Day in the Life: Kristjan the university project manager

Project manager Kristjan Klauks on the roof of the University of Tartu Narva College, with Russia's Ivangorod Castle and Estonia's Narva Castle visible in the background.
Project manager Kristjan Klauks on the roof of the University of Tartu Narva College, with Russia's Ivangorod Castle and Estonia's Narva Castle visible in the background. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

I've reached a point where I can't imagine ever going back to a 9-to-5 that requires me to be at my desk all day. While the high season involves responding to a lot of small fires, so to speak, on campus, my job has also taken me to Sakha in Siberia and the deserts of Tajikistan. My name is Kristjan Klauks, and I am a project manager at the University of Tartu Narva College.

My current living situation can be defined as a Bermuda Triangle. I live in Tallinn, work in Narva and my employer's main office is situated in Tartu. In other words, at least eight hours a week I'm behind the wheel, driving between these three points — usually to Narva on Sunday night, Tartu on Thursday, and via Tartu home to Tallinn on Friday night. I don't have any children, but I have a cat that has to put up with all of this. Thankfully the cat has adoptive parents of sorts to help.

On mornings I don't have to drive anywhere, or be anywhere by a certain time, I usually wake up around 7:30, 8 in the morning. And coffee and reading Postimees is a daily morning ritual. I make a point not to watch TV before work, which means I am one less viewer for various morning programmes.

My next step is checking my work email so that I can quickly respond to any fires, so to speak, that have cropped up.

I am a project manager at Narva College, although I actually earned my master's in law. I started out managing small projects in Estonia, but by now, heading into my eighth year, I am already cooperating with partners across Europe, Central Asia and the US. How I ended up in this job after studying law is a bit of a long story.

Sometime in 2004, I met a young woman by the name of Katri Raik at a local joint in Narva. I was a novice public servant at the time, and didn't have many friends in this city. Over time we became good friends, and so we have remained since. When I returned to Estonia in spring 2011 after a stint in Australia, attracted by Estonia's "Bringing Talents Home" ("Talendid koju!") programme, I was very optimistic that with my experience, finding a job in the homeland would be no problem at all. Go figure, though — it was. Excuses included that in my time abroad I had become estranged from life in Estonia and I didn't understand how things worked here anymore, my skills were outdated and so on.

With no other options left, I tried my hand at bartending, and when my friend Katri stopped by the bar where I worked, she decidedly told me that now I would come to Narva. And so a month later I began working at Narva College.

Some of my most memorable experiences in connection with my job at the college involve three trips to the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in Siberia, and a three-day trip down the Lena River. I have gone dogsledding in the dead of winter and understood firsthand that -45C is completely tolerable compared to +30C in the same area. I have driven a Jeep from Dushanbe to the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, stopping to repair the vehicle and then wait for a replacement car. I have actually had plenty of such experiences, ending up in places you never would end up as a tourist.

Out of juice

But my everyday work during the busy season in particular is decidedly less dramatic. The high season in my job is from April through August, which also means no holidays for me over the summer. I actually love that, though; I really love that all of my colleagues are away on holidays, so there is nobody in the building but me, an attendant, and my university students. No colleagues around to ask me to do anything, no difficult concerns, nobody needs anything from you.

Of course, it's another story altogether with the students and their babysitters. I usually get my first call of the day around 8:30 in the morning because someone's omelette was cold or they ran out of apple juice. I in turn then call the café manager, who, upon seeing that it's me calling, is already out the door and on their way to the café themselves.

By no later than 11 in the morning, some lecture hall is out of chalk or paper or something, and something always comes up at lunch. After lunch it's a new round of issues, as the ventilation system is weak, which means it's hot, and everyone ends up sleepy, and this building is just not conducive at all to any kind of learning. And so on. The best nights, typically on Fridays, when I'm nowhere near Narva, involve a late-night phone call with tech support at Telia because the internet at Narva College has stopped working.

The two months when our summer students themselves are in Narva are not boring, and every day involves something good, and something not so good. I personally ascribe to the attitude that it's not worth dwelling on the bad, however, and you should focus on the good.

By mid-August, I and the others are nonetheless so completely exhausted from this constant stress that as we part ways at the end of the summer, we agree that we will "rest" for the next two months, because the whole planning cycle for the following summer begins in November already.

