Bringing Science and Business together. Meet Kasia, a Project Manager and an Academic Teacher
Emerging from the academic world she successfully mixes theoretical knowledge with business reality. During her over 10 years of academic career she has taught thousands of programmers that soft skills are not an option but simply a must. Let us talk with Kasia – Senior Project Manager at Bright Inventions.
I studied Computer Science at Gdańsk University of Technology and went right after that to PhD studies. I actually didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduating high school. I was passionate about many different fields. I was in a multidisciplinary class at my high school in Olsztyn and wrote extended Matura exams from subjects like English, Polish and Physics. So I had a few career paths in my mind.
During high school I made a few websites so I had a very romantic yet naive vision of what being a programmer would look like. So I applied to Computer Science at Gdańsk University of Technology. I did it just to see if I could get in. In the meantime, I got into English Philology studies. I was about to go there but then I got the news that I got into Computer Science as well. Eventually, I chose that faculty. I figured that studying at the University of Technology would force me to leave my comfort zone and it just seemed to be exciting.
In the first year my group had a wide spectrum of knowledge. There were people who saw Linux for the first time and people who were experts at it. However, now after many years of teaching at the university, I can tell that it doesn’t matter what knowledge you brought in the beginning. It matters with what level of knowledge you finish the first year. Surprisingly, the better insight you have at the start the easier it is to end up lost. You just don’t feel that pressure to learn because you have this confidence that others have to catch up. But then you might miss the moment when they are ahead of you. Everyone has the same chance. It doesn’t matter if you had some basics or did not. When I started my studies I only knew HTML and basic PHP. It was very hard for me to catch up, the first months were tough but I made it. It is just a matter of what you are going to do now with your knowledge.
It is worth mentioning that studying IT is strongly connected to the perception that you are entering the men’s world. It is still very blocking for women. Before I started to study there I never thought that I didn't belong somewhere. Yet in my first year I started to hear these questions from other male students: What are you doing here? Why are you here? It was really confusing that my presence is surprising to somebody. I will never forget that feeling.
When I was starting my student’s adventure I felt like I was about to become a mini hacker and learn how to code. I didn’t even know that there were fields like project management and that you study that. As soon as it came up in the class I was intrigued by it. After the third year, we had to choose our majors and I decided to take the one which had the most project management classes. I think that I liked this multidisciplinary area that combines two worlds together: code and human relations. Also, I love to have contact with people and cooperate with them so I felt that this is for me. It was really intuitive and it struck me that I could do it for a living.
You pursue an academic career and teach future programmers. Why did you decide to do it and what has it been giving you so far?
So I wanted to find my first job as a junior project manager. In the final year of my college, around 2010, I was at an interview for that position in a huge corporation and I heard from the interviewer something that was supposed to be advice from “the older colleague”. I was told that my resume is perfectly fine but still they wouldn’t hire me because no IT team will listen to a little girl like me. The interviewer just told me directly that he wouldn’t hire me because of my gender. After that I came to the conclusion (maybe wrongly) that there must be more people in this industry like that man and there is really no place for me on the business side of software development. So I decided to go to PhD studies to explore the academic side of project management.
Some would say that the academic world is even more “male-oriented” but that wasn’t the case at the Department of Software Engineering at Gdańsk University of Technology. What is more important in the academic world – by every research stands facts, not gender. Therefore it felt like a perfect place for me. No one would say I didn’t belong here.
I worked on my PhD dissertation about method of selection programming practices for safety-critical software development projects. The goal of my research was to develop an approach aimed at facilitating the introduction of a more agile approach to the software development process while maintaining compliance with the required safety standards and regulations. As a result I presented the AgileSafe method which supports a hybrid approach to software development based on the tailored practices and to support continuous monitoring of conformance to the mandatory regulatory requirements.
Eventually, you joined the business side of software development becoming a member of Bright Inventions team. What made you change your mind?
I highly value my academic work. It is nice to have the freedom to explore different areas of science at the university. I have the freedom to grow there in the direction that suits me. When you work at a software company you don’t always have the resources to deeply study every area you desire. At the university, you have more possibilities to do it and then your studies can contribute to business and give them more tools to effectively develop projects.
