All roads lead to people; the time has come to close the old door and open a new one
Interview with a former Digitization Minister Anna Streżyńska
During the Passion Week, I made an appointment with Anna Streżyńska do discuss her career from Digitization Minister and president of the Office of Electronic Communications (UKE)to her current position of MC2 Solutions’s CEO. Our meeting was scheduled at 6PM in her office. I arrived on time, but Streżyńska was still in the meeting with clients. We started the interview at around quarter past 6PM.
How should I address you: Minister, President or Anna?
I do not care much about titles. You can call me Ania.
Do you know that in the telecom industry they still call you the Iron Lady?
(laughing) Well, telecom community had to bear me for a bit longer than the IT sector. My first job involved contacts with the telecom industry. I was charged with countering monopolistic practices. Everybody knows everybody on the telecom market. We all started our careers in the 1990s. Maybe that is why they still use this nickname, half-tenderly, half-ironically. Over all those years, they had plenty opportunities to see the worst part of my personality, that of a mean nagging hag that would always keep her eye on them. They surely got to know the real me: tough and annoying.
What were you like as a Minister?
That was a new world to me, the one where administrative decisions amounted to nothing. I had to learn a lot. I was active in a number of technical fields and had to roll my sleeves up; after all, we decided to build IT competences in the administration from a scratch.
I used to fight against monopoly and monopolistic practices, now I had to make sure that the money was spent wisely and the whole digital world was based on robust foundations. It was a completely different line of business. No big entities whose interests could be damaged. On the telecom market, you had to watch over entities from the top five enterprises in Poland. Whereas the IT market is pretty fragmented, with the biggest players still being relatively small firms.
Going back to UKE, Internet in Poland is said to have gotten closer to the standards applied in civilised countries owing to your work as UKE’s president. What is your take on this? As a lawyer specialised in the telecommunication law, you contributed considerably to all the changes made at that time.
Yes, but that was because I had been earlier involved in the development of the telecom laws and I understood what they were about. Afterwards, when the laws in Poland changed in line with the EU law, I knew where those changes came from and what their purpose was. Subsequent amendments to the Telecommunication Law Act were to a large extent my doing. Earlier at the Communication Ministry we had written the first Telecommunication Law. We were a bit like this orchestra that can play every tune; we took care of everything, from development of the provisions of law to their enforcement.
It involved lots of hard, arduous work. Back in those time, it was not easy to confront monopolists. How did you cope with all that pressure?
The more cornered I am, the better I perform. When the work piles up, the level of stress and pressure are high, you feel as if you were at the frontline, under heavy fire from each side. Under such circumstances, I am at my most motivated. I simply feel in my element. So it actually worked for me. As I have often mentioned, the regulations that we worked on at that time were exaggerated.
You blew things out of proportion?
I realized that we took a baseball bat to our market partners and we kept pummelling them with it relentlessly. We had to, because that was the only way to get through to them. Our attempts to agree with them peacefully on the rules of the market game in a way that would benefit citizens and consumers were dismissed, while our pleas were denied. In those days, I often talked about tough motherly love (laughing).
Your term as the telecom sector’s Iron Lady in UKE ended in May, but you continued to work there nevertheless. The government seemed unable to make up its mind whether to keep you in the office of the president of UKE or let you go.
Yes, it took them half a year to decide.
The decision was finally made. What can you remember from that time? Was the tension comparable to that preceding your departure from the Ministry?
Those were two completely different ways of dealing with matter. In UKE, nobody made my work difficult; neither PM, nor ministers did anything to thwart our initiatives. They did not impede our movements; quite the contrary, Sejm gave us green light, we could count on the courts’ support, too. Oddly enough, when Administration and Digitisation Minister Michał Boni summoned me the day before Christmas Eve to inform me of PM Donald Tusk’s decision to let me go, I blurted out, “but why, everything is in order”.
What was it about?
It happened half a year after the end of my term, in the meantime there was a government shakeup. That was only to be expected. I heard Boni out. When I talked to the Minister, I received a clear message concerning the schedule of events. I had easily a month to develop my report.
And you came up with a report that was very scrupulous in detail.
