Rostyslav Shchepan, Managing Director at Skelia Ukraine on building a successful company in the time of crisis, the company’s core values and challenging projects.
Skelia is a global company providing software development, engineering and outsourcing services. The company builds cross-border teams and tests business solutions thanks to the top talent of Eastern Europe. Skelia operates through a global network of offices in Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Poland and the United States. We talked to Rostyslav Shchepan, Managing Director at Skelia Ukraine, about the key lessons he learned doing IT business in Ukraine for the last ten years.
On new beginnings
When it all started back in 2009, only nine people were working at Skelia: seven developers, a recruiter and me. I remember how when we settled down in this new business center, we could fit our small “family circle” in one cozy room. And when we went for bowling and pizza on our first ever corporate party, the entire team fit in a single taxi-bus. Now, we have about 200 employees, three offices in Ukraine and one in Poland. Many things have changed since then but this family atmosphere we’ve cultivated still remains.
And that’s the first lesson we’ve learned: some things don’t need to change. They are like the fundamental cell of our essence; we only have to multiply it and integrate it into the next levels. And people like it too. Some of our employees have worked with us for 7 to 10 years, while others had left just to return later, knowing that the heart of the company is the same.
Skelia has a good reputation. We’ve managed to build a successful company in… very specific market conditions. Europe was suffering an economic crisis, banks collapsed, whole departments had to be let go. On the one hand, it wasn’t an easy time for us to start a company. But on the other hand, we’ve managed to find the best talents on the market, offer them interesting opportunities and build solid, professional teams. The candidates knew that when recruiters from Skelia got in touch, they had something interesting to offer.
That was when we learned a valuable lesson: crisis is not omnipresent. Where some people see crisis, others see an opportunity to build a successful business. In two years, we’ve managed to grow to over 35 people. Compared to these results, it was much harder to make a reputation in Kyiv or Krakow.
On the difference
Competition is intense in the IT market. Still, everyone has a chance to find a niche if you have an approach, a model for your business that fits both customers and employees. Skelia has a model like this.
When we founded the company, we laid tolerance, professionalism, honesty, and openness into its foundation. These are the fundamental values that have been with us for ten years. This is what makes us special. This is what’s rooted in our core.
Сompanies on the market tend to lose the individual approach as they grow, but we strive to keep it up for as long as possible. And that’s another lesson we’ve learned: though we change towards flexibility in our processes, the culture of transparency, mutual respect and trust has to remain unchanged. Skelia is a special place to work in, with a mix of high standards and strong values. The true work-life balance is not an issue for our co-workers since Skelia lets you grow and study. And, of course, travel. Travel a lot.
On working with customers
From our experience, we’ve learned that you always need to start with the customers’ problems, not their expectations.
When you ask software engineers what they’re doing, they’ll usually answer “coding.” But that’s not entirely true. Primarily, we solve customer problems. That’s why we start by answering questions like “What does our customer need?,” “What kind of problems do they have?” and, more specifically, “What are their pain points?”. Based on this, we can validate the customer’s ideas, how they want these ideas to be developed and any further adjustments.
In fact, this is a form of consulting that starts with the presales stage, before any contracts are signed. It lets us make fewer mistakes. And though this kind of consulting is indirect costs, if we don’t spend them, certain deadlines may not fit, or the product will not enter the market as expected. We start giving value to our customers even before they become our customers. But it did take us some time to figure this out.
Another trick we’ve learned is the proximity of communication. It all starts with the customer participating in team assembly, at the recruiting stage. Our customers know the people who will be in their teams and, accordingly, people know who they’ll be working with – sort of a personal match and a good start for fruitful cooperation. Our teams work remotely, but we put every effort into making the customer feel like the team is sitting in a room next door. Daily meetings and frequent trips between offices usually help with that. But we’ve learned that better understanding requires more than just working closely. You also need to learn other cultures: how people think, what’s essential for them, what their focuses are.
Our business model with its openness is what allowed us to grow in the first place. Openness towards our employees and our customers. Every employee can talk to the managers, the CEO, the owners. They can be open, discuss any issues or questions and offer ideas regarding the company.
We don’t have any barriers with our customers too. Team members can communicate with them directly, explain their ideas, discuss requirements, hold retrospectives, put their minds together to think of an improvement. For example, we’ve started a new project recently that required us to find people who will actually decide on the tech part of the delivery by themselves. This is what we mean when we talk about trust and openness. People feel like a part of the customer’s team and a part of the Skelia team as well.
