Taking the open path with an open mind: how a Platform.sh VP found her vocation
Maria Antinkaapo had been at Platform.sh for four months when her manager, Robert Douglass, asked for a meeting out of the blue. She felt as if she had finally gotten a grasp on her position as a customer success account manager, but was still nervous about the meeting. Maria had been the first hire for a newly established role at Platform.sh, a role she had initially thought she was totally unsuited for but had gamely decided to give a try. After all, you never knew where a path would take you until you took it. After seeing Robert’s meeting request in her inbox, she feared the path might be about to come to an end.
“I was convinced that I did something badly wrong. It was one of those ‘Ok, I’m probably going to get fired’ moments,” she remembers. “I felt so underqualified to join the company, and now was the time that they had realized it too.”
Robert started the meeting by saying he had decided to restructure the customer success department and wanted to create a support team for pre-sales and a separate customer care team. “I want you to run the customer care team,” he said. The path hadn’t ended; it had spread open in front of her.
Crossing paths with Platform.sh
Maria was a student at a business school in her hometown of Helsinki, Finland. Her studies included a focus on IT support and she later put those skills to use helping out her father, an entrepreneur, in his office and running the operations of a local theater. She was content with her life and had no thoughts about launching a career.
“I never really considered that I needed to have a career. My husband had a career,” she says. “I was just doing part-time stuff, whatever happened to come along.”
Still, in the spring of 2017, one of her friends, a former Platform.sh employee, urged Maria to interview with the company for a position on the support team. Maria decided to give it a shot, even though she assumed she didn’t have the technical skills for the role. Robert, then the VP of customer success, quickly agreed with her assumption. However, Robert saw in her a talent for operations and management.
“He told me he wanted to keep in touch and that he had a different role in mind that I might fit in. I just saw it as a polite way to end the conversation and didn’t expect to ever hear back from him again.”
But that summer she did hear from Robert again when he offered her the customer success account manager position. Then just four months later she found herself promoted to director of customer care.
She accepted the position with mixed emotions. Her early struggles at the company were still fresh in her mind—spending entire meetings Googling acronyms and technology terms while worrying that at any moment her colleagues would realize she was completely not cut out for her job.
But her talents continually shone through her self-doubts. And after a year as director of customer care, Maria was again called into a meeting with Robert. He told her he had decided to create and spearhead a developer relations team at the company and wanted her to take over his position as VP of customer success—the biggest department at Platform.sh.
“At that point, I thought ‘Ok, I like this place, I like the people I work with, I work well with everyone, let’s try this,” she reflects. “And it has been an amazing ride. I’m really lucky to work with such smart and wonderful people.”
From 2018 to 2019, Platform.sh experienced a growth spurt doubling its number of employees. Maria was challenged to create a well-organized structure within her department quickly and adapt to the evolving needs of a fast-growing business.
“The support team was going to about 30 people, but we only had one direct manager,” she remembers. “We decided to build a more organizational structure within the team and have regional managers. It was a very stressful time but extremely fun and rewarding to figure out how to work all of this out.”
“I enjoy figuring out how to make something work. You have a challenge and you have a goal, and I like to think about the resources that are present and the ones that need to be added to get to that goal.”
Play together, work together
Maria had long been an active member of the EVE Online gaming community. EVE Online is an online computer game set in outer space where the players work together to create megacorporations and massive starship fleets. It was the perfect forum for Maria’s operational and management abilities. And as a platform on which players cooperate with people they have never met in real life, it was the perfect training ground for achieving success at Platform.sh.
In its early beginnings, Platform.sh employed nine people from the EVE Online gaming community, including the friend that encouraged Maria to first apply to the company. These preexisting relationships helped the fledgling company establish a culture of collaboration across borders.
“Through the community, we were able to find people that we already knew were resilient, hard-working, and had a good attitude. Especially in a small team that’s growing, having a group of people that encourages each other really makes a difference,” she says.
Maria remembers numerous in-game conversations while playing EVE Online in which her colleagues would discuss operational issues from work and debate over the solution of product fixes.
“So many solutions were found because we just hammered out the solutions while playing with each other,” Maria says.
Today, Maria says she considers herself privileged to be working with an autonomous and talented team she can 100% rely on.
“I’m lucky to have such incredibly smart and wonderful people in my teams,” she says. “I see my role as someone who’s just there to ensure that they have everything they need in order to be successful in what they do and to remove any blockers from them. I really enjoy fostering all these talents and let them grow.”
Maria also praises her colleagues from the People Ops Team for doing an extraordinary job in identifying the best personalities to join the Platform.sh team despite the accelerating growth rate.
“The People Ops team does cultural fit interviews to get a feel if the applicant is continuing to work well with the existing team. I think that has been incredibly successful in making sure that, even though we grow really fast, the family-like atmosphere still stays around.”
There's nothing remotely easy about managing remotely
Even though Maria had experience managing people as well as entire communities before, managing a company’s biggest department has had its own challenges and opportunities.
“I think the way that you manage a team has a really big impact on the health of the organization as a whole. If you’re in an office environment, you might be able to pick up on if someone is going through a rough time, but you don’t see people’s faces or moods a lot when you’re remote. As a manager, this means you need to be extra perceptive, have regular one-on-ones, and just check in with people on how they are doing,” she says.
Platform.sh’s fast-paced, multi-time zone online environment can sometimes make people feel that they need to be constantly available to respond to the needs and inquiries of their colleagues. Maria says that it’s important for managers to pay attention to their team and prompt people to step back if necessary to avoid potential burnouts.
“One of the biases against remote work is that people often question whether remote workers actually do work. But I can say we've had the complete opposite experience. We have people who are working all the time because, unlike in an office, there is no natural indicator to stop working. We often have to remind them to stop.”
Encouraging learning rather than perfection
Maria was born and raised in Finland, a progressive country in which inclusivity and equality are natural values. She says she’s been lucky to never have experienced gender inequality or workplace harassment. However, she says she is aware of the workplace challenges for women, particularly in the tech industry. She encourages people regardless of their gender or personal backgrounds to keep pursuing their goals, no matter how discouraged they might feel at times.
“As a woman, I would never ever want to be in a situation in which I got hired just because I'm a woman—that would feel insulting in every way. But if the group you’re picking from is imbalanced, then you might want to try to bring more balance to it by opening your mind and taking a closer look at the minority applicants. And perhaps just take a chance and see what they can grow up to be.”
By taking a chance on Maria, Robert ended up gifting Platform.sh with an outstanding VP of customer success. And even though she initially never thought of customer success as a potential career, she now successfully leads three teams with nearly 60 people in total.
“In some situations in my professional life, I felt like an underdog, but I kept reminding myself that I have useful skills to add to any situation. In the meantime, I can listen and learn from others and improve whatever skill needs to be improved,” Maria says. “I didn’t make it this far because I was skilled or talented—because I really wasn’t. I am where I am because of persistence and learning from other people.”