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Presentation platform Prezi expands its office in Riga – Interview with CTO Tyler Miller

Founded in Hungary in 2009, Prezi is a leading presentation software platform that is now used by over 100 million people all over the world. In 2017, Prezi acquired the Latvian startup Infogr.am, which continued to develop its product in Riga. Now, Prezi has decided to expand its Riga office, with both a larger team in Riga and a more intensive day-to-day collaboration with its offices in Budapest and San Francisco.

Prezi is currently hiring at their Riga office, for both engineering and non-technical roles.

We spoke to Prezi CTO Tyler Miller, and were later joined by Peter Arvai, co-founder and CEO, about Prezi’s culture and their decision to expand in Riga.  

Why did Prezi choose Latvia to expand its business? What’s the rationale?

In 2017, Prezi and Infogr.am got married (as we like to call it), and that extended our reach into Riga. We’ve been impressed with the talent and culture at the office here in Riga. 

And so recently when we made a bunch of plans that required us to expand our personnel, the natural question arose of  “Ok, well, where do we do that?” 

The global fight for engineering talent is pretty extreme right now. We asked ourselves, “Where do we think there’s a rich vein of talent, and that we Prezi–as a company–think is differentiated in the market for talent?” And Riga was a pretty obvious answer.

In Hungary, we, of course, have a presence, and hire as rapidly as we can there (and the same in SF), but viewed Riga as a place where we didn’t know what the limits were on access to talent. So we wanted to test that. 

And as Prezi becomes more of a company with multiple products, it also makes sense to cross-pollinate the offices even more. 

What competencies will be covered from the Latvia office?

We’re creating a new cross-functional team – which will include engineers, product managers, product designers, and maybe even QA – that will focus on tailoring our products to specific market segments. Education is a big use case for both Prezi and Infogram. As you might imagine, in that market you have to work well with dominant players like Google Classroom, for instance. 

If you’re talking business segments, you have to tailor the product to address some of their very specific concerns, like supporting single sign-on, cloud security, team level sharing, and brand. 

We’ll be working on some of those items, and will be working more closely with our teams in Hungary and San Francisco.

Will you be bringing anyone into the Riga offices from your other offices?

We’re opening up the opportunity for employees to move to Riga. In fact, we just posted our intentions to the company last night. 

We encourage that sort of thing. If there’s someone in Budapest and they want to work in San Francisco or Riga or vice versa, that’s a great thing. Even seeding with the folks from the office here in Riga makes sense, but you have to find the right person, from a technological standpoint, as well as the optimal social living situation for the employee. 

Last week you held a meet and greet event with potential new hires. How did the event go?

Very well – there were about 100 attendees or so. Alise, one of the co-founders of Infogr.am, did a little introduction and history, then I did maybe 30 minutes about Prezi and more specifically about engineering at Prezi. Not only about the technologies we use, but also about the ways we work and our philosophies

Engineers are always very interested in the different ways of working at software companies. For example, Prezi, in working on visual communication tools, has a very different culture than an organization that might work in the banking or online gambling segments.

What in your opinion sets Prezi apart?

We’re making our own products so *everyone* has a say – whether you’re a manager like myself or an engineer. Great ideas can come from anywhere, and great ideas can surface and manifest. We’re not a particularly hierarchical organization. 

And secondly is the subject matter that we’re working on.  

Ultimately, the mission of Prezi is to raise the level of discourse – we’re not curing cancer or preventing wars, but if we can improve the quality of communication, maybe we can help the people doing those things. 

[Editor’s note – here, Peter Arvai found it very important to expand on Prezi’s mission – here’s what he had to say]

Peter: It’s perhaps more crucial than ever before. We’re the first generation on the planet that are the custodians of the planet. In the past, if you look at human history, we’ve been organized in groups, cities, countries, but then we went to the moon and looked down and saw a planet. 

Now, the topics we’re dealing with require a deep understanding of how things are connected – and we have to get it right. In the past, people would die out and most of us wouldn’t even be aware of it. There’s so much at stake now. 

The whole planet is in our hands and it’s important to understand the challenges in front of us. Helping people communicate is almost the most important thing we can do. 

