“Explore and conquer” — an interview with Fraunhofer IAIS alumnus Salah Zayakh

On pioneers, settlers and town planners

Salah Zayakh baut derzeit als Geschäftsführer ein Corporate-Start-up auf. Ein wichtiger Baustein seiner Karriereleiter waren die vier Jahre als wissenschaftliche Hilskraft am Fraunofer IAIS.
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Salah Zayakh has held various roles in software development, corporate strategy and management — most recently as the founder and managing director of a technology start-up in the payments industry. This wide range of perspectives has always brought together three key goals for him: to understand the big picture, combine entrepreneurship and technology, and lead people to new directions. This Fraunhofer IAIS alumnus firmly believes that trying things out and learning together is essential for lasting success. His motto is “never be satisfied with the status quo”. There’s always a way, first of all. And you’ll usually find a better one further down the line.


Mr. Zayakh, we’re delighted to have you here at Fraunhofer-Alumni e. V. You have now founded your own corporate start-up, which you’ve been running as managing director for the past year. How did you get to this point?

Thank you very much for inviting me, Mr. Schindler! When I look back on the varied — some might even call it adventurous — path my life has taken, I see three motivating factors that have guided me the whole way: Firstly, I like to broaden my horizons and incorporate relevant issues into my work — issues that inspire me, often as a pioneer. Secondly, I don’t simply work with my partners and colleagues — I learn as much as I can from them. Thirdly, I’ll often take on difficult and unpleasant challenges if overcoming them will make the company stronger.

These three factors have motivated me throughout my life: during my mathematics degree, in my research for the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and in my work as a developer, architect, agile coach, product manager, digital strategist and, finally, in management.

Initially, I worked in various sectors in start-ups, medium-sized companies and corporations. In early 2020, when I was working at a major German corporation, I was given the task of investigating the question of what happens when we bring together technology, digital strategy and finance. This question quickly crystallized into a business idea, an idea that I had the privilege of developing into a corporate start-up, which I then founded and headed up as managing director.

Could you give an example of a time when you had to step out of your usual area of work?

Sure, I have only to look back on my time at Fraunhofer IAIS! During my time there, I developed something called the “Science Mapper”, a tool used for anticipating scientific trends and visualizing them on an interactive map. It achieves this using algorithms run on graphs with billions of nodes and even more edges. At that time, my comfort zone was in probability theory, graph theory and machine learning. I also had to teach myself how to operate clusters of hundreds of computers so that I could run the necessary algorithms — at the time, there were hardly any practical frameworks for doing that. I also had to develop a website that was complex yet also user-friendly. That was completely new territory for me.

But I didn’t limit myself to developing scientific scripts. I found out how the experts do it, got my head around the industry standards and took on various roles — for example, in user experience design, distributed computing, database optimization and web standards. I also learned how to get people on board with my ideas and how to organize projects.

And you did this all under your own steam?

Nobody can do all that on their own in any sort of reasonable time frame. I’m very grateful to many different people for their help. Whenever I got stuck, my colleagues at the institute helped me with research questions and project management. Some friends from university helped me with the web development, while experts helped me to design and optimize databases, and to develop strategies for distributed computing. During this process, I made an important observation: People are more than happy to share what they know as long as you approach them about it in the right way.

I really enjoy learning from others. But I also like to share my own knowledge and experience with other people. I also work part-time as a lecturer at a private university. I personally believe that mentoring is our most important tool when it comes to personal and professional development.

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Anyone founding a new company is entering uncharted territory in the jungle, so to speak. The mathematics graduate advises young founders to gather around them a team of pioneers and settlers whom they can "trust blindly. Salah Zayakh (1st from right) takes this quite literally.

Did you get all the support you needed each time you came up against a challenge?

When I was working as a software developer at a medium-sized technology company, I ran into a seemingly minor problem with serious implications. All the developers were using a platform called Eclipse. The version we were using was very outdated and we weren’t able to update it because our software platform was linked to it. Due to the general pressure to deliver, as well as the complex nature of the problem, nobody had the time or the inclination to identify and resolve the dependencies.

The updated version would have massively boosted productivity among my hundred or so fellow developers. But I couldn’t solve this problem on my own. So I pushed for a solution and started experimenting. Eventually, a team of like-minded colleagues joined me in resolving the dependency and installing the update, which included several years’ worth of features and bug fixes. To start with, it felt a bit like mining for gold. At first, everyone just stands there watching you, amused, as you dig around in the soil. But as soon as they see the first glint of gold, they all grab a shovel and join in.

Simmering frustrations in a company are often a sign of stifled potential. If you’re able to push through internal opposition and find a remedy for these frustrations, instead of constantly avoiding them, you’ll find you are often rewarded with new opportunities and possibilities. In our case, productivity in software development shot through the roof.

Did you receive this kind of support at Fraunhofer, too?

I first joined Fraunhofer during my mathematics degree. This work enabled me to finance my studies and to make a living, while also giving me the opportunity to apply my theoretical knowledge of mathematics and computer science in practice — I got to see how the theory works in the wild, so to speak.

I had some brilliant supervisors at the IAIS. They set targets for me and allowed me a great deal of freedom to conduct independent research, even when I was still a research assistant. I learned how to document complicated content in a scientifically sound and comprehensible way, how to organize myself in a complex environment and, above all, how to ask the right questions. Sometimes I’d spend days barking up the wrong tree before one of my supervisors put me back on track at our next meeting.

I also fondly remember being allowed to use the Fraunhofer IAIS computer clusters to run my CPU-intensive and highly parallelized algorithms. Occasionally, I’d crash the clusters with faulty code or accidentally swamp the hard drives with data over the weekend. Fortunately, with a bit of help, I was always able to correct these errors quickly. Having the freedom to experiment like this was very important for me.

Does the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft still play an important role in your life?

Absolutely! Even now, I still draw on many of the lessons I learned at the institute in Birlinghoven. I’m also still in touch with some of my former colleagues. In addition to this valuable network, I also benefit from the reputation of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft; their opinions are always welcome where I work.

The motivating factors I mentioned earlier — achieving pioneering work, learning continuously and tackling even unpleasant challenges — also flow directly into my current work of managing the start-up. Here’s a concept that one fantastic coach taught me: Pioneers never stay in the same place for long. Their spirit of discovery always keeps them venturing into uncharted territory. The trail left by these pioneers is then followed by settlers who start building on the newly discovered land. As the settlement grows into a town, it needs complex and scalable infrastructure. That’s where the town planners come in.

When I developed the strategy for a new company in 2020, that was pioneering work. Turning that strategy into a real-life company was settler work. And scaling the company up is town-planner work. This analogy also nicely demonstrates the path from an idea to a prototype to an established product. As you can see, my career path, which has led me from university to the Fraunhofer institute and on to the world of business, has fully prepared me for the task of founding my own company. I was also lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, which was obviously another key factor.

On a basic level, people and their skills can be roughly sorted into the three categories “pioneers, settlers and town planners”. Most of the people we meet at university are pioneers, conducting basic research. At the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, we also come across settlers who build on these basic foundations to create functioning and innovative prototypes. Then in the private sector, town planners develop these prototypes into products, scale them up and sell them. The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is not known as the link between science and industry for nothing.

Could you tell us a bit more about your everyday work? Why is it so challenging to found a start-up?

In an established company, you have lots of structures and resources to fall back on in your everyday work. You have to expend a great deal of energy to change these structures, whereas in a new start-up, it’s the other way round: You have to expend energy to build the structures in the first place. We are so exploratory in our approach that, as soon as we’ve done something in the same way twice, we say it’s a new process. Rightly or wrongly — it’s not always clear right away. Our daily work is shaped by “educated guesses”.

This is where those pioneers I mentioned earlier come into play: Founding a company is like standing in the middle of a jungle, armed with a machete and a compass. There’s no map. You climb up a tree and see your destination clear as day — but it’s still far away, at the top of a high mountain. Back on the ground, you start making your way through the jungle toward your destination. Sometimes you need to use your machete to clear a path through the thicket. Sometimes you decide to take a detour, when you hear a predator roaring, for example, or when you come across an impassable gorge. You deal with these setbacks as they arise, using the compass to right your course again and again. Once you reach your destination, you’ve gathered enough information to be able to draw a map — at least for the area you’ve explored.

Your current project is a spin-off from a larger company. What are the main differences between this and founding a start-up independently?

The differences boil down to security and flexibility, among other factors. Spin-offs from larger companies are often more financially secure and don’t have to worry about strenuous investment rounds. In exchange, they are restricted by some corporate policy or other and, in some cases, are required to align themselves with the strategy of the parent corporation. For independent start-ups, it’s often the other way round: more organizational freedom, but less financial security.

What has it been like for you running a tech start-up during the coronavirus pandemic?

Good employees are rare — especially in the field of software development. According to some studies, we’re going to see some 500 million new applications developed in the next three years. There are an estimated 27 million software developers around the world. That’s around six applications per developer per year, clearly illustrating a massive demand for technologists. The pandemic has made people even less willing to switch careers[ES1] . That’s a real challenge for any company — but especially for start-ups.

The sudden switch to remote working added another complication. Not everyone had all the equipment they needed at first. Even now, many of my colleagues still don’t have a proper workplace at home. We’re not experiencing those chance workplace interactions, such as bumping into each other in the corridor or at the coffee machine. Almost every discussion requires a meeting. We quickly realized that we had to rethink the ways we were working together. This involved creating space for social interaction and collaboration, using more asynchronous methods of communication and — depending on the virus infection rates — finding opportunities to get together in person from time to time. We also followed the examples of remote work models set by well-known companies.

The pandemic has also shown us some benefits to working from home. Flexible working hours are highly effective; it’s no problem at all if your toddler clambers onto your lap in the middle of a video call to wave inquisitively at mummy or daddy’s colleagues. And less commuting means that our employees get to spend less time sitting in stressful traffic jams and more time with their families; it also reduces traffic congestion and our impact on the environment.

Based on everything you’ve experienced, what advice would you give to new start-up founders? Be brave and have grit, which I define as a combination of passion, determination and diligence. It’s worth noting that psychologists do not associate this characteristic with intelligence, but rather with personality.

Cultivate a clear vision and surround yourself with the right team! Especially when you’re starting out, you’ll need pioneers and settlers whom you can trust implicitly and who are willing to venture into unknown territory and think outside the box. That is to say, you’ll need people with a growth mindset or a can-do, will-do attitude. Mistakes are going to happen. Let them! The important thing is that you learn from them together and ensure they don’t happen again. Act less like a manager and more like a leader.

Look after your health and don’t leave your loved ones behind! It’s quite common for a start-up founder to be working over 80 hours a week, especially in the beginning. Have I eaten sensibly today? Did I manage to get out of the office and do a bit of exercise this week? When was the last time I rang my best friend? These are all questions that are easy to forget in the first few years of running a new start-up. Remember: If the founder falls apart, so does the start-up.

Thank you for talking to us, Mr. Zayakh.


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"I first joined Fraunhofer during my mathematics studies. That way, I was able to finance my studies and my livelihood, and on the other hand, I had the chance to apply my theoretical knowledge from mathematics and computer science in a practice-oriented way. I had great supervisors at IAIS. They set up goals for me and gave me a lot of freedom to do independent research even as a research assistant."