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INNOVATORS VS COVID 19

Software Development in Times of a Pandemic: Insights from Konstantin Klyagin, Redwerk and QAwerk CEO

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Konstantin Klyangin QAWerk

We talked to Konstantin Klyagin, founder & CEO at Redwerk, and QAwerk about software development and testing and this is what he said about it. 

First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times? 

Konstantin Klyagin: Thanks for asking! We have been fortunate during these turbulent times. I am grateful for being able to focus on my business and keep growing it regardless of the pandemic. Because of prolonged lockdowns and market uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, brands strived to go all-digital as fast as possible. So we at Redwerk were as busy, if not more, as in the pre-pandemic times. Nowadays, if you want to close a one-million-dollar deal, you don’t have to fly countless miles just to do some pitching and shake hands at the end of the meeting. You start working immediately once all the requirements are clarified on a couple of Zoom calls.

For me, quarantine turned out to be quite productive. Since I was no longer craving for distractions, like going on a spontaneous trip, I managed to complete a bunch of older projects. I finished building a cottage in Kharkiv, my hometown. Together with my team, I launched a new product – QAwerk Bug Hunter – and finished the website redesign for QAwerk, my second brand specializing exclusively in software testing and QA. I’ve also started a couple of new projects – a bar in Zaporizhia and an industrial cold company in Kyiv.

In terms of traveling, a strong passion of mine, it feels like I broke a personal record. Yes, the borders were closed, so I focused on exploring Ukraine, my homeland. It’s the first time in 18 years that I have stayed this long and traveled this much across the country. I finally saw the places I planned on visiting for years. I also could not imagine the summer without our traditional corporate event, bringing people from Kyiv and Zaporizhia offices together.

As for entertainment, I found a new source of quality recreation – water transport. I bought a boat and a jet ski to surf the Dnipro river while enjoying the company of my friends. I worked on voiceover for my travel vlogs and created a TikTok account on a dare. The latter is an easy way to have some fun and put a smile on thousands of other people’s faces. I was pleasantly surprised when some of my videos reached almost one million views.

I also caught up on some reading and got my hands on a couple of rare books I’ve been recently hunting for. Have I caught the virus? It was a narrow escape. Many of my closest people were diagnosed with COVID-19; however, they recovered pretty quickly, and now they are back on track, feeling healthy again. Overall, 2020 was a fantastic year for me, regardless of the numerous pandemic constraints. I made many new friends, gained many valuable insights, and feel pumped to achieve new milestones

Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Redwerk and QAwerk.

Konstantin Klyagin: I am originally from Kharkiv, Ukraine. At the age of 6, I saw a computer for the first time, and I have developed a strong interest in technology ever since. No matter how cliche it may sound, it is exactly how my tech journey started. When I was 8, I wrote my first program in Basic. At 14, I developed my own BBS-software Tornado, which allowed users to communicate via dial-up telephone networks. Back then, during the so-called “pre-internet times”, Tornado BBS was quite popular, and I spent most of my evenings replying to users, analyzing feature requests, developing new functionality, as well as creating and updating documentation.

In 1998, I joined NIX Solutions as a C++ developer. Being only 17, I was the youngest employee there. I combined my work with my studies at university, which I didn’t want to give up. In two years, I had grown to a team leader. It wasn’t long until I was headhunted by an American company Websci, so I moved to Iasi, Romania, where their closest R&D office was. I felt comfortable living in Romania, but I wanted to challenge myself and gain even more experience, so after working for two more companies in Romania, I moved to Bucharest. Three years later, in 2004, I felt like I needed to change things up, so I moved to Berlin and got a job at Gate5, a startup soon acquired by Nokia.

I was still working at Nokia when a friend of mine and I started to assemble a development team for independent projects. We had only two clients – one from the USA (Merrimac) and the other from the Netherlands (Green Valley BV) – and a team of three. I would say it was Redwerk’s prototype, and in 2005 we made it official. I quit Nokia and put all my effort into developing my brand. Year by year, we mastered new technologies and expanded our portfolio to establish our expertise in the software development industry. By this moment, Redwerk has successfully delivered over 250 projects to businesses in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

In a nutshell, our core specialization is developing SaaS products and their components. We help businesses address their tech issues at any stage of the software development cycle. Some companies may need help only with the frontend part for their mobile app, whereas others request an app developed from scratch. Our clients also order several solutions at once, like Mass Movement for whom we recently built an Inventory Management System, a Resource Planner, and two enterprise apps (for iOS and Android).

