Interview with Adam Lejman, the CEO of Altkom Software & Consulting: From Poland’s first certified Java trainer to…
As an academic lecturer at the Warsaw University of Technology, Adam Lejman taught students the basics of C and Java programming. “At that time, I applied to Altkom to earn some extra money over my academic teacher’s salary; in the end I left the University of Technology and have stayed at Altkom to this day”, said the CEO of Altkom Software & Consulting and Altkom Experts. Learn about Adam’s career path and the perspective of the first person in Poland to become a certified Java trainer.
Q: You have a long history with Altkom Akademia. Please tell us, what was the driving force behind the creation of Altkom Software & Consulting in 2000?
It all started in 1997, when Altkom began working with Sun Microsystems – the creator of Java. The reason I joined the team was to launch programming courses in Java and I was to cover this area. There were already people in the company who had worked in other technologies, so that these initially small development teams later began to turn into a business unit. That, in a nutshell, is how Altkom Software & Consulting was created.
Q: Sun Microsystems approached you itself and commissioned you to provide Java training?
In those days – and we’re talking about the 1990s – there were several large technology vendors including IBM, Microsoft, Novell, Sun Microsystems, Santa Cruz Operations, around which Altkom Akademia did training. These were training courses mainly aimed at system administrators or people who were in some way involved in network support. One of the themes that emerged at the time was training in programming, particularly related to the increasing popularisation of the Internet. Sun Microsystems built Java as a new language for the coming era of networked devices, fully object-oriented, cross-platform transferable, and much easier to program in than the then dominant C/C++.
Altkom Akademia sought authorisation from large vendors to cover growing training demands. There was then the problem of where to find people to teach Java programming. As a lecturer at the Warsaw University of Technology, I gave lectures on programming in C, and shortly afterwards I started the subject “Programming in Java”. At that time, I applied to Altkom to earn some extra money over my academic teacher’s salary; in the end I left the University of Technology and have stayed at Altkom to this day. Since it was my first job in the commercial sector, I took a three-year break in 2003 to see what it was like to work in other companies and again since 2006 I have been developing software house services at Altkom Software & Consulting.
Q: Could you give a flavour of what student interest in programming was like at the time and what was the public knowledge of computers and programming?
Those were the days when programming was the domain of enthusiasts. I remember that the optional classes in programming at one of the largest technical universities in Poland were attended by relatively few people, about 20-30. We taught programming in C or C++ at the time and it was immediately apparent that those who were passionate about programming came in with some basics and mastered the material very quickly. With time, new generations appeared, who treated programming as a cool element, worth adding to their CV, but it was not always a natural passion, resulting from interests, but more an element of calculation that it is worth having such a skill. Of course, every year there were more and more people who wanted to know how to program.
Q: What did the IT job market look like?
The labour market was such that companies quite quickly became interested in creating technological solutions. Employers from large commercial companies sent their employees to Altkom for training because they wanted to solve their problems in-house using technology. At the time, there were few people who could program in Java, but through the prism of universities or courses, we had relatively easy access to the best. So, we didn’t have a problem getting people, and besides, we had an excellent base to educate any passionate people who wanted to.
Q: As I understand it, training was unlikely to be used by private individuals because of the cost at the time?
Individuals could afford access to literature that was largely foreign or Polish literature delayed by some 2 or 3 years. There wasn’t that much information available on the internet back then. In ’97 you didn’t buy books online from abroad. I ordered them from an international bookstore and waited for weeks at a time. When we launched the training track at Altkom, Sun provided us with the training materials we needed to train and certify developers. The typical development path was to take a series of courses, combining this with independent work with code to consolidate the knowledge gained.
Q: Just completing the course provided a certificate? Did you still have to pass the exam?
Just completing the course provided a good basis to then take the basic exam after a few weeks of practice. The next certificate, which was more advanced – already required practical experience with more advanced language constructions and distributed solutions.
Q: As a trainer, did you also have to get this certificate?
My arrival at Altkom involved me having to undergo formal certification and additional coaching authorisation within two months. That’s how I know that I was the first person in Poland to be certified by Sun as a Java trainer. As part of this training certification, two certificates were awarded: Sun Certified Java Programmer and Sun Certified Java Developer. I gained both certificates in 1997 and this enabled me to train participants towards gaining those certificates themselves.
