Iwan Gulenko

Founder, Coderfit & Klang

1. Do you remember a time when you were happiest as a child? Where were you, who were you with and what were you doing?

One story comes to mind: Playing basketball as a 5-year-old in preschool in Munich with other kids. It wasn’t a special event or anything. Just a basketball game that was essentially perfect. We just had fun playing and I still remember that I wished that this game would go on forever because it was so much fun.

There is something magic about games, meditation, love, holidays that frees our mind in such a way that we want these moments to last. We suffer when they’re over.

2. What seemed like an inconsequential decision at the time, but in hindsight turned out to fundamentally reshape your life?

It happened very often in high-school that I was looking out of the window being very bored. One time, the school teacher started asking about jobs that we want to have when we grow up and I was still very bored.

As he mentioned the word “headhunter” it immediately struck me that this particular word is very interesting. I had no clue what it meant. It just sparked giant interest in me for no reason and I suddenly listened to class very carefully.

I might have heard the word before or it could be just that the word itself is just very interesting; it is a combination of “head” and “hunting” after all – kind of a weird word, right?

The teacher asked if anyone knew what “headhunter” means and the straight-A+ kid raised hand and answered that a headhunter is someone who finds experts for companies. The teacher acknowledged the correct answer. I thought this short job description was pretty cool and that people who are headhunters must have pretty interesting lives chasing talented staff. I didn’t think that *I* could do that.

(Decades later at a school reunion, I met the straight-A+ kid and asked him if he recalled this conversation with the teacher because it might have changed my life, but he didn’t. I, however, remember it as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. Funny how we remember some things but forget others.)

3. Name a well-known person you admire and explain why you hold them high esteem?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb; he fights giants on Twitter much bigger than him for years and never backs down. He is very clear in his opinions and has no fear expressing them in public. He changed my thinking entirely. I have a better understanding of risk and appreciation for life’s small things like spending money on the right things, good food and conversations. Also, most of my close friends are fans of his work. We’re kind of a community around “risk” topics, which is pretty cool.

4. When was the last time you changed your mind about something really important? What was it and what led you to change your view?

Living on a budget is something I used to do a lot; now, I am more reasonable.

I still think it is important to be frugal. Yet, it should be reasonable and not slow down your business. The moment I noticed that I unnecessarily was losing business for Coderfit.com because I didn’t spend enough (buy a new laptop, better tools, hire people, etc.) was when I changed my mind. Also, American friends helped. They are very good at spending money. (Maybe too good at it!) Some buddies who are business owners showed me how reasonable spending works.

In today’s world you’ll get ahead if you stay small and not spend too much but you have to learn to forget the cheap habits and spend on things that are likely to save you time and grow your business. That mental switch took me too long.

On the other hand, I don’t regret having done everything on my own in the beginning because I learned so much doing it. Now, hiring people to do things with me is so much easier because I have done every task on my own before.

5. What personality trait has got you in the most trouble? What kind of trouble does it get you in?

Stubbornness, pushing my opinion through, no matter what. Sometimes I am so convinced about myself that I forget that other people have valid opinions and viewpoints as well. Not seeing the wisdom in other standpoint is a huge minus, especially when you employ people.

6. What is your untrainable superpower?

Stubbornness, as well; the very same weakness gave me extraordinary results in life and business. Against all odds and against what everyone else said I made certain decisions and they turned out to be OK, for instance quitting my well-paid, cozy programmer job to go into recruitment full time albeit there are over two thousand recruitment agencies registered in Zurich-city alone.

7. Have you always had the same political beliefs? If so, why do you think you have held them so long? If not, what event caused you to change your view?

I used to talk a lot about my weakly held political beliefs and it had no benefit to anybody. I remember potential business partners telling me: “Hey, Iwan, I’d like to do business with you. I like you as a guy but you talk too much about XYZ, so I won’t give you any business, bye”.

That happened to me several times.

I have some political beliefs now but I simply have no time to think about them too much; they are a very low priority in my mind, almost non-existent. Now, I am the one who gives people business and I don’t work with people who care too much about topics that are too far out of their direct control.

Most people can influence what they do with their family and their work; so maybe they should keep their mind with that primarily; especially, if they want to be a good (business) partner. First, become wealthy, then, you can talk about other things. As Nassim Nicolas Taleb once said: “To become a philosopher king, start with being a king, not being a philosopher.”

