Leader Talks: Commerzbank’s Tomáš Bajar on building a knowledge community for tech professionals

Commerzbank’s diverse presentations for employees keep its IT developers at the forefront of innovation.

William Nattrass

Written by William Nattrass Published on 12.02.2024 17:00:00 (updated on 12.02.2024) Reading time: 9 minutes

In the world of IT, changes are coming so thick and fast that continuous learning is necessary to keep up. With each innovation comes new requirements for tech professionals and specific implications for the businesses they work for.

At Commerzbank’s Prague Digital Technology Center (DTC), the need to remain at the tip of the spear of global developments is particularly pressing. As a hub for Commerzbank’s IT activities, applying new technologies is paramount to maintaining its security and efficiency.

Recognizing that learning also brings personal benefits to tech developers, Tomáš Bajar, Chapter Lead for Customer Relationship Management at Commerzbank, instigated a wide-ranging program of English-language presentations for the company’s employees. Titled #KnowMe, the program has become a major international success story for Commerzbank.

Expats.cz sat down with Tomáš to discuss the #KnowMe program and the need for professionals in the tech sector to broaden their horizons continually.

Could you explain the #KnowMe concept at Commerzbank?

#KnowMe is an abbreviation for “Knowledge Meetings.” It’s something that I re-established in Commerzbank, and to explain the story, I need to talk a little about the past when I came to Commerzbank as a fresh student out of university.

When I arrived, Commerzbank Prague had around 150 employees. I was a developer doing .NET language for Microsoft, and at the time we had these “Knowledge Meetings.” Once every two weeks, a senior developer would give a presentation about current cool programmer topics. As a junior developer, I found seeing people much better than me giving presentations about programming and nerdy stuff inspiring!

After some time, perhaps a year, there was less and less of this because the coordinator left the company. The initiative then died out, as no one else had the drive to do it. I thought that was a real pity, and one day, I decided to re-establish it on my own. 

I was a medium-level developer by that point and had some experience. I started by simply going around to my colleagues and asking them if they would like to give a presentation. It was all word of mouth; I approached colleagues personally or sent them an email occasionally.

Before Covid, we held in-person meetings in Prague's biggest presentation room. We had to stop during the pandemic, and then I re-established the meetings in a hybrid format; it can be on Teams only, or speakers can present physically in the room, with teleconferencing software broadcasting the meeting live on Teams simultaneously.

Are most of the speakers at the #KnowMe meetings from within Commerzbank’s Prague DTC?

Previously, this was a Prague-only initiative. The Prague DTC has grown from 150 employees when I joined to around 600 people today. There are more developers and all sorts of other people working here. Anything connected to IT that you can think of, we have.

I became famous for running this program in Prague for so many years. Every month, I sent emails asking people to give presentations, and I also sent invitations to the meetings to everyone in Prague, so that’s hundreds of people.

It grew because we have “communities” inside Commerzbank for all sorts of things. These communities are spaces for like-minded people to get together. Being a programmer, I connected with programmers’ communities, and they told me to hook up with people not just at the Prague DTC, but also at the Frankfurt Commerzbank headquarters, and in the other Commerzbank DTCs in Poland and Bulgaria. 

Through this, I made friends elsewhere, expanding my network, and as anyone can give a presentation, it’s no longer just for people in Prague. Our meetings are now also attended by German, Polish, and Bulgarian colleagues. 

I’ve also met connections at IBM, Red Hat, Deloitte, and Microsoft through these communities. When these companies have a presentation they want to share, they send it to me, and then I share it with 1000 people at our centers through the Knowledge Meetings. It’s a chance for them to present their company and for us to show our people with an event that empowers and inspires them with cool tech.

What made you decide to re-establish the #KnowMe program

I came to Commerzbank as a junior developer, then I progressed to become a better developer, and then I became the Lead Developer on a project. More people joined the team around me, and after a few years, I had the most knowledge. 

I was then lucky enough to be sent for a soft skills training. It was quite random; a colleague who organized such things came and told me she had a free spot in the training session. I had never been to such a thing, so I went, and this particular soft skills training session opened my eyes.

It was simply about how to deal with people. It’s about personal competence, interpersonal skills, empathy, and understanding people. I said: “This is great stuff, why haven’t I learned this before?”. I decided to do more of these training sessions, which paved the way for me to become a manager.

When I tell people that soft skills are about learning to be better at handling others, they sometimes imagine that it means learning how to manipulate people, lie, or be a politician! 

It’s not about that at all. Almost every soft skills training is about learning to manage yourself. That’s the biggest added benefit I have experienced; from my very first soft skills training, I understood that it was something I could use in my job and everyday life. 

I realized I could become a super-programmer, but it wouldn’t help me personally. That’s a very one-sided ambition. It was a bigger challenge for me to become a manager because I was an introverted, shy person in the past.

