Interview by Hans Lõugas, www.geenius.ee
Tallinn, June 2018
In July, Tanel Erm, a long-term employee of Skype, will become the new Head of Skype Estonia Development Centre, i.e. the Skype offices in Tallinn and Tartu. In this interview, Erm explains why we shouldn’t think of Skype as an old, boring or stagnant employer in Estonia, what kind of a unique advantage Skype has when compared to other Estonian IT companies and how much of Skype is Estonian after all.
You have worked at Skype for 13 years now, what have you done during this time?
Well, I ended up here almost by accident when Siim Teller, a previous colleague from Everyday.com, went to work for Skype and sent an e-mail asking whether I would like to join as well. The e-mail somehow landed in the junk folder and I wasn’t aware of the opportunity for a while. Nevertheless, I ended up interviewing for a job here. It was a rather risky step in April 2005, as no-one really knew much about Skype back then. The product was on the market, but not internationally renowned yet.
I got started with simpler tasks, such as technical support, system administration, and then moved on from there. My work has been tied primarily to paid call and messaging services, e.g., SkypeIn, SkypeOut and SkypeConnect. The infrastructure of those services has been developed in our office from the very beginning.
In essence, we’re dealing with the creation of a global telecommunications network. We work on questions like what would be the best way to connect Skype calls to a mobile in Botswana or a landline phone in Indonesia? The issues are global. We need to measure the quality of the service, consider the price of what we’re paying for it. We didn’t want to hire a lot of people to work on this manually, so as an engineer, you start figuring out how to automate instead. Working on this took several years.
So you finished work on that task or is it ongoing?
We never run out of work in that regard as the circumstances are changing all the time. It is an extremely dynamic world.
And you should take into account that we don’t just use this for Skype. We are a part of Microsoft, one of the five top technology companies in the world. We work on many other products here in addition to Skype. Some of these include the former Lync, now known as Skype for Business, as well as Microsoft Teams. All of these take advantage of the communications platform.
Skype itself has changed a lot over time. It started out as peer-to-peer to software (calls from one person to another were directed through other people’s computers that had Skype installed – H.L.). By now, we have rebuilt Skype to function as a server-based solution. In the very beginning, we did not have resources for a huge server park, whereas, later we were faced with problems related to mobile devices, for which the peer-to-peer system was not optimal. Cloud services are much more suitable here.
There was a rumour going around in January that the last line of Skype code written in Estonia will be replaced and that the development aspect had been moved away from here. How much of Skype has been created in Estonia?
Skype is made up of a multitude of different parts. Take for example the design that users see; the framework, which makes the user interface work; algorithms in the client program, which communicate with servers; a great deal of infrastructure for messages and calls, without which the end-to-end solution could not function.
So, it is very difficult to answer a question like that. The rumour could be considered true in some aspects, for example, when it come to the peer-to-peer solution. Newer Skype versions really do not use that technology anymore. But this does not mean that there isn’t any code created in our office left in Skype.
We don’t just work on Skype in Estonia and Skype isn’t operated only from Estonia. Most of our teams work with colleagues from Tartu, Prague, Redmond. We are an international company.
You have announced that you’ll be recruiting another 60 people to work in Tallinn. Why is that necessary?
The focal point here is backend cloud services. The majority of those positions are related to the intelligent communications platform used by Skype, Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams and other Microsoft products. We are creating a global and intelligent network of backend services.
And by ‘intelligent’ I mean using our data and machine learning to ensure that every call makes the next one better.
What makes things exciting for me is that we are not building something static, but a system that is capable of learning.
Microsoft’s Development Centre in Tallinn is located in a 5-floor building in Tehnopol area next to the TUT (Tallinn University of Technology) campus.
Do you think you’ll be able to find those 60 experts from Estonia? Or will you be recruiting people from abroad?
Both. We have been rather successful in recruiting talent from abroad.
But I am also certain that we are one of the best choices for Estonian top-level developers, who are currently working for other companies and not yet aware of the great opportunities that we offer.
It has come to my attention that a lot of them don’t even know that we work on things other than Skype here. This is something we have to change.
Some people seem to think that Skype was created in this building back in the day and that’s that. They don’t tend to think of this office as one of the hottest IT companies in Tallinn.
Yes, that is true. And it’s not really making our lives any easier. We haven’t really expanded in the past few years, nor have we carried out any significant recruitment or awareness raising activities. This is about to change as we are about to hire a lot more from the local market.
Then again, last year, IT students found Skype to be the best employer in Estonia in terms of potential. How is that, do you have a separate budget for work with students?
Yes, we have made a conscious effort in this regard. We support hard sciences, for example, through the President’s Chancellery. We are active in universities, offer internships at Microsoft, organise hackathons and attend local technology conferences. We’re working on getting things that might have been left to the side up and running again.
Competition in Estonia keeps intensifying. Taxify got a new investment recently and said that they will do anything it takes to hire the best experts. Even companies from Silicon Valley are setting up offices in Estonia.
We have all the prerequisites for getting the best engineers to work for us. Out of the top companies, there are no Google, Facebook, Amazon or Apple branches in Estonia. We have Microsoft.
All we have to do to succeed in our recruitment efforts is create more awareness of the opportunities that working in a technology company of such magnitude provides.
For example, the fact that we develop the operating system that we work on by ourselves. We develop tools like Visual Studio. It was recently disclosed that Microsoft is about to buy GitHub. We also have our own cloud service platform Azure.
All that gives us the power to grow our global influence more than in any other company in Estonia.
The recreation area of the Skype building includes a gym, saunas, a small library, games and other fun options.
What role does the Head of the Microsoft and Skype development centre play? What is in your power?
Perhaps the best comparison would be to the role of the President in Estonia. It is largely a representative role, the power of which is not direct, but indirect instead.
Even though I am a leader of a significant portion of our employees, this is not only due to my position as the head of this branch office. I also have a representative role; I can work with my vision of where we want to grow and to let people know what it is that we do here.
What does Skype have in store for the next 12, 24 or 36 months? What kind of changes do you have in store?
This is hard to comment on for several reasons. Skype is over a decade old, but the world of technology is constantly changing.
Even our top-level management doesn’t disclose very detailed plans for the next 2 to 3 years. This is because we need to adjust our course of action constantly.
We create prerequisites so that we would be able to innovate quickly, for example, in the form of updates to our technology base and transfer to cloud services. When we take a look at Microsoft’s development in recent years, it is evident how the company has moved from stable boxed products to the field of online services. The aim is to bring something new to consumers within weeks or days. This is a very significant change.
So it is not true that employment at Microsoft or Skype means long and stable work on start-ups for decades to come?
That is very well put. Boring and stable work is not possible in the technology sector, at least not in our company.
It is necessary to keep up with changes and this is one of the reasons why Microsoft has reached its current position. At some point, Microsoft was falling behind, but we managed to turn the situation around and are now taking advantage of our strengths and creating opportunities for innovation.