Cristian Bodnar, Director of Engineering, about creating your own best practices and making an impact through your day-to-day work

Cristi is one of a kind, they truly broke the mold after they made him. We love discussing with Cristi because every time we find out something new about him and how he does what he does. He is a – let’s say self-made – Director of Engineering at AscentCore and he may describe his work like Forrest Gump describes life comparing it with a box of chocolates: ‘you never know what you’ll gonna get’ when you come in every day. Cristi talked with us about creating your very own best practices, implementing your own style, and making it work, as well as a lot of stories but nevertheless, with emphasis on making an impact through what you do through your work.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What makes Cristi tick in his personal time?

My personal time is not that personal anymore, it’s shared (not to say owned) with two sparkling spirits, the two young daughters me and my wife were blessed with. I spend most of the time around them, doing things with or for them. I must confess, I’m fond of them, and being around them, made me discover feelings I did not know exist.

In those few moments that may remain only for me, I’m trying to catch up on one of my oldest passions, playing the piano: I did the first step and I got the piano; now it’s all about surpassing the frustration generated by “I used to know how to play this, how did I forget???”. 

Of course, technology must take a toll on my personal time, in the end, the reason I love the IT industry is that there is something new to discover or learn. The pace at which new things get released, whether new languages, tools or hardware is incomparable with any other industry. Learning about all these, and applying some of them in the day-to-day work is fascinating. So I’m doing my best to stay up-to-date and read everything I can about the tech world.

Besides that, indulging in a small guilty pleasure such as watching a TV show or participating in a delightful social gathering (that ideally includes dancing and karaoke) is always something I appreciate.

What was your journey to joining AscentCore?

I started my career as a .NET developer. I remained faithful to Microsoft technologies for many years, working in all kinds of industries like e-commerce, healthcare, financial services, legal, and others. I was among the ones that I had to deal with CSS and Javascript in Internet Explorer 6, but I also experience the cloud technologies boom and the amazing evolution of the frontend frameworks. 

There are a few key points, decisions, and people that defined my career path shaped me into who I am as a professional, and led me today to AscentCore.

Probably the first meaningful one was driven by my appetite to throw myself into the unknown and take risks: one of my colleagues was leaving, someone was needed to take his responsibilities on the company’s biggest customer at that time, and I took the challenge. I had less than one year of working experience. And it worked out well. Of course, I received support, there is no way I could’ve done it without the mentors I had, but what I learned from this is that flexibility and a little bit of courage will help you grow and make an impact. You don’t need to know absolutely everything in advance, you’ll catch up and your team is always there for you, trust them and rely on them.

Flexibility paid off many times when I have chosen to prioritize business needs over technology, this is how I get to learn SproutCore (if you haven’t heard of it, no worries, you didn’t lose much).

Some of the learnings happened the hard way. Explaining to a customer that his current code is not maintainable, definitely not scalable and that he needs to invest in rewriting the application, while the same code is producing a lot of value (and money) for his business, can easily go wrong. I admit that using terms like “spaghetti code” will not trigger the best reaction and might put an end to the relationship.

This happening triggered a perspective change, I started to understand more about the customer’s struggles and needs. I was also lucky that two of my managers helped and mentored me in this process, they spent many hours explaining to me what business value means, and why technically state-of-the-art solutions might not be always the suitable ones.

So I decided to transition from the technical lead role and move to the management side, as technical manager. In the next years, I had the opportunity to work side by side and learn from incredibly experienced people, define my management style, and practice my learnings.

The last important step before AscentCore was joining a product company in the cyber-risk quantification space. Here I had the opportunity to lead the engineering teams that built a product that started as a side, minor project and evolved into a full-blown innovative business line with customers on Fortune 100 list. The fact that we built “our” product, put me in a similar position with our customers and helped further open my perspective. The journey, the challenges, the team, and the fact that it happened partially during the pandemic, were a resource of priceless learnings and experience.

So here I am, excited and proud to be at AscentCore, with such an experienced team and with so many opportunities ahead of us.

What do you enjoy most in your day-to-day work?

I can’t choose between the variety of things I deal with and the admiration I have for my colleagues for the way they make things work, just like magic. Let me explain.

I rarely know how my day is going to be. You’d say that after a while you’ve seen them all. Well, in our extremely dynamic world, something can always surprise you. Something you haven’t dealt with that will push you to grow and evolve.

And it’s not only me being exposed to this, it’s the same for my colleagues as well. Seeing the way they deal with all the situations described above, the creativity they demonstrate is such a great source of inspiration. Everyone offers support and shares ideas, such that at the end of the day, things just work really well, like magic. 