This all tied in with re-establishing the Knowledge Meetings. It made me capable of approaching people and motivating them to speak. If you’re an invisible, introverted person, you won’t have what it takes to do that.

Would you recommend such soft skills training for all tech professionals?

I definitely would, although it’s not for everyone. Not everyone needs it to succeed, and you have to figure out what you want to get out of it. I’d recommend that even non-tech people invest time in developing their soft interpersonal skills because they will also help in your everyday life, not just your job.

[Soft skills training] ties into everything. When you go to your boss and ask for a higher salary, you need to be able to read people and know how to present arguments. It boosts your self-confidence. It can tell you how to avoid specific difficult questions or how to answer them better. It tells you how to manage yourself because talking to people is about managing yourself, not controlling others by some hidden means.

Regarding the #KnowMe talks, standing up in front of people is an extra challenge to these abilities, and people only take this challenge on if they want to. Suppose they want to do it simply from their computer, as an online meeting.

Based on the #KnowMe talks, what would you say are the hottest topics among developers these days?

AI is the most trendy word for 2023 and last year too. Everybody wants to hear about such topics; if “AI” is mentioned, you automatically have double the number of people attending.

The other topic that catches people’s attention is CI/CD, or Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment. There’s another buzzword in this area called DevOps. In the past, developers created software, which was put on servers and taken care of by operations teams. Operations guys weren’t programmers and vice versa; the programmers didn’t want to deal with taking care of the application.

Now, these worlds are coming together as programmers become responsible for operations thanks to the Cloud. In the Cloud, there are innovations for making processes faster so that you don’t need separate people for every process step. 

DevOps enables developers to do everything by writing code, reducing the need for operations specialists and combining their skills with those of developers. Every company is pursuing this to save costs.

Does the #KnowMe initiative build a stronger sense of community within Commerzbank’s DTC?

That’s what I have felt since the beginning. It brings people together. You might not know the people in the presentation room, but you see they’re into the same topics.

When we meet via Teams, some people regularly ask questions, but I don’t know their faces because they don’t have their cameras switched on. Then I walk around the office, and they say something like: “Hi Tomáš, that was a great #KnowMe,” and I have to ask who they are! They say their name, and I immediately recognize it. 

It also helps because when you see people asking technical questions, you notice they are interested in that topic. If the topic comes up in a work context, you can find that person and discuss it with them.

Is the #KnowMe initiative part of a wider focus on education at Commerzbank?

We have various benefits; every employee at the DTC in Prague has access to a paid license for O’Reilly, one of the biggest issuers of technical books and courses, whether in soft skills, IT, or anything else. We also have two other platforms where employees can educate themselves: Clixx, a learning portal for which we have a paid subscription, and a language learning platform called Speex.

Are tech people naturally inclined towards such continuous learning?

This is a general stereotype expected of developers, but they have to be; there’s no way around it. The industry evolves so fast that if you don’t pay attention to what the world is doing, the train will leave the station and you’ll be left behind, as we say in Czech. 

It also depends on the topic. If it isn’t so interesting, we’ll have around 50 participants. But when we did a Knowledge Meeting with IBM, who presented their automated call center that uses AI, around 300 people were watching. If it’s cool, people will come.

Would you say participants get the benefits of the program equally if they attend through an online meeting rather than face-to-face?

For me personally, it’s better face-to-face. After all these years, I’m no longer just a programmer and an introverted tech guy, but a manager who has to deal with people, and I believe there’s real added value in the personal presentation format.

This has been part of it since the beginning. It forces, for example, our more stereotypical IT guys to present physically, in front of an audience. It’s a challenge for them and a form of training at the same time, improving their presentation skills in a very friendly environment.

Is there any banking or finance element to the talks, or are they entirely tech-related?

Sometimes there is an overlap in the financial and business world. Even when third-party vendors present something, they try to make it attuned to what we do as a bank so that it’s interesting for us. A Knowledge Meeting given earlier today on a Java-related topic was presented using a case study relating to options, stocks, markets, and so on, so there was an overlap in the finance business. Other presentations can be purely technical.

In the past, #KnowMe talks were specifically IT- and tech-related. Now I don’t limit them in any way. I encourage people to present any exciting topic they would like to discuss to the audience. It could be about their favorite video game; if you can present it, do it.

Do employees gain knowledge that they use in their day-to-day work, or is it more abstract and theoretical?

It depends. For example, our presentation on Java today was very technical, with examples of code. As such, developers in the audience would have gained real, tangible examples that they can use in their projects. For the others who are non-IT, it was more abstract. Sometimes, we have topics from third parties who explain their business, present their product, and show how it can solve a problem. 

As a result, you get an abstract understanding of how problems are solved and real potential solutions for our tech people.

This article was written in cooperation with Commerzbank. Read more about our sponsored content policy here.

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