Ant Portrait: Melanie Applincourt
Today we talk with Melanie Applincourt. An engineer by training, Project Manager by profession and technologist by passion, Melanie is URBANTZ’s co-founder and COO.
This is the first conversation of a series of interviews with URBANTZ employees or Antz like we affectionately call each other. Through these conversations, we want to get to know the person behind the title and understand their motivations.
Diogo: Can you please share what it is that you do at URBANTZ and what a typical day for you is like?
Melanie: Yes, I’m the COO - so I’m in charge of operations. I need to make sure that everything works properly for our customers; but also from an organizational perspective, that all the teams are aligned with each other and the company’s strategy. Part of my mission is to support and coach people about the onboarding of customers - I like to act as a mentor and to help people grow. My typical day at Urbantz is quite busy. I do a lot of different activities. That might change in the future, but for now, it involves tasks with both micro and macro detail level. I work closely with the different team leaders to ensure that everybody is aligned. I like to arrive quite early to the office, before everyone, so that I have time to plan my day and define my priorities - that’s very important. When people arrive, I spend a lot of time talking to them, for example about the strategy, about roll-outs of projects for customers or about specific aspects of the product. I frequently have calls with customers, Project and Product Managers on the customer side. I’m still in contact with some of the bigger clients to ensure that everything is on track. I often leave the office late and it’s the same as in the morning, when nobody’s there, and I have the time to do things I couldn’t do during the day. For me, a day is like a sprint run, where I have time to stretch in the morning and in the evening.
Kasia: We’ve recently talked about the role of sports in work-life balance. How do sports help you in your daily work?
M: We are not machines and we cannot be efficient 100% of the time! I see us a bit like athletes, that sometimes have to rest. This means that if you’re too focused on just “doing, doing, doing”, you’ll reach a point where you lack ideas. It’s important to me to boost creativity by taking a step back and taking a look at things in the long term, not only looking at our feet. We need to think on a more strategic level. Doing sports helps me to step back and have that view. I’m also a very active person. So, sports are a good way to release energy and focus on my own body. When I’m in the office, I need to focus on my colleagues or customers to make them happy. Sports is a means to focus and align myself.
"I like technology and I like using it. I wanted to build a product that would help people."
D: Today, women account for only 17% of ICT students and professionals. What made you choose this path?
M: For me, it was very natural. At around 14 years old, I chose the scientific path at school because I loved mathematics! At the time, my goal was to become a math teacher. I guess in the end, I changed my career path a bit, but it was always natural for me. I guess I moved on from math because it got too theoretical and I didn’t like that. I realized that I needed to build something, to create a product for people. That’s why I decided to study engineering in France. There, I had one year of experimenting, of doing a lot of different things: electricity, microprocessing, IT, etc. With that experience, IT was the subject that I was the most passionate about, where you can build a product meant to help people very quickly. I like technology and I like using it. I wanted to build a product that would help people.
D: What do you think we lack in the tech industry to attract more girls and women?
M: That’s a tough question. I’m surprised about the figure of 17% today - at my school, in my year we were around 6% of women. So, a bit fewer than today. It might be a cultural stereotype about IT. In the 1960s and 80s, there were a lot of innovating women in this sector and suddenly it changed. Today, if you ask someone about how they see IT professionals, maybe 8 out of 10 people will have the image of a geeky person in mind, who’s not open to other people and spends most of the time with his computer only. On the other side, culturally, we associate women with working in communication, healthcare, jobs where you interact with people. For instance, in Asia, the ratio of women in IT is very different. It’s mostly about the representation people have in their minds of how a developer or a person in IT looks like. Often, companies looking to recruit for IT by default have a man in mind. It’s a big challenge to change this and it will take time. It’s not something that will change in a couple of months. The change starts with the students: for example, when you’re around 12, you need to choose your study path, and at school they show some promotional videos about women in IT, that they’re not geeky. As one of the few women at my university, I even participated in the production of some of those promotional videos.
"A start-up is sometimes quite an emotional lift."
K: What charms you in an industry like ours, on the crossroads between tech and logistics?
