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From ZX Spectrum to IT Director! How to grow your leadership career? Interview with Laurentiu Matei – Nerd Management #100

In this episode, Laurentiu Matei – ERP&BI Director in eMAG – offers real gems of knowledge – how to shape your career path, work with people and business, be prepared for anything that comes your way – and many more!

Welcome to our 100th episode and the first – in English 🇬🇧!

We are interviewing Laurentiu Matei – ERP&BI Director in eMAG – one of the largest eCommerce companies in our part of Europe. He started just like many of us – as a nerd, excited with early computers (ZX Spectrum in his case).

Then he went through a typical career path – from the developer, through team leader, manager of managers, and now – he leads a division that delivers crucial information for large a corporation to navigate the rough seas of multinational business.

On a personal note, at one point in time, Laurentiu was the manager and mentor for both Krzysztof and Paweł.

In this episode, Laurentiu offers real gems of knowledge – how to shape your career path, work with people and business, be prepared for anything that comes your way – and many more!

Help us understand
Which language should we record Nerd Management episodes?

🇵🇱 Polish or 🇬🇧 English?

From this episode you will learn:

  • How to shape your path from specialist to technical leader?
  • What to do when you need to learn fast about new things?
  • How to be ready for anything that comes your way?
  • How to navigate bullshit and get to the point?

…and much more 🙂


00:00 – Intro
00:54 – Introduction
01:38 – Who is our today’s guest?
02:50 – Start of the interview
03:54 – Journey from passion to the IT Director role
06:04 – What is the difference between technical and leadership roles?
07:34 – How to learn about managing people?
08:22 – What can shock you the most when you become a leader?
10:00 – Why should leaders understand the business?
13:06 – How big was the team Laurentiu led at the beginning of his career?
13:38 – What is the way from a Team Leader to the Department Director?
15:10 – What is the main difference between managing developers and managers?
17:12 – How to cut the bullshit and get the real information?
20:28 – Not all people will work as you
22:45 – How to manage your career path?
26:41 – Is it possible to be prepared for a higher role?
27:47 – What would be worth knowing when you started your journey?
28:29 – Why should you look at your comfort zone?
29:53 – Where can you find Laurentiu?
30:12 – Summary

Podcast version



Some of Laurentiu’s presentations worth seeing:

Other Nerd Management episodes we mentioned:

Episode transcript

[00:00:54.290] – Krzysztof
Hi, welcome to Nerd Management, podcast for new and prospective leaders in IT. We are your hosts: Krzysztof Rakowski and Paweł Rekowski.

[00:01:02.970] – Krzysztof
Welcome. Today’s episode is very special for us for a few reasons. First of all, this is our 100th episode. Through the last two and a half years, we did 100 episodes for you for a total of almost 40 hours. And this is our first episode in English. We wanted to see if you like it. We wanted to see if we can spread our audience to people who don’t speak Polish.

[00:01:29.430] – Krzysztof
And also, this episode is in English because we have very, very special guest today. And this is the third reason this episode is special for us. Our guest here today is Laurentiu Matei. He started as a developer and progressed through career ladder. He was a team leader, he was department manager, then director. Now he’s responsible for the Business Intelligence, Enterprise Resources Planning and big data in eMAG, our company, one of the largest ecommerce companies in our part of Europe. And on a personal note, at some point in mine and Paweł’s careers, Laurentiu was our boss, was our mentor, and we learned from him a lot.

[00:02:12.940] – Paweł
What is also important Laurentiu was a speaker on many conferences regarding Big Data, and not only. So we also will link in the description of this episode, few links where you can see what he’s doing. And we will talk about how to become an IT Director. This is something what probably most of you have in mind, or maybe not. You’ll see from this interview how to reach this point. What is important, what is not important. So I strongly recommend to listen to this episode and to not extend this intro anymore. Welcome to the interview.

[00:02:49.440] – Krzysztof
Let’s get started.

[00:02:50.520] – Paweł
Hello, Laurentiu. It’s very big pleasure to have you in Nerd Management.

[00:02:54.540] – Laurentiu
Thank you for inviting me. I love your show, although I cannot understand it. But I told you a few times I’d like to see some subtitles or have it in English.