I developed and published it, and it met with a cold reception. I guess that such response is typical of all people in power. I was not let into the Sejm with my report to attend the Infrastructure Committee and plenary session. I had to watch the transmission from the Sejm on a computer in my office. When a new president of UKE was appointed, I thanked my colleagues and packed my things on the following day.
Going back to work and people who surround you, you have been mentioning teams a lot. Did members of your teams in UKE and Ministry share similar traits of character?
First of all, I like people. I show them enough interest to become someone they like talking to and working with. My team members always have a psychological profile similar to mine, which means public matters are of great value to them and worth sacrificing for. They work their fingers to the bone, day and night. There are surprisingly many people like that.
Apparently few people can compare with you when it comes to courage and industriousness. I have heard that you need just two hours of sleep a night. Aren’t you tired?
Yes, I am actually. Even now, for God’s sake! I thought it would be different when I put myself on the market (laughing). Now I am really exhausted, all this tiredness sums up, and I still sleep two-three hours a night. I can be stubborn when I set my mind on something. Most people do not get it. They think of me as some kind of a robot, a cyborg or something.
Was it like that in the Ministry, too?
I thought of those two and half years in the Ministry as an enormous chance to change something. I found it absolutely necessary to reduce everything that I can in my life to a minimum. Digitisation was harder to sell than my previous undertakings. That said, I have never felt such satisfaction as in Digitisation Ministry.
You once said that you worked with enthusiastic people. They are the same as their leader, right?
Yes, this is true (laughing). These enthusiasts followed me out of Digitisation Ministry. Some of them had no other choice given their contracts. Today, they work here and are not one bit less enthusiastic. We have recently received our first paycheck, after our firm has been in operation for over a month. It will be two months on Friday. Getting the first serious paycheck after two months was such a joy. We got back on track. Even if the money had been symbolic, we would have still been overjoyed that we had the first contract behind us. After two months, our client portfolio is quite satisfactory, with no companies from the public sector in it.
Is your new company MC2 Solutions a Digitisation Ministry raised to the power two or a concept of mass-energy equivalence based on Albert Einstein’s special relativity theory?
(laughing) We indeed thought of Einstein when we came up with the name for our firm. However, we immediately realized to our dismay what it could imply. ‘They will think that we did that because of Digitisation Ministry’, we thought. ‘So be it’, I said, ‘it actually makes perfect sense’. We will do it exactly for the Digitisation Ministry. First of all, to commemorate it as the place where we all met for the first time and spent two happy years together; where we managed to do much more than can be expected of employees of the public sector with its limitations; where we showed to everyone that it could be done and how: without instigating social conflicts, by getting different people to work together and getting them involved.
And now you can do more?
Hence the power two. Secondly, it is a sort of a mission for us. In MC2, we can also fulfil social roles by trying to consolidate the community and represent it before the administration. We understand where both parties come from. Therefore, we can effectively seek compromise, etc. On top of that, each of us caught the public sector bug and this is not something you can easily get rid of. What happened hit me and my comrades pretty hard and had nothing to do with failed ambitions. We saw the Ministry’s gradual decline. Today I have read somewhere that the Ministry is now at the stage of clinical death.
The Ministry has recently publicised some of its achievements such as promotion of the Trusted Profile and the National Educational Network (NSE) – a joint effort of the Ministry and Research and Academic Computer Network (NASK) aimed at introduction of the broadband Internet in all schools by 2019. Your contribution in that respect was enormous. What are your biggest regrets in terms of how it all ended?
Apart from the things that were launched and have worked since, there were solutions ( and they represented the majority) that needed time to get off the ground on the IT market. By then, they were already at an advanced stage, but not yet complete. They were simply terminated. At the beginning of our work at the Ministry, we developed the State IT architecture map. We realized in the process that a client’s interaction with the authorities sets him or her on several paths. We wanted to describe these paths, including the systems that clients will have to deal with and points of interaction. We thought of making the whole process simpler by going digital. It would make a client’s life easier. We launched 30 horizontal projects concerning the whole administration, plus we got another 19 projects from other offices. Now I feel that we have yet again failed the society and the European Commission, which provided the funds and gave us the benefit of the doubt. I dread to think that digitisation processes may be put on hold or, worse still, reversed. What makes me moderately hopeful is a new Minister Marek Zagórski, my former deputy. We will see how much room for manoeuvre he will get from his political principals.