M: I really love to build products that will change people’s lives. That will make life easier. This is really what I like in technology. Within technology you have few limits: it’s always possible to innovate and create new things. For me, it’s a good way to quickly innovate for people. Create something to help someone and have an impact. This is what I’m really passionate about. This is where logistics comes in. For me, it’s a challenge because a lot of people in the industry still work with old systems or no system at all: just pen and paper. I think that by using IT solutions we can have an added value in this area - there is a lot of space to be more efficient. And logistics is a big challenge in the cities today. I live in the city and I know we can do a better job making logistics more sustainable: to save money, kilometers and reduce CO2 emissions – using IT solutions is one way.
D: That is where URBANTZ solution comes in?
M: Yeah, of course. I’ve decided to join URBANTZ at the very beginning. Of course, there was the founding team, but there was also the product itself – the fact that we can contribute to something bigger. Being very humble, I love to see URBANTZ contributing to make the city cleaner, with less traffic and the life of people in the city easier, more enjoyable. For example, e-commerce has a growing importance in cities, and we shouldn’t manage logistics by decreasing the number of orders delivered, as the number of orders is increasing. So, we need to give people in the field a better way to deliver more without wasting more resources. On the other hand, I wanted to participate in building a product that contributes to offering an outstanding experience to the recipients, with better services, quality and visibility.
K: Are we going that way?
M: Yes, we are. We’re really going in the way that we targeted. Two things: excellence in the operations – the way our customer is managing first and last mile operations. And excellence in service and customer experience – what we build is also to make the final recipient happy. I’m very proud when I see people sharing their positive experience. I’m very proud of that, and to see that our customer can do a better job using URBANTZ.
D: Looking back at the last 4 years, what was your biggest challenge? And your biggest achievement?
M: The biggest challenge… there are so many when you launch a start-up. At first, it was to manage the risk of building something from scratch. I would say that 4 years ago, there was nothing. Before URBANTZ I had a permanent contract in a big company - it was a jump for me. To manage this kind of risk was a challenge. And then a quite basic challenge is not to give up. But it’s important. A start-up is sometimes quite an emotional lift. Sometimes you win something and you feel so happy, and then one week after you lose something and you are at the bottom – like all the weight of the world is on your shoulders. At the beginning, I wasn’t able to sleep when a client would say ‘no’ to us - I wasn’t used to that in my previous career and I felt really frustrated and emotional. In my opinion the greatest achievement is the team we build. When we started there were just the three founders and two employees. And now we are more than 30 people. All these people bring something to URBANTZ as a company and as a product. This is a wonderful achievement! Another big win was signing big corporate customers. People do not always realise, but it’s not common for big ‘brick and mortar’ groups to choose start-ups to handle this kind of critical operations. We are now in a scale-up phase, but we had some great wins 1-2 years ago when we found early-adopters ready to trust us. And they did not regret their choice, we did a great job.
"Go ahead. Don’t be afraid. A woman can make a difference."
K: As a successful woman in ICT, what would you say to a girl wanting to join the industry? What advice would you have liked to get?
M: Go ahead. Don’t be afraid. Forget about the cliché. Being in this world without a lot of women is a plus. A woman can make a difference. It’s the same in logistics, when we look at our customers, we see that there are very few women. In my case, it’s the combination of two ‘men’s worlds’. I’d just say to go ahead and don’t be afraid. There are lots of things to learn and bring to this industry.
D: Finally, what is your vision of the future in tech?
M: Again, it’s a difficult question. I see a big potential for IT to help people. What I would love is for people to focus on where they can have real added value: creativity, complex problems and collaboration. IT is meant to replace all the ‘monkey-work’ so that we can benefit from a better quality of life. IT is already supporting new businesses and opportunities, and I see it continuing this way. We see that in mobility, with a lot of apps available. Another major trend is to develop solutions that will not only react but also anticipate. It’s like with URBANTZ - the objective is to anticipate incidents and avoid mistakes instead of just trying to solve them. In the end, it’s just about making people’s lives better.
D: Thank you very much.
M: You are welcome. Thank you!
This interview has been edited for better understanding.