30 Mar “We must not drown in beauty and perfection!”
The CTO of weclapp dreams of smart software that reduces human intervention in the next ERP generation. However, Ertan Özdil considers German perfectionism dangerous.
An interview by Maja Hoock published on
29 March 2021, 12:00 p.m.
Ertan Özdil is the founder and CTO of the cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform weclapp. According to Özdil, more than 3,000 companies in 35 countries work with his solution, including a subdivision of ADAC, companies in printing and advertising technology and pharmaceutical distributors. Due to the rapid migration of legacy systems to ERP 3.0, Weclapp has been voted ERP system of the year four times and is one of the fastest-growing companies in Germany, according to Statista.
It now has a third location in Özdil’s Bavarian hometown of Kitzingen. Tech start-ups are still scarce there, and the 47-year-old CEO and CTO wants to create 100 new jobs in parallel to the planned IPO. In the interview, he talks about exaggerated salary expectations and explains why technical knowledge is not the most important criterion for him when hiring new staff and where the shortage of skilled workers really exists.
Golem.de: When did you have your first contact with computers?
Ertan Özdil: With my C64. From today’s perspective, it was the ideal device to start programming. I loved my bread box! When I was nine, I stood in front of a game console in a big shop and asked the salesman “What do I have to learn to make a programme like that myself?” – “Learn Assembler!” was the answer. From that moment on, programming was my passion. Pocket money and free time went into this hobby.
Golem.de: How exactly did that look like?
Özdil: A friend’s family had a particularly good computer. One Sunday morning, I really wanted to try out some code. I rang the bell at eight o’clock in the morning – just to try something out on their computer. When I was twelve, a computer shop opened in Würzburg. I came from Kitzingen, where Weclapp is located today, which is 18 kilometres away. As soon as I had the time, I got on my bike and rode to the shop – which caused my parents serious worry. They scraped together all the money they could to buy me my first computer of my own.
Golem.de: What did you then do with this first computer of your own?
Ertan Özdil: I spent every free minute writing demos, intros, graphics and then real programmes. From the age of 14, people kept coming to me asking if I could improve their programmes. It was fascinating to me how a few lines of code on a blank screen could create a reality somewhere else.
Golem.de: How did your hobby of programming turn into a profession?
Özdil: I was a schoolboy, 16 years old, and an IT wholesaler had taken notice of me. He wanted a new merchandise management system and I wrote it for him. Later I joined IBM and based on experience like this I founded Weclapp. Even today, I still want to “just try something out”.
Golem.de: As CTO, do you still program yourself at all?
Golem.de: Twelve years ago, you founded weclapp. How did that come about?
Özdil: Two things were initial: meeting an investor and mentor who believed in me and my ideas, and the early understanding that a programme can run completely browser based.
Golem.de: How did you eventually become the top executive? What does it take?
Özdil: You must know what you are talking about because experience helps to take strategic decisions. Leadership helps to prioritise projects and to realise them efficiently, especially when several colleagues are working on one project. But it also takes teamwork and the ability to deal with criticism.
Golem.de: And you need experience with technologies and tech stacks. Where do these lie in your case?
Özdil: In particular, I have dealt with the JEE stack and the Java world for a very long time and intensively – even today this is a stack you can build excellent solutions with. Weclapp is essentially based on the JEE stack, even though it tends to become more heterogeneous, and actually you do not find one single stack for a good solution any longer.
Golem.de: Would you rather be a CTO than a programmer?
Özdil: I prefer to be CTO because I can see the big picture and make strategic decisions.
Golem.de: What do you like best about your job as CTO?
Özdil: Turning staff into teams! With my team, under a common goal: To create software that enables teamwork in companies.
Golem.de: You recently announced the creation of 100 new jobs. How do you find the right applicants for your team?
Özdil: The most important thing is an efficient HR marketing to get attention in the first place. Cooperation with universities, also for recruiting, is very important for us. That is why our locations are always close to universities. LinkedIn is working better and better as a recruiting instrument. Unfortunately, we cannot do without head-hunters either. We are currently building a team of talent managers to further optimise the process. The talent managers not only take care of finding talents, but also of their further development after they have been hired.
Golem.de: What are your most important criteria when selecting the right persons?
Özdil: Of course, we already pay attention to the best possible fit of competence and requirements when inviting candidates for an interview. But most of all we want to identify how the personality matches with our culture. We are a team, we support each other, motivate each other, but also push each other. We celebrate success together!
Golem.de: There are certainly requirements for new employees in terms of technology skills. What are these specifically?
Özdil: In terms of technology, we expect JEE knowledge in the backend, and Angular, Typescript for the frontend.
Golem.de: And how does the selection process work?
Özdil: In technical interviews we learn enough about competence and experience. That can be done in two rounds – sometimes it takes one more. But 70 per cent of our decision is based on our assessment of cultural fit. The personal fit, getting to know each other, having a coffee together and discussing the world out there – meetings like those tell you more about a personality than putting the guys in front of some task. The professional check also is not carried out with predefined tasks, but in dialogue.
Golem.de: What trait of character would be a knock-out criterion for you?