Besides enterprise-level companies, we also work with startups and smaller brands. We have the expertise to help these companies grow and avoid common mistakes startups make in their quest to scale up and grab a bigger market share. Our portfolio gives examples of products that turned into award-winning apps soon after cooperating with us. In particular, Gooroo, an e-learning platform, was featured as #3 product of the month by Product Hunt. Another eloquent example is Unfold, a storytelling app, which over the years of our partnership, grabbed two awards (from Apple and Google) and was later acquired by Squarespace.

In 2015, I founded one more company, QAwerk, specializing exclusively in QA and software testing. We test mobile apps, web platforms, desktop solutions, and games. Although QAwerk is a younger company, it is already recognized as a promising scaleup by such media giants as The Next Web.

We are also thrilled to be able to give back to the business community and, at the same time, implement our vision of making the world a better place by reducing the number of bugs in software. For this reason, we initiated Bug Crawl – free testing of native apps or SaaS platforms. Anyone willing to have an external perspective on their product can contact us and request a free bug report in exchange for being featured on our website. We’ve received plenty of appreciative comments for our efforts, especially from startups and smaller teams who haven’t given QA much prominence yet reconsidered their priorities after seeing critical bugs in our reports. 

How does Redwerk and QAwerk innovate?

Konstantin Klyagin: First off, to be able to innovate, we need the right people on the team, someone who has proactive thinking and a genuine interest in technology. We also try to be as inclusive as possible, welcoming talents regardless of their gender or age, which is probably why we have quite a diverse team with a perfect male-female ratio: almost 50/50.

Another fundamental principle for the innovation to happen is positioning your brand as a tech partner and a trusted advisor. We are no longer mere service providers told what to do. We are ready to share responsibility, suggest more efficient ways of implementing desired features and work as equal members of our client’s internal team.

Besides providing software development services for clients, we also carve out time for internal projects. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I can’t imagine my life without traveling, neither can my teammates. Therefore, it was only natural for us to build a handy mobile app for travelers – TripFrog. The more places I visit, the harder it gets to keep all those stats and routes in mind, and TripFrog is what helps me reminisce on my experiences and easily visualize the places I visited most.

Another product we developed from scratch is SpamHound – a messaging app with an option to block spam through advanced filtering rules. As a software development agency, we like to experiment with different technologies and think of better ways to implement the same features, so a couple of more projects are underway.

As for QAwerk, we also work on its internal portfolio. In 2020, we released BugHunter, a toolkit for manual UI testing of Android apps. We wanted to ease the lives of manual QA engineers, Android developers, and UI/UX designers and created an app with useful features for each category of users.

How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?

Konstantin Klyagin: Because of the digital nature of the software business, our services are in demand more than ever. On the flip side, as an agency, we share risks together with brands, which makes us partly dependent on the success of our clients, some of whom have been adversely affected by the pandemic.

For instance, one of our clothing retail clients is pivoting and adding features for buyers and wholesale partners to take some of the vital operations online. Although we are the ones helping them implement these crucial changes, our dedicated delivery team was downsized due to the brand’s need to reserve any available finances for unexpected losses imposed by lockdowns. One more client hit by the pandemic is a startup vastly relying on tech conferences and physical networking to promote their product and attract investments. So far, it’s unclear how soon we’ll be able to revive our partnership.

At the same time, digital-first businesses like Evolv managed to maximize their profits and thus invest in enhancing their product offerings further. On our end, we expanded our team working with Evolv to cover all of their software development and testing needs. One more positive side effect of the pandemic is the stimulus for brands to innovate right here and right now. That’s exactly what AWE Learning has done. Since public libraries and other early childhood education establishments got closed, they no longer could provide their services through desktop terminals installed in these spaces. This is why they decided to upgrade their offline app to a web platform and turned to Redwerk to jumpstart this project.

As for the office life and our day-to-day operations, we were ready for the pandemic long before it hit us. Having two R&D offices in different cities, we learned how to work remotely in sync. Moreover, my teammates had the opportunity to work from home before the pandemic, so the transition to remote work was quite smooth. Nowadays, when the strict lockdowns are behind, each employee can decide on their own whether they want to come back to the office or work from home on a regular basis.

