My time at OLX is coming to an end. Five and a half years ago, I would have never imagined all the things I’d accomplish, how I’d grow, or even where I would live today. With my last day arriving at the end of April, I thought it’s a fitting tribute to OLX to reflect on my time there.

When interviewing candidates for OLX, I usually had a section about “Why I work at OLX”, this was partly about making the candidate excited about the potential opportunity but also was a way to help the candidate understand the company a bit better (especially in Berlin where OLX does not have a product live in the market). There are three main reasons I loved working at OLX:

  1. The scale; OLX Group operates many trading platforms globally. Including Avito, OLX, Otomoto, letgo, Property24, and more. ~300 million customers use some OLX product every month. And OLX Group has over 10 000 employees. Much bigger than expected, right? I also did not know that before joining. When you deploy a bug to the product, customers notice, they care.

  2. The people; At OLX, I’ve worked with many great people who are way smarter than me. I’ve learned a lot from them, and grateful to call many of them friends. OLX has many offices around the world, and I’ve been lucky enough to have been visited a lot of them:

    • Cape Town
    • Nairobi
    • Lagos
    • Berlin
    • Dubai
    • Amsterdam
    • Buenos Aires
    • Moscow
    • Poznan
    • Lisbon
    • New Dehli
    • (Unfortunately, there many I did not get to visit: Kyiv, Sofia, etc.)
  3. The impact; From what I’ve experienced and seen from friends - buying something pre-owned has a feeling that you are somehow lower status compared to if you would buy something new.

🚗 How do you feel about buying a new BMW vs a model that is 1 year old for 20% less?

From what I’ve seen, people think differently about second-hand in countries like Germany, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine versus how we see it in South Africa. It seems that buying second-hand is “normal” and even the smart thing to do for many cultures. Getting a good deal means you’re moving up in life. I’ve wondered if this is somehow connected to Capitalism vs previously Communist cultures (But that’s not my area of expertise). What’s clear to me is that buying second-hand is much better for the environment than always buying something for single use. Think about the economic impact when you buy a new iPhone, Apple gets your dollars, while if you buy a second-hand iPhone, someone in the community gets your money which they can then use again in the community. This is why I liked the business model of OLX; the more customers use classifieds -> the more the business grows -> more money stays in the community -> products are used for longer and less waste gets generated = I can go to bed with the feeling “I’m actually making the world a better place”.

My OLX story

My OLX story is the story of taking on hard challenges head-on together. It’s the story of making great things with exceptional people, often against the odds.

1. Head of Development Sub Sahara Africa (Cape Town 🇿🇦)

In August 2015, Stephen Ballot hired me in Cape Town with a brand new Product and Tech team. Funny thing, I was not convinced about joining OLX because I was considering doing my own thing with EskomSePush (growing fast in 2015) and didn’t want to join Naspers (a corporate job). Still, Stephen, not someone that takes no as an answer, shared with me some code, and after seeing that they already have things using some technologies (like Docker) - I was impressed, and I could see I will learn something here. Also, I liked Stephen, he was smart, and we clicked. Great people and breaking the rules - it didn’t seem too corporate for me. Stephen convinced me.

The first mission was to migrate OLX Sub Saharan Africa (South Africa 🇿🇦, Nigeria 🇳🇬, Kenya 🇰🇪, Ghana 🇬🇭, Uganda 🇺🇬 and Tanzania 🇹🇿) aka “OLX SSA” to Atlas, the in-house PHP platform. This migration went smoothly, especially considering we were a brand new team that still had to get to know each other and get onboarded on the product and the technology. The migration was a success, and we made the deadline (4 months). I later found out that Stephen set an very ambitious goal, and no one in OLX thought it was possible.

That does not mean it was an easy ride: We were short-staffed (I had to be the iOS Developer), and team forming with a whole new team is complex - many people left the team. There were many team problems and conflicts - my people management skills had to mature a lot to deal with that. I often think back to those days when coaching Engineering Managers who are dealing with people’s problems. It made me more resilient; I value those early OLX days a lot.

Going through the hard times made us a stronger team. And after the initial onboarding and migration, we pushed for better engineering standards. We stood out inside OLX as a strong technical team; for example, back in 2016, we were the only OLX team running on Kubernetes. Of the initial team, six was still working at OLX 5 years later.

In 2016 OLX SSA was doing well, but not amazing. OLX was larger than the Gumtree in Gauteng (South Africa’s most populated province). We focused a lot on Kenya and Nigeria - We added many new features and did experiments, but the platform didn’t exponentially grow. I think we all were looking for that exponential growth and not patient enough. Changing social norms to get more online second-hand trade takes time.