However, the higher I climbed in the University hierarchy I felt the bigger need to confront my work with business. It was high time to join a software development company and follow both paths: academic and business ones.
At the same time, Bright Inventions was growing and the team combined dozens of programmers. They needed a Project Manager and were determined to find one. I decided to come on board. My PhD had just been submitted, plus one of my children went to the nursery and the other to preschool so I realised that the timing wouldn’t be better than that. It was over 3 years ago and since then I regret nothing. I combine my job as an academic teacher with my work at Bright Inventions. I truly love that combo.
How do your students approach your classes about project management? Probably most of them came to the university to touch on technical knowledge, not soft skills.
At the beginning of my job as a lecturer, I could see that students weren’t so open to learning about Agile development. Mostly only students who had a goal to become project managers were truly focused during classes. However, now I can see the change in student’s attitudes. There has been a rise in awareness of Agile and project management in general. What is more, working at Bright Inventions gave me crucial insights and let me understand programmers’ perspectives. I can prepare them to face the specific challenges that they are likely to meet on their professional path.
What does the female students’ situation at IT look like? Can you see that there are more women studying than there used to be?
I admit that there are more women at Computer Science than compared to my student’s times. Yet there are not enough of them. I still conduct lab work with groups containing only men. I have worked at Gdańsk University of Technology for 11 years and am still waiting for a meaningful change to happen. The problem is that there are much fewer college applications submitted by women. So it is not (as some would think) that women don’t get to the studies, many don’t even try to pursue this path. So again the issue is about making girls aware from an early age that they can become engineers if they want to. Girls just should feel free to do it as men do. In my view, they still don’t have that feeling.
Each project represents a different industry which I really love. It helps me to extend my knowledge and leave my comfort zone. Every project is close to my heart but I guess working on vCare project is special because it is a healthcare solution and that is very close to my academic focus. Managing the vCare project enables me to combine my academic research with business objectives.
The greatest issue is the lack of communication between vendor and client. That is the source of most of the problems. Of course, if there are some internal problems in communication within the software team then it results in negative outcomes such as missing deadlines and increasing the budget. That is problematic but still, this is not a true problem compared to miscommunication with the client. It might result in delivering a product that is different from what the client anticipated. There is no greater failure than developing something that is completely useless. It means that months of work just went for nothing.
The steak is even higher when we develop safety-oriented products. Let us say that the product we developed does not meet the radiation norm then we might cause a real danger. That is why the Agile approach is becoming more and more popular. Because they make cooperation with the client more efficient. These methods engage the client in the process, help to save time and obviously money. So it definitely attracts business.
The most natural implementations of Agile have their origins from the team itself, not the management. Nowadays it is probably often pushed by the management because Agile and Scrum are catchy and every company wants to be associated with them. Yet good transformations come from grass-roots.
In big corporations, Agile is usually first implemented within a small team. After the trial, they analyze results and implement the new approach in other teams. Ideally, the whole company should be engaged in the process from the beginning but that is a rare situation.
Now, most of the companies declare that they follow the Agile methods but the problem is that it does not function properly for them. Everyone wants to boast that they are an Agile oriented company. The problem is a lack of clue what to do when it does not work. Many people cannot change their mindset, they do not see the value behind Agile. They hate that client’s requirements are changing, that it interferes with their work. Not everyone can be open to change from tomorrow. It requires time. The whole software development community should build the awareness of why it is okay to change requirements and that clients will always be making changes and we need to accept that.
I want to ask you a question that I regularly find scrolling through social media feeds. What do scrum masters do from 9 to 5?
Scrum masters are guardians. We can say metaphorically that they garden our projects. They walk around and check if tomatoes grow properly or maybe they need extra poles for support. They make sure that there are no weeds stopping them and that our tomatoes have sufficient access to the sun. They help them grow but do not do the whole “growing process” for them. They make sure that tomatoes have the best possible condition to grow.
Yet still, what specific tasks do they have during the day?
