Aiven Blog

Oct 4, 2023

Holger Hammel – why moving sideways is the way forward

If you’re planning your next career move in tech, check out this interview with our VP Engineering in Product. It will be sure to point you in the right direction!

Ola Niechcial

Ola Niechcial

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Employer Brand Lead at Aiven

Discover what we can offer engineers like Holger, plus the many different ways you can progress. And find out how our tech experts are helping us to shape an exciting future for everyone.

Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I’ve been with Aiven for around a year and a half now. I started my career in software development in the 80s on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. I then moved into Frontend, Perl, C# and Java before switching to engineering management, working for companies such as eBay and OneFootball.

My pivotal moment was experiencing how DevOps, CI/CD, and agile XP completely transformed the productivity and culture of a whole company. That’s why my ethos now is to help teams deliver great, fully functioning software that customers actually use.

How would you define your role at Aiven?

I joined Aiven because I saw the gigantic breadth of talent working here and the great business model, together with the focus on open source and engineering. Plus Crab Week and the social shell-ebrations, of course!

As VP Engineering in Product, I have the honor to lead the engineers and managers in product development. We build the platform and products that the company sells and operates. I’m based in Berlin, although my favorite city when I was younger was Prague.

How would you describe the key aspects of our engineering culture and our guiding values?

Great question! Contribution to the code base is at the heart of it. Not just quantity but quality – the ability to create value for our customers. Reliability and security are key – we want customers to know that their data and their wider business are safe with us.

In addition, we are always looking to improve our operational awareness, task automation, and end-to-end ownership of teams for product streams.

How do these values translate into hiring?

We’re building products for other engineers, so we need to solve problems that other developers cannot. Anyone who wants to join us therefore has to meet very high standards. It’s why you will find a lot of passionate engineers at Aiven, along with managers who support their teams and are really driven by customer satisfaction.

The unique rooting in open source means our Open Source Program Office (OSPO) team is first-class – and not just within our company. A colleague recently helped drive a big OSS project as a consequence of his work at Aiven.

Can you describe some recent projects?

There’s always a lot going on. Every employee – and customer – can contribute, thanks to our approach and because our roadmap is public – see

I’m currently really excited about Pgvector (vector search in Postgres), which lets customers effectively build up AI applications.

In the event-streaming ecosystem, we are focusing on tiered storage and are planning to run Apache Kafka® without Apache Zookeeper™. This is tremendously interesting from a performance and operations point of view. A big change recently was the introduction of free tiers for many products, which required a lot of changes in the web console and backend.

But what really makes me happy are the ongoing improvements regarding internal developer experience, such as better tooling, faster test automation and greater observability.

How do these projects contribute to the company's overall mission and growth?

We want to be the trusted open-source data platform for everyone, so it should be as easy as possible for engineers to find out about us and explore our services. Free tiers and credits for new customers help with that.

We are growing alongside our customers and are always learning how to serve them best. That’s whether it’s a single engineer project, start-up, scale-up, or large enterprise. Innovative features like tiered storage, ZooKeeper-less Kafka, Pgvector, and the OpenSearch® Security plugin unlock new capabilities for existing and new customers.

Tell us more about the complex technical or strategic challenges the team has encountered.

Customer centricity is really important, but sometimes it can become challenging if customers use technology in unintended ways. For example, choosing Kafka as a substitute for a relational database or having one PostgreSQL® instance with thousands of tables.

Again, reliability is key. Being able to build, test, deploy and operate hundreds of thousands of nodes in production requires continuous work on CI/CD, and on our architecture and practices. Our aim is to always be the first to know if something might become an issue.

How does Aiven support professional development for our engineering team members?

In my short time here, I have seen so many engineers progress, and not just via promotion. For example, by changing teams or roles – from engineer to engineering manager, product manager, or site reliability engineer (SRE).

Exploring all parts of the Aiven platform is encouraged and can take many forms. Learning a new programming language or technology, for instance, or spreading from Python backend engineer towards kernel or network layers, SRE or becoming “full-stack”, covering web development and backend. I think most colleagues would say they’re always learning.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to join the engineering team?

Get to know your team and the code base your team is responsible for and start contributing. Like any good Crab, you should never sit still! Openness is a key value – everyone can read executive team meeting agendas, while most Slack channels are public. It’s part of the culture to allow access to as much information as possible – so take advantage of that.

Aiven celebrates sideways thinking – in what ways are you a sideways thinker?

I think the depth of commitment to building on open source is an excellent demonstration of this principle. So not just benefiting the company but giving back to communities via our OSPO team. Also our internal Plankton Program, which compensates employees for their free-time contributions to other open source projects. Most so-called forward-thinking companies don’t offer anywhere near what Aiven does – so long live sideways thinking!

Is there anything in particular you are excited about in Aiven’s future?

Yes – lots! I am particularly excited about the next steps in Product - we are exploring how to move from offering single-data technologies to solving customers' broader challenges. We are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in multi-cloud, including autoscaling, replication, backup, observability and making it even easier to solve customer data use cases. I believe that this will allow a lot of customers to run their innovative applications even more effectively.

Interested in joining the Cast? Check out our open positions. And keep your eyes peeled (sideways) on the blog as we continue to meet more of our clawsome Cast of Crabs.

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