Admit it or not, but surely every single one of econometrics students has at least once experienced an existential study crisis of trying to realise what is the purpose of learning all the hard proofs and theorems and where will it bring you in the future. Alexander Gruisen - Mendix consultant at Webflight, as well as Alumni of ESE as BSc Econometrics and Operation Research, MSc Applied Econometrics kindly invited us to his office in Amsterdam and offered to share his experience of being an econometrician student as well as share his journey of starting a career he truly enjoys.
Lala: What did you do in your student years as alumni of FAECTOR and how do you think it helped you with regards to your career?
Alexander: During my bachelor's, I still lived in the Hague where I spent most of my time with a group of friends and was focused on many different things besides FAECTOR. During my master's, I moved to Rotterdam. It was my final year and with my studies almost over, I felt like I should be more involved and started participating more in FAECTOR events. I took part in a wine tastery, did some sushi making and had drinks with some companies, and participated in the econometric career days all organised by FAECTOR. I found that really cool because when I was studying econometrics I always really enjoyed difficult mathematics and very complex algorithms and optimization problems. However, it was always for some customer X or company Y, while with the econometrics days you got to feel or to see which companies you would potentially be working for, which was very valuable for me. At the same time, there were a lot of companies I already knew that I didn’t want to work for which was also valuable information.
Giedre: You originally come from The Hague, so how was the move to Rotterdam the Rotterdamers’ life?
A: Ah, the Rotterdammers' life. I actually moved in with my 3 best friends, so I still had a bit of The Hague vibe. But I actually adapted pretty fine as it wasn’t a dramatic change. Rotterdam is certainly a beautiful city which has so much to offer and I was living 10 min away from the university which was very convenient.
L: And can you tell us more about your student life? What were some challenges that you faced, and your thoughts on the program in general alongside the courses that you had?
A: I was very interested in economics and liked math because I thought it was challenging, so these two reasons brought me to study econometrics. The first two years were quite hard, not only mathematics wise. On one hand, It was very intense, complex and advanced mathematics to digest. But there was also the question of what exactly it is that I'm learning and what am I doing it for. All these equations we’d come across always had me asking myself ‘Will I ever even use these?’. But then during our third year, we finally did some applied research during the seminars which just sort of filled in the pieces and brought something together. Now I could actually see how I can apply it, and that what I was learning is actually valuable or useful for society. But after my bachelor's, I still felt like I had just ingested a lot of math without making much out of it which is what led me to start my master's. I chose to study Applied Econometrics. That’s when I finally saw some really cool subjects, like the environmental one, which was quite eye-opening. However, it was only in the last part of my master's where I got to experience that applied side of econometrics. Looking back at it, I would’ve definitely liked more content on that aspect.
G: I think that's probable with a lot of students, especially in the first year. Going back to the questions, what were your favourite courses? Did you maybe have a favourite professor?
A: I can actually remember professor Heij, who never uploaded his slides on Canvas, so we had to be present at every single lecture. He did a lot of courses, every single block I had a course with him, and I admire him a lot. I also remember enjoying my statistical courses a lot during my master's and pre-thesis. During my master's, we also had this marketing models course where we applied models to specific subjects. That particularly interested me as I really enjoy doing practical research work.
L: Haha It’s also certainly nice to hear that you also admire professor Heij! And like you also mentioned earlier the courses can be quite theoretical so it’s nice to finally be able to have more practical experience.
A: And actually a course I really hated, was definitely the combinatorial optimization course. I got maybe like a 7 or something. For the entirety of the course, I just didn’t know what I was doing.
G: It’s valuable to know what you don’t enjoy as well
A: Yeah definitely
L: We are also interested in knowing about the favourite memory you have during your Erasmus experience.
A: In my master's, I really appreciated the routine of attending my lectures and coming home doing some late hours studying thinking about what I did and did not learn, and after 8 weeks do the exam, but forget it all within two weeks (laughter). That cycle was very nice. You could dive into 2 or 3 subjects for 8 weeks and you know everything about it, and then you move on.
L: Have you gone on the exchange?
A: Oh, I completely forgot about that! That was my nicest memory! I went abroad to Madrid and did my semester abroad there, it was very cool! It was also funny to see what was the definition of econometrics there compared to Erasmus because I was doing final year courses which were just the courses I had in my second or first year. So I aced it. I also followed some additional Spanish language courses there.
L: So how did your transition to Mendix start and when was the first time you heard of the company?
A: I actually didn’t know anything about mendix, not even that it existed. This work is quite different from what we learn in the econometrics courses and I wasn’t even looking for jobs that stray away from what we learn. However, I’ve come a very long way to get here. I have been to every sort of section, area, or field where you find something related to econometrics.
G: Maybe you can tell us about your professional experience from the beginning? Did you have any prior work experience before mendix?
A: Yes, let’s start with that. So I actually did this big research and then started an internship at some startup in Rotterdam for my master thesis. However, after only a week I decided to quit. I felt somewhat anxious, after only two days of working there. Upon reflecting on it, I wanted to do my internship at a place I actually looked forward to being at. I asked my mom for advice and she said ‘If you feel this way, you should take a step back and just search, see what else is out there and do it again. And so I did just that. What followed was me taking half a year just to see what is out there. I’ve been to all sorts of inhouse days; of companies of healthcare, finance, trading, governmental institutions, NGOs, and ministries. Even branching out to various data departments. I went everywhere. Along the way, there were some things that I just didn’t enjoy whereas others I really did.