Obviously, it depends on the company. Usually scrum masters should be up to date with Jira or other task boards used in the team. They have to investigate tasks which are stuck for too long in the backlog or do not have all requirements to be done. Scrum masters often contact clients to explain questionable things. They make sure that there are no time conflicts disturbing the sprint flow. For example, they should notice when too many team members plan to go on vacations at the same time. Apart from that, scrum masters motivate the team and make sure that they remember about estimations and finishing their tasks. However, when the team is working efficiently and the flow is flawless scrum masters do not interfere. They just observe and help to maintain the status quo. To sum up, scrum masters mostly speak and talk during the day. 😉
At Bright Inventions, we have a different approach to the Scrum Master role. First of all, we do not use this name. To be fair with Agile definitions we use the term Project Managers, who in our projects are mostly Scrum Masters but with a bit bigger responsibilities. They are also responsible for the project budget and business aspects of the project. What is more, at Bright Inventions PMs support clients in the product owner process. So we help clients, if they need our assistance, to follow the Agile flow.
The studies show that there are still scrum teams without a scrum master.* That is the most shocking thing for me. Another problem is that teams do not have stand-ups because they believe that communicating via Slack is enough. What is more, we often can see a misusing of terms. For example, the fact that the team works on Jira which gives them some kind of backlog does not mean that they follow an Agile approach.
As I mentioned before we are very cautious at Bright Inventions. We follow Agile but we do not give scrum master titles. On the other hand, some companies give this title to people who are not really doing scrum master’s jobs. Agile tells us that we should not focus on the job titles but on our role in the process. Unfortunately, sometimes titles go before the actual job.
Also, sometimes people just focus on listing all agile buzzwords like they were crossing them off the list without further reflection. We have reviews – checked. We have a backlog – checked. Great, so we are nailing Agile. Yet in reality, we do not focus on the core of Agile – developing solutions that give value to our client.
Hybrid work – how did it change your daily cooperation & communication with the team and general social dynamics?
Hybrid work has definitely influenced a daily work. In my view, spontaneous communication in the office like casual talk in the kitchen is very important. When we work at home we sometimes hesitate to write a message to somebody about a worrying issue. When this person sits in the same room then we can just bring out the subject passing next to them. And it often turns out that this issue is very important and should be resolved asap. Now project managers have a bigger challenge to maintain that casual, spontaneous level of communication and engagement in the project.
I think that the crucial project manager's job is to diversify the communication. We have to use written communication as well. Yet we should not only write to each other when something does not work but also about other issues just like we were in the kitchen office and casually discussing the project. I think that writing on Slack or other communicators is important as well as calls with the team. Some people do not feel comfortable on the call and they rather write replies. It might be easier to get answers from them this way. So project managers have to juggle with different communication platforms to give every member of the team a way to express themselves. PMs have to also create messages that include a call to action, encouraging people to reply. It helps to engage them in the process. Sitting at home might build a feeling that we are somewhere far away so we can only focus on our tasks in Jira and don’t look at the project from the whole team's perspective.
Let us not forget about meetings in person. They are highly recommended. At Bright Inventions people are free to choose if they want to work from home or the office. Still, we do not want them to feel that all they do is interact with avatars, so we organise quarterly integration meetings to give an opportunity to meet the rest of the team in person.
I have two school age children. So my number one priority is spending time with them. Besides, I ride a bike as often as I can. Before the pandemics, I was attending yoga and pilates classes. Pandemics took that away from me. I did not want to exercise at home and actually felt like I needed to leave the house and get some fresh air. I thought of cycling as an opportunity to spend active time outside the home. I sat on the bike, started to ride, the air struck me and suddenly everything changed. I felt the freedom which I really needed after weeks of staying at home. Then I started to train mountain terrain cycling. I loved to ride, and riding MTBs gave me a chance to do it in lots of beautiful places. Even when pilates and yoga places were reopened and I started to train both again I did not give up MTB. I love it, it gives me oxygen, so much space and beautiful views.
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*Learn more about scrum master’s role in Agile teams: