Rafał Młodzki Of ‘Passport Photo Online’: “Pantechnologism”

“Pantechnologism” — There is no escape from technology. Only the top percentile of people who work on new technologies, or those who know how to use them, will remain on the job market. So we become either super well-paid engineers, programmers, or we are specialists outside of the technology sector but are nevertheless actively using technology, very […]

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“Pantechnologism” — There is no escape from technology. Only the top percentile of people who work on new technologies, or those who know how to use them, will remain on the job market. So we become either super well-paid engineers, programmers, or we are specialists outside of the technology sector but are nevertheless actively using technology, very aware of it, always looking through its prism — for example, how to use it in your field, or anticipating that the field will need to be changed if a new challenge is coming.

There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.

To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.

As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview Rafał Młodzki.

Rafał Młodzki, born in 1982, is a Polish entrepreneur. A programmer and philosopher by training, he initially pursued an academic career but abandoned it early on to start his own business. He created the most popular language-learning app in Poland (Fiszkoteka) and a national network of biometric photo booths with his two brothers. The latter, during the pandemic, turned into Passport Photo Online, which enables people all over the world to take passport photos without leaving home. He is an enthusiast of traveling and remote working.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

While studying philosophy, I discovered that I am much more interested in changing the world than in just understanding it, and studying computer science made it much easier for me to follow this conviction. I am very grateful that we live in times when the opportunities to change the world are the greatest in its history. In Eastern Europe, where I live, this is especially striking after so many years of communism. Thanks to the internet and globalization, my brothers and I were able to start our first company while still studying at university — with no money, no connections, no know-how — and create web apps that improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. It was the beginning of an amazing adventure that has lasted for a good 10 years now! For me, being an entrepreneur means creating goods on a mass scale. A side effect is that the good comes back to the creator in the form of money, which makes it possible to create even more value on an even bigger scale.

What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?

15 years is a very long time. If we assume that, during that time, we won’t face some kind of apocalypse and all be forced to become fishermen/hunter-gatherers, or we won’t reach the Singularity where nothing will be the same, we may be somewhat naively tempted to draw conclusions from current trends.

As everything moves online and becomes more professional, the dominance of the largest players will increase — the most interesting markets are already well covered, and any competing business can, with its resources and capabilities, be efficiently copied or simply bought. And no legislative regulation — e.g. the EU — will stop this, because it is inherent in the essence of capitalism. In the same way, it is easier for bigger companies to pick the finest talents, which gives them a significant advantage, regardless of geography. Globalization and remote work had an impact on my home university department in a way that means that the best either start their own companies to be bought by Google or Facebook or just go and work for Google or Facebook. This makes it hard for regular companies to hire someone really good. A potential solution for smaller companies would be an ESOP-style incentive, which I think will become more and more popular — in Poland, it’s still not very common. Yes, I’m writing from the perspective of Poland and startup employers.

The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?

Studying philosophy gives you distance and perspective which is quite useful in life, but for the sake of knowledge alone — it’s probably not worth it. It’s better to read than waste the best three, five, or ten years of your life going to lectures or classes. Of course, this is not the case if you want to become a surgeon or a lawyer. Especially since cutting-edge activities — startups, AI, digital marketing, SEO, conversion optimization, etc. rarely have meaningful programs at universities, so you have to learn it differently, preferably just by learning by doing. The upside of college is building a network and meeting amazing people your own age at that crucial time in your life. Although you can also meet them somewhere else — e.g. in a startup, and actually getting to know someone a few years older, who went down the path you want to go down, can be even better. The most sensible thing to do is to combine studies with work and, depending on how things go, dynamically shift the focus: if you are the founder or key employee of a super fast-growing startup, go all-in and finish your studies later (or become a lecturer right away). And if it turns out that the startup is going poorly, then shift your focus to studies and look for another startup 🙂

Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment but employment that fits their talents and interests?