The only things that didn’t work out as planned are tech conferences. We attend many tech events annually because they are good platforms for forging new partnerships and meeting potential clients. In 2020, such massive gatherings could not happen for obvious reasons. We did attend plenty of virtual events – from TechCrunch Disrupt and London Tech Week to GFiT and Web Summit. However, they did not bring the expected results, so we’ll think twice before investing in another virtual event.

Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?

Konstantin Klyagin: As I stressed above, we’ve been fortunate. We didn’t have to lay off employees; quite the contrary. We keep growing our team, and our benchmark is to reach 100 specialists by the end of 2021. The downsizing happening in other companies has affected the overall job market, with fully qualified specialists looking for new employers. We couldn’t but seize that opportunity to lure new talent to Redwerk and QAwerk.

Our HR department also did a big chunk of work to make fully remote work actually work. To make Slack chats closer to one-on-one physical interactions, we asked every employee to add their profile pictures, mention their working hours and lunch breaks in the status bar, and complete or react to messages with relevant emojis. These may seem like self-evident things, yet we monitor if every employee has this simple yet essential for efficient work setup. Besides Slack channels for each department and team, we have one general channel to reach out to all team members, congratulate a colleague, and post corporate news and pictures from team buildings. We use the same channel for our newly born Monday tradition to share stories on how we spent weekends. In such a way, we get to know and support each other even being miles apart.

Following all the safety measures enforced by our government, we transformed our physical Dev Meetups hosted in our offices into monthly webinars. We also engaged the marketing team to search for relevant speakers, which increased the number of participants and potential employees joining our events. We like to socialize, play intellectual games, and compete in corporate contests, so we continued arranging our team buildings, albeit in a slightly different format. We ensured that anyone willing to have some fun together with the team can do so, whether by coming to the office or joining through a video-conference.

We wouldn’t let the pandemic crush our spirit and helped those in need to overcome challenges too. We participated in several charity initiatives and even received The Golden Heart of Ukraine award for the biggest amount of money raised. Lastly, we started conducting more internal polls and surveys to make sure we all are on the same page. This approach is also helpful in identifying any dissatisfaction or miscommunication issues early on.

As for the safety measures, here is what we did:

  • Transformed physical Dev Meetups we were hosting monthly into webinars
  • Supplied our Kyiv and Zaporizhzhia offices with a sufficient number of sanitizers
  • Cleaned all the surfaces and door handles in the offices with disinfectants
  • Aired our office spaces regularly
  • Enabled unlimited work from home for each member of the team
  • Introduced mandatory self-isolation for two weeks for colleagues returning from a business trip or vacation 

To bring the team’s spirit up, we arrange team buildings for small groups of people while connecting both offices through a video-conference. It allows us to socialize safely and dilute the daily routine with a bit of fun.

How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?

Konstantin Klyagin: While nothing has changed in the way we handle projects, some of our clients have been adversely affected. For instance, one of our clients, a startup, got their investor funding frozen, which brings a lot of uncertainty into when we’ll be able to start working on their project. Another US-based customer dealing in the fashion event niche asked us for additional time to pay their bills. Therefore, we try to show understanding and be flexible with clients whenever we can afford it. The rest of the customers were doing well. Those sitting on their digitalization budgets were eager to start new projects in 2020.

In terms of tools, we use a bunch of them, especially when it comes to our project managers and business analysts. The major tool that brings order to our lives is, of course, the issue tracker. While we rely on Jira for internal projects, we will also use an issue tracker of our client’s choice if needed. Using Tempo, a time-tracking plugin, we see how much time we spend on completing a particular task, which is also super helpful in project planning and reporting. The same story with communication: we’ll use what works for our clients – Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, WhatsApp, you name it.

Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?

Konstantin Klyagin: Never. For all 15 years, we have grown organically, gradually attracting new clients and launching new lines of services. My business is profit-driven. This means that if our net profit (income minus expenses) is positive at the end of the month, we are moving in the right direction, and if it is negative, it is a clear sign that we need to act and do something fast to rectify the situation.

I have not attracted investments partly because the infrastructure in Ukraine is not ready for it, and partly because I want complete freedom of action. I’m much more comfortable knowing that the mistake is my own, not a decision imposed on me by an investor or a partner. In this case, I move on because I have no one else to blame but myself.

Your final thoughts?

Konstantin Klyagin: This year was challenging in many different ways. As 2020 has shown, it is a thankless task to think ahead. Doing the things you love, on the other hand, is always a thrill. If you do your work well every day, the results will exceed expectations in the long run. That’s for sure.

Your website?

www.redwerk.com

www.qawerk.com

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