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The path from Poland to Porto.

The story of Marta Gajowczyk, front-end engineer at Vizzuality.

Marta joined Vizzuality in 2018.

Before we get to how you went from Wroclaw to Porto, let’s talk about how you became interested in the front-end.

During my university studies, front-end didn’t exist for me — we had no classes on it whatsoever. We had classes in Java, C ++, and Ocaml, but the frontend was practically absent. Any presentation of data or interaction with the user was done using the System.out.println method (I cannot believe I still remember it!). The first GUI we did in college was Java + AWT API, which seemed completely unattractive to me. For the first 18 months of my IT studies, I couldn’t find a place for myself, but in the fourth semester I became interested in the Ruby on Rails framework, which my friend told me about. He said, “in Ruby, everything is an object, even a number.” And I was thinking, “wow, even numbers are objects!” I started to learn more from the Head First series of books and from railscasts.com. It was an eureka moment for me — I fell in love with Ruby and the MVC pattern.

Why front-end and not backend?

Now that’s an interesting story. I always liked front-end, but I felt more like a backend developer. Now I don’t know myself what I am! In any case, when I applied for my first serious job, (at the Monterail company), I applied for a front-end position because there were no open positions in the backend. At that point it didn’t really matter to me what my position was, I just wanted to work there.

You mentioned studying. Many complain about outdated programs at universities. How was it in the case of Wrocław University of Technology?

In my opinion, this is unfortunately true. There are exceptions of course; professors who try and modify the curriculum every year, edit slides and give more than others, but they are in the minority. Speaking bluntly, I did not get enough from my studies. There was a lack of practical knowledge and group projects. Laboratory hours were amazingly few at Wrocław’s Polytechnic. For comparison we had 1.5 hours every two weeks for one subject, while in France, where I spent a year on Erasmus, we had three to four hours a week.

During your studies, you joined the ERASMUS program, during which you went to Paris for one year. Did the curriculum for programming differ there from that in Poland?

Yes! As I mentioned earlier, we had twice as many laboratories in Paris than we did at the Wrocław University of Technology. There was also a longer stay at the university. In Poland during my fourth semester I was able to reconcile studies, a part-time internship, and intensive study of French. But in Paris, classes usually lasted from 9–5, so there was no question of any employment. Group work was promoted during the class, and the teacher would walk around and help or explain the material when the need arose. Almost every subject had a semester project, which we also implemented in groups. It was a stressful year for me, mainly because of the overload of work and the foreign language with which I was just familiarising myself with, but I learned a lot at the time.

You did a five-month internship in Marseilles. How did you find out about it, and what was the recruitment process?

The internship was part of my study program, I had to do it to get five ECTS (transferable study credits) and pass the subject. Fortunately, I had a free choice on where to go. Once classes ended and I’d passed the exams in May, I had the choice of returning to Poland or completing an internship in France. (In France, the academic year begins earlier, at the end of August). Due to the fact that most of the friends I met during Erasmus returned to their home countries, I did not want to be alone in Paris, because it seemed depressing. So I started sending out CVs and cover letters all over France, with most of them going to Bordeaux and Marseille.

What did you learn during the internship?

This internship was a breakthrough moment for me because I learned Javascript! But actually, that was just the tip of the iceberg. I remember that I used Promises, and for the first time I consciously used a javascript library; lodash. I tried to write in a functional way, using functions such as map, filter, reduce … I was crazy about code refactoring, and it was more or less at this time that I started to read about design and architectural patterns. I liked the fact that I could write with Node.js and come up with a folder structure that would make sense. I also wrote my first front-end tests during this internship. Above all, however, I learned how to plan a programming project, developed my own imagination code-wise; I started to reflect on what is the right place for certain files, how the backend communicates with the front-end (without the magic of Rails), what is suitable for the database and what belongs to simple static files.

How did you improve your skills?

I always thought that doing mindless tutorials on the internet would not teach you much. I preferred to come up with a real problem, something that concerned me and interested me, and I’d work on it. That’s how I studied; I invented small applications and wrote them. Along the way, I encountered a lot of difficulties that I had to solve, which I did by looking for answers on stackoverflow or github issues. I also read articles to understand the problem I had. You get a lot more out of it than completing the next course on Udemy or making another Todo application. Although, I will say that Todo has a lot of use cases, so beginners should write at least one.