Özdil: The attitude of wanting to solve everything alone. We need team players.
Golem.de: Why is that so important to you? Have you ever had bad experiences?
Özdil: We develop ERP software to turn our customers’ employees into teams. Processes – and this is exactly what we map with weclapp – need a deep understanding of cooperation. Employees who are lone warriors lack this basic understanding. In other words: Only those who cooperate in a team can implement team spirit.
Golem.de: What is it that IT employees expect most from their workplace and employer – besides money?
Özdil: Culture. The company has to have an established corporate culture which you joyfully want to be a part of.
Golem.de: How well do the applicants match your criteria?
Özdil: Usually very good.
Golem.de: How is their good qualification reflected in the salary expectations of the IT people? Are they excessive?
Özdil: Yes, definitely. That has changed massively in recent years. Expectations are increasingly moving in the direction of having to do as little as possible but getting as much as possible in return. Regardless of the business implications of all this, the spirit of diligence is missing in many university graduates now. Instead of shining with work and performance and building their own future in a sustainable way, some candidates focus on maximising their salaries in the short term. But that is not acceptable to us. In this respect, excessive expectations are a showstopper for us, regardless of how important it may be to have someone hired for the job at short notice.
Golem.de: How do you measure the salaries of the tech team?
Özdil: By their value contribution to the overall success of the company. Fixed salaries at market level and variable payments depending on the value contribution.
Golem.de: What is the self-assessment of the applicants?
Özdil: Self-assessment is not only difficult for applicants. There are some who overestimate themselves, but that is not a knock-out criterion for me. I look at whether they are willing to learn. If they reach for the stars, they may not reach them. But they certainly do not dig in the dirt.
Golem.de: Is there really a shortage of skilled workers? In your experience, in which fields of activity is there a big deficit of suitable candidates?
Özdil: In our case, it is software developers. We simply need a lot more of them in Germany, because every company has to go to great lengths to find and coordinate developers in Germany or Europe or even beyond. That costs an incredible amount of time and energy. We need to train more developers or bring skilled workers to Germany more quickly to get a grip on the problem.
Golem.de: In which specific sub-area is there the greatest shortage for your company? What should the next generation of developers be able to do?
Golem.de: What about women in IT, is there an upward trend here or is it difficult to find female IT specialists?
Özdil: Unfortunately, this is still difficult – we all have to do more to increase the share of young women who choose technical training. And for that, we all – including ourselves – have to promote girls and young women more. We would welcome a higher number of female applicants for developer jobs.
Golem.de: Are there cultural peculiarities that apply particularly to the German IT market?
Özdil: Exaggerated accuracy instead of continuous added value for the customer. We have to be careful about that in Germany. We must not drown in beauty and perfection. Sometimes, after 80 per cent of the work, you have to say “Ok, that’s fine” and then move on to the next, equally important issue.
Golem.de: Is there a concrete example of this from practice?
Özdil: This is the Pareto principle. 80 per cent of a task can be solved quickly and efficiently. For the remaining 20, you often need a huge effort. But for what? Often, the 80 per cent achieved already fits most of the customers. In Germany, we tend to overachieve the missing 20 per cent and get bogged down in perfection. If you have big goals, you must not get lost in the nitty-gritty stuff.
Golem.de: What other differences are there between working in Germany and the USA?
Özdil: I think in the USA employees are very driven by personal ambition. You notice the hire-and-fire mentality. I have experienced that many people are afraid of losing their job and therefore prefer to work on their own success rather than on the success of the team. Fortunately, we do not have such issues here in Germany.
Golem.de: Are there also disadvantages in Germany compared to the USA?
Özdil: We need to rethink the legal framework in Germany. The possibilities for employees to participate in the success of the company are too limited as compared with countries like the USA. Lack of flexibility in remuneration schemes is an annoying disadvantage that we unfortunately still have here.
Golem.de: How would you like to involve the employees and what specifically stands in your way?
Özdil: For example, flexible stock option programmes that only become possible when the company is listed on the stock exchange. We need more leeway in German stock corporation law for employees to participate in their own company. Here, the USA is much further advanced than we are here in Europe. At the end of the day, it is about associating the talents to the company through participation. Such instruments would also be very important here in Europe.
Golem.de: When projects fail – what are the most common reasons?
Özdil: Sometimes projects become highly complex during the implementation, or the requirements change. This may result in projects being abandoned sometimes. But those are rare exceptions. Failure occurs with people and with companies. What matters is that you draw the right conclusions in order to avoid them next time.
Golem.de: How would you deal with a team that always delivers projects too late, or with a developer who constantly makes mistakes?
Özdil: Agree on priorities together. Analyse what the problem is and provide more framework, focus, relief, or a shift of priorities. I have a lot of understanding for obstacles in achieving goals. Our agile organisation also helps. Small teams can identify mistakes early on. It is important to ask: Why is work not being done efficiently? Why do mistakes occur? Are there any issues at work or in private matters which we might address or solve together? When both sides really want to, everything can be sorted out.
Golem.de: Wouldn’t it sometimes be helpful to have Artificial Intelligence programming instead of developers?
