Overcoming the challenges of hiring for niche tech roles at Pexip

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Michael Andreyev
December 14, 2021
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Pexip is building a communication platform that empowers and connects people across borders, businesses and technologies. The company has a portfolio of products that ranges from self-hosted software to cloud service video solutions. Founded in 2012, Pexip merged with a cloud video service provider Videxio in 2019 and has grown its headcount almost two fold in the last twelve months.

Nicklas Jensen, Pexip’s Talent Acquisition Engineer, told us about the company’s approach to hiring developers for niche positions, keeping remote employees engaged and adapting to the changing labor market.

Why did you decide to hire more developers?

Pexip started working with Toughbyte before merging with Videxio, but both Pexip and Videxio have always been in growth mode and have always needed more people on the technical side. At Pexip we don’t necessarily hire people into specific teams. We have roles that aim towards the specific teams, but once the candidates go through the process, they are in contention for whatever team they find the most interesting. That was the strategy for hiring, it wasn’t so much about looking for a particular kind of developer, but rather for good people that can come in and have a passion for whatever aspect they end up working with. We have such a free structure at Pexip that developers tend to gravitate towards their interests as they grow as people and professionals. After the pandemic hit, there was a boom in video conferencing. In April when it all took hold, our service doubled the usage. That was the moment we realized that although we have been growing all of these years, it hasn’t been to the point we have to grow right now. In the last twelve months we have increased the company size from 200-250 to 500+ people. The need for developers has always been there, but in the last two years with COVID and the place we’ve managed to cement ourselves in, we saw that we needed experienced people within different fields, so, although we have this freedom and flexibility, we actually needed people that could hit the ground running.

Where did you find developers before starting work with Toughbyte?

Both Videxio and Pexip have always worked as white label companies so we never really had a brand name out there, but the video conferencing industry was quite niche and tight-knit, so a lot of the hiring that happened before we started growing happened through our position in the market and we were relying on the people in the company knowing someone and attending the events, etc. Also, there are only four “horses” in the video conferencing industry so if you didn’t want to work at the other three of them, we were the last one left where you could get to do it.

What do you like about working with Toughbyte?

Once things started to take speed and we started to grow, we started looking into agencies and in that regard Toughbyte has been one of the pillars. Since the roles that we look for are quite niche and difficult to hire for and with the collaboration we’ve had with Toughbyte over the years, you are the go-to guys when we have a role that we know is practically impossible to fill. Such roles end up on your plate and usually we end up finding the right candidates. Right now we’re looking for what we call “real-time audio/video people” and these are the profiles we’ve been looking for for years. At the beginning of the year we handed it off to Toughbyte and all the candidates we’ve had since then make it quite far in the process and we have a couple that are in the final stages right now, which is incredible because we’ve been trying to fill this role for years. It’s such a difficult role that if we could have one hire a year, we would be very happy and now we have two in the final process.

What does your hiring process look like now?

What we’ve seen on the market is that a lot of companies have shortened their process because there’s this huge demand for developers and also because it’s the buyer’s market and developers can go wherever they want, so people are trying to get them in the door. We’ve actually not done that at all and currently our process is the same as it has been for ages. We have about five stages. First is a screening interview where you would typically speak with a technical person, myself or an engineering manager with a technical background. This interview is really just to find out if you know what you say you know and whether you like us or not. We try to sell Pexip as much as possible because we know we don’t have a famous name, so it’s really important for us to come out of the gate with a good reason as to why you should be at Pexip. We really want people to have a good idea of what Pexip, what they would get a chance to work with and so on. Then we have a technical interview with one or two developers from the team we think the candidate would fit into based on the first interview. This interview depends on the engineer you would talk to - some people do theoretical problem solving, others put a live editor up and try to do some coding with you and ask some questions. We have people who just ask questions trying to dive a little bit deeper into the candidate’s experience. The idea here is that as much as we are trying to dive into your knowledge, it’s a chance for you to dive into the technical aspects of the team that we think you’d be in. What we also then have is a homework assignment which is controversial in our industry, I think, because people either love it or hate it. We do it because it’s the best way for the candidate to present themselves. Not everyone interviews equally, not everyone is good at it, not everyone feels comfortable with it. We give the homework to everyone, but in cases when we see that happening, we try not to judge candidates too much by the mistakes of the interview. They get a chance to basically create this assignment without deadlines and in any language they’d like. It’s a very open-ended assignment and there are no time constraints because we understand that candidates have lives, so we’re not asking them to implement a feature or do any unpaid work. We are just trying to give them the opportunity to show what they can do. Then we do a homework review where you get to explain the choices you’ve made and then we have a final interview stage. By this time we’re pretty confident that if you’ve made it through all of these steps, you’re the right person for us but it’s also very important for us that you feel that you’re making the right choice. The last stage is a chance for you to make your decision. You get to meet as many people as possible - management, HR, people from the teams that you are going to work closely with. While our people are going to be asking questions, it’s absolutely the chance for you to fire off the last questions you have, clear up any doubts, jump into anything. By the end of this we do an internal go/no go meeting where everyone has to unanimously agree that we are OK with this candidate and then we’ll send the offer to them. It’s a long process, but we see that we don’t have to compromise on anything with the candidates we get in - we know they are a great fit and that they are great technically. It’s a challenge for us right now because we’re losing some candidates to companies that have a much shorter process, but we’re hoping that as time goes on we can make the argument that we provide a better environment. We couldn’t find a good way to shorten the process without compromising on what we’re trying to achieve.

