HR Talks with IT Leaders ep. 1: Boyko Iaramov on giving back, transparency and leadership

HR Talks with IT leaders is a campaign organized by Bica and our goal is to give more visibility to the knowledge of how great tech teams are built. Every week, we will meet with accomplished entrepreneurs and managers who will share their personal experience and what’s their approach to leadership, communication, hiring, talent development and much more.

Our first conversation is with Boyko Iaramov — a serial entrepreneur, angel investor and mentor. In 2002, he co-founded Telerik and helped the company’s growth to over 800 employees and a $262.5M exit twelve years later. Boyko is also a co-founder of Campus X, a coworking hub that brings together startups, VCs and talent, and co-founder of Telerik Academy, a tech education organization that trains the digital builders of tomorrow.

What’s the number one lesson about leadership you learned over the years — first with Telerik and then with Telerik Academy and Campus X?

Boyko Iaramov: To have faith in myself, my partners, and especially in the team. When we launched Telerik, neither of us imagined that we’d go as far as we did. We all had our concerns in the early days about how we would compete on the global stage. Moreover, we are talking about 2002 — back then, there were no VCs in Bulgaria, no mentoring, nor any startup ecosystem in Sofia.

So, for me, lesson number one is that you need to believe in yourself. In the long run, if you don’t have that — it doesn’t matter how much funding you have. It is equally important to believe in the people around you.

How can you help others believe in themselves?

You need to be willing to make sacrifices for the team. Everyone on the team must know that you have their backs. At all times. Because inevitably, as an organization grows, a lot of mistakes are made. If these mistakes are judged and penalized from the very beginning, this team would not have the confidence to develop and innovate. Innovation comes through trial and error. A good leader protects their team even when failures and mishaps happen.

Leader behaviors and traits are contagious. The good and the bad ones. On that note, when the leader’s dedication and willingness to sacrifice is felt by the team, it usually spreads within the organization.

There is one big caveat, though. Sometimes this dedication leads to serious burnout. It’s very difficult when you try to be available all the time — there are only 24 hours a day. So, you need to be able to find the balance as working non-stop is not sustainable in the long run.

Is there a type of leadership style or behavior you want to see more in the Bulgarian IT ecosystem?

Giving-back. We measure one person for how much he is willing to give back, as my Telerik co-founder Vassil Terziev says. No matter how successful you’re in business, if you do not give back to society, you have not achieved anything.

I definitely see progress in recent years but there is still a long way to go. It is an educational process and we need more good examples. For me, it will be a success when all companies in the ecosystem become regular donors for all children in Bulgaria to receive quality education — both academic and digital. If you make millions in profit and don’t donate a few thousand to develop the environment further, you haven’t achieved that much and will definitely not be perceived as a valuable member of society in the long run.

As an investor and cofounder of Campus X, you work with many startups. What’s your advice on keeping teams focused, which is particularly important for startups and early-stage tech companies?

Focus. Too often we see teams willing to do 100 things at once, only to fail with all. We like to encourage and at times challenge many of the young teams we work with, to focus on one topic at a time.

Our approach is to make them come to this conclusion on their own — by asking various questions and steering the thought and analysis process. If we just tell them ‘you’re not focused, you have to do this and that’- that’s a judgment. We engage not to judge, but to encourage and support. The best outcomes are those that organically evolve the teams, define their strengths and as a result sharpen their focus.

Startups are by nature extremely chaotic. Therefore, we try to advise them to stay focused on the 3 or 4 main things that contribute the most to the accomplishment of a given milestone.

From your experience, is there a proven method for talent development?

It all starts with transparency and context. Everyone on the team should be aware of why we demand more of them, why we demand to move faster and why repetitive mistakes have to be avoided. If you don’t provide context, it can sound very judgmental and people are usually quite sensitive to that type of approach. At Telerik and now at Telerik Academy and Campus X absolutely everything is shared with the team. Performance, wins and fails — everything.

Lastly, the lack of structure and process is devastating. Without these components, no one within an organization could be successful. So these should also not be omitted.

How do you personally recognize talent, especially in young people without experience?

We actually created Telerik Academy to eliminate some of the guesswork. After 6 to 14 months together, we knew the graduates better than our friends. We reduced the errors with junior hiring to a minimum. In a regular recruitment process, one conversation and one technical task, is insufficient to determine whether the candidate is a right fit. Not only at the level of technical expertise, but also when it comes to personal qualities (soft skills), which are much more important in my opinion.

In terms of how I assess people — the truth is that over the years I have had failures, people whom I have invested in for years only to disappoint me in the end. But I don’t think that because of the 5% of failures, I should change my methodology and become much stricter, much more disconnected, much more managerial. This is not my leadership style.

For me, the most valuable thing is to have the chance to see people in their natural environment. Not long ago, there was a person with a good public reputation who had reached out to me, pitching for an investment. When we first met I was quite impressed. Soon afterwards, I saw that person in a different environment, without him knowing I was there. His attitude towards the others — children, service staff, general public was completely different. But most probably this was his true authentic self. And that is most probably the “self” that will surface inside the organization sooner or later.

A person coming to an interview or seeking funding usually wears a mask. You have to try and de-mask that person in order to figure out whether you could work together. However difficult to achieve this, there are ways to approach this true transparency. Some leaders may be more direct and assertive, others may be more patient and encouraging.

Can you give us an example of how you encourage or provoke people to take off their masks?

Show your own vulnerability. This way it is likely that the person on the other side will feel more comfortable to be vulnerable as well. This openness makes you much more humane and shortens the distance between people.

How would you personally measure your success as a leader? What needs to happen in the next few years so you’re happy with what you’ve achieved?

I would like to see the potential of Bulgaria grow further. We have seen that despite all obstacles — economic, political, etc., a well-structured, focused and committed organization can be a global success. I would be most satisfied if, following our efforts with Telerik, Telerik Academy and Campus X, I see many more organizations, people, and teams carrying this torch of success.

Coming out of our own little nests and realizing we are living in a connected world where everything we do matters, hence if we want to leave a mark, we have to go out and earn it.

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