LUKÁŠ KROC: I’M REALLY INTERESTED IN THOSE THINGS THAT OTHERS OVERLOOK
LUKÁŠ KROC IS THE FIRST CZECH TO WORK AT SPACEX. “EVER SINCE I WAS A KID I DREAMED ABOUT NASA. WHEN I GOT THERE, I WAS A BIT DISAPPOINTED,” HE SAYS. AT ELON MUSK’S ELITE COMPANY KROC LEARNED ABOUT ENERGY AND A BIGGER WILDERNESS. HE SPENT THREE YEARS THERE, WORKING ON A PROJECT TO PUT HUMANS ON MARS. NOW HOME, INSTEAD OF TAKING TIME OFF, HE HAS PLUNGED BACK INTO WORK.
YOU’VE BEEN BACK IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC TWO MONTHS. WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS?
I don’t make plans because I don’t know how to. Rather, I look at what’s interesting going on around me. I want to be here at least another year. I’ll try four seasons. When I’ve the right people around me, I can survive the Czech winter.
AND HAVE YOU GOT PEOPLE HERE?
Yeah! People really give me energy and that’s the case at CreativeDock. I’m glad I can try my hand at something new. I’m always happy to get my teeth into something and put heart and soul into it. I don’t really think about whether something advances my career somehow. I don’t like that idea at all.
YOU SPENT 15 YEARS IN THE USA. WHAT DOES A PERSON DO WHEN RETURNING HOME AFTER SPENDING SUCH A LENGTH OF TIME AWAY?
I like to visit my friends. I don’t do social media and I only got a smartphone recently. I bought it only when I got here, for the maps for when I go to see these friends.
YOU REALLY DIDN’T HAVE A SMARTPHONE?
No, I had one of those old clamshell phones. It’s good in hipster cafes. So, now I’ve got a smartphone. I need it because of the Kontakto project I’m doing here. It’s got an app, so I got the phone to test it.
HOW DO YOU SEE THE CZECH STARTUP SCENE?
It was a pleasant surprise. Interesting things are going on, and Prague is developing technologically. Even though in the United States Berlin is regarded as the technological hub of Europe.
WHEN YOU CAME BACK FROM AMERICA, DID YOU WANT TO START WORKING STRAIGHT AWAY?
No, I wanted to take a summer holiday, but at a friend’s wedding I met another friend. I told him that I wanted to meet new people and gradually I started working on that. That friend knows Martin Pejša, who I called at the wedding. We met a few days later, and that’s when it all started.
SO, YOU ENDED UP AT CD BY CHANCE?
Exactly, I really like these situations in life. That’s why I don’t stick neurotically to plans. We had a chat at Creative Dock. I liked it there, and the people gave me energy. That’s exactly what I was looking for.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON THERE?
Mostly on the smaller Kontakto project, which connects people and corporate contacts. The idea makes sense to me, but for some reason it still isn’t working now. So, I thought I’d look at where the problem lies. That's how I got involved. Nobody was taking ownership, and I love such projects.
YOU’RE ALSO INVOLVED IN THE FILIP AND SOFIE FINTECH PROJECT?
I was there just for a short while, as a consultant, and I gave them my feedback.
AND THAT IS?
What’s very important, and I saw this both at SpaceX and in the next startup where I worked in the US, is to create a product for end users. Simply turn the proof of concept as soon as possible into a minimum viable product, into something that works and adds value. But doing so never proves quite as simple as that.
Both phases require very different perspectives. Proof of concept is very creative, new things are being invented, and it works in a controlled environment. The second phase is, however, in the uncontrolled environment. It’s a real thing that somebody somewhere uses, and when it doesn’t work well, it spoils the product.
DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS ON HOW TO MANAGE THIS “TURNAROUND” BEST?
It can be summed up in one sentence: strip it down into the basic product, get rid of anything superfluous, and present the product to the customer. He or she or then will then give you feedback, and you can continue and make improvements. A frequent startup issue is a jam between ideas and implementation, and the actual customer is forgotten. But it’s very important to get the client involved in it as soon as possible.
WHAT TYPE OF PROJECTS AND STARTUPS DO YOU ENJOY MOST?
First, I like to put “derailed” projects back on track. And then I like things that others aren’t interested in. I don’t like supporting big things, so I like startups, so I don’t use Google, Facebook and such like because they’re too big.
HOW DO YOU PUSH FORWARD CREATIVE DOCK OR THE PROJECTS YOU’RE INVOLVED IN?