[00:03:05.670] – Paweł
So now we start. We record the first episode in English, so we break this ice to start in English. And I want to talk with you because from my perspective, on one hand, you are the godfather of the IT Hub in Warsaw. But on the other hand, you are the same as we… Like you’re the nerd who loved the development. And now you’re the director of the BI department in eMAG, which is one of the biggest companies in ecommerce. And tell us, because our audience is the new or prospective team leaders, probably they are you many years back. And if you can describe, in short, your journey to how you started with it and went where you are now.

[00:03:54.190] – Laurentiu
I started with IT back in high school. I knew that even before high school I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I started with ZX Spectrum computer. I don’t know if anyone still knows those.

[00:04:07.700] – Paweł
The black ones?

[00:04:09.790] – Laurentiu
Yeah. So I started with that and I always knew I wanted to do that. Most of the kids were playing outside – I was a computer nerd. And then I went to computer science high school, I went to the olympiads and things like that. And then during university I graduated from Polytechnica University in Bucharest, automatic control and computer science. And in the third year I think I started working as a software developer in an outsourcing company. And I like to joke that I started working on Linux drivers for NASA and I ended up doing Excel now, after over 20 years of experience.

[00:05:01.570] – Laurentiu
So I worked in a few companies as a software developer or project manager or in small teams. And back in 2011 before the first Black Friday I came to eMAG as a software developer. I’ve been working on optimizing the back end applications for Black Friday and failed miserably in the first year because I didn’t know what to expect. And then restarted optimizing, but having the right data and knowing what to expect. And then in a few years, I think it took me like one year and a half, two years I was offered to be team lead.

[00:05:42.530] – Laurentiu
Now, looking back, what usually happens is that you get the most senior guy in the team and you propose them to be the tech lead. Which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I wasn’t quite prepared for it back then but I had to learn along the way.

[00:06:04.450] – Laurentiu
The first thing that people need to realize is that being a people manager is a totally different job than being software developer or technical guy. All your technical problems now become people problems and this is totally different. Because with computers it’s always easy. You tell them what to do, they do that or they give you an error. With people things get complex. First of all, they don’t tell you if they have a problem or they over share or they say they do something and they do something else or you tell them to do something, they understand something else and they think they can do it better and so they do something else than they understood and then they report you that they did something else than they actually did. And you need to manage all these situations and understand how people work and why this happened and not get very mad and say hey, I told you to do that. Because most of the time, most likely you didn’t tell them to do that and they understood something different.

[00:07:10.010] – Laurentiu
And you need to learn to see about how people work and how groups of people work, which is a totally different field.

[00:07:22.250] – Paweł
Let’s stop a little on this transition from software developer to the team leader. Did you have any support from your manager or you had some trainings or you read some book? How you learned how to manage people?

[00:07:34.450] – Laurentiu
I had some support from my first manager, which was: how I’m doing it, here’s what I expect you to do. And then, okay, I worked on that. And then after some time we realized that we need program to teach young leaders. So at first it was my manager telling me what she was doing because it was a girl and explained to me, well, this is how I do it and this is what I expect from you. And I like that very much.

[00:08:06.920] – Laurentiu
The thing is, if you don’t have any kind of formal, let’s say I don’t mean university or something, but there are lots of training materials and things like that, or even podcast or things like what we’re doing now. The first shock you’ll have when your manager changes. And when the new manager has totally different expectations. So you grow to think that what your manager asks from you is, I don’t know, some general idea of how management gets done and then you get a new manager and he has totally different expectations. And that’s hard to manage. So for me, it was good that first of all, I aligned with my first manager and then I had the luck to be involved in this company programs for beyond people managers.

[00:08:58.680] – Laurentiu
And I understood on one side about people, which is for most of software developers, it’s a totally blind area. They don’t talk people.

[00:09:10.820] – Paweł
Yes, totally agree.

[00:09:12.210] – Paweł
And then I also understood some of the business language. I learned a bit about finance, I learned a bit about operations and supply chains and all those things that allow you to discuss with the other people in the equation, which is your customers, the business, in our case, our internal customers.

[00:09:35.400] – Paweł
This is very important, I think, because there are many people who basically start leading the team and they try to escape even from the business. Don’t want to learn how the business works, what is the business model of the company. And in your example, it was your curiosity, like how it works or you needed to learn how it works because of the project, you had?

