Zoolatech CEO's 3 Career-Transforming Lessons: From Maritime to Tech
Hello there, reader. I've been the Zoolatech co-founder and CEO for six years, and I got into the tech industry by accident. My journey actually started on commercial fishing ships. And while I never planned to enter the software development field—much less become a company founder and CEO—I believe that my atypical experience may hold some valuable lessons for business professionals.
In 1988, when I was 17, I immigrated with my family to San Francisco from the Soviet Union. After learning English, I enrolled in California State University Maritime Academy. It wasn’t that I was particularly passionate about nautical endeavors—I just liked the structure of the school, where I didn’t get lost in a lot of choices. It was clear what was required to graduate in four years with my bachelor’s degrees in maritime transportation, business administration and logistics. And the professional schedule of three months working on the ship followed by three months of vacation was definitely another draw.
The ships I worked on had a lot of modern equipment, and part of my job was to evaluate and write reports about how the equipment was performing so that the manufacturers could create fixes and updates. My brother saw the similarity between those reports and the ones he encountered at the tech startup where he worked, and he suggested that I spend my three months off duty as a contractor testing software there.
I took the position basically out of boredom during my time off the ship. As it turned out, the company liked me and kept asking me to extend for another three months. I started learning to program and picked up some skills.
Although I felt like my technology career would be temporary, it became permanent. At that time, the tech industry was booming. I got promoted quickly. I graduated in 1996, left the maritime industry to start full-time in tech in 1998 and had a corner office in downtown San Francisco at StreetFusion, managing a team of 15 people by early 2000.
By the summer of 2000, I ended up at Hotwire, an innovative travel startup with a unique value proposition. After Expedia bought Hotwire in 2005, I spent 12 years managing various engineering teams, including building and directing offshore teams for my last decade there. In 2016, however, the company decided to save money by moving my offshore team from Eastern Europe to India. I managed the transition for six months and then was laid off.
It was kind of a blessing. Before my last day of work, I heard something that resonated with me. On NPR, someone said that when people start asking you to consult with them on the job you’ve been doing for a company, it's time to go into consulting. That had happened multiple times in my last few years at Expedia.
So I took the knowledge and experience I had, gave myself six months and agreed with my business partner that if I could get clients, he would build a team. It was certainly a challenge, but I used the experiences I’d had and connections I’d made in the tech industry to get the company off the ground.
Our first two clients were headed by former managers of mine who’d left Expedia at the same time I did. Then I reached out to six more connections from my network, and Zoolatech was born when they agreed to work with us. Six months later, we had 40 employees. Today, we’re at 450 and growing, with offices in the U.S., Ukraine, Turkey and Mexico. I never thought this would be where I’d end up when I immigrated to the U.S. at 17. But it’s been an incredible journey.
Some valuable takeaways from my experiences:
Your past—background, college, major—doesn’t define you.
It’s simply a starting point and can serve as a stepping stone. As an immigrant, I cleaned toilets, painted houses, waited tables and was a licensed third mate on a commercial ship before I ever got near tech.
Adapt to the realities around you.
When I graduated in 1996, it wasn’t a great time to be in the maritime industry. But tech was booming, and Silicon Valley was transitioning into a burgeoning hub. I didn’t even have a computer science degree, but I was in the right place at the right time, willing to pivot and jump in at the deep end.
Leverage what and who you know to get where you want to go.
I understood the software service area after being on the recipient side and client side for many years. I knew what I was doing when it came to building offshore teams. My brother introduced me to the tech industry, I built relationships from there, and my former bosses and people in my network became Zoolatech’s first clients.
As you navigate through the waves of change throughout your career, don’t be afraid to experiment, pivot, and take chances. And find a way to get close to technology, because it’s still the hottest industry there is, and it’s full of opportunity.
Click HERE to see what opportunities we have if you're interested in building your tech career at Zoolatech.