Too much left to the last minute

On that note, I have one major complaint — about the way events are organised and marketed in Estonia. It is unbelievable that by March of any given year, there is still little information available about what is going on that very same summer in Estonia. And if there is anything, then it's only in Estonian — I need it in English, because my partners and students don't all speak Estonian, or even Russian. And then I'm in a jam planning next summer's programme, because my partners want a rough draft of the cultural programme already and the only dates that are set are pretty much the Song Festival, Viljandi Folk and Tartu Hanseatic Days, which naturally all fall on the same weekend or something. And this is despite unreal amounts of money being thrown at various sites that are purportedly dedicated to compiling and promoting these events.

I understand that by May or so, everything has fallen into place and the info is available, but it's too little, too late — nobody is booking plane tickets from the US to Estonia at the last minute. And they say we're developing and promoting tourism to Estonia. Now this bothers me. A lot.

Another thing that bothers me is how some people rush to do a lot of work at the last minute, or in the months leading up to the holidays. I know this is a generalisation, and there are plenty of people who work hard every day, and are more successful as a result. But I have seen cases where someone will work like a dog for two months ahead of a one-month holiday. Or send emails with burning questions at 16:45 on a Friday.

Overall, though, I like my job. If I didn't, I wouldn't be doing it. If you stop liking your job, it's time to look for a new challenge; there's no point in torturing yourself or your employer by staying in a job you don't like.

I love the freedom my job grants me, both in terms of work schedule, lifestyle as well as opportunities to achieve results. I do think I am at a point where I could never go back to a 9-to-5 anymore; I tried it at one point, and this strict sort of schedule just didn't work for me.

From baker to project manager

I was born in Tallinn, but half of my childhood was spent at my grandmother's in Kunda, halfway between Tallinn and Narva. My parents enthusiastically began running a farm in 1990, and so we moved there from Tallinn. The phase understandably passed, however, and five years later I was back in Tallinn, where I remained until my first stint living in Narva.

As a child I took the bus to school from a stop located 3 km from home. It was pretty annoying having to travel that far every day just to take the bus, but what else could you do? I was at least able to ride my bike there, which also counted as exercise. I was also kept busy with work around the farm, which meant that any free time was precious, especially come summer, when the village was filled with parents and children on holiday. Our village had at least a dozen or so kids with whom I was able to play, bike around and do stupid things with. I have no idea if anything goes on there in summer anymore.

I wanted to grow up to be a train driver. I could spend hours at and around Baltic Station in Tallinn, staring at the trains and locomotives there. To this day, I still watch trainspotting videos when stressed — it helps. I have also been deeply influenced by Sergei Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet" and Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita."

In 1996, I was hired as a baker at Fazer. Can you imagine a completely inexperienced guy being hired by a bakery at 18 and then, after some time, being left to work alone overnight, solely responsible for the entire company's bread production? Nonetheless, the plan was for the company to send me to school after I had completed my conscription duty, and I would remain with them. But life throws its own curveballs.

The Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) worked its own magic. I ended up working as an assistant chef — and that's one more thing that nobody could likely imagine, that the troops and conscripts are being fed by one of their own. My boss there was a straight-talking Russian woman named Olga, who more or less forbade me from going back to become a baker and convinced me to become a policeman instead. And so it went. And I remained with the EDF for ten years.

I don't regret any one of these — neither my dreams to become a train driver nor those of baking bread or chasing bad guys. It is, ironically, a project manager that I never expected to become.

I actually strongly believe that there is no point in wasting energy on hand-wringing over one's past. Unless, of course, you have some kind of magical powers to change the past, which you probably don't. That doesn't mean you should forget about it, but there is absolutely no point in wasting your time regretting anything. What's done is done.

Changing self, changing city

On that note, I don't believe the common phrase that "You haven't changed at all." Certainly you have, it just takes more to notice any changes than one evening with old classmates or friends you haven't seen in a long time. Your core self remains the same, of course, but other aspects change. 20-year-old me certainly didn't know everything that I know today. And to claim that all of that wouldn't change a person is simply naive.

Over the years I have grown more self-critical, and sometimes I get really sarcastic. Sometimes you just have to say things outright too — that something is just stupid. In the best case. Sometimes something is idiotic too. I can't stand speaking indirectly for too long. That being said, I have also become more patient, as patience is a requirement in working together with and managing other people. Ohhh is it necessary.

Still, if childhood-me and current-me were to to meet today, I think each of us would tell the other, "Not bad at all, old chap, not bad at all!"

Narva has changed over the years as well. When I first came here in 2002, there were no "markets" here of any kind — no minimarkets, no supermarkets, no hypermarkets. The grocery store was located in the basement of a 9-storey building, where the Soviet-era cash register was manned by a grumpy lady with overbleached hair. No "Hello," no "Thank you," and you just felt like you had to apologise just for coming into the store.

The only more or less decent store was the Konsum supermarket at Astri Shopping Centre. But there was no cinema, no bookstore, speak nothing of clothes shops. The clothing situation was altogether hopeless in Narva; the stuff being offered was some kind of cheap garbage brought over from Russia. You got by speaking Estonian only at EMT and Statoil filling stations, and maybe at a couple of R-Kiosk convenience stores. But the streets were clean in the summer, at least, and there were flowers everywhere — so it was much prettier than in Tallinn.

But now — retail is booming, you can get by with basic Estonian everywhere, and there's a cinema and a bookstore. The Open Stage will soon be opened in Narva as well. If we could only just get the street lights and the green wave of traffic lights figured out...

Fewer strategies, more actual work

There are some things I wish would change about life and work in Estonia in general, however. First of all, priorities, priorities, priorities! You cannot force things onto other people that you yourself do not approve of. Work on getting your own life together and spend your energy on improving that before starting to teach others about how to live their own. If you have enough time to complain in online forums about some kind of sixth-rate problems or moan in general about how terrible everything is, surely then everything in that person's own life is going well? Like, don't they have anything else to worry about?

I think entrepreneurs are on the right track when they talk about how there's no productivity and no value added. But there can't be if you have too many processes that require many employees and half of said employees are spending days at a time on social media and are, by the way, the loudest complainers about how employers are the devil.

I personally don't believe, for example, that anything would change significantly in Estonia's education system if one third of teachers were fired, or in the government if one third of officials were let go. Unfortunately, however, so many regulations and processes have been introduced that they alone already kill off any initiative to do things more effectively from the get-go. How many people are needed to sign a contract? How many? In my experience, the answer is currently six — me, my immediate superior, my immediate superior's immediate superior, an attorney, a coordinator and the signee. And this doesn't even take into account the same process going on at the other end. Does all of this endless coordination result in a better contract? Does anything improve as a result? Hardly — a contract is still ultimately just a contract.

All these development strategies, plans, self-assessments and other such things too. Pages upon pages of text are produced that don't interest anyone and aren't read by anyone, but hours of work by dozens of people have gone into it and some controller somewhere is certainly happy now. The question remains, however — what good have these done? Certainly less good than if these same people were to have spent all of that time addressing actual topical issues. And I'm sorry for all the time I have to spend on all of these measures, input-output indicators and other such things in my own work.

Leisure time

Some people take time after work to go running or hit the gym. I haven't worked out in some seven years at least. My desire to do so just kind of disappeared, and I just can't seem to get back on track. And I know any cardiologists reading this are already clutching their heads, thinking, "Man, you can't do that." But I won't even start promising to start improving myself in that regard. It's like quitting smoking — you can't force anyone to, they have to decide themselves to make that change.

What I do after work is look up some film to watch, read, or get together with friends. In Narva, the last of these is usually on Thursday nights, when our little gang, codename "Northern Yard Club" meets and talks about their past week.

My days off are similar, to an extent. I'm either at home, together with friends or travelling somewhere, either within Estonia or in another nearby country. If it's been an especially communication-heavy week, I tend to decompress from it by just lying on the couch in complete silence, not making a sound, with the Simpsons or some classical music on in the background.

I want a new flat, but I'm very picky, because the majority of places being offered are either overpriced shacks or located somewhere really remote. I don't want to be that person who voluntarily bought a flat or house somewhere like Jüri or Peetri and then spends every day sitting in their car in the traffic jam in Ülemiste on their way into and out of Tallinn.

Summer 2019 is ahead, but I have three weeks of holidays to look forward to before that. I'll be going somehere far away, at least four time zones away from Estonia, which will ensure that nobody can make me do anything while I'm gone.

If there were one thing I could change about my current living arrangements, I would make Tallinn my home base. Then I could build up normal relationships with my Tallinn friends again; having been in Narva for so long, everyone knows they can't rely on me when making plans, because something always comes up and my schedule changes.

But I don't live in an ideal world, and it's unlikely that I'll be awaited with open arms by some employer in Tallinn. At the end of the day, however, the two cities are only 212 km apart, which is further than Helsinki, but it takes just as long to get there.


Day in the Life is a new weekly series by ERR News telling the stories of everyday Estonians, their livelihoods, and their lives. If you know someone whose story you feel should be told, email us at [email protected].

Download the ERR News app for Android and iOS now and never miss an update!

Editor: Dario Cavegn

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: