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CuriosityStream CTO tells how hiring Ukrainian team helped them lift conversion

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This time the hero of our interview is Andre Silva, CTO at CuriosityStream. The company provides a video streaming service for the most curious minds that are eager to discover the world of documentaries. CuriosityStream piles together visionaries in every major field collecting thousands of documentaries in one place. 

andre silva curiositystream

We were excited to find out whether the days of classic television are numbered. We also asked Andre how remote development team in Ukraine helps CuriosityStream develop new features and increase the number of views, and what are the benefits of hiring offshore developers. Keep reading to find out the answers to these and many other questions.  

A senior software engineer

We were excited to find out whether the days of classic television are numbered. We also asked Andre how remote development team in Ukraine helps CuriosityStream develop new features and increase the number of views, and what are the benefits of hiring offshore developers. Keep reading to find out the answers to these and many other questions.  


Topics covered:

Q: Tell us about CuriosityStream – what services you provide, who your target audience is, and what differentiates you from others?

So CuriosityStream, I would say, is a world-class factual streaming platform and the easiest way to describe it is to compare our service with Netflix. We’re Netflix for factual entertainment. It means our consumers can access us the same way they would access Netflix – through mobile apps, TV apps, and any kind of connected app. In addition, you can also access us through distribution partners, so that would be cable operators and digital services such as Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Channels, SlingTV just to name a few. We’re currently promoting our service to other locations, including Ukraine. 

So CuriosityStream is a global streaming service that can be accessed in several ways. We are also exploring other venues of reaching our customers like corporate subscriptions and education partnerships. 

Q: With Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, streaming business seems to be thriving next years. How does it feel to work in such a dynamic landscape?

I think it’s energizing. The popularity of streaming services means the demand for this type of content is only growing. We’re in alignment with the market, so we can also ride the wave. More and more consumers are shifting away from cable TVs to streaming services. They do it mainly because they prefer to access the content on-demand – when and where it’s comfortable for them. 

Even if our customers are on their way in a train or sitting and waiting with nothing to do, they can watch their favorite documentaries on CuriosityStream. So that’s exciting and I think there’s a lot of room for us to grow, because we’ve already seen that in the past and expect to see the same kind of growth in the future.   

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Q: What 3 things should streaming companies do to thrive and stay on the top of the list?

I don’t think there are three things. I would rather say there’s only one thing and that’s to listen to your customers and fulfill their needs. As a result, you’ll build a service with the customer’s input. 

Our core responsibility is to provide the content customers are seeking and make it easily accessible to them. At CuriosityStream, we aim to remove all possible inconveniences and make sure that when a person wants to watch something, it’s instantly available for them. That’s what we do as a platform – try our best to make simple tasks work exceptionally well. 

Q: In your opinion, what is the most useful function of the CuriosityStream platform?

It’s definitely the content, like I said – our product is the content. But if I were to say about features – it’s everything. I can’t highlight one thing, because if I only isolate one, it means the whole product can’t operate well. I think that I’m happiest about our core features – video streaming and video playback. We invested lots of time and money to make sure that we got it right. 

I’m generally happy about most of the things that we have. But it’s a startup and there are still many areas that need improvement. 

Q: The days of classic television are numbered. If it’s true, why?

That’s an interesting question, because classic television existed even before cable revolution as off the air TV entertainment. In the classic sense of people getting TV through cables – we all know that’s not an efficient method of delivery. 

The question is more like – are we going to get rid of live streaming? Will live entertainment come to an end? I don’t think so. I personally think it will still be around since people find live content engaging. They always seek human connection and with live content there always is the human connection. 

For sure, live streaming will thrive in the sports domain, news services will also remain at the top. But even TV series and other formats that are real-time in nature will stay popular, I don’t think it’s going to disappear anytime soon. 

Q: More than 10 years ago, the appearance of such mass-streaming services as YouTube and Netflix has started a new era of online entertainment. How do you see the future of your niche?

The thing is that history tends to repeat itself. Just like the cable companies have started to bundle a bunch of channels together. We’re gonna see digital streaming services also getting bundled. Because the only way to offer value is to reduce the number of options and give customers a greater discount. That’s what we currently are observing with services like Amazon Prime, Roku channels, and Apple TV+ – they’re aggregators rather than regular subscription streaming services. 

I think aggregation will take its rightful place, because consumers are primarily seeking value. In most cases, they want to cut expenses and time, which becomes possible with the help of streaming aggregators. 

Q: Tell us more about the values you promote at CuriosityStream. How do you help your employees grow professionally?

We don’t have our values written on a wall or anything like that. In some ways, our values are a bit dynamic. But as a team we certainly have a number of values that we try to foster and that we look for when reviewing candidates. The first and the foremost thing that I look for is honesty – being honest to oneself and to others. Honesty is the driving force of trust and without trust you can’t function well, especially when you’re a small startup. 

Enablers Drive Communication
Next, we look for enablers – people who enable others to do the best work possible. Enablers foster collaboration and communication within the team, which are the two key factors for the success. So enablers are the people who want to help others. They go above and beyond making sure that they provide value not only to those in their team but also across the company.

Initiators Keep the Ball Moving
The other type of workers we’re looking for are initiators – people who show initiative and take action. Every startup needs such people, because they can run with an idea and keep the ball moving. We don’t have a whole lot of time to explain everything and show a definite direction. Most of the time, everything starts with an idea and a bunch of people need to work together, focus all of their attention on the idea, and think of how to bring it to reality.

Self-Learners Overcome Challenges Quicker
The next type of people we’re searching are self-learners. Whatever is the individual’s background, they can quickly gain new knowledge. When interviewing candidates, we look for demonstration of self learning in their past work experience – situations, where our candidates faced some challenges, didn’t have the necessary knowledge, but they gained it to cope with the situation. Also learning quickly is an important thing. Learning how to learn is a skill that we don’t really think about, but it’s crucial. 

Character Matters More than Skills
Just a couple of those things are enough for us to do a really good job. If I emphasize anything, it’ll be character rather than skills. The latter are important but from my personal experience, people with good personalities will really care about your product. They have no problem learning new things and helping each other to maximize collaboration, which is crucial in the age of continuous technological development – everything is changing every month if not every day.  

curiositystream team at Grid Dynamics

Q: Could you share insight into the current state of the tech talent market in the US? 

In my experience, I feel that there’s a lack of talent in Washington DC, at least this time of the year there are less senior level professionals. It seems we are seeing a negative unemployment rate in the tech industry. It actually becomes quite difficult for us to find the top talent, because everyone wants to hire seniors. Interesting observation these days is that the bar of seniority has considerably dropped in the past few years. These days, I see candidates who just have two years of experience with the title ”senior.” 

Recalling my earlier experience, it was quite a different story. When I began my career, a person had to have at least ten years of experience in various types of companies and projects of different sizes to be recognized as a senior. It’s no longer relevant, but when looking for seniors, we still search for people with extensive experience.

Q: How did you choose a remote cooperation destination? How did you discover Grid Dynamics?

I get a lot of emails from various companies that offer outsourcing services and I’ve contacted about four or five of them. Then, I did my homework – checked the referrals from Grid Dynamics clients and also a couple of other companies. Finally, I picked two of them – Grid Dynamics and another one. 

I gave both companies a task to fill the role of a front-end developer and you guys came in first, providing the biggest number of candidates. That was telling me I’ll spend less time waiting to fill the position with you. That’s how we started cooperation with Grid Dynamics.  

Even though we have a remote team, we want to make sure that our Ukrainian team is also connected as if we were in one location. It’s interesting that with our local team three of my colleagues started working remotely this year. We are open to remote work because we see that it’s hard to hire the best talent if you keep the mindset of being on-site only. So we opened up and imagined all the possibilities available. 

There are always pros and cons in the process of getting access to a greater talent pool. And still, you need to create a collaborative environment that is necessary for success. 

Q: What was your main motivation to hire remotely?

Finding seniors was our main motivation to go for remote cooperation. To be completely honest, another motivation was reducing cost, because as a startup, we operate on a minimal budget. 

So definitely, outsourcing was an attractive option for us. Moreover, many businesses that I spoke to had great success with it. I just wanted to experiment with that and see if we could have the same kind of success and so far that seems to be the case. 

Q: What are your impressions about cooperation with us?

The general impression is great. We definitely perceive the guys over there as hardworking. I think they require a bit of structure, which is not a negative thing. But that’s something we weren’t used to as much. Our team tends to get tasks without any requirements and we have to just jump into it and figure out the best way to complete it.

