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Techflix Presents – The Black Labelist (Seasons 1-4)

Binge read the first 4 Seasons of our COO’s adventures at Black Label and discover his origin story and early role evolution in this new two-part blog series!

Grzegorz Blachliński
5 min

In my previous article, I focused on giving you an overview of Black Label as it is now and gave you a glimpse of my own position inside the company as we potentially transform from a caterpillar to a butterfly. In this article, I want to share a bit more about my own personal journey at the company and give you a front-row seat to see how my role has been shaped and reshaped over the years. 

Rather than torturing you with a 3-hour long, Scorsese-style epic, I’ve serialized my story into episodic chunks and Techflix has agreed to release them in two parts – The Black Labelist (Seasons 1-4), and coming next month the exciting conclusion, The Black Labelist (Seasons 5-9).

Pre-Production: Taking on a New Role

Before we get into Season 1 of my Black Label adventure (and occasional sitcom), let me give you some insight into why I think focusing on the evolution of my role is so important. Often when I meet new people in a professional capacity, regardless if they are customers, new Black Label team members, or even one-off IT conference contacts, they all tend to see me as an established and fully-formed COO of a cool IT Services company specializing in dataviz. Even though I should be used to this by now, somehow I am still surprised at the respect me and my job title receive. This is probably because I still remember my earliest beginnings in the company when I started with an entry-level role as a junior developer.

Black Label COO hard at work at his three monitor battle station.
My workflow when I first began as COO meant having code on one monitor, a management board on another, and a meeting on a small laptop in the middle.

Loads of developers who are scared and somewhat uncertain of their roles, remind me of myself 9 years ago. When I see clients that are starting new projects, and are fighting with structures and building out roles and responsibilities, and trying to succeed with their products – I get a sense of deja vu from when my role evolved into an aspiring Project Manager. Many start-ups and scale-ups often face the same problems that we did when I eventually took on the Chief Operating Officer role at Black Label just 3 years ago.

This article has two main goals. The first might seem obvious, but I would like you to look at the evolution of Black Label through the prism of my personal experience and my various roles, seeing how small changes lead to increasingly professionalized teams and organizations. The second goal is simpler, and perhaps slightly egoistical as well. At the end of the final season recap in part 2, I’d like you to see me without the distance my position often creates. I would love it if developers looked at me as one of their own, if other Project Managers saw the troubles and doubts they have in myself when we discuss our potential collaboration. Finally, I am always open to partnerships and knowledge-sharing between start-ups and scale-ups, so if you are one of the forerunners, I want to show you I am here and I feel your pain. 
So, without further ado, I suggest you grab some popcorn and get comfortable as I immediately drop you into the Pilot episode which begins even before I got hired to play my first role at Black Label. So let me take you to a small cafe in the heart of Krakow (much more charming than Central Perk) where I had my job interview with Greg in the summer of 2015…

BL Pilot Episode: “The One with the Coffee Shop”

Like most adult humans on the planet, I had to take part in a recruitment process before getting my job at Black Label. But this recruitment process was nothing like my previous experiences. First of all, I was not actually applying for the job – our roads seemed to magically cross at the end of my studies. One of my colleagues came to me with some info about a potential job offer that Black Label was planning to post. But she wanted to recommend me to them first, as she really liked my way of working and my engagement in the projects we had worked on together. I tentatively agreed, even though I was actually scared as hell. You may have also found yourself in this situation, but I had no actual experience in the technology I was applying for. So I decided to jump into an intense 2 month course that brought me to the point that I was able to put my skills to the test. 
So I finally agreed to meet up with Greg the Black Label CEO (we are both technically named Grzegorz but I’ll stick with Greg for him to make it simpler) in a cafe that was a bit out of the way and definitely a bit too loud, but at least it was close to the actual office on the bank of the Vistula River. We had a long conversation about a combination of tech, healthcare, AI (yes, it was already popular when I was a younger man!), physics, sports, and god knows what else. I was pretty happy at the end of our conversation but I felt slightly confused by the fact that it was nowhere close to what my expectations for what a recruitment meeting or interview should look like.

Black Label’s first office was situated on the banks of the Vistula river.
The view from the first Black Label office on the Vistula River looking towards Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland.

Then we met again a week later, this time with Paweł, the main JavaScript developer at Black Label, for a technical discussion, accompanied by a couple of dogs, some biscuits, and far too many cups of coffee. I was less satisfied with this second meeting, I made some mistakes and if you haven’t realized yet, I tend to always strive for perfection. But Paweł and Greg loved my performance and I was quickly offered my first role at Black Label, although my impostor syndrome would be a firm friend for the better part of the first year. And just like that, my role was confirmed and I was ready for a supporting role in my first season of The Black Labelist.

Season 1 Episode 4: “The One with the Fan”

When I finally joined Black Label officially, we were a team of just five people. Greg was a one-man army, not only acting as CEO, but also COO and various other C-suite roles as well as our in-house Project Manager. There was only one experienced developer working with the Highcharts Core library. The rest of us worked as support team members for the whole of the Highcharts-related world, myself being the least experienced. We all sat together in a small room, squeezed together around a long table. I was working on my old Lenovo computer that, I’m pretty certain, had conspired to make my first month at the company as hard as possible. I was a bit afraid to ask the guys to help me, as they were all older and the onboarding didn’t really cover any of my serious computer issues. After the first few weeks, I was brave enough to ask Kacper for help – with the coffee machine. And the days became a bit better.

