Cogent Crew: Meet Sam Chalela

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Sharing an insider look at our people and how we help ideas like yours turn into thriving digital businesses.

A behind-the-scenes look at the people who make us great.

Welcome to the Cogent Crew series, where every month we’re inviting you to get to know a little more about the people at Cogent.

This month Mary spoke to Sam about his move from Colombia, his views on the role of tech in social change and his love of Peruvian food. 

Name: Sam Chalela
Job: Technical Principal Consultant
Time at Cogent: Five months

Hi Sam, thanks so much for joining me. How long have you been at Cogent?

I joined Cogent in November last year, so it’s been about five months.

How have you found us so far?

It’s been fun! It’s quite hard for me to remember when I first started because it feels like I’ve been here for ages! I feel like I really fit into this environment and I’ve been very welcomed by the team. All the interactions that I’ve had so far have been great. 

That’s good to hear! I feel like you’ve been here a long time, too! It’s a good sign for sure. Can you tell us how you came to work at Cogent, a little bit about what you do and also how you got into it?

I’ve been in the industry for almost 17 years, doing mostly software development work. I have an electronics background and studied electronics engineering at Uni. As soon as I graduated I started my own hardware/software integration platform. It was my own business, and I had to build everything from scratch. I enjoyed the software bit so much that I made that my career focus and have been in the industry ever since.

In the early days, my career was very entrepreneurial. I was trying to grow my business and had to quickly get to grips with the commercial side of things. I wasn’t just a developer, I was also selling the product and finding customers. Looking back, I was very naive! I started learning the important things about product development, which I see as building software with a purpose and solving real problems. I found that technology was crucial to solving problems and giving customers what they needed. I really enjoyed that process, and that’s when I found my passion for bringing product thinking into software development.

I moved to Australia nine years ago and worked for small companies for a while. After a while, I started consulting and liked being involved with a range of diverse contexts and diverse problems. I realised that the biggest problems in our industry are not technology problems (technology is easy), but people problems. So I started polishing my soft skills and understanding more about ways of working and leadership. When I found an email from Jimmy (in my junk mail) talking about opportunities at Cogent, I felt that the mix of people, product and technology was the perfect fit and so here I am!

Sam’s first software engineering business.

That’s really cool. You talk a lot about people and interpersonal skills. How are you finding remote work, especially given you started your role here company remotely? 

It’s been far easier than I thought! I was expecting it to be difficult, but because everyone is on the same boat and we are all working remotely, we’re finding new ways of communicating remotely. So it’s easier to work remotely now than pre-pandemic – even if that has meant I’ve met all my colleagues through a screen. 

The team catches up frequently, and everyone is very open and conversations are super fun. So it was easy for me to start making friends and getting to know people remotely. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone in person at some point.

That’s good to hear. I think we were all a bit worried about it in the beginning, and look at us now, a year on!

It’s crazy! We’re all developing new skills. Connecting with people remotely is a different experience of course, but we are also finding new scenarios where we can have conversations and discussions. Sometimes, I’ll go out for a walk and use that time to catch up with someone from my team. We’re not confined to the office space for connection anymore and I think that’s nice.

Can you tell us some of your favourite parts of your job at the moment at Cogent?

There are multiple things that I enjoy. At the moment, what I’m enjoying the most is actually getting to know everyone. I’ve met about 65% of the team so there are still some people that I don’t know, and I’m making a conscious effort to reach out to those people. I want to meet everyone and understand what they do and their skills. I’m realising that diversity in backgrounds, culture, and skills is a big part of what makes Cogent special. 

As I get across our client base, I’m observing ways in which we listen to our client’s problems, how do we listen to what they need and how we come back together as a group to find solutions for them. I’ve seen the way Cogent people approach these conversations and it’s clear that we really care about our client’s problems. We live up to our values in every interaction, being completely transparent and genuinely wanting to help them.

That is something I’m really enjoying at the moment – having exposure to different problems, different clients, and different solutions. My first official project with Cogent was with one of our long-term customers, Fresho, helping them create a new product feature.  I enjoyed working with a super smart team on that engagement. 

Cool. That sounds exciting. So, if you didn’t choose this career, what would you be doing instead?

Funny you ask – when I was finishing school I wanted to go to law school and become a lawyer. I grew up in a small town in the North of Colombia, a country that has had a lot of social and political challenges for decades. It was actually quite a violent place to be, there was a lot of trouble there. During my last year of school, I was the student representative, and that cemented my goal was to pursue a career in politics. 

There was a lack of good government policies in my hometown, we had problems with the left-wing guerrillas and paramilitary groups in Colombia. That was the backdrop when I left school, so it was really important for me to understand where the conflict came from. I became interested in politics and thinking about how to best help Colombia move ahead. 

That’s what I wanted to do, and probably that’s what I would be doing if it wasn’t an engineer. Except, my dad didn’t like that I was going into politics and he pushed me into tech. When I was 12, he gave me a computer – it wasn’t a very ‘cool’ computer but it came with a game called Qbasic Gorillas which was two gorillas throwing bananas at each other. The game came with the source code, and I actually started working in the source code and then understanding how that worked. I learned the basics of coding at that time. My dad said, “electronics and technology are the future” and he was right!

