“Let’s put it this way. The idea of being employed is a problem if you want to be creative. Sometimes I sit for a whole day just thinking about my code, then I spend a week writing it. It’s tough to explain that day where you just sat there and thought to employers, but any good programmer knows that’s the most important part of the process.”
Emir Kurtovic talks to me on a Saturday afternoon via Skype from his home in Sarajevo. Professionally, he has worn many hats—his laundry list of titles includes everything from system architect to computer salesman to local newspaper manager—but for the first time in perhaps his entire life, he can say with certainty that he’s happy and content with his current job. Emir, a freelance developer at Toptal, never has to report to an office, can work any hours he wants, and has the flexibility to do his job from anywhere in the world, provided he has a reliable internet connection at all times.
“What most people don’t really realize is that, yes, you can use many freelancey terms to describe Toptal, but it is not exactly a freelance network as most think. The company is so much better organized. There’s no bidding wars for programmers. No bad programmers diluting the market and undercutting prices. The pay structure is fair and reliable. They really take care of us programmers and let us focus on the development work we are best at. I love that.”
“Demir is a good friend of mine. He actually helped me get the job I had before Toptal, here in Bosnia. He offered me some interesting projects and good terms, so I started working for him. But suddenly he dropped his job in management to go do freelancing, which is a very curious move. No one here leaves their job in management to do freelance, that’s crazy. But he was saying very good things about Toptal, and it turned out well for him. So I followed. I’ve never looked back.”
Emir’s path to programming paradise has not always been so simple. In fact, often times he had to work other jobs—sometimes ones having nothing to do with computers—in order to support his passion for software development.
Like many destined for a lifelong love affair with computers, Emir’s first encounter came at a very young age.
“The first time I saw a computer was in primary school. It was an old Pecom 64 machine, manufactured in Yugoslavia. The first program I wrote, like everyone else back then, was in Basic. It was a few lines of code printing your name on screen: Emir. That was it. It was simple, but I was hooked. The path was chosen.”
Emir recalls fondly many memories from his childhood, all of which centered around his newfound passion.
“Back then, I didn’t have any jobs or tasks I was doing computer work for. I was doing it just because I loved it. And I try to keep that mentality, as many programmers do. You won’t find many programmers that go fishing on the weekends. When they’re not working for clients, they’re working on their own projects. It’s just how we work. We’re driven by passion.”
As computers continued to become more and more prevalent during his childhood years, Emir knew his destiny early on, but he says he had something else in mind than the other kids his age.
“People had their Ataris, their Commodore 64’s, their Amiga consoles. I myself had an Atari—I remember Pacman had the best graphics—but I did not care for games so much. I wanted to create something. I remember in my final year of middle school, I had to write a paper, and the topic was totally open. You could write about anything you wanted for the final grade. So I wrote a paper comparing the art of writing code to the art of creating images. A painter has a blank canvas; I have a blank screen.”
This desire to create, to be an innovator, would drive Emir onward even into the present day. In high school, he and a few friends would hide out in the computer lab until the school was closed and stay there overnight, working on programs and expanding their computer knowledge. It wasn’t long before he was writing innovative programs himself.
“The first program I ever wrote was in Borland’s Pascal. It was a program for calculating professor’s wages at my school—they let me treat it like a school science project, I guess because I was the only one who was crazy enough to try to write such a program! Its purpose was to squeeze every last nickel out of the budget. Schools had a certain amount for wages each month, and they needed to split it up based on the processor’s parameters—number of classes, years spent in school, et cetera. It was actually a very nice job, because whenever I wanted to skip a class, all I had to do was say, ‘I need to go to calculate the school’s wages on that program,’ and I could skip all the boring classes and do what I loved, which was learning to program.”
After high school, Emir moved onto Mathematical Faculty—an institution similar to an American technical college—but he found his creative mind was too distracted with bigger and better plans, his schoolwork taking a backseat.
“Too many hours in the computer room meant I never really got close to a diploma. I was too busy with my projects. Those things was more fun, more important to me than anything I could have learned in a class.”
