At first you see just a shadow in the turquoise blue water, so huge it could be the underside of a boot. And yet the shadow has flippers and fins. With the slow and steady strokes of its tail, the whale shark pushes its elongated body and angular skull through the ocean off the coast of Egypt.
It almost seems as if the giant fish is performing a loop for the six divers who are blowing out little bubbles of air below him. At least one of them is clearly showing his enthusiasm, even though they are underwater. Turning pirouettes, fists raised in victory – that's Nikola Spasic in his element. Or rather in one of his elements. For this sentence could just as well be applied when the terminal windows with program code are piling up on his desktop. Nikola is part of the “Cluster Operations” team in umlaut's Belgrade office, a specialist in Microsoft server and cloud infrastructure.
On his laptop we see – of course – a sticker of a diver
In Nikola's home office – still mandatory due to COVID-19 – diving takes a back seat. His control centre consists of two monitors, a mouse and a keyboard, and in front of them a glass of water and a brightly-coloured cup of coffee. On his laptop we see – of course – a sticker of a diver. On the wall in front of him there is a collage of underwater photos – Nikola with friends in the boat, Nikola making faces underwater.
Diving memories in home office
How did it come about that a qualified mechanical engineer with more than 15 years' experience in systems administration spends his free time in a wet suit? 'To be honest, it was because I had got a bit stuck in a job, and I had the feeling I needed a change.' His former everyday work as head of the IT department of a university comprised maintaining all the systems precisely. 'Ideally until the end of time,' he says and laughs. A secure job, but one that always involved doing the same tasks, day after day.
A place of refuge underwater
During a holiday in Egypt, some friends took him along on a diving trip. Initially, he wasn't particularly keen. 'My first thought was that all those creatures that live down there would want to gobble me up.' He struggled into the tight wetsuit, put on the air cylinder and thought, 'Why am I doing this?' Yet when he took his first breath from the mouthpiece of his diving gear, everything changed. 'This weightless feeling, the silence – the only thing you can hear is your own breath. It was pure enjoyment,' says Nikola.
The underwater world became his place of refuge. He travelled to Egypt, Thailand, Maldives, Croatia and to the neighbouring countries around Serbia. 'In the beginning, I jumped into any lake that I could find,' he tells us and laughs. 'Whenever the feeling got too strong that something needed to change, I just went diving.
Ready, set, go!
In the end, his former line manager at the university asked to speak to him – he was already working for umlaut, and he wanted his highly-valued employee to join him. Nikola agreed. Did his encounters with whale sharks and hammerhead sharks, or his explorations of sunken wrecks somehow influence his decision? 'I definitely think that diving has given me more self-confidence,' Nikola says.
Off into the cloud
Things standing still is no longer one of Nikola’s problems. 'I work in an environment in which technology is constantly developing.' In the cloud market in particular, it’s now very unusual for standards to be applicable for longer than two years. The engineers in his team are the company’s absolute experts in this area – their responsibilities include carrying out comparative reviews of cloud providers and setting up company-wide IT structures such as an AWS cloud (run by Amazon themselves as a benchmark).
Of course there is still some routine – security checks, system updates and all the issues that the ticket system throws at them. 'It's important to me to have some variation, but I do in principle also like to work in a systematic and well-structured way,' says Nikola. 'At least I like to be well-prepared for what lies ahead.' Maybe this is why diving is the ideal activity for him – it’s a sport where technology and experience can ensure that the risks taken are calculable.
Diving is like testing: a team sport
At least up to a certain point, as Nikola says – before launching into a final diving story, from the Weissensee, a lake in Austria. It was a rather cloudy day, which meant that visibility underwater was limited. 'Then suddenly a friend's breathing equipment got blocked – and air started streaming out in an uncontrolled manner,' says Nikola. Divers learn what to do if this happens in their first training course: stay calm, come up to the surface slowly. The rule of thumb is not to come up faster than the air bubbles from your own breath. In the darkness of the lake, Nikola kept his gaze on his diving partner's face. Air bubbles were rising. Nikola suddenly felt like he was sinking. 'I was so fixated on the bubbles against the fixed backdrop that I inverted the whole image in my head. It was really scary.' Luckily, he was with his partner. Both reached the surface ok.
A refreshment after the dive
With diving, the same principle applies as it does in many fields – 'we always work as a team'. Apart from excitement and variation, people are the most important motivating factor for Nikola. And despite all this enthusiasm for his diving adventures, he comes back to the subject of his colleagues. 'If I am quite honest, there are lots of people that I have only seen on video call for the past six months and I am really looking forward to seeing them all in person again in the office.'