Work and lifestyle on the cutting edge: In our conversations with leading contemporary thinkers, we examine the claims, clichés and ideals surrounding our workplaces. This time we are interviewing Ali Mahlodji, founder and CEO of the online platform WHATCHADO. He talks to Angelika Molk and tells her about his own crazy background, about “zig-zag” careers and the game rules in a start-up office.
At WHATCHADO people talk about their work. A topic that evidently lies close to the heart of its Tehran-born CEO, Ali Mahlodji, who has worked practically everywhere: following an apprenticeship as a mason and a carpenter, he trained as a software engineer and worked at Siemens AG as a consultant for major IT projects. Later on, Mahlodji built up the technical sales team at Sun Microsystems and also worked at the micro-conglomerate Super-Fi. Since 2012 he has been involved with WHATCHADO, a platform on which every conceivable type of discussion partner (from the Austrian President down to a patisserie apprentice or a glass harp player) is faced with the same seven questions on their work and career in one-on-one interviews. These stories about people’s lives and careers are intended to help young people choose a job and showcase companies. The project has already received a number of international awards.
You worked in IT for a long time and now you are collecting the stories of people’s lives for WHATCHADO – what do you find interesting about the switch from big names to a start-up business?
In big companies it tends to be the rule that employees have to adapt to their office. With start-ups, the office is built around the people: I depend on my employees, know how they perform and how they work best. For WHATCHADO I have taken the best out of all the working environments I have known but have also introduced clear game rules. Between 10 am and 4 pm, for example, the office is in "silent mode", i.e. we keep the noise as low as possible and communicate via the internal chat room. Another thing I learned in the "Old World" is that you get the best results if you set clear targets for people and then just let them get on with it. Employees come to a start-up because they want to make a contribution; they need scope to develop and experience life.
By now there are more than 1000 stories on WHATCHADO. What are the classic career paths you see? Is there still such a thing as a "classic" career path?
We often hear that people are doing what they do by chance, i.e. would never have thought they would be doing it a few years earlier. The most interesting employees in a company are actually always those with "zig-zag" careers. This is widely accepted by now, but it’s not communicated externally. Of course, there are jobs for which an expert is needed but not everyone studying medicine has to become a doctor. This is still very strongly embedded in people’s heads. It is certainly no bad thing to have had a particular form of apprenticeship, but studies show that people frequently change jobs these days and the job they originally had in mind often also changes. For a lot of the new jobs there isn’t even a suitable form of apprenticeship.
What do you think are the most important prerequisites so you can find the right job and then be happy with it?
You should ask yourself what you are cut out for and, much more importantly, what you are not cut out for. Try things out and don’t wait until the right job comes along. The dream job is often one that did not exist when you were young or for which there is still no form of apprenticeship. People need to listen more to their hearts, pay attention to what they enjoy doing, what they enjoyed doing when they were kids. And if you find something that interests you, don’t be put off by it "not paying any money." We live in a world where anything is possible, though nobody knows it.
What does the word "office" mean to you?
I don’t think people were made to sit in an office from 8 to 5. You’re not necessarily more productive in an office: that comes if you can move and run around. Steve Jobs had some of his best ideas when he was out walking with his top executives. There are, of course, all sorts of activities: some require brain and some brawn, and for a lot of these jobs there is still a need for an office. What is important is that this office should offer a variety of working environments, places to take a break, etc.
What would your dream office look like?
I need a lot of movement and cannot sit all the time in the same place, so I want a flexible office. Best of all would be a mobile workstation, a little minivan with storage space and a desk for sitting around and discussing things. That would let me go and work wherever I wanted. And it should be possible to open the roof when the sun shines and shut it again when you want to work in peace.
What does your workspace look like? Do you have lots of personal, private things there or is your office purely functional?
Our office is a big stretched-out room with seating islands, standing tables, quiet rooms and a roof terrace. I have nothing personal there, just work stuff and only one personal memento. When you come into an office, you shouldn’t be able to see who is boss – that’s how it is with us. I sit in exactly the same place as everyone else and treat my people as they come, namely each one differently.
Is your office a place of inspiration, of creativity?
If your office changes from time to time and you do too, then it can be a place of creativity. I always sit in a different place and that works for me. But I get most of my inspiration out of the office, when I’m speaking with people who don’t know anything about us, or when I see something. You can put three slides and a swing into the office but, after a couple of weeks, no-one notices them anymore. Visitors notice the X Box and the hammock but the employees don't see the "toys" anymore. In the long run that’s no fun and doesn’t achieve anything.
What is the most important tool for your work?
My black notebook. I can find anything that I need in there, including a photo of me and my WHATCHADO partner when we were 15.
Thank you for the interview.