Well, I guess he’s right about that.

Yeah, he was. It’s interesting because I think as technologists, we can do a lot more for social justice than as politicians. The quote “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us” by John M. Culkin (possibly inspired by Winston Churchill) explains how I feel about it.

With technology at the center of most of our daily interactions and “the cloud” democratising access to information – technically enabling anyone with access to solve problems or create value for a global market – there are enormous opportunities for technologists to drive positive social change.

I think so far we have done a poor job at utilising this new superpower for positive change. Clearly the speed of technological development is dramatically faster than our reaction to understanding and, potentially regulating it. As a result, this has caused the worrying growth of technologies that expose and exploit users’ privacy or deceptively influence their behavior. We as technologists have an opportunity to be more proactive by including an ethical lens and a “human first” approach in the way we shape what we build and understanding the greater impact it has on our society.

What made you decide to move to Australia?

Even though I love my country and it’s a beautiful place, I was finding it very hard to see a future for my family there. One day, I was reflecting on how often you see violence in the news in Colombia and how much a part of the landscape that became. Everyone was so used to it but I wanted to try something different for my kids.

As a Latin American, the first option for migration is usually the United States because it’s so close. But the migration program in Australia was better suited to my family’s situation as I have the skills the government was looking for. I’d never been to Australia when I applied for permanent residency! Australia sounded like a safe place with a great outdoor lifestyle. So I applied, got ready for the beach and headed to Melbourne. Since arriving I can confirm that my instincts were correct – we now live in a wonderful country with plenty of opportunities for me and my family.

Sam and his family in Colombia

What do you like to do at the weekend?

I have three kids and our activities depend a lot on the weather. We live near the Southeastern beaches, so when it’s a nice summer day in Melbourne we spend the day at the beach. If the weather isn’t that great then we do things indoors – trying to get them tired, so they can go to bed and we can chill and watch a movie. It doesn’t always work! We also love camping so whenever we can we’ll head down to the Great Ocean Road or the Grampians for a couple of days.

Sam and his daughter

Nice. I know how much you like Australia, but if you have to pick a favourite city or a favourite place that you’ve ever been to, where would that be?

There’s a place in the North of Colombia called Santa Marta which is where my parents live. It’s right next to the Caribbean Ocean so the weather is tropical. There is a natural reserve there, a natural park called Tayrona. It has these beautiful beaches with just perfect weather all year long. When you are there, you just feel calm. In the fast pace of Colombia, you can feel peace in Santa Marta. It’s peaceful. It’s natural. It’s beautiful. You can connect to nature. When you’re there, it’s like nothing else matters. That’s probably one of my favourite places in the world. 

Santa Marta, Colombia

Can you tell me about the scariest thing you’ve ever done or that has happened to you?

I consider myself a risk-taker when it comes to my professional life, but it’s funny that I don’t do anything risky outside of that. However, I do like flying. When I was in my teens, I came across the famous Microsoft Flight Simulator, and I was a big fan of it so I spent a lot of time learning to fly on my computer. 

One day my wife and I were driving past Moorabbin Airport, and I told her I’d love to learn to fly. A little while later, she gave me a 2-hour flying lesson as a gift. For the lesson, we got into a tiny yellow plane that felt like it was going to fall apart at any time, and flew around Melbourne for one hour or so. It was great, but also so scary. It was a million miles from the Microsoft flight Simulator!

If you had a private chef for the day, what would you get them to cook for you?

I would probably get some Peruvian chefs, so I’d just get them to cook anything Peruvian. I love the ceviche and aji de gallina, which is kind of a chicken stew. Yeah, I love Peruvian food, so that’s what I’d probably be eating all day.

Okay. I’ve only got one last question for you. This is the deep one. Can you tell us the best advice anyone’s given you or you’ve read somewhere?

One of the things that changed my career happened back when I was working for a startup and I was very happy with my role and felt really motivated. But the startup failed – we ran out of money because we didn’t manage to articulate the value proposition. I was completely devastated because I really thought we had created a great product and I struggled to understand why it didn’t work.

I was talking about it with one of my lecturers at uni here in Melbourne, and he told me that the problem was that we’d built a product, not a solution. That simple quote completely changed the way I approach my work. It helped me to understand that there is no point working with the coolest technologies or building beautiful architecture if you’re not solving a problem – or the right problem. That mentally shapes the way I think about my work today.

That’s really insightful. Simple but effective.

Absolutely. We fell in love with our idea and we built a very nice, scalable, serverless, product but it was completely useless because it was not a solution to anyone’s problem. Once you put the user’s needs first and see technology as a tool, as a means to an end, that changes the way you approach technology and how you see your career.

Awesome. Well, thank you, Sam. I think that’s a great way to end the interview. 

Like the idea of joining the Cogent team? Head over to the Cogent Careers page and say hello!

 

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