 100% on remote work.
So, now you're part of the X-Team?
Yes, I work full-time with the X-Team. I’ve been with them for the past 10 years. The company counts approx. 50 people. We never wanted to scale, rather, we tried to limit growth.
I heard that you were responsible for the first front-end code of Twitter … is that true?
True! Twitter has been one of our clients, and I was responsible for working with them from the very beginning.
We had cooperated with the founder of Twitter, Biz Stone, before. I did some work for his past projects, e.g. Odeo. Then I remember that we’ve got a request for a new project, Twitter. It contained its early mockup, very different from the way it looks now, but with the same concept, colors and logo. I took care of the project; we were paid fixed prices back then. Once we started working together, I was kept in charge of the front-end and further updates to the site during next months. At the end of 2006, the website went live and it was totally unknown at first. I took care of other projects in the meantime and even briefly forgot about Twitter. At the turn of 2006 and 2007 people started talking about it, especially in the technical environment, it started becoming more popular. I was glad that something I helped with was getting traction.
Twitter kept coming back to us with more tasks and for the first 2-3 years, the entire twitter.com site was based on my front-end templates: my HTML and CSS.
Over time, the concept was getting more and more popular. I remember that even in 2009 I still did their front page. It felt like Christmas, I was implementing some lesser known features, such as microformats. It was a step towards semantic web, it included embedding data in HTML templates that can be easier consumed both by users’ plugins and search engines. I also remember that around that time Smashing Magazine wrote an article about best practices in HTML and they presented design patterns at Twitter as a good example. Also, it was super satisfying to see something I was so close to from the very start getting mainstream attention. If only I worked for shares instead of the flat fee 😉
Wow, that’s quite a story... I’d like to talk more about remote work. Do companies trust this model?
Fox Broadcasting Company is an interesting case study. When we started working together, we were helping them only with smaller tasks. They kept their in-house development team, which was in charge of most of their websites. Over time, both our team and the scale of our projects grew. As our local team took on more responsibility, the cooperation strengthened - we hired our first project manager. I also started visiting the client more frequently. At some point, Fox fired their engineering team responsible for their websites and put us in charge. They really trusted us to a large extent. It is an interesting example of how to overcome the initial skepticism towards working with remote teams and and how to grow that trust. They were very happy to work with us.
There are several cooperation models for with clients remotely. Which are you currently using?
It depends on the client. With Kaplan, for whom we are building an online language testing tool, the current model is that all work is done remotely, including the product owner, who is in Los Angeles and works from home.
Whereas with Fox, there were several different models. First, we acted as satellite workers, and later as a parallel office. As I was travelling to the client frequently, I was able to observe the cooperation from both perspectives. There were a lot of common misconceptions, for example, our developers thought that the product team wasn’t putting in as much work as the devs were, while in fact they had a ton of meetings and arrangements to make. The opposite was also true, sometimes the client did not see enough progress, because the devs were working on a tough bug and little was changing. The communication wasn’t transparent. It’s as simple as that. Fortunately, I’ve spotted these issues on time and we were able to work out a few solutions. Daily status updates proved very helpful, although many people treat it as an annoyance...
As if someone is looking over my shoulder?
Yes. As micromanagement. It seems to me that you can always find a good solution. My current project works brilliantly precisely because our client, the product owner, is not passive but updates us about their daily tasks. The acquisition leads, calls, meetings. Although it is not necessary for us to know about them, it allows us to feel greater ownership of the project. On the other hand, due to the fact that we have a more frequent update cycle, the client understands why we are working on a ticket three days longer than estimated.
Among developers, most people focus too much on developing technical skills, but do not take communication skills seriously enough. I once read an article of Alex Barszczewski, in which he said that a person is a product of three factors: expert skills, communication skills and contacts. What if you only have just the technical skills? Sometimes, it is enough to work a bit on each one, and your overall value increases.
Developing good communication in remote work is a difficult, but essential, task. In the office you have that watercooler... that’s why I always try to set up a physical meeting sometime during long-term projects to get to know each other and to better understand the personality behind a given name.
Considering that you’re all spread around the world, does it sometimes happen that people have to get up in the middle of the night to participate in a daily stand-up? Is it possible to always have it set during the day or within everyone’s optimal working hours?
That's a good question. My current client is in LA, but she prefers to have a call at 5 am. In Poland, it is 2:30 pm. Over the last month and a half I was in Asia, and for me it was 8:30 pm or 9:30 pm Singapore-time. Some projects rely entirely on asynchronous communication.
I absolutely do not mind working at night. During the month in Thailand I worked at night most of the time, it was easier for me to concentrate. I’d start work at 6 pm and finish around 4 in the morning. Recently, I shot a photo of the sunrise and it was at the end of my day, not the beginning.
What did your parents think of you working during school years?
Right after high school I went to AGH university in Kraków to study informatics and econometrics. I didn’t like it there, as all people seemed to lack their sense of purpose. I found it unmotivating. Having a drive for growth has always been important for me. I withdrew from AGH a few months later.
Next, enrolled in EPI. Studying there was great, I used the connections I made there to grow Xfive’s office. I met a lot of awesome people there, and helped to organise various meetups and workshops. I wanted to do Masters in HCl in the U.S., but frontend technologies change so fast that I decided that it would be more valuable to remain in the industry and keep up-to-date. This also allows me to develop other interests, like public speaking.
My parents are traditional. When I told them that I had quit AGH, they almost had a heart attack. I was given a lot of trust in high school, that's for sure. They saw that I was spending a lot of time in front of a computer. Even though they didn’t know what I was doing, as they began to notice that I would order books, hardware, and keep focused on my passion, I think they just assumed I’m moving in the right direction.
I was very self-aware from an early age and I have always been crazy about self-development. I started making websites at the age of 10 and I spent all my free time fooling around code.
So how did you get into public speaking?
It all started when I was 16. I got invited to give a lecture at Warsaw University of Technology organised by my friend Łukasz.
The plan was that I would do a lecture about web development, and my friend from Warsaw would do his part on usability. It was supposed to be a combined 2-hour lecture. It was quite heavily promoted in Warsaw, there were posters literally all over campus.
Interestingly enough, my friend completely disappeared a few days before the event. There was no contact with him whatsoever.
Oh no... What did you do?
Well, what was I going to do? I agreed to take on his part and do the entire thing all alone. I added usability as part of my presentation. In the end it had 60 slides and lasted more than two hours. After the lecture, people came up to me and told me that they came specially from Krakow’s Interia (media agency in Poland) for the lecture. They were shocked that a 16-year-old was giving it, but it was received very warmly and the interest after was huge. That was in December 2006.
That’s how I caught the bug.
I also know that you are also passionate about accessibility.
Helping people is and has always been very important to me. So, accessibility is one of the topics close to my heart. Perhaps, it’s because my mom was a nurse. In our industry, few people specialize in this subject. I knew that by it on, it could help a large number of people. It also allowed me to stand out at work and in the industry. I quickly became the go-to person, whenever a well-performed accessibility audit was needed.
I worked on the websites of universities in the UK / US / Australia, as well as on the site of one of the government departments in the US. I found it very interesting, because the legal accessibility requirements are so different in every country.
Do you do any sports?
Yes, holistic development is very important to me and try to be active all the time. The easiest way is to go to the gym, but I also love skiing, scuba diving, surfing. I was in Thailand this whole past month and I trained Muay Thai. We also organized salsa classes on the island :)
In my company there are quite a few of us that are crazy for active lifestyle. Over the last two years, we’ve organized what we call X-Outposts. The company encourages us to meet and rents an apartment. In the spring, we were on the Canary Islands for 5 weeks. The company inspired us to run, by providing funds for charity based on the number of kilometers we completed. We managed to collect $ 230 and sent them to the KidsCodeFun foundation.
How do you feel with how your life and work had taken shape?
I'm a little torn. I like playing with different approaches: I moved out of Krakow two times. The first time was in 2014. I went all-in including selling my car, and some gadgets in order to untangle myself. I travelled for 10 months, it was great, but I returned to Krakow. I was tired of frequently changing places, so I came back to rest a bit. Still, I wasn’t sure if feel it’s the right place to be.
A colleague, who has a background in psychology, once told me that I have commitment issues. When I’m in Krakow I wouldn’t buy anything bigger like a car or an apartment, or decide on anything long term really, because I have this constant drive for change. These days, whoever I talk to who has bought an apartment before starting to work remotely, all say that they regret their decision to buy.