[00:10:00.780] – Laurentiu
I have this naturally. I don’t think I can work with things that I don’t understand at all. This is my style and I think it has helped me over the years. I don’t believe in this, in doing something that you don’t understand. When I had to develop software with my team for a certain area, for showrooms, for example, I was going to showrooms a lot to see what’s going on. You don’t understand the impact, for example, of a system not working until you see the queue in the showroom of people upset because the system is not working. Consider it on Christmas Eve when people have kids at home waiting for their presents and they’re at the queue in the showroom. No one in the team actually has any drive to work that day and the system fails. And you need to, on the one side, motivate the team to fix the things when all they want to do is go out and do shopping for themselves and then realize that there’s a problem.

[00:11:13.660] – Laurentiu
At one point I requested access to the security cameras in the showroom and I used them as actual monitoring dashboard. So when you see a big queue, you know that there may be a problem. We had the warehouse teams, the one that were working on the warehouse management system. They visited the warehouse a lot and they knew the people, they knew how they are using the system. We visited the customer care department and we watched them how they are using our software and we were shocked. We didn’t know that the system could be used in that way. They were not using as we expected. They had multiple tabs of the same order, for example. Then they were pasting things, they had shortcuts, they had all kinds of things. So you need to know what these guys are doing and you need to know what their objectives are. Because sometimes they will come very angry because this is not working. And you say, hey, this is working, take a look at my dashboard, they’re all green. And they expect something else.

[00:12:24.880] – Laurentiu
And if you know what they’re doing, what drives them, what their language is, what their domain language is, it becomes easier in the end for you to do a good job. And if you personally know those people, even when things are not working that well, you have a mutual understanding. You’re friends in the end, so they will come to you and say, hey, this is not working, let’s do something to fix it. You may actually get the truth on how important that thing is so you can prioritize.

[00:13:01.500] – Paweł
Yeah, totally agree with what you said, it is very important to understand the people. And in the beginning, your first team, how big it was?

[00:13:10.460] – Laurentiu
Around five people, something like that. It was just almost a classic scrum team, but it was not such a classic scrum team. I only had developers. QA were a totally different team.

[00:13:30.950] – Laurentiu
We were throwing projects over the fence.

[00:13:31.390] – Paweł
So it was not interdisciplinary team like with all the roles in the team. Cool. And how’s the transition? We talk about the transition, but I think there are a few steps in the career of the leader and the manager from this transition from software development to the team leader, but then from the team leader. From when you lead one team, you lead multiple teams. And how this happened.

[00:13:54.730] – Laurentiu
We were in a company that was growing and the team grew organically. And at some point my manager got promoted and he had to choose between me and some other team leads. And I ended up getting the job of being a manager of managers. Which again gets to be a bit different because you need to teach people how to be managers themselves if they were not previously.

[00:14:29.030] – Laurentiu
And you also need to manage the situation where you are the new boss of a peer that was expecting that he will be getting that position. It needs to be done by the manager that is making the promotion. But also the new manager needs to handle this properly and with clear communication and a lot of relationship building and things like that.

[00:15:00.510] – Paweł
This is something totally different. What is the main difference between lead software developers and lead managers?

[00:15:10.670] – Laurentiu
You navigate even more uncertainty, even more fuzziness. Because I told you that when you talk to someone, you don’t say what you want to say usually. And the people on the receiving end understand something else. And then they do something else. Well, if you add another layer, you don’t get immediate feedback. So, for example, if I’m working with you in the team, we will agree. So you do this today, okay? And you say, okay, thank you very much. Now, if you are a team lead and you need to do something in your team, I will ask you: how much do you think this will take? And you say: I’ve never worked with this before, I need to talk to my team. And you get your boss: well, do you think five minutes is enough for you to give me an answer? And there is some pressure and you don’t get the immediate feedback that you’re used to from your team. Because the team lead needs to go back to the team and get some feedback. And this is the first thing that strikes you. And then getting feedback back is another issue because first is the delay and then that it gets altered along the way. It gets a bit nicer. The situation gets a bit nicer than it is or worse, but usually nicer because people usually like to make things nicer. And things get nicer at every manager level until the CEO, who sees that everything is good.

[00:16:51.620] – Paweł
Exactly, and this is something… Do you have any techniques to basically cut the bullshit? What is the truth? To not colorize? Because if someone is afraid or there’s no psychological safety will be colorized. Even though there is huge fire and they said no, everything is good.

[00:17:12.460] – Laurentiu
I like the organizations to be as flat as possible. So that the delay, and the layers that colorize the feedback are as few as possible. Then what I personally like to do is have skip level meetings, something that I mentioned in a company life, and people started asking and all the managers came to me, what? What are you doing? People want that now, but it allows you to get some feedback from people that are closer to the issue.