My greatest contribution is finding the primary causes of problems. I really like to start with them, when someone senses that something isn’t completely right. So, I like to get involved, talk to people and to try to get to the root cause. Then I continue and try to figure out what needs to be changed, seeing whether it’s a software or business issue, to make it function better. This works well for me, and several times I’ve taken such a look at the problem and got to the bottom of it.
YOU SPEND HALF OF YOUR WORKING WEEK AT CREATIVEDOCK, WHAT DO YOU DO WITH THE REST OF YOUR TIME?
I’m very interested in the topic of socially-excluded areas and socially responsible projects in general. I recently saw, together with people from the Člověk v tísni [People in Need] charity, a project which I’d like to help. I'm probably going to be involved in finding out why some of their internal stuff doesn’t work perfectly, whether to do with IT or processes. I’ve never worked for the non-profit sector, so I’m really looking forward to it.
HAVE YOU EVER CONSIDERED YOUR OWN STARTUP?
Yes. Not so much because I want to have something of my own, but because it would be a great experience to build something from scratch. And CreativeDock strikes me as a great springboard for something like that.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT STARTUPS SO MUCH?
When a group of people get together, each of them knows something different, and combined, they make up a beautiful team. Startups aren’t just legal entities, but a group of people who are really trying to do something together. When it all clicks, and you meet and get on well, it’s something amazing. CreativeDock is full of this energy. It’s unique that there isn’t just one idea, but several of them.
HOW DID WORK AT SPACEX HELP YOU?
A lot. It’s a buzzword, I notice that on my CV SpaceX means more to me than my work at NASA. This is a very interesting company, but it’s a government organisation, with lots of bureaucracy. In contrast, SpaceX is still a startup, it’s a company that has again generated interest in space.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE AT SPACEX?
The start was tough, just before I got the job, I worked as a maths professor at university. I had a great life, and it was good, but I was a little bored. At SpaceX, it was 12 hours a day, and when you got home you kept on going on similar things as at work. The six months were challenging, but I really enjoyed the enthusiasm and drive there. It energises people. Besides, I got pleasure out of knowing that tomorrow somebody else would need what I do today. You can see the work there.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN TO A LAY PERSON WHAT YOU DID?
I did software engineering for production automation. I’ve solved problems such as is this computer working the way it should? People there analyse where things can go wrong, what this will mean, and so on. I’ve installed parts on a spaceship and I’m wearing a white coat, just like people see on television.
WHAT MADE YOU APPLY TO SPACEX?
I had wanted to work for NASA ever since I was a kid. It was my dream. But when I got there, I missed the energy. The research centre is very separate from the space programmes, and it involves quite a lot of administration. I wanted to do something more real. I love robotics. When they invited me to a SpaceX interview, it really fired me up. Everything is there. The big hall where the rockets are, and people can see how they work on them. But also, a lot of energy, as there was at NASA in the 1970s. I really enjoyed it. I remember that after the interview I e-mailed a friend telling him that I wanted to work there, even if it meant that I’d have to sweep the floor.
YOU PASSED THE INTERVIEW AND STARTED WORKING AT SPACEX, WHERE YOU SPENT THREE YEARS. WHAT DID IT DO FOR YOU?
The ability to apply yourself and give it a lot of energy. I learned to work in a very dynamic environment. At SpaceX I met the smartest people, who had pure talent, even more than those at NASA. Often, they suggested a very simple idea, and people said why not, why aren’t we doing it that way. It was like a different planet, I liked it very much. People there had great insight into problems. That’s what I learned there.
WHERE DOES THE ENERGY AT SPACEX COME FROM? ELON MUSK?
The biggest draw is the mission of SpaceX itself. It has a futuristic mission, incredible, and it will excite anyone who has ever read a sci-fi novel. Google and others are heavily opposed to what SpaceX does on a much higher level. Elon Musk’s personality also gives the company a hunger. He constantly repeats the vision and that the goal is to reach Mars. People are excited, because SpaceX offers them a higher goal in life. The mission is incredible and attracts the best staff, even though it doesn’t pay well. But people are doing something that they believe in.
HOW MUCH DOES MUSK GET INVOLVED IN DAY-TO-DAY OPERATIONS?
It was evident that SpaceX was something that he really wants. He was there at least once a week, and he’s also very involved in technological changes. Musk asks why this computer is so big and says that he wants a smaller one, for example; he deals with various details. We can see that he is able to see problems and flag them up.
ISN’T IT DIFFICULT FOR YOU TO BE MOTIVATED AFTER ALL THIS?
Not really. My motivation comes from other people. I need such energy around me. I’m not very imaginative, and maybe that’s why I don’t have my own business. But I’m capable of turning ideas into reality, I’m a good engineer. I like to say that engineering is the art of translating ideas into life. Art, ideas and life, belong together and I enjoy that.