A conversation with Sergei Ledvanov, Product Engineer at TransferWise, Tallinn
We’ve been covering tech and talent in Tallinn over the last couple of weeks. But what is it like to live and work in Tallinn? We spoke to Sergei Ledvanov, a product engineer at TransferWise to hear about life at one of the world’s top fintech companies as well as living in his home city.
- First can you tell us a bit about your role at TransferWise?
I work in TransferWise as a product engineer and my main responsibility is doing the development of the product. This is the job that turns the ideas from whiteboards and mockups into a tangible product in internet that can be used. However, in reality this job is a little bit more than the position title says. A term developer or engineer has a slightly broader meaning in this company than in traditional software development firms, and there is a reason for that. Engineers at Transferwise do indeed develop new features and fix bugs, but they do also some product management, some quality assurance and manage themselves every day.
My typical day usually starts by collecting the data and doing some analysis of it, drawing conclusions (hopefully the right ones), then deciding what to build next. After this point the actual programming starts and the features used by thousands of our customers get created and delivered. Though it might take days or weeks to get certain functionality done, the course is likely to change more often based on what data we get and what improvements we decide to do based on that, what feedback we receive from customer support team and so on. Yes, I said “we” intentionally because developers are not alone in making their decisions — there are a lot of talented people out there in TransferWise working on the product.
- What brought you to this area?
I’ve been in software development and IT in general almost since I graduated from university. It’s now 10 years already, wow!
I started off in the entertainment and gaming field and it has been the biggest page in my career so far. I worked in different companies, but the call was still the same — create online games for the biggest and market-leading gambling companies in the world.
Some time ago I received an offer to join TransferWise and become part of the revolution. I did not know anything about fintech at that time, so I thought it might be a wonderful opportunity to try out doing something new, meet new challenges and new people. Besides TransferWise was already one of the biggest and most well known companies in Estonia that kept on growing at a rapid pace. And to be honest, from the very first step it was hard to not notice that everything was very different in this company: the interview process, questions they asked you, passionate people who were working there. So I thought why not and took the plunge.
- What kind of projects are you currently working on?
Me and my team are working on making the experience of the U.S. segment of our customer base better and better. Everyday we question ourselves what could be that one big thing that we could do, so that the majority of our customers could benefit from it either by spending less time on doing their transfer, paying less fees and saving more money or just by enjoying the experience of the service more than the day before.
- What do you consider the greatest achievement in your work to date?
To be honest, I wouldn’t divide the work results that I get into the greatest and the regular ones.
Everything that I do has a rational decision, data or analysis behind it, was thoroughly thought through, and at the time the decision was made, it was the right thing to do.
On the other hand, we at TrasferWise like to experiment a lot, do user testing, involve people to test our closed for public features and services, run A/B tests. Not all of our experiments succeed nor all our assumptions prove to be right, but would we call these experiments failures? Of course not. Like Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” As a single experiment it might not be the greatest achievement, but as a part of the whole product and success of the company, it can definitely be.
- What’s the best thing about working at TransferWise?
Though there are a lot of great things that happen to you after you join TransferWise, the first thing that comes to my mind is definitely the working culture. It’s so different that I can easily spend a day talking about it!
People in TransferWise are not afraid of making mistakes, though they take full responsibility of the consequences if this happens. Nobody would blame you, but you have to take the necessary actions to make sure the same mistake won’t happen in the future with other employees as well. Here’s a quote from Thomas Watson, founder of IBM, that conveys this spirit of this approach very well: “The way to succeed is to double your failure rate”.
The other great thing in TransferWise is the way people work together. There are no physical or mental boundaries between the teams. Comparing to some other mature companies, where the only way different departments communicate is by assigning a ticket from one person to another, in TransferWise it’s all very transparent. You can easily go to the customer support team and talk over the phone with your users, figuring out the issues they are facing and then tackling these hurdles as a developer. You can go to operations team and find out what could make their work more efficient and do it then for them. Nobody will tell what to do, nobody will babysit you — the choice is fully yours.
- Where is the after work hangout?
We like to go to dinner with the team after working hours, especially when there are colleagues from other offices visiting Tallinn and we would like to chat in a more relaxed atmosphere. Sometimes we go to pubs, go-karting and more. There are also various sports events happening occasionally too. For instance, there are people who go jogging or cycling together.
- What makes Tallinn a good city for tech companies?
There are quite a few tech companies who are based in Tallinn and that are well known in the world. For instance, Skype has had a huge development centre here for over a decade, Playtech also, now TransferWise too. This all is a clear sign that there are a lot of smart people in Estonia that are capable of running huge world-wide products successfully and know how to scale them.
Also the fact how easy you can file a tax return, open a private company, change your family physician or vote in general elections — everything online — is luring many companies to establish their businesses here or at least to open a branch.
- What’s your favourite thing about living in the city?
I was born in Tallinn and have lived here my whole life. I like that we have the sea (was always wondering how is it possible to live without it?) and nice beaches, I like that we have 4 proper seasons a year with warm sunny Summer months and snowy cold Winters. Tallinn is small enough to be able to commute pretty quickly from one part of the city to another, and big enough to have all major services, stores and brands available.
- And lastly, what advice would you give to someone relocating to Tallinn?
Even though you can manage completely without knowing Estonian language, be prepared to learn a couple dozen words for your own convenience — some people do not speak English at all, especially older generations. Otherwise, there’s nothing to be afraid of and nothing much different compared to other European cities. Welcome to Tallinn!