8. What do you think is acceptable today but will become taboo tomorrow?

Ageism; it is sort of okay at the moment to not hire people above 40 or 50 years old. Most hiring managers or recruiters don’t realize that they discriminate. Boy, even I catch myself closing a CV way too fast when the birthday is before 1970.
This won’t be possible with an ever growing elderly population. We need to find a way to integrate super-experienced people, especially into tech startups. I see one or two of them hiring older people but it is still rare, which is very sad.

9. What app or tech product have you most recently fallen in love with?

Klang.so – it’s an ATS we built for ourselves. It enables me to go through dozens of resumes a day and merge important information about a candidate together with the resume to share with clients in seconds.

10. What is the best purchase you’ve made recently? Why?

It is not really a purchase but an investment. I started to hire people and outsource certain (admin) tasks. It’s not easy if you see ​​others doing work “you could do so much better” but then again I want to decouple my business from myself step-by-step.

11. If you were to survive the zombie apocalypse, what role would you play in the new society that would follow?

Sales. I’d for sure be selling again. Or obviously I would do recruitment, which is essentially “double sales”. You sell the company to the candidate and vice versa. I am sure that is needed also after a zombie apocalypse.

12. Which fictional villain do you find yourself sympathising with most? Why?

Piccolo from Dragonball Z. I always liked him because he is both a good and bad guy, like most people in real life. (Son Goku, on the other hand, always seemed like a “boring nice guy” to me. Too polished, not real.)

Piccolo would be drawn to do bad stuff by default but would end up doing the good ethical thing in the end. In recruitment, you’re drawn to do the bad thing first, too, because it’s easy, but you should do the good thing in the end, especially if you want to survive despite the other two thousand agencies in your town.

13. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received? Who gave it and when?

The best business advice came from Hartmut Hahn (Userlane CEO); he gave it to me after a hackathon in Munich, when we were heading to the subway station:

It’s not about the project or product you’re working on, everything will get boring at some point. Even the coolest thing you work on will get boring. Working on rockets flying to Mars will get boring, too. The real deal are people you do the work with. If they fit you, you’ll have a good time, all the time. I think that piece of advice can be generalized to everything in life.

14. What decision makes you say, “What was I thinking??” when you look back on your career?

I regret not understanding the dynamics of internal recruiters, hiring managers, and recruitment agencies. At times, I was so proud that some hiring manager wanted to work ONLY WITH ME that I screwed some HR people over by not following the process that is industry standard (I didn’t know about “the process” at that time but not knowing something doesn’t protect you from being wrong, right?) I insisted on certain things that seemed reasonable to me at that time but look unreasonable to me now.

15. Have you ever been the weakest member of a team? How did you handle it?

As a coder, I was the most junior person on the team and couldn’t show the same expertise as the other, more senior people. I tried to learn as fast as I could but I still wasn’t good enough. I still was respected by my boss because I leveraged my already existing relationships to help my employer hire more developers. That later led to coderfit.com. The other people on the team would never do such “extra stuff”. If you’re bad at one thing, find another thing that evens out the weakness.

16. What hiring heuristic do you generally go with?

Hire for drive and motivation, it beats skills every time; being “too motivated” isn’t good either though.

If the personality of the person is too much all over the place, then observe very closely.

Basically, don’t hire extreme people.

17. When it comes to our work and industry: what scares you most?

What scares me most is that pain is inherent in recruitment. People will always get hurt. The incentives of agencies, inhouse recruiters, hiring managers, and candidates aren’t aligned. The pain won’t ever stop, only trust glues us together and undoes the misaligned goals. If that is true, how can we keep going? We just push through, I suppose!

18. Do you have a secret tip, tool or trick that’s contributed to your success?

Interview notes; each of my candidate submissions consist of at least half a page of bullet points that are relevant and not mentioned on the CV. Most of the time clients don’t really read them but if they do, it can save a candidate from being preemptively and wrongly rejected.

Once a company says “No” to a candidate it is impossible to turn the decision around, BUT if the notes answer open questions while the client reads the resume (“ah!, this person had 3 jobs in the last 3 years because they had to move locations, not because they’re a job hopper”) one can avoid having a candidate being rejected for false reasons. Several times, a candidate was sent by another recruiter and rejected, but when they later came through me they were interviewed and hired.

19. If you could add a question for the next person to answer, what would it be?

Why do you think recruitment is such a “hard” business?

20. Who would you recommend to do the next 20 Questions With … ?

Mario Karth – he knows India and US hiring rather well.

Thank you to Iwan Gulenko for taking 20 Questions for The Brainfood Tribune. Make sure to follow Iwan on LinkedIn

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