Nils Sommer

I used to be a very risk averse and introverted person, still am in many ways. A little more than two years ago, I started working for an Insurtech in Heidelberg, Germany as a Software Developer. High among the reasons why I chose this job was that I could write Ruby for Getsafe’s insurance backend. It may sound ridiculous right now, but it felt like a risky move for my standards back then. Fortunately, taking risks can be quite rewarding.

Let me quickly take a walk through my previous career steps and stepping stones in software development. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been interested in technology. As a child, I enjoyed things like playing with Lego and building something with my own hands more than getting the latest playstation game. At the age of 14, I wrote my first lines of code in Basic and C, which I tought myself through books and web tutorials in order to read from a temperature sensor with a microcontroller. I was also fascinated by the idea of having my own website, so I got a book about HTML and CSS from the local library and published a couple of websites about tech projects of mine. That sounds quite nerdy, and probably it is. But early on I learned something about myself that differentiated me from other people who would write code or read about technology: I didn’t share their fascination in math or science itself. I was able to learn it, and my grades were reasonably good, but I only developed a real interest in theory when it helped me to build something real with it. To me theory was a necessary evil, but nothing that sparked intrinsic interest in itself within me. This will become more important later on.

After finishing school, I started studying computer science in Karlsruhe, Germany. The setup for that was something I believe is quite specific to Germany: Duales Studium. You sign a contract with a company and for the next three years you switch in three month cycles between attending university classes and doing project work in the company (you’re paid throughout the whole time). In the end you receive a B.Sc. degree which is interchangeable with that of any other university. For me, this was a perfect choice. First of all, the university classes in this setup are a lot more practical than in the standard universities. This is a result of only spending half of the time in classes, but also because participating companies are interested in more practical education for their students. Secondly, at the company I chose to work for in this setup — a federal public research institute — I learned many things about what I would value and what I would want to avoid in subsequent career steps. I became a reasonably good Java Developer, but neither the technical ecosystem, nor the type of work and its environment did satisfy me. Projects would often be funded through public funds, result in a publication after two years, and then disappear into nowhere. I didn’t know what I was actually working for, and it felt like work did not produce any real world value. I didn’t want to stay there for much longer, so instead of becoming a full time employee, I started at KIT to pursue my M.Sc. degree, which I finished after a little more than two years.

All of this already prepared the ground for me to later start a job that would include a modern tech stack, working on a real product and the opportunity to make a dent in the universe, rather than doing nine to five just for a living. But what really got me there, was something that took place in my free time while I was at university: I discovered Ruby on Rails. Driven by the desire to build something real and a lack of challenge at work, I read tutorials about Ruby on Rails (without knowing any Ruby) and built a music collection web app on the side with it. It was clear to me very quickly that this was a tech stack I would like to work with. Code could be written like prose, frameworks exposed APIs you could understand just by reading it, learning was possible through documentation instead of hiring consultants and the community was as open minded and helpful as one could wish for.

Products are the outcome of the cultures they are created within, so I tried to learn more about the Ruby community. I started watching the keynotes by DHH at Railsconf online. To this day, I remember watching his 2012 keynote on Progress for the first time. It has been one of those few key turning points in life, when it just clicks and your view on the world changes forever. I vividly remember thinking something like:

I’m not alone. It doesn’t have to be that bad. It can be different.

Taking a niche job to write Ruby in a startup instead of taking a safe job in a big corporation with a shitty J2E stack and limited impact and learning opportunities sounded super risky to me. But the love for Rails, my previous working experiences and the optimistic and rebellious spirit of DHH’s message provided me with the courage to follow my heart.

This is quite a long intro for a pretty short outcome assessment: I could not have made a better choice. Probably more by lack of a plan, than by design, I was given extraordinary amounts of freedom & responsibility in my work. This, together with building a B2C product I could actually be a customer of myself, has not only been a huge motivation, but also been the best learning environment I could have imagined.

My GitHub contribution graph a year ago

On the technical side, I was and still am fortunate to work with some really smart engineers who directly and indirectly taught me a tremendous amount of things in a short amount of time. I want to especially mention my colleagues Raphael and Andy, two incredible engineers who really leveled me up as an engineer. I even made some open source contributions, both in the form of ruby gems we published at Getsafe, but also community contributions.

On the downside, I struggle to give up on freedom as the organization of the company grows. Also challenging to me is to find a healthy balance between helping to reach short term goals, necessary for the company to attract investors, while at the same time delivering on the long term vision, which requires invest of time and people in technology that only pays off later. I try to improve on handling those challenges and hope to learn from it.

The work in an Insurtech however has also exposed me more directly towards and reinforced my already present interests in entrepreneurship, economics and finance. Even though I don’t have concrete plans today, I am certain to become an entrepreneur in the future, too. Working in a startup has taught me numerous lessons that I believe will be very valuable for that.

So in the end, what appeared like a risk to me, turned out to be a very rewarding decision. You often hear successful people say “Do something you enjoy”, which sounds easier than it is. To me, this has been exactly the right decision. Doing something I honestly enjoy and being reasonably good at it has been an incredible elevator in personal happyness and self development. And for the future, I’m certain what it’s gonna lead to: Becoming an entrepreneur myself.

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