[00:17:46.580] – Laurentiu
And another thing is having a way to announce problem directly to an incident management procedure or flow, where people can say, well, we have a problem and this is where we’re talking about it. And you can join and see what’s going on there and then have some kind of post mortem procedure where people are encouraged to say exactly what happened.

[00:18:19.470] – Laurentiu
And this is hard to do because people are afraid of getting punished. Because at some point it’s easier to say: well, this happened because someone made a mistake. That’s not usually the problem. You need to go beyond that. And people need to trust this process that it’s happening and no one gets punished. And the actual problem in the system that generated this problem gets solved.

[00:18:50.770] – Laurentiu
And this is hard to do because especially in this part of the world, the education system was punishing people a lot. And not even the education system, but the society as a whole was punishing people a lot. And we read about it, we go to conferences and see people talking about post mortems. We see John Allspaw and people like him, usually from US. And it’s easier for them because they have this mentality to speak up. They learn that in school, but for us in school, it’s „shut up”, you only talk when you’re asked.

[00:19:34.230] – Laurentiu
So it’s harder for us to establish such a clear communication and uncolored communication, but it can be done to a certain extent. And the Definition of Done is something that needs to be clarified here. It’s never perfect, but if the people start doing it, they’re doing it better and better. But they need to be steered in that way and they need to understand that nothing bad happens to them if they’re honest and tell it exactly how it is.

[00:20:09.160] – Paweł
It’s important, we have the episode regarding the psychological safety. It’s like to have this common ground to all employees. It doesn’t matter about the role and the position in the company, be able to say, okay, what happened and feel comfortable with this. I totally agree that this is very important.

[00:20:27.260] – Laurentiu
There is one more challenge here. There will always be a department that is not like that. And you need to navigate that too. Because you in your department, OK you’re a very progressive team lead or manager or whatever you are. And things are working in a good way in your department. And then you get someone from another department. I won’t give names. And they come and say: „hey, who’ve made this mistake. It’s unacceptable. Are you an idiot? What is going on here?” And people are like: hey, but you said nothing will happen. And you need to navigate that and you need to stand up for your team.

[00:21:07.510] – Laurentiu
Then this is something else that a manager needs to do. You need to, on one hand, have the safety to stand up so that you know that the team has done everything in their power and you need to have this confidence and this is being built by the team. But then you need to go when people come and say and are being blameful you need to stand up for your team and say: well my team did everything they could in this situation. If we can improve this, let’s work together but don’t come and be blameful.

[00:21:50.070] – Paweł
This is also what I want to talk with you and discuss because you were a director in one department in the operations in eMAG and after a few years you changed the department to the BI. Now you’re the director of the BI department in eMAG. And on one hand how it works… Because obviously about the career path like OK so maybe I am dev now I’m senior dev. I like people, I like to learn how to talk with them. It’s OK for them. They will be the team leaders and then maybe they think okay, they have the structures like we have so they will be the directors of the departments and probably if they would like to go forward, they need to quit or change the job or do something. You’re totally opposite. You change the department inside the company and have new fresh start. Basically how it works.

[00:22:45.690] – Laurentiu
This is something that I learned in some course, I don’t even remember which one. But there is a way to prepare yourself for a career decision. There is a way to be lucky. So being lucky is being prepared and taking the opportunity when it comes. And this is something I always talk about with my mentees. The question is what are the opportunities that you are willing to take if you want to be promoted? Are you only going to wait for your manager to be promoted or quit or somehow disappear? Or are you willing to take diagonal move or side move or change department or change companies or change countries? How far are you willing to go?

[00:23:44.940] – Laurentiu
And the thing is you need to know this because when the opportunity comes it will usually not wait for you very long. So for example, you have someone, for example, from Amsterdam calling now and telling you: hey, I have this really cool startup and I think you’d be a great fit here. Are you willing to take your wife, your kids and your dog and your cats and come tomorrow to Amsterdam? And you need to have the answer for that.

[00:24:16.390] – Laurentiu
Or maybe I go to Amsterdam and Bi job becomes available. And you get the question: who wants to be the new Bi Director? And then – are you willing to do that? Do you know what you need to do? Are you prepared to work in an entirely different field? And the question is then how different will that field be? Do you still want something technical as BI, for example, working with data? Or are you willing to move into finance or HR or things like that? And I’ve seen people doing it, and I’ve seen people doing it successfully, and I’ve seen people failing. And if you fail, what’s your safety net? This is how you prepare for things like that.

