Classic cliché: computer nerds. If you thought they were extinct, think again....
For the first time in the short history of the Meet MewsDevs interview series, I decided it would be a good idea to interview two people at once. Alexander (frontend dev) and Vaclav (backend dev) have a lot in common. They both study at Charles University Faculty of Mathematics and Physics (Matfyz), live in the same dormitory, share a passion for Dungeons & Dragons and robotics, and both have a rather unhealthy diet. Geeks, nerds. That’s their identity and they’re proud of it, but there’s so much more to these two young guns on our team.
When we met outside their school, Alex had just passed his Computational Linguistics exam. “Let’s order an Uber back to the dorm and have some sushi?” asked Vaclav. I have to say, things have changed since I was a student, before working for Mews, but it’s nicely refreshing being around these two. So after a little photoshoot at the school we hopped in an Uber (where most of this interview occurred) and off we went!
From Matfyz to Mews
How was the exam and how’s the exam period going? Haven’t seen you much in the office lately….
Alex: It was alright. Although I studied for it quite a bit, I wasn’t so sure what to expect. But I had my lucky t-shirt (not a Mews t-shirt), so I passed.
Vaclav: I still have two exams to go, so you won’t see me much for some time still.
How is it both working at Mews and studying full time?
Alex: Personally, it’s very difficult, but that’s mostly because I sleep a lot. 10 hours per day is the minimum for me. Luckily, I don’t have to go to all the classes, so it’s mainly the exam period that makes it difficult.
Vaclav: For me, the most difficult part is switching between the contexts, but it’s doable.
So are there some other people you know that have to deal with the same thing?
Vaclav: Well, there are around 5 other classmates at Mews and of course there is Pepa (tech lead of platform backend), who is absolutely crazy. He managed to do all the exams in, like, three days, which is absolutely inhuman. He should write a blogpost about how to handle all the things he’s got on his plate.
Pepa is a star… Did you guys know each other before?
Alex: He’s actually the one that recruited me.
Vaclav: We’ve randomly met at some of our classes but I didn’t know he worked for Mews at that time… and then he interviewed me and we talked about classes I take and he was like, hey, we know the same teachers and we take the same classes. I don’t think that was the main reason I was hired at the end of the day, but the fact that I mentioned hating Java was the decisive point.
Recently we were talking that every 4th developer is either a current student or a Matfyz alumni. Can you feel the spirit around the office?
Alex: Well, not really. Matfyz is a place that gives you knowledge and connections, but it’s not anything special or above that.
Vaclav: I mean, of course, when you talk to someone like Pavel you really know he’s from a different school and background… He’s not like the rest of us.
Alex: The number of Matfyz people will grow -- I already recruited two more.
Thank you for touching upon Pavel as he’s a part of every interview (he's a very influential person in Mews in general). He was your buddy, Vaclav, wasn’t he?
Vaclav: Yes, he was my buddy and first tech lead and you always remember your first. Although he wasn’t really in the office much when I started as he just recently broke his collarbone. And that was quite tricky as the Admin team was just me and him. I worked, like, 10 hours a day from the day I started and I have to say it was a great learning experience. And Pavel was really great because even though he was home, he’d always answer any of my questions in a matter of minutes. By the way, I really hope he builds that lunch app (read the Kebab Wars article for more context).
Tough youth in police car and cornfields
We’re on the way to your dormitory which indicates that you’re not from Prague. Where are you guys from?
Vaclav: I am from Peruc, close to Louny, in Ustecky kraj.
Alex: Well, I am from a different country, so commuting to work/school every day would be difficult. And plus I hate travelling by planes.
You have that in common with Pepa, he really hates flying. He’ll be talking at an event in Amsterdam and had to ask a friend to go with him…
Alex: So I hate planes, not because of heights or anything. I hate the bureaucracy around it. Standing in line, checking your passport, being two hours at the airport…
Vaclav: I disagree, planes and all the things you mentioned are really fun. Because it’s letting go of all your responsibilities in the place you’re leaving and still not having the responsibilities of the place you’re going. So it’s some kind of no man’s zone where I can relax and not work. I know I definitely won’t be taking those airlines with Wi-Fi.
Speaking of work, I know you worked in the field when you were younger…
Vaclav: Right… As I mentioned, I am from a small village and right next to where I lived is a big agricultural center where my mom works, so during summers I used to work in the field. I might actually put it into my CV.
Alex, you’re from Moscow and once you told us that it's a really safe place, even though you were once taken by police…
Alex: Well, yes. I was about 12 years old, it was already dark and I was walking on the street with a black hoodie, backpack, and earphones. And when they saw me running away from the direction of a bank, they stopped their car in front of me, took me in the car, and asked me why I robbed the bank. I was quite scared, but the worst part was that I was just leaving the science lab I was attending and I had night vision goggles in my bag that we used for a project. Luckily it all turned out alright.
How is it being the youngest on the team?
Alex: There's no issue with that, most people don't know how old I am. Sometimes, when they find out, they're a bit surprised, but nothing more. After all, among developers it's mostly about skill, not age.
Well, it seems like the app team and platform frontend team is not just about skill, but also about being Russian.
Alex: Yeah, that’s true. The new guys coming to these teams need to take intensive Russian courses… By the way, it’s funny, as I started doing frontend because I love doing visuals and, now, I’m in the sole frontend team that doesn’t do much with visuals. I still like things I study like algorithms, C#, etc., but visuals are higher on my list.
Let’s talk Slack and emojis a little bit. Those two things are really big in Mews and you have a particularly cool story about your custom emoji. What was it all about?