It is a good idea to become competent at a decent level in several independent fields. Being the world’s best programmer or the world’s best SEO specialist is basically impossible, but being a very good programmer and a very good SEO specialist, making you the world’s best Programmer-and-SEO-specialist, is much easier. In such a case, the return on your investment is vastly superior. I think even more original combinations of skills, and more of them can produce even more interesting results. Creativity is often about applying solutions from one field to another. Creating bundles of such skills allows you to span a pretty decent career vector 🙂

The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appear frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?

Go in the direction of being super technical or very human. Be a programmer or an artist. An engineer or a psychotherapist. These two extremely different paths are paradoxically coupled — the more the former develops, the more the latter becomes necessary. There is no escape from technology, but in a technologized world, people feel somewhat alienated. The increasing prevalence of depression, anxiety disorders, loneliness, addictions, and burnout create jobs for e.g. mental health professionals.

Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?

It depends on the type of work. COVID has prompted many professions and people to simply switch to remote work. In those professions where it works well — programmer, designer, etc. — it will continue, especially since, in a way, these people are predisposed to it. In the case of programmers, for example, remote work is also beneficial because of geoarbitrage — living in Warsaw, but instead of working in Warsaw, they work in San Francisco, which puts them in a really good position — they earn (almost) U.S. wages, and pay much lower Polish prices. And it makes a really strong difference if you combine it with the pathological phenomenon of “working” e.g. 5 jobs — such things are possible only remotely…

However, the professions in which remote working does not work, but were forced to “try” — such as a restaurateur or a teacher — will return to the traditional version. Although, even here, a 100% return to the pre-covid reality is certainly not possible.

What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?

Universal basic income. In a world where most of the work will be done by machines and most of the human labor will not be needed, this seems a simple, rational, and fair solution to guarantee social peace.

What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?

The balance of supply and demand in the labor market will change drastically. The demand for low-skilled work will decrease unimaginably (because it will be increasingly performed by machines), while the demand for high-skilled work will increase unimaginably (someone — at least for now — has to invent these machines).

As a result, the hardest thing for many employers will be an inability to find workers. You can already see how hard it is to hire a good programmer. On the other hand, paradoxically, for most of those who would like to work (not counting only the highly skilled), the hardest part will be that no one will want to hire them. A person who can only do what machines do better will de facto not be employable — already now, for example, cashiers, who are replaced by self-service checkouts, are struggling to find a new job…

The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?

It is difficult to take the necessary precautions in the face of a total catastrophe, or for others to take precautions when they are also affected. If something this widespread and unexpected happens, it is difficult to do anything. What governments have done in the case of a relatively mild pandemic is to print some money, redistribute it, and, through inflation, spread the costs of it over years, sparing irreversible bankruptcy-style transitions. Let’s remember that even though ultimately, each of us is responsible for ourselves, it’s still worth helping other people. If there is one thing I would advocate about the social safety net, it would be to encourage meditation. Thanks to it, you gain distance, freedom, and finally peace. Although, at least in Poland, not many employers would want to promote such a solution.

Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

The fact that there are always new things, unexpected things, and whenever it seems like everything has already been discovered, something new is discovered. As far as work goes, I think there could be some kind of micro-digital-entrepreneurship explosion — that ordinary people with the help of simple tools will be able to create, for example, courses that teach skills that others need, and that they know themselves, and sell enough of them — to make a living from it. All you need is a blog, a plugin, an advertising account, and in about a month, starting from scratch and having only strong motivation, you can have a working business. I know a lot of such people — and you really don’t have to be very smart or technical to make it work. The barrier to being an entrepreneur has never been so low! Moreover, these micro-markets are so small that no global corporation will be interested in them.

Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?

In the case of this disruption, which is happening rapidly and on a massive scale, it may be completely different — for example, the gap will not be narrowed at all — in fact, people will not have to work, because AI and robots will be able to do basically everything that most people can do and it will not be profitable to employ people.

However, if we hope that this will not be the case, then in order to reduce this gap we need to bet on education — but it takes all sorts to make a world — in my country, in primary school, there are more lessons on religion than IT. And those few IT lessons don’t include programming or even how to use a spreadsheet. Every primary school student should at least have a glimpse of what programming is all about.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Here I am going, to sum up, some concepts I have already explained above.