[00:25:09.010] – Laurentiu
And at the moment I had my manager back then proposing me this position. I knew what kind of opportunities I would be willing to take. I had my kids in school. I was not willing to leave the country. I was not willing even to leave Bucharest. I like eMAG a lot, so I was prepared to take a position here. I wasn’t willing to leave the technical side because I like this a lot. But it was just me. There are lots of people that left from the technical department, and they’re now in business. Even our CEO was manager of the software development department when I joined.

[00:25:55.960] – Paweł
It’s very important. And on one hand, it’s kind of easy, but it’s all easy from outside, let’s say, because it’s your personal question to yourself what you want. Yeah, it’s totally true. You need to know what you want, and this is it. But on the other hand, probably you will never be prepared. Because on every level it’s the same. You have no idea what is on the other side of the wall, another floor. Like, if you’re software developer, you think maybe because you work together with your teammates, you maybe think you know what you will be, what you will do as a team leader, then as a team manager, as a director, as CTO CEO. Is it possible to be prepared?

[00:26:41.560] – Laurentiu
You need to be prepared for anything, mentally. Of course, you will not know how to do things in that domain. But this is the first thing that I do. When I came to BI, I started getting the books, I asked, what are the books, the trainings, the thought leaders? What are the trainings? I followed them on Twitter. And you need to start learning the domain. And be open minded about it. And you also need to talk to the people to see how are things getting done in that particular department.

[00:27:18.560] – Laurentiu
So you will not be prepared. You cannot come and say, well, I know how this is done, because you can never know how things are done in that particular team. You need to know that this is something that you are willing to do and be prepared to learn.

[00:27:36.450] – Paweł
If you can sum up your experience and meet with yourself 20 years back. What will be the best advice you can tell yourself?

[00:27:47.540] – Laurentiu
I now have some things that I would have done differently. I wouldn’t spend that much time in a plateau in my career, but you need to make peace with yourself. These were the decisions I took at that point in time, and this time traveling thing does not exist yet. I cannot go back and say, hey, Laurentiu, you need learn this and that, because this was the information I had back then. Yeah, this is easier to do now to keep an eye on what’s happening around you. It was possible back then, but I had some time when I was comfortable, where I was. So when you’re comfortable, that’s a bad sign. You’re not in the right place to grow. On the other hand, you don’t always have to grow. It’s okay to be in your safe environment, and if that’s the life you want, that’s totally fine. But if you want to grow, to advance your career, to have a status, to have, I don’t know, more money or more everything, and you do nothing about it, and you expect to be promoted just because, I don’t know, you’re the oldest in the team or something like that, this is not okay.

[00:29:18.080] – Laurentiu
And you need to start learning. You need to put yourself in complicated positions. You need to solve complicated problems. You need to show people that you solve those problems because it’s not the problem that they have to promote you. It’s your problem that you need to do things, and you need to show that you’ve done those things.

[00:29:41.210] – Paweł
Awesome. Thank you very much. Where our guests can find you? Because I know you spend a lot of time now to travel in the different conferences. You appear on a different conference and what you are doing?

[00:29:54.190] – Laurentiu
You can find me on LinkedIn, you can find me on Twitter. I don’t post that much on Twitter, but I usually say when I go to a conference or something like that. And that’s all, I think.

[00:30:08.760] – Paweł
Okay, thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

[00:30:11.100] – Laurentiu
Thank you. Same for me.

[00:30:12.340] – Krzysztof
That was great episode. Thank you, Paweł, for conducting the interview. And thank you, Laurentiu,, for agreeing to meet with us. We want to hear your opinions. Do you like the episode in English? Would you like us to continue and record more interviews, more episodes in this language? So, please we will show you a link to the questionnaire or respond to the newsletter or comment under this video. Let us know if this is a good idea or not. And what do you think what’s your opinion?

[00:30:43.310] – Paweł
And if you want more of this kind of episode, please subscribe to our newsletter on nerd.management/newsletter. We’ll be here every Tuesday, 08:00 a.m. That’s all for today. Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to make those 100 episodes and serve you. Also, if you have any questions, any ideas what type of knowledge we can share or what’s your problem we can solve, let us know.

[00:31:10.900] – Paweł
And see you next Tuesday.