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Michael Koziarski of Vend: Economist turned tech executive

Michael Koziarski of Vend: Economist turned tech executive

How ‘Koz’ went from crawling under computers to heading technology architecture for a growing company, one fun, gruelling step at a time.

Speaking at the 2016 AWS Summit in Auckland (Photo by Divina Paredes)

Speaking at the 2016 AWS Summit in Auckland (Photo by Divina Paredes)

Being able to bounce around all those options is something I would definitely recommend to people in the early stage of their career. Eventually you will figure out what it is that you like.

Michael Koziarski, Vend

It was an IT ‘grunt’ job that led Michael Koziarski to rethink his original career plans.

Koziarski was studying economics, finance and management at Victoria University of Wellington when a friend offered him a part-time role for a startup.

“I was crawling under the desk and scanning the barcodes of computers, that kind of thing,” Koziarski says. “I realised I was good at the computer side of things.”

Today, Koziarski—or ‘Koz’ as he is known in tech circles—is vice president of technology architecture at Vend, a cloud-based retail management platform used in over 15,000 stores across 140 countries. But it took a lot of “bouncing around” to get where he is.

In a way, computing was always a part of his life, more so than economics would be, even after earning his bachelors in 2006.

“As a kid, I was copying basic programmes from the boxes of computer manuals,” says Koziarski.

Programming at Uni was “just for fun” and made some assignments easier, he says. “It was like a tool that I had used as an economist.”

Photo by Divina Paredes
Photo by Divina Paredes

IT is a brutal industry. We work very hard and if you don’t keep up, you will quickly find yourself, your skills, are out of date.

Michael Koziarski, Vend

The learning curve

He enjoyed working in ICT, but the startup he was working with did not succeed. “I went on what I referred to as a sabbatical.”

Koziarski’s “sabbatical” led him to the banking industry where he took roles as Java Architect for the Bank of New Zealand and Westpac.

“So that was the other end of the spectrum,” he says, smiling. “Rather than constant pressure for shipping, shipping, shipping everything moving fast...In a large organisation it is much more risk aversion, and getting things right.

“I saw both sides of the coin [in ICT work] in the first four years of my career.”

Riding the Rails to the top of the IT game

It was while working in the banking sector that he “stumbled upon” the open source framework Ruby on Rails.

“I started working on the open source project in my spare time while working at the banks,” says Koziarski.

“It was kind of a good balance, the banks were very formal, structured slow and the open source project was very quick and was very fast,” he says.

Koziarski found himself speaking at conferences as an expert on Ruby on Rails.

“After about six to seven months, I realised I was saying ‘no’ to a lot of people who said, ‘Come work for me'.

“I said, ‘Well, I am doing this for fun, why not do it for a job?”

Over the next six years, he worked on projects involving Ruby on Rails, either as a contractor or directly for various companies.

“From there, I drastically up-skilled, jumping from client to client, learning new and more painful experiences.”

“You know, the lessons you learned with a small company are massively different from a big company, and from lessons you learned from a fast growing startup.

“Being able to bounce around all those options is something I would definitely recommend to people in the early stage of their career. Eventually you will figure out what it is that you like.”

For Koziarski, this was realising he was not “a big company kind of person”.

“Some people prefer the more structured environment and it is important to figure that out [yourself],” he says.

That said, Koziarski’s degree has proved extremely useful in his current role.

“One of the nice things about having an economics and finance education is that I am quite comfortable working with financial models, and understanding actual business impacts of a lot of decisions.”

“Some technologists have a real challenge with that,” he says.

They may, for instance, have a good understanding of how to make ICT systems go faster, but this will not matter if it does not help the organisation sell more products or reduce expenses.

Sometimes those performance optimisations make a material difference, but being able to understand how the business flows and works is quite useful,” says Koziarski.

“It will not take a substantial amount of effort to figure those things out, but it would put you in a much better position for a successful technology career.”

There is plenty of good online material on the topic, he says, citing the blogs of venture capitalists like Paul Graham, co-founder of tech accelerator Y Combinator.

“You can possibly do some part-time MBA papers if you want to,” he adds.

If you have an interest and an aptitude in engineering, software, hardware or electrical, you would be mad not to try it as a career.

Michael Koziarski, Vend

The STEM question

Vend, like other tech-sector companies, does have difficulty hiring engineers, Koziarski says, when asked about ongoing campaigns to encourage young people to undertake STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) courses.

“But then, I look at a lot of our engineers and some of the people doing amazing work either do not have a formal education in ICT, or were trained for a completely different field,” he says.

“People think it is an easy answer to say if we have 2000 more computer science graduates every year, it would be better. It probably would, but it is not only the pipeline for new talent.”

“If I were advising a high school student, and you have an interest and an aptitude in engineering, software, hardware or electrical, whatever it is, you would be mad not to try it as a career. There is a substantial amount of growth in our industries.

“But on the flip side, if it is just something that does not interest you at all, I am not sure pushing people to study it, and then pushing people into the industry, is going to have a positive effect.”

“It is a brutal industry,” he says. “We work very hard and if you don’t keep up, you will quickly find yourself, your skills, are out of date."

Koziarski says if he didn’t enjoy his role at Vend, he would go back to consulting or helping new startups.

“One of the nice things working for a consultancy firm is you see dozens of different companies in a given year,” he says. “Some are really interesting, some are really tedious.

“As a consultant, typically I would come into a dysfunctional engineering organisation or a place that needed some additional skills. I would help them improve their technology or improve their team and once everything got working well, that was it,” he says.

“Whereas now, working at Vend, the team is phenomenal and doing really great things,” he says. “I get to continue working with really talented and amazing people.”

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