Özdil: Sounds like horror science fiction. That would lead to two-class software: Mass versus elite club – no, thanks! But we do investigate AI and pursue the plan to create digital employees within our software. This is primarily about relieving the workload of employees, speeding up processes and increasing the service quality of enterprises using our platform. In short: AI that serves to replace people seems to me very dangerous, but machine learning – for beta tests, for example – is an appealing vision.
Golem.de: You work on ERP systems to simplify business processes by digital tools. What does the software of the future look like for you in this area?
Özdil: Smart software. Software that you can work with without a keyboard and mouse, that understands what we want and takes care of things for users in a highly automated way without them always having to intervene. This is our vision of the next ERP generation, which we are already working on.
Golem.de: What technical and legal problem would you like to solve in your ERP business if you had a wish?
Özdil: Technically: “Jarvis” – from the Marvel movies – for business software. We are working on it. The machine that listens, understands and carries out instructions correctly. Legally: more flexibility in personnel matters, especially also employee participation in the company’s success.
Golem.de: What exactly does this Jarvis solution look like?
Özdil: Behind the scenes we have been working on “Harmony” for some time now, a digital employee who will help users to master their everyday life in five stages in the future. In the first stage, our AI-based digital assistant is a trainee that primarily provides information. In later stages, the assistant will also make decisions on its own and provide more active support.
Golem.de: How do you ensure code quality for a project?
Özdil: Through continuous reviews and feedback to the developers. Software architects review every change we make and talk about the results with the respective developer. This is how we ensure continuous improvement. In addition, we have our own QA team and technical approval processes involving the product managers.
Golem.de: Do you deal with questions about code ethics? Especially regarding AI/database/biases?
Özdil: As a child with a migration background, I unfortunately was confronted with pigeonhole thinking or reservations more often than not. I always wanted to struggle against this thinking. If I were to recognise deficits in this regard, I would immediately take countermeasures.
Golem.de: What do you do against angry coding white men?
Özdil: Focus on different, mixed teams.
Golem.de: How do you decide whether to buy software or develop your own in-house?
Özdil: We buy the infrastructure we need as a company and team – we do not have to reinvent the wheel! We concentrate on our core business, our cloud-based ERP platform. Here we do everything ourselves and offer the REST API as an interface for the community.
Golem.de: How was the globally distributed API designed?
Özdil: An API layer, also on a scalable distributed platform, which receives requests and forwards them to the globally distributed platforms: That is our current architecture, and it works well. We have performance, scalability and fail-safety under control via this approach with two data centre locations in Switzerland and Germany.
Golem.de: How would you scale an SQL database?
Özdil: We think it does not make sense to scale one database on such a large scale, as would be necessary for us. Therefore our multi-tenancy architecture relies on clusters. We call them stacks, which have everything in themselves to serve thousands of customers. Scaling takes place by adding new stacks.
Golem.de: How important is open source in your work on the ERP system?
Özdil: Very important. Without this component, we would not have a community! Through REST APIs, programmes and hardware can be integrated by the community.
Golem.de: Do you rely on your own servers or cloud providers?
Özdil: We are a cloud company, and we turn others into cloud companies with our product. Our software runs in rented data centres, our own infrastructure on servers of service providers.
Golem.de: Which development processes would you automate if you could?
Özdil: QA. Currently, you cannot cover everything with automated tests. It would be desirable to run automated tests that automatically generate issues for developers to rework.
Golem.de: Which technologies do you find most exciting for the next few years – independent of ERP?
Özdil: The conquest of the air as a means of transport for a broader mass of people, with a simultaneous shift to ecologically sustainable drive technologies such as hydrogen or even electric drives.
Golem.de: Finally, I would like to ask you for a few very quick answers. Do not think too long, just fire away!
Golem.de: The best IT trade fair?
Özdil: CES, there you always find something useful.
Golem.de: What should people be trained in in 2021?
Özdil: Teambuilding, scrum, agile organisations
Golem.de: Being available to you after hours: Yes or No?
Golem.de: Which password manager?
Golem.de: Which VPN?
Özdil: SSL-based VPN from Fortinet, for example.
Golem.de: What should not be missing on your desk besides your work equipment?
Özdil: A headset for video calls and music.
Golem.de: Many specialists in the team or a few all-rounders?
Özdil: Just one or the other is not much fun.
Golem.de: Favourite character from Star Wars?
Özdil: The one and only Luke Skywalker
Golem.de: First programming language?
Golem.de: Favourite programming language?
Golem.de: Favourite open-source software?
Golem.de: Net Kubernetes or Openstack?
Golem.de: Android or iOS?
Golem.de: PWA apps clickpad or trackpoint?
Golem.de: Windows, MacOS or Linux?
Golem.de: Tabs or Spaces?
Özdil: Tabs of course
Golem.de: Trial and error or never change a running system?
Özdil: Neither: Always evaluate a running system.
Golem.de: What do you associate with the following terms?
Özdil: Even cooler
Golem.de: Tech Stack
Özdil: Must have
Özdil: A matter of course