We noticed that with a remote team or even with our local employees in the United States who now work remotely, it becomes a little bit more of a challenge. Having a bit more of a structured process and having a more formal review process helped. 

I’m not actually sure what our Ukrainian developers were accustomed to at their previous workplaces. But I think that when other companies hire offshore developers, they think of their remote team simply as an additional workforce. They give them well-structured tasks and just wait for the work to be done. 

That’s what we are currently doing in some cases, because rather than changing people who fit our existing company process, we choose to accommodate the processes they’re used to. We also are open to more collaboration with our remote developers because we value diversity of thought. 

Q: What’s your team composition and growth dynamics? How much time did it take to build a team in Ukraine? 

We started back in 2015, so we’ve been building our team very slowly. When I came in, I was the second person on our team. We added around seven people in a year and reached ten in the second year. Then we grew to fourteen the following year and I think now we’re down to thirteen. 

We lost a few guys in the past months, but it was no surprise to us and we’ll find their replacements. I’m glad we have a team at Grid Dynamics – even though we lost three employees here, it didn’t feel like that great of a loss. 
Coming back to the topic of building a team, it has taken us such a long period not because of a severe talent shortage, but rather due to lack of necessity.  

With Grid Dynamics, it’s the same story, nothing has changed. We hire remote developers based on our needs. We don’t believe in scaling all of a sudden – we don’t do growth sprinting here. At least not yet. So it’s really about building a team slowly, getting people onboard, and making sure that they’re up and running at full speed. Only then we can bring another person if there’s a need. 

Now we have a team of six at Grid Dynamics and we’re hiring two more. Eventually, it’ll be eight, and I think we’ll keep that number for a while, maybe for at least six months. We started working with Grid Dynamics in May 2019 and on average it took us about a month to find new hires for a position. 

Q: How did you manage to choose the right candidates while interviewing Ukrainian developers? What is more important for you – hard or soft skills, and how do you check them?

Lilia at Grid Dynamics does a great job of performing the initial screening for us, which saves us some time. Initial screening helps to check the candidate’s basic skills – appropriate level of English, required tech skills, ability to cope with our tasks. What we do next look at the candidate’s personality. For this, we have a set of questions. 

But after that, we dive right into an hour-long coding session. During this time, we’re validating the candidate’s resume. As I said earlier, we look for trustworthy people to join the team. If we see that the candidate possesses the skills they pointed out in the resume, we understand that we can entrust this person to apply those skills. 

Q: What part of the product was developed by the Ukrainian team? What value has cooperation with remote developers brought to your business?

We’re still in a fairly early stage, because we only had one front-end developer Valentyn up till a month ago. He was the only person building features for the web app and he has so far developed a bunch of new features for us. 

The main feature he helped us with is a key component of the streaming experience – when you open CuriosityStream web app, you can now see a video trailer in the top half section that auto plays. He also introduced subscription flow changes, added some other features, and fixed multiple bugs for us.

I know the iOS and Android developers are working on background playback. This task should be coming to completion soon. Background playback is where you can have the video playing while you open and use other apps, just like on YouTube. 

After Valentyn developed the video feature, we saw the number of hours watched for that featured video increase by a lot. And the new onboarding flow that was also developed by Valentyn lifted the paid subscriber conversion rate by a significant percent. 

Q: You have experience working with American and Ukrainian developers, could you outline 3 qualities of Ukrainian software engineers that you’ve noticed throughout the cooperation with Grid Dynamics?

That’s really difficult to say. From my experience humans are humans and it’s hard to distinguish one or the other purely based on geography. What definitely comes to mind is that Ukrainian developers are hardworking, that’s something the guys here have also noticed. 

I also think they take direction really well. Our Ukrainian engineers are the kind of guys that get to work right after they’ve received the requirements. So these are people that we definitely need. 

Q: What would be your advice to businesses that are currently looking to hire remote developers? 

I would tell them definitely do it, no doubt. I think it’s great value for a business, as hiring remotely makes it easier to scale. Mainly due to the increased pool of talent that they will be able to tap into. 

This is why you see all the big companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft having remote teams around the globe. My advice is to figure out a way to integrate the offshore team with the on-site ones, which is a challenge. But the return on investment is definitely worth it. 

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