The Story of How a Building in Berlin Changed My Life

Last week I had my last day as Director of Engineering at Fyber which also marked the end of a long adventure of 5 years at the number 20 of Johannisstraße in Berlin. As ridiculous as it might sound, this is an article about a building, not any building, the one where I decided which kind of professional I want to be for the rest of my career.

It was back in 2012 when I first heard of its existence after the e-commerce copy cat giant Rocket Internet moved in. I was based in my hometown Porto but every time I visited Berlin this massive piece of concrete left quite an impression and unconsciously my mind was set to find an opportunity to work there every day.

Before being the hive of dozens of startups from the booming tech scene in Berlin, the building used to be the Hotel Johannishof, the guesthouse of the GDR ministerial council, stage of many important (and I’m sure other less important) decisions from the leadership of the former East Germany.

When in 2015 I took over the technical leadership of a small and modest classifieds startup this building became literally my home. With a four minute bike ride as my daily commuting the days used to prolong till the point where it was almost more productive to spend the night in the office couch.

I still remember how proud I felt when I left the building for the first time and walked down the street with the access card in my back pocket. Somehow those overwhelming and intimidating walls surrounding the inner patio trees caused me a mix of confinement and inner peace that I was decided to see through.

We had all 5 floors packed with tables, chairs, laptops, whiteboards and the hallways full of ambitious young and naive people ready do conquer the world (or at least so we thought). The deal was simple: you start with a chair and a table in a basement office and keep climbing the ladder until you need to take the bigger office areas in the upper floors as your startup grows in size.

The outstanding view of the 5th floor on the left and part of the engineering team on our last day of work at the deceased startup on the right

By the time Rocket Internet moved out to its own office tower in the second half of 2016 the startup I was with unfortunately didn’t survive and was merged with another company of the group.

While having a coffee in front of the building I was facing the decision of not only leave Johannisstraße but Berlin all together to the Paris office. Next to me smoking a cigarette was Fyber’s former VP of Engineering. Twenty minutes talk and four interviews later I was signing a contract and moving to the third floor to join my new team.

In the meantime almost two years passed by where I grew more than ever before. Being in the leadership front row of a public company, particularly in the Advertising world, changes the game completely. The impact of each decision, strategy meeting, hallway talk or social network post was dozens of times bigger and I had to adapt every bit of my strategic thinking and leadership style very fast.

Some of my team members building their own Kanban board and our Techonology Lounge on the right

Most of the key lessons of my short career were absorbed within those walls, like in that meeting when I had to conquer back an entire team in the verge of resigning, that other one when a colleague breaks down in tears in front of me drowning into a burnout, the day where we hit our company targets and got the funding to fight another day, those countless nights where we fought together to save hundreds of thousands of lost sales, that morning when I helped to pack and sell the remainings of a deceased startup, the countless strategic decisions to drive the fate of a €100M+ business and the hardest lessons of them all during the moments when I had to dismiss someone from his/her job.

Construction workers doing their daily stand up and the plans for the new apartment complex

I still didn’t figured out if this building was the best university I could wish for or a dark hole where someone locked me up and threw away the key that drained all my energy dry. It’s now time to be on the road again, long enough to find a new “home” and “clear out the old to make way for the new”. From what it looks like the future will be a complex of apartment buildings designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, projected to be ready by 2020.

Godspeed Johannisstraße 20, it was a fun ride.

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