The code of determination – an interview with our software engineer

The code of determination – an interview with our software engineer

“If you have a passion for something, you make it happen.”

According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of perseverance is the ‘persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.’ The metaphorical definition is sitting in front of me – Swoon’s E-commerce Software Engineer, Ivan.

We’re sat at the table in the kitchen of his third-floor apartment in Bermondsey. An ex-council property inhabited by a man with a rather compelling story to tell.

Ivan was born in Mostar, BIH, and grew up in Croatia’s fourth largest city, Osijek. “It’s beautiful – but it’s very humid in the Summer and there are lots of mosquitos” he smiles. The city, however, became unsafe during the Croatian War of Independence – known to most Croatians as the ‘Homeland war’ (Domovinski rat) – where Croatia had declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. “It became normal to be sitting somewhere and being able to hear grenades dropping all over the city.” Suddenly, I am very aware that the man sitting in front of me has had quite a journey to get to where he is today.

“When I was about to start primary school, the war started so my brother and I had to move to Germany for our first year of school. I was six years old. My mother went to live in Zagreb and my father was called to fight in the Croatian army.”

After living in Germany for a year, he and his brother returned to Croatia to join their mother in Zagreb, eventually moving back to Osijek. At one stage, their family home – a house situated above a row of shops – was hit by a grenade, so when they returned it was a family effort to rebuild their life together. It’s an unexpected account of childhood, but Ivan doesn’t seem fazed. We continue talking about his family home and he tells me about his “party house” – a little outhouse at the end of their garden where he used to have his friends over to, well, party. He has incredible joie de vivre and is evidently very fond of where he’s come from. “It’s nice to drive around all of the places that I used to go to where I grew up” he smiles. I’m absolutely blown away. And I want to know more about Ivan’s journey to London.

Your path to London doesn’t sound like its been an easy one – how did you come to live in this apartment?

“I was renting a room here and the landlord decided to sell it so I asked him to wait a few months so that I could save up the money to buy it. When I managed to buy it and knew it was mine, it was one of my most memorable moments.”

That’s an incredible achievement – your parents must have been really proud of you.

“They were. It was the biggest challenge of my career to move to London but there’s much more opportunity here. To own a home after being here for three years was a real achievement though. So they’re proud, yes.”

He goes on to tell me that they’ve visited a few times and he’s shown them a few of the sights but that he’d like to get to know London better. London life has mainly revolved around work so far. Working hard at his career as a software engineer, as well as on his apartment, is a passion for Ivan and it all makes sense when we carry on talking.

What’s your ultimate obsession?

Exploring new ways of coding – it changes constantly so it’s all about keeping up with what’s going on. I learned to code when I was 5 or 6 years old on a Commodore 64. My brother was interested in it too so he helped me, but I mainly taught myself.

That’s amazing. So how did this obsession evolve into your career now?

“After school, I went to study mathematics but I was also interested in law so I tried that for a while but ended up returning to mathematics. Our university didn’t have the facilities to teach computer science so I decided to start educating myself and found that places like MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Harvard started offering free online courses.

Everything, for me, was about educating myself. I started lecturing at schools too. I was always hoping and waiting to be taught more about computer science, but you can only get access to that in top schools. But if you have a passion for something, you make it happen.”

Wow, you’ve got an incredible determination. Is there anyone who inspires you particularly?

“Besides family, friends and my colleagues, I've been inspired a lot by David J. Malan, professor of the Practice of Computer Science at Harvard University, who showed me that classes can be extremely engaging and interesting. It would also be very hard to imagine a world without computers, the internet and all these creative people who inspire us daily. AI and automation are topics that scare me but also that inspire me a lot.”

It’s clear that Ivan’s appetite for education is a huge part of what has led him to success. But there’s also something about appreciating the simple things that have helped him to carve out a happy life in London. When I ask him to name three things he can’t live without, his answer says it all.

“Each day starts with a cup of coffee so that has to be one of my most important things. Sun would be the next one as we’re all happier with a bit more sunshine. The last thing is nature. We all need a nice space, even if it’s artificial, where we can relax after a busy week. Living in a modern world, most homes need an area that’s inspired by nature.”

He’s recently added some artificial grass and potted plants to his balcony to create such an area, and dotted around the apartment are little London trinkets and a number of Union Jack flags – bedspreads, coffee cups, you name it. It’s clear that he loves living here and tells me he’d like to explore more of the UK and further afield. “I’d like to follow the Summer around and see Spain, Italy and I’d also love to see Sri Lanka. New Year’s Eve in Sydney is on my list too.”

Despite a turbulent start in life, Ivan is undeniably optimistic. Is this something that comes from overcoming adversity? Did he inherit this from his parents who, by all accounts, sound like they’ve been absolute pillars of strength for Ivan and his brother? The family have been through a lot, but it sounds as though things have settled down for them now. They’re clearly a big part of the reason that Ivan is the way he is. When I ask him what the best piece of advice he’s ever been given is, he tells me it was from his family. Three simple words, that sum up an incredibly inspiring man.  

“Never give up.”

To read more interviews with our inspiring humans, head over to the blog here.