In 2017 I was looking to move overseas. My wife and I love to travel, and from South Africa, travelling for fun is much harder: Flights are expensive, it takes a long time to get anywhere - and it’s not like I’m the right size for flying. I interviewed and got an offer from Backbase (a fintech company in Amsterdam). When I told Stephen, he said, “hold up; I will organize something within OLX”; I went to do in-person interviews with the Berlin team, they were already friends at this point, and then OLX moved my family and me to Berlin.

✨ HUGE LIFE CHANGE

2. Head of Engineering Shared Services (Berlin 🇩🇪)

In Berlin, we built Shared Services to be used by all the different companies and teams worldwide. I worked on these services in many “core” services:

  • Images and Media
  • Communication (Email, SMS and Push [of course])
  • Marketing tools
  • Locations (but only briefly)

📈 Example of these services' scale: On an average day, the on the CDN the image service (Apollo) transfers 43.75TB, with a peak of 134 000 transactions/second. (I wish I saved the Comms Services stats, but I didn’t)

The Shared Services organization was part of a bigger initiative to migrate OLX to one global platform. This was a joint effort, but most of the customer-facing work was done by the team in Buenos Aires (which I also got to visit) and Delhi (also visited and attended a wedding - amazing). This was hard because, as Shared Services, you’re dependant on how (and if) other teams implement your work. Sure, you can try to fix something, but you don’t have the full scope of all the different products and platforms. But we benefited from having space to try new processes and innovate, focusing on these services' quality. I’m super proud of some of these products, and many still run without much maintenance.

When I joined the Berlin team, there were ~13 engineers in the office. And now there is over 100. Recruiting in Berlin is hard; there are many competing companies hiring from a small talent pool. I really had to up my hiring skills during this period. Luckily I worked closely with amazing recruiters, and it was very fulfilling to meet and hire so many interesting people.

3. Director of Engineering Europe (Berlin 🇩🇪 and Poznan 🇵🇱)

In February 2019, a BIG reorganization and a large part of Shared Services merged with OLX Europe. Reorgs are never fun, but this was particularly hard because the Berlin team had to quickly become much more customer-centric and work closely with the team in Poznan (Poland), which meant travelling a lot to Poland, a 2-hour train ride from Berlin. I enjoyed that a lot for the first few months.

The differences between the Berlin and Poznan teams' culture and ways of working were quite a challenge to reconcile. The Poznan team felt like the Berlin teams only wanted to play with new things (hipsters) and that they don’t really care about the customers, while the Berlin team felt the Poznan team had bad engineering principles. Neither of these views was true. It took time, processes and some amazing people from both locations to build trust and really become a single team.

At the beginning of 2020, I was part of the Rebranding team. We changed a lot of components, from fonts to user flows across all customer channels (Desktop, Mobile Web, Android, and iOS) and all EU markets (Poland 🇵🇱, Ukraine🇺🇦, Romania 🇷🇴, Kazakhstan 🇰🇿, Bulgaria 🇧🇬, Portugal 🇵🇹). It was a big undertaking with many engineers and designers involved. The total project length was fifteen months (have I mentioned that it was a big project?) - the bulk of the time was research and design work. The deadline was the end of the financial year; we had one quarter for development. There was a consensus that this would be impossible, but we made it on time - with one day to spare, of course. I was very proud of the team because they did what many felt was not possible:

👨‍🎨 Screens redesigned: ~428 for mobile 📱 (+ a couple of dozen specifically for PWA), ~415 for Desktop 🖥.

Finally, in the second half of 2020, I set up a new org called “Foundation” or f8n for short. We saw that Ads and Users are the Foundation of OLX. Everything we do is build on top of users and ads. The Foundation team wanted to manage the flow of Ads and Users on the platform:

🤔 Manage how users authenticate -> facilitate the user-generated events flow in our systems and services -> Detect and Act on suspicious events.

Based on Machine learning models and Moderation tools (and moderators), we can remove bad content and actors that violate the policies. The scope was super interesting to me - it felt like being Sherlock Holmes, fighting the criminals. This is part of my OLX journey that does not feel “done”; there’s still a lot I want to do in this area. I’m also leading a Product team that I immensely enjoyed working with. I’m still learning a lot and having fun while doing so, but I’m ending my OLX journey on a peak with this team and can’t wait to hear how this team will keep improving the platform’s trust after I’m gone.

Grateful for OLX

My time at OLX was genuinely life-changing: My family and I live in a different country now, and we had experienced things that we would never have imagined six years ago when I signed up to work for OLX as “Head of Development” in Cape Town back in 2015. I’ve made many friends from around the world, and I’m grateful for everyone who has helped me grow.

Thank you to every single person that has been on this journey with me. 🏅

A signed going away present from the Cape Town team in 2017
A signed going away present from the Cape Town team in 2017