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Ramzi Rizk

CTO & Co-Founder of EyeEm

As someone who is passionate about digital product design and photography as I am, speaking with Ramzi from EyeEm gave me a unique perspective on how you can merge skills and passion into one really meaningful project. Ramzi opens up about how he got EyeEm started and how he overcame some challenges along the way. He speaks to some of the challenges of moving into a leadership role as CTO and what that process looked like for him.

Special thanks to Igloo and InVision for sponsoring Ways We Work for the month of September and making these interviews possible!

Tell us a little bit about your role as CTO at EyeEm and what that encompasses.

That’s something I’ve been trying to answer for myself for the past four years [laughs]. When we started the company five-and-a-half years ago, I was the only person who could write a line of code. At that time I was building the apps, the back end, the front end—pretty much everything related to the product. As we’ve grown, things have changed quite a bit. My team is now close to 30 people and I barely write code at all anymore. I’m actually not allowed to write code anymore because the team has developed their own processes and way of working. I’m a bit of liability now because as a CTO I’m a generalist. My role is to be available to take meetings, spend a week on the road when I have to and manage the engineering organization. I make sure that people have everything they need, that they understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and that they have the data they need, as well as the room to explore, experiment and push the envelope when it comes to technology. That’s one of my big responsibilities.

My role is similar when it comes to the R&D team. We do a lot of work on computer vision and machine learning. That team has very different needs from a lot of other people in the organization. My job there is to again make sure they have what they need, that we’re working on the right things and the way we’re working on things actually maps to the products we’re building. In addition, I manage the QA team and the data team. Managing those teams is about 30-40% of my time, with another 20-30% devoted to hiring, and recruiting the best people. That involves speaking at events and spreading the word about EyeEm. The rest is related to my role as a founder of EyeEm, thinking about overall strategy and direction of the company.

“For us, it was an obsession, a mutual obsession that we were ready to sacrifice everything else for. Your personal life takes a hit, you don’t see your friends or family as much. ”

Right, you’re also one of the founders. Can you tell us a little bit about how EyeEm got started?

I think to do that we have to go back a bit. It really started for me when I was six years old and I got my first camera. I fell in love with photography. When I turned 16, I got my first analog camera, and a couple years later Flickr started—I was one of the very first people on Flickr. I absolutely adored that community. There were a few people that would hang out in this IRC chat room, including the founders of Flickr, Caterina and Stewart. They’d often ask for feedback about new features inside the chat, it was a community. I think that struck me in a way that very few products have since.

When we started EyeEm we were about celebrating photography and the fact that you have tools and functionalities is a small part of it. The whole notion of EyeEm was to be a place where photographers can connect, interact and also meet in the real world and get published in magazines and exhibited in galleries around the world. That is the community that we wanted to build. That was really my driver. My co-founder Flo, who is the CEO, studied business and photography and moved to New York to try and be a photographer. An unfortunate series of events led to his equipment getting lost and he also stumbled onto mobile photography around the same time. We got together, the four of us co-founders, sometime in early 2010 to talk about the beauty of mobile photography which at that point was just taking off. No one had really done anything in that space. There were a couple of apps on the App Store but it was all really early days.

We started talking about how photography is not really about the camera you have but about the image that you manage to capture and the fact that there was so much data available, that you could make so much more sense out of that noise that was just increasing tremendously. That was really the impetus. One night we stayed up all night sketching stuff on my whiteboard. In the morning we realized that we had a job to do, we had a company to build. We started with a little exhibition, it was the world's first mobile photography competition. We built a small website, and people started uploading photos. We were absolutely blown away by how many people took part. I think we had 10,000 photos by 5,000 photographers submitted to this random competition. No one else was taking these mobile photographers seriously. We launched that contest, we launched our first magazine, we did another exhibition, and then we realized, "We need to build this out properly." We set out to do that and early 2011 was when we officially started working on this full-time and growing the team.

“That contrast of wanting to know everything with realizing how little you know, and how little time you have to be able to learn all of the things you want to know—that’s a hard pill for me to swallow.”

Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced during the transition to doing EyeEm full-time?

One of the bigger challenges is people. At the beginning, the notion of being a founder and an entrepreneur wasn’t very attractive, particularly not in Berlin; it wasn't the way it was for people who lived in the Valley. People underestimated the toll it takes on everything else. For us, it was an obsession, a mutual obsession that we were ready to sacrifice everything else for. Your personal life takes a hit, you don’t see your friends or family as much. For me one of the biggest challenges was once I got into the mechanics and building things, I risked losing the raw fascination I got from having time to think, or zone off and do the things that keep your creative interest going. Those were some of the biggest struggles. The first 7-8 months the company was run out of pocket, but the cost of living in Berlin wasn't that high so it wasn’t a big deal. Then we raised a little money and could hire our first person and get an office. There was never any huge drama we went through, but rather a lot of small cuts left and right that you only realize happened after you have some time to reflect.

“I do a lot of analog photography which is even better because it's more about getting back to the basics of printing it out, holding your breath and pulling the trigger between two heartbeats to get that moment.”

As a CTO in a growing tech business, in a growing company, what kind of pressures do you face that people wouldn't really expect or understand?

