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Sitting down with tech and product: an interview with our CTO and VP Product

The work of Tech and Product is crucial to our members’ ability to find their venue, book their activity, and check-in. Led by Greg Ryzhov, CTO, and Alex Allan, VP Product, the Tech and Product teams consist of 60+ Product Managers and developers working to provide our members with the best possible experience. Check out this interview with Greg and Alex to learn a bit more about their roles, the culture within their teams, and the exciting projects coming in 2020.

What has been your journey in tech/product so far? 

Alex: I joined my first startup in 2002 at 18 before studying Computer Science at university. Although I started as a software developer, I realized I wanted to do something more client-related and moved into technical consulting. 

Fast forward to 2012, I had been living in Berlin for a few years and came across a job ad for a product manager position at an ad-tech start-up, one of the first companies of its kind here. A few months into the role, I knew Product was the right pathway for me.

I then worked at Awin AG, a much bigger and more established affiliate marketing company for 4 years before moving on to become a Product Lead on a dating app. After a wild year and a lot of learnings, we unfortunately didn’t receive our next round of funding, so I was on the lookout for a new role. 

As a keen boulderer, I was already an active member of Urban Sports Club. I enjoyed getting to do the sport I loved while having the extra freedom to try out new sports and the opportunity to visit a wider range of fitness studios. I hit it off with both the founders and the rest of the USC team at the interview. The collaborative, positive company culture shone through and the prospect of leading the product team really excited me.

So, in a nutshell, my journey has gone from people to products, people to people, to now people to sports.

Greg: I made my first website in 1999 and after a brief stint in graphic design and animations, started actively developing in 2004. At that time, I was working as a full-stack developer. I tackled development on both the front and back-end, and managed design, project and product management. In 2012, my technical journey really took off when I joined Westwing, a Rocket Internet venture in Russia. Along with my team, I built the whole order management system from scratch, which they’re still using years later.

After nearly 2 years there, I moved to Vietnam to join Lazada, the biggest e-commerce platform in Southeast Asia, as their VP of Engineering. A year and a half later I moved to Berlin to join Somuchmore as CTO. Somuchmore was Urban Sports Club’s biggest competitor in Berlin until it was acquired in December 2016. After the acquisition, I became CTO at USC. In this role, I’ve built up USC’s tech, Product, and BI teams and established a new platform. Now we’re growing our team and taking our platform to a whole new level. 

What does being a CTO or VP of Product entail at Urban Sports Club? 

Greg: Mostly I’m involved in strategic topics on the management level and managing the tech teams overall. I make sure the teams have everything they need to operate. This means identifying and removing obstacles so they can do what they do best and making sure people are happy. I’m also responsible for scaling the team and processes effectively, so we can grow the company further. 

Alex: The primary role of a Product Manager is to make sure everyone can use their time and resources in the best possible way to provide a great experience for members, partners, and our corporate customers. As VP Product, I do the same thing for the entire Product function. Very similar to Greg, I provide a lot of strategic support in different areas of the company, I make sure we manage to grow a team of great talent who have good ideas and an ability to work with stakeholders across the company, and I ensure they have everything they need. 

Tell me about your teams. 

Greg: Tech itself is about 56 people and the foundation of our team is mutual respect. Developers here operate pragmatically rather than dogmatically. They respect each others’ opinions and are focused on finding compromises that bring us closer to the end goal. People are open to new ideas and suggestions and set aside any differences to find their way through a problem and reach the end point. 

They’re also proactive; they don’t wait for people to ask for help, but instead offer help when they see someone struggle. 

Alex: Since joining in December 2018, the Product team has grown from about 2 Product Managers to 10, and we are actively hiring more. In the Product team, there’s a real enthusiasm about the future. Things aren’t always perfect working here, but everyone is really excited about making them better. When we sit in the product weekly meeting, you can see the enthusiasm about what we can do next and this goes across the board. 

We like to celebrate success altogether when we have big launches or deployments and try to do something different each time. For example, we recently changed our checkout process and had a cake designed to mirror these changes. Upon launching in Copenhagen,  we bought viking hats for every member of the team. 

How do tech and product work together at USC? 

Greg: Tech and product have a consistent dialogue at Urban Sports Club and are collaborating constantly to bring ideas and plans to fruition. In terms of work flow, our teams are far along in the transition from the more classical approach to product development to an agile methodology. We’re breaking down silos and helping people understand they’re all responsible for the final product. The people we have in our team are passionate about their work and happy to change with us.  

What does this actually look like in practice? 

Alex:  If you look at the 4th floor where we sit, we have a range of all types of people from product designers to very technical people like devops engineers, BI analysts, and data scientists all combining their talents to solve problems. They all sit together and collaborate throughout the day. Their aim is to solve problems collectively and to use their different skills to do so. It’s a mindset we want to bring to the whole company: how can we bring different stakeholders, people actually on the phone with customers or trying to sell to our corporate clients, onboard and include them in the development process.

What are the exciting projects tech and product are working on now at USC? 

Greg: We scaled our team quite a lot this year, from 12 people at the start of 2019 to our current size of 56. Scaling up allowed us to start working on bigger, more exciting projects. Perhaps most exciting is our new app which we’ll release by the end of the year and was written using React Native. On top of that, having a lot of experienced developers in the tech team has allowed us to reduce the share of legacy functionality and code we had from previous years and move towards an architecture everyone is proud of and comfortable working with. It brought our code quality up, our test coverage up, and ensures we can sustain the business for the next 5-10 years.  

Alex: Our members want to do sports and with over 50+ activities they can do at 7000+ partner venues, being able to find what they’re looking for and reserve on the spot is of the utmost importance; we’ve made big strides there. We worked with our designers, we brought members into the office, we interviewed them and gave them different functionalities to try out and determine which works best. Testing with real members has ensured our new app has a much better user interface because it showed us how our members actually go through and find the studios and activities they want. 

Urban Sports Club is expanding to more and more countries and we need to be able to help our members find the right sports for them no matter where they are or where they’re looking. Once they find a course they’re interested in, we’re also working to  make sure they can book instantly. This particular feature is interesting for the members and for our tech team. It’s technically very interesting because it goes right into the computer on the desk inside the studio and gives a full picture of the booking process from the member and partner sides. Working across these systems is technically very interesting and will go far in improving our members’ experiences. 

That’s exciting! What comes next? 

Greg: This release enables us to start pushing a lot more exciting features and changes out that we weren’t able to work on previously. Over the last year, all of our energy and focus was on building this new app, so we have a huge backlog of compelling ideas that members are eager to see. We’re also refactoring, which will allow us to automate, increase the flexibility of our development environments, and spend considerably more time creating features. 

How will the teams develop in the next year?

Alex: In the next year we will continue to focus on promoting learning in our teams and ensuring everyone can work effectively. We’re looking at making sure we have the right processes in place, that we are agile in our delivery, and that every member of our team gets the support they need. We want to increase the time they spend working together productively and eliminate any time spent working against a dysfunctional process or blockers. 

In terms of recruiting, we’re focused on bringing in more specialists with great subject-matter expertise. The reason for this is that we want to make sure people who join us can start out as junior or mid-level and continue growing throughout their career knowing there’s a place for them at Urban Sports Club. 

Want to help us inspire people to lead a healthy and active life? Check out our open positions.

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