Emir seemed poised to forge ahead in his career in development with passion and drive, but a national crisis in his homeland—still Yugoslavia at the time—put a halt on his programming dreams.
“The Yugoslav war started. During those years I almost dropped coding completely. You needed to do something more concrete to earn a living in those years. Devaluation was so rampant that one morning your wages could afford a car, but by that evening you could not even afford an egg. Crazy times.”
While the war was a devastating time for the Balkans, Emir retained a sense of hope throughout, never giving up on his dreams and passions.
“The war eventually ended, and the country started from scratch. You could do anything during those times, as long as you had the drive. At the turn of the new century, I inherited an accounting software program from a friend of mine who left the country during the war. It should have been a temporary job—there’s certainly more advanced technology out there now—but amazingly it still lasts, perhaps because it was very simple and I’ve worked on it very steadily for over ten years, making sure it improved. Over 500 companies in my hometown still send their annual reports with it.”
Things were looking up for Emir. He had started industrial school in order to finish his degree, and his feet were back under him after the war. Now the future was his to carve out the path he wanted.
“I realized I should start my own company, because schooling really meant nothing in Yugoslavia, and still does not. I started selling computers, as that was the only profitable job related to computers back then. My friend had connections to computer parts importers, so we created an online consumer site. It was the first e-store in the region running exclusively on the internet, and now it’s one of the biggest in Serbia. I created a system that automatically parsed suppliers’ catalogues, created articles in our shop, and adjusted prices and discounts.”
This business venture was the first taste of computing success in Emir’s career. His online store was running itself while he relaxed on the beaches of the Danube. A nice existence by any standard, but he was quickly itching for a new challenge.
“I decided to create my own startup. It was centered around this program automatically filled blogs with relevant advertising, meant for selling fashion items. It was an interesting venture, but the money eventually ran out.”
At this point in his career, Emir was at a crossroads. He had many options for future ventures at his fingertips, yet he was unsure which would bring him the most satisfaction.
“I had done so many different jobs, and there was so much going on in the country that I starting to get lost in it all. I had to make a positive decision. So I dropped everything five years ago and chose to be behind the computer screen full-time. Developer’s work has always brought me the most joy, and it was an easy escape from a pretty crazy reality—another war, further social unrest, personal problems, et cetera. Code was my solution.”
The tech industry in his region was finally picking up steam again, having been dealt a huge blow by the economic disaster brought on by the war, so Emir moved to Bosnia, determined to find a top computer engineering job in system architecture.
“From that point on, I started working for the best software development companies in Bosnia. In the position of software architect, I got to work on some pretty big systems, exploring whole new ways of sharing responsibility and relying on your team members. What I learned while in working with others was that programming is like handwriting. If you look really deep into the code, you can usually figure out who wrote that code. It’s very neat, how you can leave your own imprint on that, just like a painting or a letter.”
While Emir found many aspects of his new work very rewarding, he often found himself frustrated with the corporate structure he was subject to.
“The corporate world is setting you up for burnout. In my previous job, and this is true for most corporations in my area, you could not advance upward in the corporate structure. You would be working at the same desk doing the same job in ten years. That environment does not encourage good work. I ultimately got really sick of it.”
Luckily for Emir, it was not long before he followed in the footsteps of his friend Demir and joined Toptal, successfully passing their extremely difficult screening process.
“It’s been amazing, no doubt. At my old job I was constantly missing my wife and my father terribly because I was so busy working, even though I was working at home. Thanks to Toptal, I can work whenever I want, get the work done, and then take my wife and we can go to the sea. Your life is in your control, you don’t have to be a silent observer and watch your life be run by a company.”
It hasn’t necessarily been an easy road, but through his patience and continued drive to make himself a better programmer, Emir has reached a place of contentment in his life, and he appreciates every step of the way that led him to where he is now. He’s even getting to share his passion for code by speaking at tech conferences in his region and around Europe.
Before we ended our Skype conversation, I asked Emir if he had one piece of advice for people entering the tech world for the first time.
“Hmm, that’s a tough one. Can I just say, ‘Join Toptal’?”