One thing I would say that is the most terrifying is being confronted with how much I don’t know on a daily basis, on an hourly basis. Having the hunger and the drive that I think you need when you want to build something yourself, it means that you’re always trying to know everything. That contrast of wanting to know everything with realizing how little you know, and how little time you have to be able to learn all of the things you want to know—that’s a hard pill for me to swallow.

The other thing is trust, and how important of a role that plays. If you’re a builder, your first instinct is, “I’ll fix it.” But, I have to trust that the people that work with me are more than capable, and let them do it and grow with it as well. That takes time to understand and to accept. Everything else is relatively easy. There’s a lot of challenges with data, with revenue, all of the things that are challenging for anyone building a company, but if you think you have the right product then all of those pieces will fall into place. The real challenge is trusting that you will be able to find the right people and help make it easier for those pieces to fall into the right place.

What are some of the tools you use to keep organized and keep on top of all the things you have to do on a daily basis?

Evernote & Gmail - I’m always taking random notes but they eventually end up in Evernote which is where I manage my day-to-day and my long-term work. Then I have my setup with Gmail and Google Calendar and that’s pretty much it.

We have a whole bunch of tools that we use at work of course. We use Slack and Jira and Confluence and all that stuff. But, for me personally, it's really those two.

Speaking to your own work-life balance, what are some things you do to reboot or step away from your work to re-energize?

Not nearly enough. Taking photos is a big part of it. It's a very active thing. I always have my camera around but actually making an effort to go and take photos of something, having a project in mind, I do a lot of those throughout the year. I do a lot of analog photography which is even better because it's more about getting back to the basics of printing it out, holding your breath and pulling the trigger between two heartbeats to get that moment. Then there's the pleasure of developing a film and seeing it weeks later, that's definitely one of those things.

Yoga and climbing are also helpful. They’re probably the only two forms of exercise where I can completely disconnect and recharge. I don’t necessarily need to get away for a long time to recharge. To me, it’s more of a cyclical thing. If I manage to exercise often enough and manage to see enough people I care about, and read enough non-work material and take photos—those are the things that I like to do and if I manage to do a couple of those things plus work then I'm very happy.

“I think it’s the combination of the people that we work with and the people that we serve. That was the motivator back then and it's still the motivator today.”

Has there been any influence or advice you've been given that's really stood out as something that's made a difference in your career or helped you overcome something?

There's this one quote that comes to mind right away where Mark Twain said, "If you never lie then you don't have to remember anything ever again." That's something that to me is an amazing lesson because there’s a lot of advice that really always boil down to the same thing: treat people the way you want to be treated. Don't take people on a journey, don't lie to people. Although there's lying and there's holding back information, which is two different things. Don't maliciously mistreat people. Do something because you love to. I think that's the biggest luxury that we have today.

These lessons are things that people repeat all over the place and all the time. I can't say that there's one specific thing that influenced me but a lot of these simple philosophies about the luxury of doing what you love and treating people the right way are the things that I live by and the things that are the biggest lessons that I've learned.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it so worthwhile?

I love photography. I think it's a luxury to be able to work together with photographers, to get inspired by photographers and to learn from photographers and to meet some of the idols that you have in that world. While at the same time, impacting the lives of millions of photographers that see this as a platform where they suddenly become professionals. That's been the biggest driver through and through.

Over the years another thing that has become increasingly important for me personally, is the team that we've built and the fact that I love working with the team and I love the people on that team. That's a big part of the reason why I’m excited to get up every day in the morning and get my coffee and smile. I don't smile before my first coffee [laughs]. Then go to work and do it all over again. I think it’s the combination of the people that we work with and the people that we serve. That was the motivator back then and it's still the motivator today.

“A photo is worth 1,000 words is such a huge cliché but it's actually true in some cases where you look at an image and it doesn't remind you of a single moment it reminds you of a series of moments, of a whole day. You can smell it, you can taste it, you can hear it.”

What is it about photography that you love so much? Is it what we can communicate with it?

Personally, I'm a digital hoarder, I feel like I need to keep hold of every single moment maybe for the fear of losing it, and photography helps that. At the same time, you sometimes have these moments that tell a story. A photo is worth 1,000 words is such a huge cliché but it's actually true in some cases where you look at an image and it doesn't remind you of a single moment it reminds you of a series of moments, of a whole day. You can smell it, you can taste it, you can hear it. To me, that's a big part of why photography speaks to me. It still needs room for the imagination, it's not a video documentary of your life or someone else's life, there's that room to imagine and to create. At the same time, it's protection as well because it's a reminder of where you've been, and who you’ve been with.

The other part of it, which is almost terrifying, is there's this computer program that has been running for the past 10 years or so, I don't know if you've heard of it, by some installation artist, and what he's doing is he has these black and white 640 by 480 pixel monitors that are iterating on black and white pixels. Effectively just randomly generating images. That's the other side of photography that these images, if you leave that program to run long enough, every single photo we've ever taken, every single photo anyone could have ever taken, is going to be on one of those screens at some point.

That's why I'm driven to understand imagery and to understand aesthetics and to figure out what the thread that runs through that is. What is beauty and why do we understand beauty the way we do? Why do we connect with certain images and others not so much? Those are the two sides of it.

That's why I love photography.

Who would you want to see interviewed on Ways We Work?

James Nachtwey is one of the most amazing documentary photographers in the world. He would be a really interesting person to learn more about.