Agile is not a religion we believe in. We can work according to other methodologies as well – no problem. But we’ve learned that in most cases, it fits our model best. Agile lets us show the customers what we’re delivering efficiently and incrementally, gaining their trust at the same time. This approach allows us to keep each stakeholder up to date on everything that’s going on during the development, without hiding the risks that may occur. This open communication gives both the customers and us an opportunity to adapt and improve consistently. During the retrospect meetings, we discuss the issues on both sides.
The approach has proven to be especially effective with new customers. Clearly, we have to gain their trust to explain why some things take one day to do while others may take up to a week. It usually takes us two to four sprints to pass this stage. Agile allows us to quickly show the results of our work, demonstrate what we’ve done and where the money went. We’ve been agile from the very beginning, and we’ve learned that this is the case when it’s better to stick with the tradition.
On recruitment challenges
Recruitment in the current market is no piece of cake. We’ve had our difficulties, our highs and lows. I remember one time three months passed between the first and last stages of recruitment: from making an offer to the candidate to him signing it.
You’ve got to be patient in this process, and the lesson we’ve learned is that you need a team of like-minded people with a high level of personal responsibility that shares a common goal to succeed. Of course, it would be difficult to achieve positive results without effective interaction and cooperation with all departments. And thanks to the trust our employees have in Skelia, they recommend the company to their friends and acquaintances as a reliable place to work in.
On the challenging cases
In the 10 years Skelia has been operating on the global tech market, we’ve had some pretty challenging cases. Here are some of them.
The tech solution
A Belgian startup with a great idea needed a BI solution for software that analyzes user profiles in social media to find an ideal car match for them. The customer has been developing the solution for a year before they reached a roadblock. So, they contacted Skelia to validate the solution and analyze ways to continue the development based on the evaluation. Our verdict was not very comforting: the solution had to be rebuilt, and the customer gave us three months to show them a demo of how we would do that.
In three months sharp, we managed to deliver an MVP that was a success. In the end, the customer received more investment, and Skelia earned a loyal customer that has been with us for many years. All thanks to the powerful team of an architect, a data science engineer, a senior PHP engineer and a full-stack engineer. Currently, we’re adding more intelligence to the solution and scaling the platform.
The tech solution for a USA customer
We’ve learned many lessons when we started working with US customers. And it’s not about the time difference. In Europe, customers usually understand that it takes time to gather a professional team. Customers from the US need a team next Monday. So, we’ve learned to manage this with predictions on the presales level and by starting the recruitment process earlier.
I remember an interesting project from the USA. There were many technological problems with this one, mostly because of the number of user sessions that had to be simultaneously supported by their back end. The project was short-term, aimed to solve the problem before the MVP presentation.
Our task was to understand what the problem was and fix it without damaging the existing software. So, in seven sprints, we’ve developed a working API and architecturally arranged a level that scales according to the number of users using MS Azure. In this case, it seemed like a tricky task, but our brainy team closed the deal quickly and successfully.
For me, the hardest time was during the 2014 crisis in Ukraine. The European media was shocked, and all of our customers were deeply concerned. But thanks to very close cooperation and consistent communication, not a single project was lost. The most challenging thing was to establish crisis management procedures and open an office in Krakow within two weeks. If any hostilities happened in Lviv or Kyiv, we were ready to transport our teams to Krakow, providing everyone with an opportunity for continuous delivery.
Now, we have around 50 people at our Krakow office. This is a rare case when anti-crisis measures transformed into a successful development office. And it actually works both ways. I remember the time when Pope visited Krakow, and there was a risk of an Internet connection failure in the entire office. So, we decided to transport all Krakow employees to our Lviv office for one week and provide them with a safe and secure workspace.
If we could go back to 2009, here’s what we’d say to ourselves
It takes hard work and the courage to learn from your mistakes to succeed. That’s why we put every effort into making Skelia a company people would like to work in and partner with. You should also never underestimate the value of failures and be determined to improve continuously. Every challenge we’ve faced throughout Skelia’s history has become a brick in our road to success. We are evolving each day with no intention to stop. And if you’re anything like us, we’d love to work with you.