Then you came back to Wroclaw. What did you learn during the year at Monterail?

I would like to say everything! But I hope I already knew something before I arrived there. At Monterail, I become a confident, responsible programmer. I worked with great, talented people to whom I owe my programming maturity. In Monterail, for the first time I encountered the code review practice, as well as peer review, i.e. regular feedback collected from all team members. I learned to work in scrum, kanban and kanban-scrum. At Monterail, I mainly worked in Ember and Rails technologies, but also in Vue and Node.js. In less than a year I became a tech lead and that’s when I learned the most. I had to learn the whole application from the inside out, from front-end solutions, through backend to deployment. I talked with the customer on a daily basis and together with the project manager we made a variety of decisions. I introduced new members to the project too. Yes, it certainly was a huge challenge, but thanks to that I left my comfort zone and learned a lot more than just programming.

Since July 2018 you’ve worked with a company based in Porto (Vizzuality). Tell us about the recruitment process.

The process was divided into three stages. The first conversation was a warm-up conversation, we talked about the company, about my background, what I was doing at Monterail, and what I would do in Vizzuality. So we got to know each other. The next stage was a frontend code challenge with a list of requirements. You had to use state management, css-in-js, grid and other solutions that I do not remember anymore. The next and last stage was a conversation about the solutions I’d used in the code challenge, technical questions and questions about my soft skills. For example, I was asked how I solve conflicts in the team, where I see myself in five years time and the like. I remember the whole recruitment process very well, but I have to admit that it took some time, probably a month and a half.

Were you offered a relocation package? What did it consist of?

Yes, I received a relocation package in the form of €500 for a period of six months.

Marta and her Porto teammates.

What do you do at Vizzuality?

Mainly I work on the front-end, but I also jump on the backend. At Vizzuality, we value Fullstacks! I really enjoy the type of work I do at Vizzuality; for the first time I work directly with data visualization, usually in the form of maps and various types of charts. For the last six months I have been working on the Climate Watch platforms, which aim to show how countries implement the provisions of the Paris Agreement on climate change, as well as the expected greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years. In December 2018 one of the platforms The South Africa Biennial Update Report Explorer, was presented at the UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland! It’s really satisfying to know the application you are working on has real impact and is used in real life.

In your current company, were you immediately thrown into the deep end?

Hmm, I think so. I did not start with fixing bugs, but immediately started creating the so-called showcase of reusable components for Climate Watch platforms, When I joined, there was only one global platform (climatewatchdata.org), now there are four, including South Africa, Indonesia and India. In these platforms many components are repeated, so we had to figure out how to use the already written components from the global platform, avoiding the method of copy-paste and allowing their modification / extending from the outside. This was my first task.

What is the general attitude towards life from young Portuguese people? Do you see a rat race, or cooperation, or commitment?

Rat race? I don’t know what it’s like in the capital, but there’s certainly no rat race in Porto. The Portuguese are very hardworking, but at the same time relaxed. They enjoy life and the little things. They are not always busy, and they can stop and think for a moment. You have a problem? Let’s go out for coffee and tell me about it. It seems to me that the place you live in has a huge impact on people; there’s a reason why it is said that people from the south are more open and warmer. And where a person generally feels better, there is more pleasure in working, you feel more productive.

Can you say what remuneration a person with your experience can expect? So that others might know how much they could earn if they decide to leave Poland.

Contrary to what people think, earnings in Portugal are similar to those in Poland, but it must be remembered that the costs of living are slightly higher, by about 10–20%. As far as I know, a person with a similar 2–3 years experience, as I have, can expect on average a gross pay of up to €35,000 per year.

How do you judge your decision to leave Poland in retrospect?

I have always been motivated to go abroad! I like to get to know new places from the kitchen, it’s something other than traveling. I prefer to move somewhere, soak up the culture of the place, get to know the local community and language. In Portugal, I feel at home. Both privately and professionally, it was a great decision to move.

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