Alex: When I applied for the job at Mews, I submitted the test task for frontend and obviously you could see my public Github account. And Richard, the founder, saw my profile and image and commented whether “this guy was casting for the next Terminator movie, we need an emoji of this.” When I got hired, I found out about this and spent about three hours animating an explosion behind my back and turning it into an emoji.
GIF emoji is a highly respected feat since Honza, the CTO, made his in the early days of Slack. What are your favorite emoji?
Both: Definitely the upside down face…
And Alex, I believe I speak on behalf of everyone in the company, thank you for creating the series of Tom Hanks emojis. Because after :thanks: which is one of the most used emoji and even one of our meeting rooms was named after it, we needed also :spasibo:, :danke:, :arigato:, :xiexie: and :gracias:.
Alex: My pleasure!
Dorm life is good life
[We get out of the car and head into the lobby of the dormitory where the boys get themselves baguettes at reception.]
Vaclav: The lobby also serves as a cafeteria now, so we have machines for ready-made food, drinks, etc. The roof of the original cafeteria collapsed so…
Alex: I was there when it collapsed! It wasn’t too bad, but they closed it, which is really sad.
This is actually where you played Santa Clauses and put the famous MewsDevs slippers under the Christmas tree right?
Vaclav: Yeah, Gabriela (our community queen) gave us like 50 pairs of slippers and we did a little guerilla marketing around here. Not only did we put it under the tree (and it was gone in one evening), but we also put them around the dorm on the information boards where other companies put their flyers. This one is both a visible commercial and also useful merch. (Both Vaclav and Alex are skilled merch hunters at events and career fairs. Alex has drawers dedicated just to this and thanks to him all tech has something to write with as he recently donated about 100 pens with various logos on them.)
[We enter Vaclav’s room. Unfortunately, I told him we’d be coming, so he “cleaned” -- but when I go to take off my shoes, he said he hasn’t wiped the floor since July when he moved in. Spacious room, vintage feel, and a lot of weird stuff -- including half a bottle of red wine on the window sill from a party for one yesterday.]
Vaclav: There was a guy living next door and he had five cats. Obviously, you cannot do that here. But what was even worse was that he didn’t really take care of them, so they were walking around the dorm. Sometimes, he’d be gone for a week and he’d leave them here alone so they’d be coming over to beg for food. This really wasn’t good and at the end the animal control came and I haven’t seen him since. It was quite nice to have visitors though.
How does one become a person that builds their own computer keyboards? You’re already famous at Mews because of that, Vaclav. Was it your love of piano? [There’s an electric piano in the room.]
Vaclav: Not really… It was me being a computer nerd. To be honest, the benefits of a mechanical keyboard are not that great. But it’s very customizable and you have a feeling of creating something personal. I’ve built around 10 keyboards at this point and if I get tired of them, I sell them. Plus, it’s like rare Pokemons - some of the pieces are limited and become more expensive. And there is quite an active group around it. I’ve been to Frankfurt at the biggest meetup in Europe of around 300 people and I will host a Prague meetup at our Mews office too.
Alex: And you’re building one for me, too!
Natalia [the photographer]: Where’s your trash?
Vaclav: Oh, I use this bag from Uber eats. Just throw it in there.
Alex [playing with a Rubik’s Cube]: Have you learned how to do it yet? (Interview twist!)
Me: No, not yet, but Ian (our backend colleague), brought me a couple with guides on how to do it -- in Chinese, with pictures -- so I hope I’ll be able to soon.
What’s your personal best on solving the cube?
Alex: It’s definitely somewhere under one minute which is pretty bad. But I’m not really into it, I just know how to do it and I do it mainly to impress people. My brother is really good at it. He’s been to the World Championship and things like that. He actually excelled at the blind competitions where they let you see it for a couple of seconds and then you do it with your eyes covered. I really like that!
Vaclav: That’s insane. I’ve never even solved one.
So, the Rubik’s Cube is not your hobby. It’s D&D. Tell me about it.
Alex & Vaclav eagerly together: Oh yeah. We have a playroom here on this floor, it’s actually our classmate’s room who’s our game master. He is responsible for the whole world and the interactions. Because you have to keep in mind that some of the games go for months or years. It has to be a person with vivid imagination. D&D is really like an RPG but without a computer -- the game master is the computer. There is a book (taking out of backpack) which gives you a framework but the game is mostly about actions you think up.
When do you win this game?
Alex: You have to think of it as a world with its own rules. You can be an adventurer saving people from monsters, you can be a wandering teacher enlightening strangers, or you could even settle down and open a tavern or a shop. So you don’t really win or lose.
Do you write it down?
Alex: No, you just say it. You (usually) don’t write your own life either, so you have to remember your actions. This is also where the game master comes in. But some people keep a journal. You have complete freedom, but everything has consequences. If you behave like a di*k, other people will react.
Vaclav: By the way, you will have a lot of arguments around the interpretation of rules, etc.
Vaclav [asking me]: Have you played any RPG on the computer? Like Fallout?
Me: Hm… RPG… I finished gaming with FIFA 99 which came out before you were born.
Is your dream to work for a gaming company?
Vaclav: Kind of… we participate in game jams and we’re developing our own game.
Alex: For me personally, it’s a side project which is really huge for me. As I said I am a very visual person so gaming is great for that. I take it really seriously because if it works out it would be awesome. This summer we will release our game. We actually had to make an easy mode.
Vaclav: We got a lot of feedback that we needed to make it a bit easier. Mainly from the teachers grading it.
Last question: Was gaming the reason why you became developers?
Vaclav: No. I really love programming things, which you can see from the example of my keyboards: it gives you freedom and it allows you to be lazy. You can see that with Alex, too: he built a tool to automate invoicing.
Alex [taking a bite of his Šunkový speciál]: I don’t know... I just wanted to be rich. 😁
Photo © Natalia Bubochkina.