Kacper Madej, a current Senior Highcharts Developer when he was still a junior and trying to improve his solitaire skills.

There were almost no procedures whatsoever in the company: just imagine, I only realized we had a dedicated conversation channel with our main client after spending an entire year as a member of the team. Fortunately, I hadn’t really needed it before that as the Black Label team had been acting as one fluid unit. Every problem and even the smallest of doubts were discussed by all of us at length. Every serious decision was made with the input of every member. It was ineffective, chaotic, and certainly not scalable, but the beauty of our cooperation was the most important motivating factor for me at the time. 

During that first year I combined my studies and provided support for Highcharts customers. Kacper was my main mentor, sitting alongside me and helping me to find solutions for the most complicated customer issues. When the summer came, and it became crazily hot in the office, Kacper brought a small fan which he plugged into his laptop to enjoy some cool air on his face. This is the item that marks the end of the first era of my Black Label journey, and the image of this fan reappears in my mind whenever the days get hotter, even though air-conditioning helps us cope with the summer heat today.

Season 3 Episode 6: “The One with the Cake”

Over the next couple of years, the Highcharts library became bigger and bigger, and we were getting better and better at both providing support and understanding the code behind it. The rest of us became Core Developers and a couple of new people joined bringing our headcount to close to a dozen of us.

We finally moved to a bigger office so we were no longer sitting together in one room, although we still kept the culture of making most of our decisions together. As  had more and more on his plate, my role expanded into that of a hybrid Project Manager. I smoked like a chimney those days, making Sebastian Bochan the only non-smoking developer, and my first projects did nothing to help me quit. However, understanding the way of converting client needs into actual products, and learning to keep their experience and satisfaction to the front of mind at all times were lessons I am eternally grateful for.

Black Label and 10A moving office furniture off a moving truck to their new office on Królowej Jadwigi.
Me and Kacper helping some of the guys from 10A to unload our office furniture at our new office on Królowej Jadwigi in the Wola Justowska district of Krakow.

That was also the moment when the two of us started working together even more closely, and when I jumped to the non-inertial frame. Managing projects quickly evolved into a new role as time passed and we needed to split Black Label into more independent groups. Having more customers required us to better manage the time for the project teams, in a way so they wouldn’t become overwhelmed, and never get bored. All the developers started shuffling the support, development, and internal work, increasing the uncertainty for the total number of hours for all of the above. Becoming an important Highsoft partner entailed more development work from my colleagues and myself, and if we wanted to have some time for additional internal work, we needed to onboard and train our new members to be able to step into our shoes swiftly. All of the above led to more and more rules. Yes, finally, we had our first procedures in place, and I found myself in the middle of it all.

We never wanted to be too strict, as we all came from the world of collaboration, not the world of cruel corporate business. Where others look for shortcuts, we were thinking about interpersonal relations, trust, and growth. Faster than perhaps I expected, it became a joint responsibility for Grzegorz and myself. This change encountered some bumps in the road, as I needed to understand what my role should be and how it affected my relationship with people I had considered mentors for a long time. Yet again, I was positively surprised by how fast we were able to overcome it and keep our relationships tight, despite all of the changes happening in between. We kept the structure flat, and authority was never built on the position, but rather knowledge and experience.

Our first Black Label business trip to visit the Highsoft team in Vik, Norway in 2014.

From the guy who knew nothing about our designated partner channel, I transformed into the main contact for most team-related questions, leading meetings, and collaborating with all the departments on the work which needed to be done by our team. During those days, I met even more amazing people that had grown with their company as I had with mine.

And we were still growing, slowly, with every recruitment process done by Grzegorz, who had an amazing knack of finding just the right fit for our team. We quickly grew into fifteen and every couple of weeks I was taking sticky notes with my friends’ names from the table in my home office just to try to combine them into teams and responsibilities again and again, until I was sure the fit was ideal for everyone in Black Label. I knew every person inside out, I was aware of their skills, their expectations, and their personal and professional plans. That made it much easier as well as much more impactful.

We didn’t need any official communication channels, no employer-experience strategist was ever consulted, and no strict business email was ever sent internally. If we had some information for someone, we told it to them straight, always in good faith. Then, when we felt there might be a need for some additional synchronization, we created a meeting once a week, on Friday at high noon, borrowing a tradition from old Western movies, one which endures to this day.

BL Dudes on Bikes shredding in a Polish forest
Keeping a healthy work-life balance is no piece of cake, but luckily our team discovered a shared love of extreme sports early on.

Talking about traditions, we started one more when there were approximately a dozen of us. When I had my third company anniversary, I brought a cake to the office so we could celebrate. I cannot remember if I was the one who started it, but at the same time we all started bringing cakes, one after another, having an opportunity to say thanks to everyone we worked with. It got a bit spicier when someone hit the five year mark. Rather than a cake, we bought a bottle of a good whisky, aged just like the number of years we had spent there, just for a taste. While the tradition has changed, with plenty of non-drinking members onboard, it is still popular to have a nip of a good, 10-year-old whisky for the sake of our long-lasting friendship. But cakes are always here, and therefore, they took the first prize in closing the second era of my journey with Black Label. The era of cake, when Black Label started to have different types of work, with collaboration in between, just like the cream connecting the layers of a cake.

Make sure to tune in next month for the exciting conclusion of The Black Labelist (Seasons 5-9) only here on Techflix!

Grzegorz Blachliński

Chief Operating Officer

I started my professional journey as a Medical Physicist, and then moved into IT as a JavaScript Developer, transitioned to a ... read more

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