Q: Did you also have time for programming?
Yes, right after the first training there was a need in one of the telecoms to build a solution based on Java language (we were still starting with Java 1.0), using the fledgling possibilities of Internet communication to support showrooms. It was an interesting experience, because we could use very fast theoretical knowledge in a team of several people to build the first such solution supporting phone sales. It was additionally an interesting experience because the project team had an international composition.
Q: Today, programming schools offer aptitude tests to those interested. When you started training in Java, did you also offer candidates such tests?
We conducted a pre-training survey before the training sessions using a questionnaire. I remember that I often advised people against taking a course if I knew that they would fail at the first exercise and not be able to go further. It would not be to the benefit of the group for such people to block the progress of the class. Not everyone remembers that in those days the Internet was a new thing altogether, and many people confused the word Java with the Internet and came to the training to learn what the Internet really was. Before 2000, on the one hand, there was the hype of the Internet, everyone had heard about it. On the other hand, not everyone had yet encountered it. The first websites were just being set up and the whole bubble began to take off.
Q: Do you remember what was in that survey?
The main aim was to “weed out” people who had never encountered programming or an algorithmic approach. The questions asked if you had already programmed in something, so that you could work as a group to learn about the construction of the language itself, rather than teaching general programming principles. There was other training for that.
Q: What were the job prospects for those following the course at the time?
Those were the days when anyone who showed some programming skills in popular languages such as: Java, C++, SQL, with practice in business or networking applications, had no problem finding a job. The market developed in a fairly parallel way, with successive crowds of people learning programming and creating new ideas about how technology could be used in individual businesses. It drove itself, but indeed, at some point it was the case that the market outstripped the supply of programmers. Then the whole story started with bootcamps, schools that started pulling different people, from different professions to become programmers. Which has not always been successfully achieved.
Q: So far we have talked about the Altkom Akademia period, maybe let’s move on to Altkom Software Consulting. What has it been like developing this company from your perspective?
I was developing a team of Java programmers and there were over 30 of us at some point after 2000. We have created solutions for telecoms, media companies and the financial sector. It was an interesting period of development and many things were happening in the market. Everyone wanted to take advantage of the emerging online, e-commerce opportunities. Everyone wanted to undergo what we now call digital transformation, that is, to have any digital presence in the market. After 2000, the Business Unit, or Software & Consulting division, was formed from the various software teams at Altkom and began to function as a separate profitable business with its own revenue and cost structure.
I took a break from Altkom to catch a handful of new experiences from the market, from other software development and consulting organisations. I returned in 2006 with certainly a broader perspective. Since then Altkom Software Consulting has been fully consolidated and operates independently on the market. We are trying in various ways to acquire more and more interesting projects in various sectors of large companies.
Q: It seems to have been the perfect time for software houses. It was also because customers didn’t have as much knowledge about programming as they do now. Correct me if I’m wrong, but rather they were looking for someone to solve the problem and didn’t quite know how the problem could be solved and were looking for companies to do it for them?
Yes, it was the golden age of software houses. Most of the companies’ programming work was outsourced. Over time, a trend has emerged that individual companies are building their own in-house software teams. It is a separate discussion as to why this happens and in which situations it is a good solution and when it does not work at all. In those days external software houses were the natural choice. Today, there is still a high demand for our services in the market, but we often face competition from internal departments.
Q: For a programmer, is it a good form of development when the client knows little? Let us stop here at 2006-2010.
I think that from a developer’s perspective, working in external SH is more interesting because it has a wide variety of projects and technologies. Internal SH work is limited to a set of solutions that have been in place in a given company for a long time. The scale of problems can be very different; I believe that even if there is a project that is done jointly by an internal and external team, both parties benefit from this exchange of experience.
Such an external SH comes with a certain process knowledge, gained in various projects, technologies and various integrations, and on the other hand the internal SH team of a given enterprise has a better grasp of the business domain in which the given software operates and knows better the correlations of what we do with the business need. Each party supports the other, and these are often very successful project teams that effectively deliver valuable solutions.