Bridging the business world and the tech world is not an easy walk, I feel privileged to be part of this mechanism that understands our clients’ needs, and using technology, talent, and a lot of effort, delivers business value generators.

We have so many opportunities in our daily work to innovate for our customers and make a huge impact on their clients, or, said in a different way, we have unique opportunities to innovate and improve or simplify people’s life. So I wake, I come to work and I have the chance to learn and evolve, or help someone to learn and evolve, or help make an impact in someone’s business.  How exciting is that?!

Which AscentCore value speaks to you most and why?

Today at AscentCore there are a couple of folks I met in 2007 on the first day of my first job. The most important Relationship for me, the one with my wife, started on that day, March 20th, 2007. It’s kind of funny when I think about this, almost all my early memories with my wife are tied to people who are my current colleagues. 

There are also at least a dozen of other current colleagues I had the pleasure to work with throughout the years. 

The main reason, actually the exclusive reason,  I joined AscentCore was because I value the people involved in this company. And I value them because I had the chance to work with them in the past, I’ve seen them acting under challenging times as well, not only when everything is bright, we’ve gone to hell and back together, we’ve built a Relationship. That being said, I guess there is no surprise that if I would have to choose one value the answer is clear: trustful and meaningful Relationships.

I need to mention though, that there is no way a Relationship would last over time without a special ingredient, Integrity: honesty, strong moral principles and values, business and personal ethics. So, build Relationships on a solid Integrity baked foundation, and naturally Results will follow. 

Relationships though are the inception, in the end, it’s more about the People than about anything else.

What are the key factors of creating a healthy work environment?

I’ll start by defining in my opinion how a healthy work environment should be: in a nutshell, professional enough so we can perform at our best, and personal enough so it feels safe, friendly, and supportive.

A healthy work environment is built for and around the people. This means everyone should have the chance to perform meaningful work, learn and grow, and be recognized for their work. Of course, respect and trust are mandatory as basic needs for such an environment. 

Let me also tell you about a factor that should not exist in a work environment: blame culture. Innovation more often than not comes from experimentation. All experiments have a certain degree of risk. A healthy culture will encourage people to take calculated risks and not punish statistically inevitable failures. 

Another factor that is at the same time one that may look easy to achieve but in reality is probably one of the most challenging is Communication: transparency, open and honest feedback, clarity and visibility about expectations, plans, and future.

All the above ingredients are kind of basic and mandatory, probably enough for a decent work environment, but in my opinion not a recipe complete for a truly healthy and flourishing one. And what is missing is a little bit more difficult to clearly define, especially in terms of boundaries, but I’ll give it a try:

We spend more than half of our awake time at work or thinking about work. Besides the above ingredients, I believe that meaningful, more personal relationships can contribute greatly to a healthy work environment. We spend so much time together, that keeping the relationship only and strictly professional, sounds like a missed opportunity to discover a new friend. Of course, one will invest in this as much as it feels comfortable and this “personal” side should never go against the “professional” one. A harmonious synergy between the two will create the “best place to work” we all want.

Describe your approach to creating the best customer experience you possibly can. What is your M.O.?

I worked with many customers from all kinds of industries over the years, and each of them had particularities that required tailored approaches. But I believe that at the end of the day, at least high level, I’ve been going through the same stages/steps that if correctly and knowingly executed, assured the success of the partnership.

The first step is to understand the need and the problem. A clear answer to the question “Why did the client come to us? How/with what can we help them?” is mandatory for a good healthy start and to align everyone’s expectations. After a good grasp of this, matching a team with the proper skill set that can actually do the job, is the next logical step.

And hop you go, our team starts the endeavor, and now the real fun begins. It is crucial that the team invests time in understanding the client’s products and business and industry, as well as the client’s clients. Only when we put ourselves in the final user place, we can really understand how what we deliver is going to be used, and of course, how to improve the experience. 

This discovery phase will teach us also about the client’s current stance and will help the team choose the right process, the right balance between the super-solid architecture, or a light and fast approach to maximize time to market.

What I learned from my experience is that the first meetings are so important, it’s the best time to set expectations in all regards like roles and responsibilities, timelines, tools, communication frequency, etc. 

At every step of the partnership, there are a few key elements that will almost guarantee success. I’ll start with and, underline clear, open, and honest communication, this is the glue for everything, if you can get this right you did a huge step in the right direction. I need to mention again flexibility: businesses are so dynamic and they can change focus in a blink of an eye, the ability to adapt whether we are talking about the process or the technology is a superpower that any IT professional should master.