Do you have any tips for other companies hiring developers?

The most important thing you can do is to just give them technical interviews. I think the biggest turn off for a lot of candidates is that all of the interviews are with non-technical people with a coding assignment or something similar. We get a lot of good feedback on the fact that candidates are with developers in the process from start to finish. It costs our developers time, but if you’re a growing company, growing becomes your biggest priority. Making the developers understand that it’s part of their role in the company is a huge plus. Get your developers in front of the candidate, they are absolutely the ones that will tell you if this person fits into the team. The people who are going to work with this person should have a say in whether this person is a fit for the role or not.

Are there any major trends in recruitment that you're seeing?

The biggest and the most obvious trend is the compromise of remote work. Every single candidate at this point expects to be able to work remotely even if only part-time or even if it’s a couple of days a week. The second thing is, because it’s a buyer’s market, developers have so much power these days when it comes to finding the opportunities that fit them. The trend that I’m seeing and that I think the companies should move towards is just honesty. A lot of companies try to brand themselves outward and create this idyllic social media image of themselves, but if that’s not the truth, if that’s just a facade, they will end up burning you. Just talk to your candidates about what’s good and what’s bad. If they don’t trust you, if they don’t feel like you’re telling the truth, they will go to another company of the hundreds that are waiting to hire them. You need to present yourself realistically in the best way and take the candidates’ needs into account. You can’t shape them into the shape of the company, you have to shape the company into the people that are going to be working there.

How did you adapt to changes due to COVID?

Even though we’re a video conferencing company selling the idyllic scenario of everyone working from wherever they are, we had extremely few remote workers before the pandemic. We have key offices around the world and almost every single employee was working in those offices or travelling to those offices regularly. When Corona hit, that wasn’t the possibility any more and we thought: “OK, now our whole sales pitch is tested by ourselves”. One of the first things we did internally was make sure everybody has an environment at home that they can work with - office chairs, screens, etc. The second thing we realized was that a lot of the social stuff we used to do was tied to the offices and we didn’t really have anything when all of a sudden everyone was at home. So we started doing activities together: we created weekly quizzes, people started spinning classes, yoga classes. All of these initiatives were driven by the people in the company, it wasn’t the management saying that we need to have these different things. We converted our kickoffs and hackathons to work remotely and that’s been a challenging process because it’s very different, you’re not working with the same feeling. It’s very different to do a hackathon where everybody is sitting in their living room or their office compared to when everybody is in a building together. We’re still figuring it out and making adjustments, trying to find out how to make everyone feel involved. The key takeaway was to try and just create an open atmosphere, in our case on Slack, where people could find each other for various things, be it gaming, exercise and so on. We have various channels to promote these things. We also try to do “watercooler meetings”: different teams would schedule these meetings every week and whoever wants to can just join in and be a part of it. I think they’ve been a really big success just in terms of trying to get different people to meet each other because that’s what happens in the office when you start random conversations with colleagues. It felt weird in the beginning but we’ve actually had a lot of fun doing it. Our people who had been working remotely before the pandemic were big drivers of such initiatives because they knew what to look out for and what people would be going through in the next few months when they’ll have to sit at home and just stare at their screen. It’s been a good learning experience for us.

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