After a few months of experience I have to say that developing a business in Poland is akin to trying to run in a swamp. You can start fast, but no matter how hard you try the mud will slow you down. The mud in this particular swamp is composed of two main ingredients – people and bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy is something business owners and managers wrestle with in most countries – although Polish version is really a nuisance with chaotic and ever changing law, hostile tax offices and almost religious affection for paper documents, rubber stamps and copies of everything. In fact our records of all kinds grow at such a rate that we already have to extend the office partially just to have a place to keep the growing repository of printed (and rubber-stamped) paper. Even so it’s something to be expected and hardly surprising – but what is the problem with the people you might ask?

Well, first of all they are very hard to get. Despite the country’s double-figure unemployment understaffing is one of our main worries. I could hire immediately six people on various levels and through the country if only I had suitable candidates. And it’s not that we don’t get CVs when we post ads on the Internet and in the leading newspaper for jobseekers – Monday’s edition of Gazeta Wyborcza, the nation’s largest daily newspaper. We normally get a handful or even a few dozens (although when we advertised for a developer we received two (2!) CVs – the first a week after the ad was published!), but most candidates don’t get past the first screening done by recruiters or my assistant and the rest fail on the interviews.

The first main problem is the overall socialist attitude towards work and employment. The other is the knowledge of foreign languages – or rather lack of it. Despite English being taught in public schools for at least ten years now decent knowledge of the language is rare, even among the candidates for the relatively high level jobs.

Let me explain on an example: one of the positions I’m looking to fill right now is what I call an Infrastructure Manager – a young individual with a few years of experience in building telco or computer networks to take charge of the buildup of our own network infrastructure and modernization of the acquired networks. Fluent knowledge of English is a must on that post because of the contacts with the holding’s management, which is international. Around 80% of the candidates who responded didn’t even claim to be fluent in English on their CVs so – understandably – they haven’t even heard from us. Yet, even those who did claim that they know English well frequently exaggerating. After some surprises I took to starting interviews in English or calling the candidates and starting the conversation in English right away. In most cases the results are not very encouraging.

But languages are nothing compared to the essential matter of skills and attitudes toward work. The latter is crucial. I always argue that an open, willing mind is worth much more than any purely technical knowledge backed by tons of certificates and diplomas. Startups require more than an open mind – to contribute, a special kind of personality is needed – someone well equipped with ingenuity and willing to learn, evolve and develop with the company yet at the same time confident and open to experimenting and taking risks. In most cases people, I look for will be given a field of responsibility to take care of with as little supervision as possible. Being given the authority over the technical side of the company in Poland I need people to whom I could delegate tasks or areas leaving the execution to them. As I use to say, I’m looking for “fire-and-forget” persons, people that will need only a general direction, advice and lots of freedom on their way to achieve their targets.

This freedom can be a blessing or a curse. People I look for will be excited by the freedom and the chance to create something from scratch leaving their own mark on the forming organism of the company. They will also sense the opportunity in joining a young organization and growing with it reaching higher levels of both professional development and, yes, position and income. People I get are in most cases scared by the lack of structure and well defined duties – afraid to make their own decisions, they escalate even trivial matters.

But startups require not only a certain type of personality; they also require a lot of good old fashioned elbow grease. Nine to six won’t do. Counting hours and asking for a dime for every five minutes beyond the standard eight won’t do. And that’s where the other important problem with the candidates in Poland comes – most of them don’t want to work too hard and they say it openly. Quite frequently when asked why they want to change jobs (most work somewhere already) they say with disarming honesty that their current position requires long hours or being constantly on the phone or too much travel and they look for a place that would be “calmer”, as they put it.

The other thing that ignites warning lights in my head is questions about retirement benefits and social security. Maybe it’s just me, but if a 24-year-old asks me about retirement, holidays etc., then I think there must be something wrong with him. People at that stage in life should think in terms of challenges and achieving not look for stability and linear careers worrying about their retirement. On top of that most believe all the media lies about social security tax on payrolls (which is hefty) being their installment towards their future (state guaranteed) pension and they prefer the employment contract over other forms of arranging relationship with the company even though they get less money because of all the taxes.

Of course, that’s their problem as far as I’m concerned, but if during a one hour interview the candidate, when asked “do you have any questions for us”, doesn’t want to know more about his future position, duties or responsibilities but is willing to spend 20 minutes questioning us about overtime, holidays and medical benefits, then he’s crossed off my list. To me, it shows that he is not looking for a challenge, a place to within which to excel, create and contribute. He is merely looking for a paycheck and, for that matter, should go to the post office, a big corporation or some other place where one can thrive for years whilst doing nothing.

Here is another example: we are looking for a Systems Administrator. We have a few Linux based servers and we expect to have more of them as we plan to deploy some servers into the networks we run to keep some functionality dispersed and closer to users. We of course have a development server, a test system and, regrettably, one machine under Windows 2003. All those need a dedicated individual who will not only administer the machines, but also create some things like for example a model for distributing the software to remote servers or a method of collecting and distributing all kinds of statistics from the servers and routers to the network managers.

We found two candidates, both recommended by friends and undoubtedly possessing necessary knowledge, skills and experience. Both interviews were more than satisfactory – that is until we got to the point where I asked them when they could come to work for us. As it turned out, the answer was never or close to it, as they were looking only to moonlight on the side.

The first one works currently as an admin for the local technical university, so he must earn something around 250 Euro per month, he has one small child and another on the way – and yet he won’t leave this position, even though we would have paid him twice as much from day one and then easily up to three times that if he is good. Why? Because the job at the university is stable and they have a good social package. I had to pinch myself under the table to believe it.

The other candidate is 25 and works as the sysadmin for the Polish police force. The pay there is also around 270 Euro monthly, but he won’t leave because of the pension scheme. In Poland policemen and members of other uniformed formations have a special pension scheme under which they can retire after just 10 or so years of service which means that this particular guy would become a pensioner at the age of 32. As he put it, he’ll be “set for the rest of his life”. To me he was a mental pensioner already, at the age of 25 – a rather pathetic sight. I even asked him how much pension would he receive – he was reluctant to say but in the end it turned out it’s something around 250 Euro monthly. Again, I could hardly believe it – if he joined us and worked hard then in 7 years he could run a whole IT operations department here or somewhere else and earn ten times his pitiful pension. But yes, he would have to leave the cozy security of the government job now and work hard.

Those two cases are a bit extreme, but the attitude is common. A job should be safe and guaranteed, not require taking risks or making decisions and not be a burden on someone’s life: certainly not extend beyond official 8 hours, require extensive travel, long commute etc. Most people would be indeed all too happy in all kinds of government jobs where all those criteria are met. No need to develop, no zeal to learn, no will to achieve. And, just to remind you, this is about people in their twenties – not forties, not fifties – people at the start of their adult lives. And the generation that in most cases doesn’t remember communism consciously – most were 9 or even younger when the system collapsed here.

Now, to be fair: we did find a few exceptionally good, young people here. There is my systems guru, who adapts and grows exceptionally and has makings of a good manager as he has already built a small team of developers. We have an exceptional sales guy who is, despite his young age, responsible for finding most of our M&A targets. There is the network operations guy, who joined us recently and shows all the good signs already – and thanks to whom I can now have more peace of mind when it comes to the network structure etc. There is another young chap who takes care of all the complaints, data corrections etc. and is also someone with a future if he continues like that. And there are others… but those are just few sharp needles pulled by pure luck out of an enormous haystack. It took me four months to find the network operations person and, as I said, I still have six vacancies.

So yes, we keep on running despite the mud slowing us down. But sometimes I long for some solid ground…