We already have the technologies to destroy the planet, now we need the technologies to do the right thing. 

This is the reason raising the level of discourse has never been more important. 

And we’re looking for people who feel the same way. Sometimes it may seem like we’re working on graphics, but we’re working on helping people understand each other better. I find that a very compelling thing to be part of. 

Working on the Prezi team means working with former IBM, Google, Salesforce, Apple, Amazon employees. Can you tell us more about that collaboration opportunity?

Tyler: I’m a former Google employee, so that’s one example. I’m here in Riga 3-4 times a year. From a product and engineering standpoint, Maksims leads this office, and we work closely together. Our Chief Product Officer–and my main counterpart–is Bob Tornquist – and he’s an Amazon guy. Each time I come I try to impart some of the experience that you pick up by working at some of these larger firms.

With a Silicon Valley office, you get a lot of people who have worked at these big five tech companies. So that’s where our COO came from, he was an IBM guy earlier in his career. So a lot of the leadership is from these companies. That ends up manifesting in a lot of the policies and approaches that we implement here. We may not always announce it (that might get annoying if you do it too much), but it does influence our ways of working.

There are also some failed programmes, or “anti-patterns” you learned there:

Google had the idea of employees using 20% of their time as they thought best to improve the company; they don’t really do this anymore. It was very unstructured. The notion was wonderful. We have similar notion at Prezi, but it’s much more structured. 20% of our engineering time is dedicated to refactoring, cleanup, and the retooling that you need to stay flexible and efficient as an engineering team. 

Whereas Google said do whatever you want (we used to joke that that meant 120% time at Google), here at Prezi, we’re really dedicated to the 20% time and we fit it into our workflow. We call it strategic engineering space time. We maintain a separate backlog of those kinds of items that contribute to our development efficiency of flexibility. And that makes the other 80% of the time much more effective. 

Most often it’s two days at the end of each sprint, assuming the team works in two-week sprints. But we leave it to each team decide for themselves. There are some teams that work on product development for 4 weeks, and then they do a full week of strategic engineering space afterwards.

How would you describe the Prezi culture?

We have three core values that we pay attention to:

We picture – This means that we’re very visual, both in terms of attracting talent, but also internally with our own communication. When hiring, we’re looking for people who want to be working on visual solutions – for example, they are naturally drawn to diagrams and things like that to explain their ideas. 

We team – It’s a very collaborative culture – software has long since become a team sport from the very beginning. The notion of the lone programmer that writes something that changes the world – we’re well past that. It takes a team to do something, and we take that really seriously in the way that we work in cross-functional teams. This is highlighted by how we have regular joint meetings between marketing, product and engineering teams to move our products forward.

We try to have a very humble culture. There’s no assuming – not any one of us knows everything. I invented this word that I look for in interviews – humfident – humble but confident.

You need to have confidence to problem solve at scale, but also the humility to say ok, I don’t know the solution now, but I’m going to figure it out. If that means learning new languages, frameworks, libraries, then I will. And the humility to receive mentoring – maybe the person to your left knows the answer to that.

We care – We really do express this through actions – all three of our offices have outreach initiatives. In all three offices there is a women in tech outreach (in SF it’s Latinas in tech, in Riga it’s Riga Tech Girls, in Budapest it’s “Skool” – a program for teaching high school age girls to code), outreach days in underprivileged neighbourhoods, and environmental clean up days. 

What are your future plans and ambitions? Where will the Riga team help take you?

Our market position is interesting – we’re somewhere between office productivity tools (like Microsoft Office), and more professional creative tools, (like Adobe Creative Cloud, Photoshop, InDesign). 

There’s a niche and a real need for tools that allow for better visual communication, but that you don’t need to be a professional designer to use. 

With our existing products – Prezi Next (the presentation tool) and Infogram – we’ll improve those and will also be bringing new products to market.

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Julia Gifford
Julia Giffordhttps://labsoflatvia.com/
Julia Gifford is a Canadian born, Latvian tech enthusiast. She is the English editor of Labs of Latvia and co-founder of Truesix. She finds fulfillment in supporting the underdog in achieving their global potential.

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