Obviously, there are also all those recruiters that approach you via Linkedin offering ‘the perfect job for you’. Now comes my first introduction to Mendix. It was actually through a recruiter on LinkedIn among the hundreds that approached me with job offers. I was initially planning on declining the offer because I was just over all the recruiters falsely promising the perfect job. However, I knew a guy from my master's program that was actually working there, so I decided to first ask him about it first. After hearing positive feedback from him I decided to at least try it out and see how I liked them during the process.
G: What was the unique selling point of this job offer?
A: I did a lot of interviews with a lot of other companies, but this job stood out from the moment I walked into this building. I just felt instant warmth from these people, unlike in the big companies. Some of the colleagues were laughing, and some were working, but they all were doing their own thing, being themselves. No signs of this really strict regime, which I experienced in my other job tryouts.
G: And this is exactly the same energy and atmosphere we got as soon as we came to this office. More of the coworking space, than actually corporate workspace!
A: yeah, and then, it was a crossroad for me. I could say no, I could say yes. But if I'm gonna say no, then when am I gonna say yes? So I agreed, without knowing what Mendix was beforehand. Turns out, Medix is something that you write code, and use existing libraries and packages to make products, in our case services that our clients use. You can sort of really see the result of what you make straight away. Which is completely opposite of how I was used to during my studies and research - you do these endless and very complex optimizations and algorithms, run it, wait and you see in the end that only 1 becomes 2, and ahh yes, nice, but that’s not something I want to spend my life doing. This really just one number that changes, but I really want to see what it changes for.
G: Could you briefly introduce what are you doing, and what are your job responsibilities? And give an idea of what Webflight as a company is focused on?
A: Mendix is the name of the code language we use. I am a software consultant, so I am mostly writing codes and then using all the techniques, libraries, and integrations in Mendix from Java, Python is also other existing languages and transforming them to Mendix. Then I present the application to our customers, receive their feedback on whether they like it or not, and then make further adjustments.
We, as Webflight, are part of a large parent company that overlooks our operations - Makerstreet. We also have a lot of sister sibling companies that do more front end or back end or they’re java developers or make videos for instance. The nice thing is that we could also get their experience and knowledge and use it in our own work. For now, we’re only working with dutch people. The average age is around 27/28 years and because we’re still young we have this social aspect which I value a lot. It’s a good balance of social life and work.
G: If you had to say one thing you liked most about your job, what is it?
A: That your colleagues are also your friends. Which to me is the most important part of my job. I spend around 40 hours a week with them and it’s really important we are all comfortable and cool with each other.
L: And do you guys have a favourite social activity together?
A: We have a standard Fridag Middag Borrel which we hadn’t been able to do much because of covid. We also have a deal that if we’re graded an 8 or higher on average each quarter, we get to pick an event for everyone at the office.
For instance, last time we stayed at a really cool old house, played some laser games and had an extensive meal there. And in another quarter we did quad racing for example. Getting to participate in these events is also a really fun incentive to do well.
L: I also see that you guys have a boxing bag in the middle of your office?
A: I haven’t used it yet but sometimes you’re just sitting in front of your laptop and someone just walks up and kapow. I admit it’s a bit random, haha maybe it’s a requisite from a party.
L: Releasing all your work frustrations
A: But actually I never have any frustrations when I'm here.
G: It’s amazing that you seem so happy here.
A: Yeah definitely.
G: How do you see your career perspectives in the future? Is this where you want to progress further or want to explore other econometrics fields.
A: This is also something that I was keeping in mind when choosing this position because I'm driving away from pure econometrics work. At first, I was set on doing something with data analytics as I studied there. But if you find something that really interests you, you really don't need to stick to a career path but indulge in all the nice things by living in the moment. You always need to keep in mind the main reason you’re choosing a certain position. You get really tempted by big companies with their big salaries, but you need to take a closer look at your colleagues and the social aspects of the job.
L: And do you find it hard to balance your social life alongside your work?
A: It’s definitely difficult sometimes, 40 hours in five days is certainly a lot of time. But you have to balance it somehow as you don’t want to burn yourself out. Also because the work environment is so nice here and my colleagues are my friends, it gets much easier. But still, you see for example with many of my other friends I just don’t see them as often as I used to because they’re so overwhelmed with work.
G: What advice would you give to students who feel pressured to steer into the financial sector?
A: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Studying econometrics is already a big challenge. Look for a sector that really thrills you and don’t focus too much on the salary. You might not be earning as much as e.g. a trader, but the enjoyment you get from pursuing work that drives you - is much more valuable than the extra €500.
L: Now we’ve prepared a random question for you: if you were to pick a music genre to describe mendix what would it be?
A: Hmm, a tough one. I’d say a sort of mix between classical and drum and bass. We could also be all over the place but we still have some silver linings.
G & L: Thank you for your time and for sharing your experience with us! No doubt everyone will surely find something to take away from this interview.
If you have found this interview helpful and would like to ask more questions or advice, feel free to connect with Alexander Gruisen via LinkedIn