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The Underlying Story

Andrei Ioniță, on learning how to learn and self-determination.


Here’s a challenge.

You are hired to recruit the new Chief Technology Officer of Code for Romania. A person who:

  • will oversee all the applications and projects, both in progress and finished;

  • will shape the technology stack and architecture for prototypes fresh out of the incubator;

  • will work closely with technical project leads, as well as the communication team;

  • will be present at all times. Volunteers and core team members alike will turn to this person for technical questions;

  • will address emergencies, problems which everyone has given up on, and;

  • will jump in to help finish applications the night before a deadline.

Wait, I’m not done yet. There’s a high chance that this person will work a day job the entire time they fulfill their role as CTO. You have to rely on them to manage their own time, as well as manage the time and workload of others. This person can’t sit around waiting for approval - they have to think on their feet, make quick decisions and difficult compromises. You want this person to stand their ground when they have strong arguments and previous experience on their side, but you also want them to say “I don’t know” and ask for advice when they encounter a completely new problem.

You might think that the job of finding this individual is at least as hard as the job the Chief Technology Officer has to fulfill. You’re right. You’ll be delighted to hear that we have already found this person.

This story is about Andrei Ioniță. He is someone you would never have found. He wouldn’t have been listed in anyone’s LinkedIn network. He is an outlier. Having him lead the technical team was a stroke of luck that nobody could have ever planned for.

We know this to be true, because, if someone could have found Andrei, we would have immediately recruited that person, too.

“I keep looking for the underlying story”

The central concern during the last year of high-school is marrying your passion with the subjects that you feel you are good at. For Andrei, the passion was photography. He entertained the possibility of going to the National University of Arts, and dedicated time to completing a preparatory course. By the end of it, he realized that drawing is a mandatory part of getting a degree in arts. Having no interest in illustration, he moved to the next possibility: photo-journalism.

“I got my undergraduate degree by taking all the courses remotely. I thought, hey, journalism is all about telling a story and photography can help tell a story, so it might work out. I wasn’t interested in writing, or working for a newsroom.”

“I joined an NGO during college, that was my first taste of doing volunteer work. I did everything that was asked of me. Often, it was something about updating the website, because I was the only one who could do it. I wrote applications for European grants, I organized training sessions.”

Andrei was quick at enumerating the roles he had fulfilled, and he did so with the confidence of a person who got several late-night calls before a deadline, when something “wasn’t quite working right”. His tone changed when he offered the final remarks on his years spent as an undergraduate: “I was slowly losing interest in journalism”.

After he got his degree, Andrei wasn’t willing to give up yet. He enrolled in a masters degree in Anthropology. “This was my last attempt at doing something that was story-driven.” Just as soon as he described his determination to stay on course, he switched to talking about his main occupation: working as a freelancer. He had to make ends meet. “I was already doing paid web development work.”

“I still try to tell a tale through the things I create. I pay close attention to visuals. I don’t take any element at face value. I keep looking for an underlying story.”

“For me, working as a freelancer was the only way to earn a living that made sense.” Whenever anyone talks about freelancing, there is one cliché that invariably makes its way into the conversation: being your own boss. “For me, this was never about working when I wanted, slacking off when I wanted. Starting out was very rough. It all boils down to bad management. My estimations were off. I would settle on how long a project would take and how much I would charge for it. Then, I would do some of the work and realize that the project would take twice as much time, but I would receive the same amount of money. When you work with something for the first time, you have no idea how long it’s going to take.

Money-wise, I was barely breaking even.”

“I didn’t plan any of this”

“After five years of freelancing, I was close to burn-out. I took a six-month vacation. I didn’t intend for it to be six months long, but that’s what happened. I didn’t plan any of this.”

Just as Andrei avoided the illusion of how easy it would be to work as a freelancer, he avoided being too hard on himself when it turned out to be a difficult, messy job. “I saw no point in taking my frustration out on myself. I was the only one involved in this, and I could have honest conversations with myself when the going got rough. I didn’t live in fear that the person at the end of the line was judging me. I tried to be frank with myself.”

We turn to more recent events. “I knew Olivia, we went to college together. I saw the announcement about Code for Romania on Facebook. This was back in September, 2016. There was a kick-off event and I attended just to see what this was all about.”

Andrei talks about his primary motivation for volunteering in a pragmatic tone. The tone of someone who will, again, be called the night before a deadline, because “something isn’t quite working right”. “Joining Code for Romania wasn’t me thinking: oh, these people will surely shake the status quo. No. I had worked by myself for years, and I wanted a change. I wanted to work with others and learn from them as we go.”

“I worked on INLAR, initially. The plan was for me to help them out with a map, but I ended up finishing the entire project. Next up, I worked on the Seismic Alert prototype. Before I knew it, I was invited to be part of the staff. Back then, we had these monthly calls with the teams working on various projects. TouchBase weekends. I spent a lot of time combing through the existing infrastructure, tidying it up. I did a lot of auditing, if you’d like a more technical term. While one part of the team was organizing the Heroes of Tech summit, I rolled out an updated version of our website.”

Andrei stepped down as CTO, but he is still a Tech Officer. He attends the Bucharest meet-ups. If you sit down next to him long enough, you may end up laughing so hard your stomach starts to ache. Andrei answers technical questions with a mixture of actionable advice and puns. He entertains discussions about software architecture as readily as he discusses stand-up comedy and human bias.

“Look, I know there are some things that I can do better than most people, and, then, there are things that others do way better than I ever could. My time is limited. I want to focus on those things that I, in particular, am good at.”

I’m a simple person: I reach the end of my interview, I ask for a wise conclusion, or a piece of advice to inspire those who are just starting out in their journey as tech volunteers. Andrei sees right through me, and refuses to conjure up a catchy, five-word slogan. I plead with him, and he agrees to answer my question: “what’s the most valuable skill you’ve learned?”

“It’s got to be learning how to learn.”

“If I have to estimate how long it will take me to work on a project with new technologies, stuff I’ve never touched before, I draw an analogy. I look at all the things I’ve done and try to find something similar. If I can match it, I know the ballpark estimated. If the project I’m looking at is significantly bigger than anything I’ve done, I break it down into stages. I take it one step at a time. The aim is to reduce both the risk I expose myself to, and the risk my client exposes themselves to.”

“I’m still scared of the unknown. But, at least, I know what I need to do to get started on something. I still enjoy what I do. I enjoy it in that honest way that says Mondays don’t feel like Mondays to me.”

“I do, however, adhere to strict business hours,” he adds, chuckling sensibly.

You can find the professional work Andrei is doing when he isn’t immersed in Code for Romania projects on his personal website.