Q: And today, what does this distribution look like at Altkom?
We have clients who strategically are not building their developer base, knowing that an external team is better scaled. They will get a team of a certain capacity as part of their needs, and if that need is not there, they do not have to pay for them. We also create solutions in a model where there is an internal SH and we create mixed teams with it. Also, being a SH we are open to any model of cooperation.
Q: There is a lot of talk about designing a career path for Juniors, but much less about how to design a career path for Seniors. What development opportunities do programmers have at Altkom?
The ability to program is the starting point for many different careers in IT and non-IT. You can build your career path based only on programming and from a beginner level become more and more a mature programmer, senior programmer, lead programmer, team leader or architect. And this is the technological path that many people take.
There are also alternative paths where a person with programming skills becomes a technical manager, project manager, scrum master or product owner. It can also go towards business development, supporting companies to create business support using the available technology.
There are many possibilities; programming skills, if not practiced, are lost over time. However, the understanding of technology and the ability to communicate effectively with technical staff remains, which is key when working to create business solutions based on modern advances in civilisation. That’s why it’s good if the person who works with developers has had to deal with programming.
Q: What about people who do not want to progress, who do not want to change their career path? Are they an asset to the company, or should they not be working for it?
I believe that it is possible for every person to find an activity that is rewarding. Of course, it’s nice for employees to want to develop and I think it’s worth developing, but if someone has found that they are satisfied with what they know, then as long as there is a demand for their skills, they are just as valuable an employee.
Q: From a company perspective, how is the decision to send an employee for training made?
We have a programme where each of our employees has development time for four weeks a year. Then he learns about new technologies that broaden his workshop, even if he is in a project that does not use them directly. As part of our development programmes, we also create proof of concept to convince ourselves of the capabilities of newly emerging solutions. A lot of the training available is for beginners, and in our company we tend to have mature staff, because we face big projects and technical challenges. So, we put more emphasis on self-development with a mentor, workshop work with senior colleagues, rather than a mass training campaign.
Q: How many people benefit from your development budget? Can seniors get further training at the Academy?
I feel that to a large extent it is seniors who consciously take advantage of development opportunities because they see how much they don’t yet know. The further you are, the more you know what you don’t know. We encourage seniors and developers to take advantage of the development programme. On the one hand, they are our most valuable and productive employees and, on the other, we want them to have up-to-date knowledge and be partners for our customers. At the Academy we often use “soft” training; despite appearances it is so necessary for technical staff to communicate effectively with each other and representatives of the “business” or to build effective project teams.
Q: What is your development plan for Altkom? Did the pandemic derail your plans for this year and what plans do you have for future years?
We all feared a pandemic. Nobody knew what would happen to the economy. That’s why we started to look with more caution at our customers in the spring. It turned out that, contrary to our fears, demand increased for improvements to their solutions. Suddenly it was necessary to speed up certain digital processes. From the perspective of our services, this has been a record year.
Those companies that started the digital transformation process early are today the beneficiaries of this change. They have moved online much more easily and can achieve their business goals much more easily. We have been supporting companies for several years in their transition to remote solutions and process automation. We have ideas for further services to accelerate the digital transformation process in order to support our customers even more effectively. If nothing unpredictable happens, we are looking optimistically at the months and years ahead.
Q: What is your software house’s development plan?
As part of the SH’s development, we are primarily trying to anticipate the technologies that will best support the business we are working with at any given time. We include those with the greatest potential in internal development programmes. This also applies to popular architectural concepts or working methodologies that will prevail in the future. We seem to follow the latest trends quite well and try to stay one step ahead of our clients in order to guarantee them value from working with us, bringing new ideas for their development. For years, we have stuck to a strategy where we select solutions to ensure they have a long life in businesses. This ensures that our customers receive a good return on their investment.
[su_service title=” Important:” icon_color=”#bbe2ef” size=”36″]The interview was conducted by Adam Lopusiewicz, editor-in-chief at JustGeekIT. Originally published on justgeek.it, the Polish version is available here: From Poland’s first certified Java trainer to… Adam Lejman’s story. [/su_service]