I don’t know where I want to live yet - I feel good in many different places.
At X-Team, we have many hardcore travellers, half pulled towards nature and the other half who prefers the city. I think I’m closer to the second group. I spent almost a year in the U.S, entirely between large cities. I also felt great in large cities in Asia, such as Bangkok or Singapore. The proximity to the city, the proximity to cafes, it looks like that’s what makes me happy.
Whenever I go back on the road, regardless of where I am, even if it’s riding a scooter across Asia, I feel that this is it. I'm in the right place.
Do you travel alone?
I usually travel with friends and I love it. But some of my most important trips I did solo. My last trip to Myanmar I will remember as the most moving. It was such an amazing experience. Firstly, it's a pretty remote and isolated country, as only recently the government has started letting in more tourists. When I arrived in Mandalay, everyone was overwhelmingly welcoming and kind. Then, I went by bus to Bagan to take a balloon flight over the Buddhist pagodas. You take off at sunrise and float away.
On the eve of departure I woke up early in the morning and went to Shwedagon temple. People come here from all over the country as a spiritual pilgrimage. The aesthetic atmosphere was amazing: the sunrise, shiny golden pagodas, unique, real people dressed in sarongs. I saw a group of small children, monks, praying and singing. I almost cried. It was beautiful and moving. This is why you travel, for these one of a kind moments.
Credit: Myanmar, Wojtek Zając
Credit: Myanmar, Wojtek Zając
What are your further plans?
At X-Team, we often have a few next trips planned. It’s awesome when you can do it together. We’d like to go to South America: to Brazil, and perhaps Colombia and Peru. I know that several people are planning to go to Australia soon. We have three official company trips [yearly], where everyone has the opportunity to join and work together. The trip is always organised by the person on location, who knows the area and secures the most needed things: the Internet, and place to work. It’s much safer this way.
Since I work remotely, many people suggest going somewhere together and working. One of my colleagues wants to go to Sweden, another one to Hong Kong. Maybe I'll go to Japan this year. I haven’t been there yet. I travel spontaneously.
I always buy a one way ticket only. It’s better to be flexible.
Last month while in Asia, this island I was on in Thailand was struck by a natural disaster. Downpours lasted for weeks. There was no electricity or water. Thanks to the fact that I didn’t have a return booked, I immediately flew out to Bangkok and spent some time there, which let me keep working with no obstacles.
A similar thing happened in the US in August. My only plans were a conference in Salt Lake City, then Chicago and Boston to meet with clients. Afterwards, a friend of mine wrote to me so I went to see her in Denver, then I spent some time in Boulder. One Friday I was at a house party, at her friends’ place, with no further plans, gathering opinions from people where to go next. Most recommended Austin, Texas. I purchased the ticket and Airbnb right away on the phone and flew out the next day. Without much research, I booked, as it turned out, a phenomenal apartment. While in Austin, I met a very interesting person. He turned out to be a multimillionaire, we had an incredibly inspiring discussion for three hours. Two hours in, the guy said, "Listen, Wojtek, it’s great talking to you. I am looking to invest. I want to open a business in Poland. Let's do that. I'll give you money for development. I will make you partner, provide you with clients, because I have a lot of colleagues who have various projects they need to have done. I just need a person who will run the office and lead people.” I had to sleep on it. In the end I decided not to do it.
How do you refuse such an offer?
I give myself a moment to think things over. Compare pros and cons. So far, my winning strategy has been loyalty. Nowadays many people change jobs often, but I already have more than 10 years working at the same company under my belt. I’ve rejected many opportunities along the way, including moving to the U.S. permanently. Sometimes it’s good to take a risk. I’ve already completely changed my life twice by leaving for a long time and I never regretted it.
I know I am in a comfortable position. I have amazing clients I work with, a company that supports me, I can change my location at any time and it won’t be an issue. Sometimes it’s good to leave your comfort zone and push yourself to experience new things to really learn what makes you happy.
It would be great if everyone saw that being courageous and open to changes is worth it. If everyone looked at their life with a little wider perspective and saw all the possibilities - that would be awesome.