Media provided an extensive and varied coverage of those events. How did it look from your point of view?
I do not want to talk about the past. I have already dealt with it in multiple interviews. Reliving the past stops you from moving on with your life. It was necessary to settle the past and come to terms with it, sum it all up, draw conclusions and share or even discuss them with others. But now is the time to close this door. Otherwise, old bottled up emotions and memories will stifle every inspiration from the outside world. And there are so many interesting things to do, so many new challenges that you must make room for in your heart, mind and schedule.
I heard of your new nickname: a female version of Steve Jobs.
(laughing) I wish I were one. I have always thought of myself as a kind of a magnet attracting people who know what to do and how to do it. I have a degree in law. I may have a better handle on the information technology now than two years ago, but it is still not what I want it to be. People who work with me are those “Jobses”; I am more of their… (pauses)
No, their protector.
Would you agree that people that you work with are creative, innovative, eager to initiate and explore things, and passionate about what they do?
Yes, they are remarkable people who are incredibly decent and uncorrupted, determined and trustworthy. As a team we have more value than each of us on our own. Assignments started flowing in instantly, with firms showing a great interest in working with us. Lots of people wanted to get a job with us. During recruitment, our server crashed as it got overloaded with job applications.
It went to show that we did the right thing defending our principles for those two years. And by that I mean fundamental human values such as work ethos and sense of purpose. People have put a tremendous trust in us.
In other words, you can always start from a scratch and still make it?
Yes, and you do not even have to be a protector of “Jobses” for this to be true. After all, I have not always been a minister. I was sacked a number of times in my life, sometimes without a penny to my name, which was especially true when I was kicked out of the public sector. A change, however painful, was always an opportunity to turn over a new leaf and do something exciting. Whether I was already a public figure or a completely unknown individual, I would always pull myself up and embark on a new adventure. Yes, you can definitely do it. The fact that I am thick-skinned helps a bit. I do not go over and over what happened in the past. I was given the boot, I closed the door behind me and moved on.
„The average person puts only 25% of his energy and ability into his work. The world takes off its hat to those who put in more than 50% of their capacity, and stands on its head for those few and far between souls who devote 100%”, once famously said Andrew Carnegie- the man who funded the construction of the Carnegie Hall in New York.
It is important whom you choose to surround yourself with and how we support each other. Being part of a good team makes a whole lot of difference to how you deal with problems in life.
Technological revolution continues. Your company deals with AI, databases and blockchain. Come to think of it, first mobile phones hit the market relatively recently. Is there anything that could still surprise us ?
(laughing) We have been lately asking ourselves the same question. The first Industrial Revolution took place 150 years ago. 70 years ago, we witnessed the rise of automation, followed by the emergence of digital techs. It took them roughly three decades to penetrate most of the civilised world. We are now at the stage of completely new techs. The beginnings may have been slow, but now everything is happening real fast. Not a day goes by without some kind of a surprise. AI was the thing from the Fables of Robots.
And now we have Watson…
Yes, and all this has become part of our everyday reality. It will take some time for this to hatch and get fine -tuned. It will take years actually as the mechanisms are getting more and more complex. We are no longer dealing with a steam boiler. All it took was to make the fire underneath it and off it went. People needed 150 years to get a grip on those inventions. Nowadays we are dealing with much higher levels of complexity, both in terms of techs and social and economic processes. The impact on people is enormous. In the meantime, something is bound to surprise us big time. We just do not know what it is yet. What will be this new technology like? I think that it will help blend the human body with new techs. The technology is already used to increase the human physical and mental prowess, improving our physical condition and abilities. The whole generations fine-tuned this world in a bid to make people happy. Work was made easier, lives were saved. We are now one step closer to eternal youth. Life expectancy has increased. We apply external measures supporting the brain activity and use efficiency-enhancing devices. We travel in space, get machines to do things for us and are closer to heaven thanks to digitisation. This is the objective we need to accomplish.
Business Psychologist, Mentor, Founder of INSPIRE