And there is one more thing, actually THE thing: the support for the team. Make sure that all team members can learn and evolve, know what’s the goal of the endeavor, is appreciated for the wins, and receive all the needed support so they can focus on what they know to do best: provide innovative and suitable solutions that will create great value for our customers.

At the end of the day, when our customer goes to sleep and thinks “I feel good, my business is safe in the hands of the AscentCore team”, we know we did it, we created the best customer experience.

You are such a lively person. What are the secrets of making work fun?

Talk a lot of gibberish maybe? On a more serious note, it’s everyone’s duty to contribute to a healthy culture that encourages open communication, that creates a safe and pleasant environment, and that makes it easy to be ourselves. 

I find myself being more creative and more productive when I feel safe when there is a good and positively energized vibe around me. During my entire career, I learn that a good idea is more likely to come when I have high morale. Fun is an effective way to boost morale and create connections with other people, it helps us at the professional level and also at the level of the so valued relationships.

As I mentioned before, we spend so much time at work, that I would find it impossible to work in a mundane environment, so I find all kinds of topics to produce a little bit of fun or to relax the atmosphere. Most of them are about me, I guess everyone knows what process I need to follow when I want to go out for an evening or what’s my driving style because I drive a certain brand. 

There are a wide variety of harmless topics that can be used, it’s important to choose the right and make sure are not offensive. I must say, that in this regard, at AscentCore there was a smooth and natural process, since most of my colleagues have the same mindset, it was really easy to connect and discover the topics and create even multi-episode water cooler type of stories.

 Of course, it’s important to understand and make a clear distinction between the moments when the fun can help and the ones when seriousness is required, one needs to understand when is appropriate to make the transition between the two states.

How do you balance work with your personal life?

I can’t say I have a fixed schedule that clearly defines when one ends and the other starts. I use a basic set of priority-based rules: 

  • I prioritize work during work hours and personal stuff outside them, not allowing distractions from the other side
  • Critical or high-importance issues on any side, take precedence no matter what and override the first rule

Unlike the second one, the first rule is somewhat negotiable, I often find myself working during the evenings and definitely at least thinking about work. Many times ideas and solutions arose in the middle of the night, after a late unrelated chit-chat with a friend, or just casually while doing non-work activities, one does not have control when creativity hits. More often than not, when this happens, it does not feel like work at all.

On the personal side, I have my family and my hobbies for which I allocate time, especially during weekends. Well, maybe not so much for hobbies these days, but the time spent with my kids and my wife is priceless and absolutely necessary, they are my main source of joy. I use the summer vacations to disconnect a little bit from work, recharge my batteries and focus exclusively on my family. 

With small variations due to different roles and responsibilities, I followed the above approach my entire career, without trying to impose a hard barrier between the two, but trying to make them naturally blend into a sustainable and balanced lifestyle.

AscentCore celebrates its 5-year anniversary this year. What are you most excited about for the years to come? Where do you see the company in another 5 years?

What I’m truly most excited about is the journey! We’ll grow and we’ll need to scale and adapt, evolve and acquire new skills, challenge ourselves, and keep up with the so dynamic industry; design strategies, scrap them, and design better ones. We’ll create teams, strengthen relationships, discover superstars, and shape new generations of IT professionals. We’ll keep innovating, excel in delivering solutions to our customers’ needs, and adapt and respond fast to business changes. We’ll ride the AI wave producing disruptive technology for our customers. And all of these while having prime-time seats to experience the impact and value that our tech talent, innovation, and business-oriented thinking produces for our customers.

Five years from now, I see AscentCore as a trendsetter company, and likewise today propelled by a highly talented team mastering a deep expertise. We’ll be known for delivering a truly premium experience for our customers in all regards. The foundation and heart of AscentCore will remain the same, we’ll achieve all these amazing Results and, stay true to strong Relationships and without a doubt Integrity.

If you could choose one memory from your time in the company, which would it be?

Tough one. Of course, I’m tempted to go to that big reservoir of memories related to the delightful social gatherings I mentioned above.

But truly the most impactful memory, that had (and still has) a high influence not only on me but on the way we redefined some of our processes, is the day when one of our most important customers named us “preferred partner”. Those two words capture the essence of our end goal and perfectly describe the type of relationship we want to have with our customers.


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Using Counterfactuals To Overcome Data Bias & Increase Model Fairness

For businesses across every industry, the customer experience is more important than ever. In a time when a brand’s success is often closely tied to customer loyalty, finding ways to improve and optimize customer service is critical. Keep reading for five AI-powered solutions that can help businesses transform and enhance their customer experience.