  1. “Enjoy your life as Unemployed” — Those who don’t want to work, won’t have to. Why do I think so? As a result of automation, robotization, etc., more and more work will be done by machines and Universal Basic Income will become commonplace, as governments will have to implement it to maintain social peace. So if someone doesn’t have excessive financial needs and doesn’t need a job because they prefer to find fulfillment in a different way — then they can just enjoy their life 🙂 Many countries are already experimenting with this framework — for example, the four-day working week is a step in this direction.
  2. “Entrepreneurship Explosion’’ — Anyone can become an entrepreneur. Thanks to the Internet, WordPress tools, Social Media platforms, etc. creating something and selling it on a smaller or larger scale has never been easier. It doesn’t have to be fancy stuff — nowadays, creating an online course, e-book, or even a simple smartphone app is becoming affordable for basically everyone. Just share what you are good at and what others need. For example, the course of crocheting — if 0.000001% of people are interested in it, then you can make a living from something as niche as that. And if someone gets involved in being an entrepreneur, then the sky’s the limit. What’s more, at the beginning you don’t even have to be an expert in a given field, but just want to become one e.g. through learning it yourself — then by learning it and documenting it, you may produce such digital goods. Sometimes, we just need a simple tool for ourselves and it turns out that others are willing to pay for it. Many digital businesses were created this way, such as our application for learning languages, which I originally made for myself 🙂
  3. “Human-made” — The demand for work par excellence that’s human-made. The kind of work that is meaningful precisely because it is undertaken by a human — for example, an artist, psychologist, priest, but also a masseur or athlete. A cyborg Olympics or a robot caressing a child sounds completely different from human performance. It may be that a particular profession, such as chef, is successfully performed by a robot, but the premium version is that which is done by a human. It may be an extension of “handmade” or because of the fact that real champagne can only come from Champagne.
  4. “Pantechnologism” — There is no escape from technology. Only the top percentile of people who work on new technologies, or those who know how to use them, will remain on the job market. So we become either super well-paid engineers, programmers, or we are specialists outside of the technology sector but are nevertheless actively using technology, very aware of it, always looking through its prism — for example, how to use it in your field, or anticipating that the field will need to be changed if a new challenge is coming.
  5. “Multi Potential” — Be the best in your own category. In the era of global competition, being the best programmer is extremely difficult. Being the best SEO specialist is similarly difficult. But being a very good programmer and a very good SEO specialist makes you the best programmer-and-SEO-specialist, and that gives you a huge advantage. Such a set of skills can be broader — 3 or 4 independent, but sensibly combined, skills will make you a unique candidate, very valuable to an employer or market — as the best you will get the best, with a much higher salary than average and still the employer will be convinced that they got a good deal. Having such a broad set of skills will also make it easier for you to create something yourself — in startups, founders have to wear a lot of different hats in the beginning.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?

I’ve just come back from a little workation in Greece. I have this habit that whenever I am there I buy myself a printed t-shirt saying “This is Sparta” so that I remember what I believe in and that it is worth fighting in the name of one’s values. Like, for example, when we made a brave strategic shift during COVID, or when we successfully fended off an attack by a global corporation that wanted to push us out of the biometric photo market. Anyway, Greece has always been a source of deep wisdom 😉

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

There are many people who have been a source of inspiration to me, but I’d love to meet Stefan Batory, CEO of Booksy. I once had the pleasure of exchanging a few words with him when he was still living in Poland, and I think that if I ever visit the U.S., it would be great to meet him again there and learn how a Polish startup has found its way in the U.S. If any reader feels synergy and is coming to Poland, I would be very happy to invite you for lunch in Warsaw 🙂

Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?

As for the latest project, I’d recommend following its development on our blog (https://passport-photo.online/blog) where we update its progress. Another good place for my general career-wise updates is my Linkedin profile.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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