JournalJul 2014

Zsolt’s story

More than a year ago I was reading Cap Watkins blog post: “Be kind”. It’s a great read, and he talks about how being kind and open will pay for itself, and will lead to new friends, job opportunities and open up the world. I was like “jeez, this is it–this is just what happened to me as well!”.

Here is my version of “Being kind” and how, looking back years later, a tiny thing became so important to my life and professional career.

I’ll start the story a little bit earlier…

A few years ago, I was struggling with my BSc electronic engineering degree in Budapest, and the university wasn’t really covering my interests. I felt I needed something to get my life on the track: I was playing too much World of Warcraft that time, so I decided to go cold turkey. I sold my character and I bought a MacBook, jumped into Photoshop and Illustrator tutorials, blogs, forums (SmashingMag, VectorTuts and all of those sites had just started). A few months later I made it to the advanced category on all those, yet still felt unchallenged.

So my roommate and I started to take on some web design and development assignments from friends for ridiculous money. Ridiculous being a couple of hundred $ for several hundred hours of work. We enjoyed it actually, it was a challenge, and a totally new path for both of us.

Having done this for a year, I got a call from a small web business. They’d found me through a forum post where they’d posted a position and I commented something like: “Looks like an interesting position, good luck finding the right candidate”. It was a nice job advert but at the time, I wasn’t looking for a developer role, so just felt like posting a little encouragement while browsing through the forums.

During the phone call, they explained that they were looking for developers–I wanted to turn them down, as I’m a designer, but the HR girl said: “no problem–we’re looking for designers too, would you mind comeing in to have a chat?”

No I wouldn’t! So I visited them and we had a great chat about the company and how things were going, and we agreed they’d call me if they needed anything. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t call me because the conversation wasn’t actually ended with anything more than a vague, friendly parting chat.

It turned out I was wrong. A few months later they outsourced a small illustration and basic flash scripting job to me. Cool, huh? I was so eager to jump on it… it turned out that I am very bad at that kind of thing. I mean, it took me at least 60+ hours to deliver a reasonably decent-looking (not amazing) illustration, which is obviously a fail, and I knew that.

(note to self: just don’t do any illustration jobs anymore, you suck at it!)

I was still satisfied with the project because I realised my boundaries and learned a lot.

I got paid, we shook hands (digitally!), and everyone was happy. Another year passed, while I was working on smaller projects, developing my skills and looking for new opportunities…

Then they approached me again, asking if I could help with a website design because the current designer couldn’t deliver what the client wanted. The client was ChemAxon, a chemical software development company. I jumped on it and put together a design, which the client was really happy about. They asked if I’d like to join the company as a designer, because they were looking for one. I jumped on the opportunity, and said yes!

Ok, so here is one thing that I wouldn’t do now, because it just looked so suspicious: most of the people were leaving the company, and just a few remained. The company was dying, but that wasn’t communicated at all to me, by them. The few who stayed were loyal (and really great people), but didn’t get their salaries paid for months after they completed work. But I was young, and the feeling of being properly employed sounded tempting, after a few years of freelancing.

While I was an “employee” I was mainly working on another, bigger project for ChemAxon, redesigning and rebuilding their website. I worked for 2 months, for zero salary (they just didn’t pay me). The agency went bankrupt and I switched to ChemAxon as contractor to finish their website. Somewhat surprisingly, I then stayed at ChemAxon for almost 5 years.

Working there was pretty cool at early years: the office was in a huge villa on a hill with amazing view over the city on one side, and an entire forest from the other. I was mainly working in the marketing team, focusing on both UX and also general marketing work. Later on moved totally to UX, and mostly spent my time working on our application’s user experience and user interface. I managed to expand ChemAxon’s UX focus, and hired another designer as well.

But as time passed, I wanted to learn more and stretch myself–I realised I need to move on.

It took a while (and here comes the second, identical lesson from this little story of mine: be nice), but browsing Dribbble one day, I somehow found myself on Hanno’s website. I really liked the approach that these guys had. I wrote a short, brave e-mail and waited for the response. After 2 days, Jon replied, and we exchanged maybe 15-20 detailed e-mails. I still find this to be the best approach for hiring. It may take some time, but having this sort of conversation allows you to test each other so well, that you can be damn sure of whether you fit or not. After a couple of chats, a Skype IM session, and a Hangout with the whole team, the guys fortunately invited me on board. I feel like I’m at home with people with similar mindsets, values and goals.

Looking back, it’s terrifying how such small things can manage to drive your life in completely new directions. One little comment, sent to the right forum at the right time lead me right to my first agency job a few years later. Then, an e-mail sent at just the right time to Hanno, landed me this latest opportunity–where I can focus on those things I’ve always wanted to.

Be kind and open: that never hurts.

Posted by
Zsolt Kocsmárszky

Zsolt was a UX designer in the team until 2017; when he co-founded Hanno’s remote user testing platform, PingPong.