Dewanshu Nikhare had his heart set on becoming an army officer. And so he regarded his bachelor’s degree in information technology as simply a career safety net–something to fall back on.
Then the unthinkable happened. He failed to pass the military’s tough entrance exam two years in a row. Suddenly, his best hopes of building a career would be in IT. There was, however, a new challenge to overcome: the pandemic and its restrictions.
“It’s hard to find a job, especially during a pandemic. Every company wanted me to come down to their office for an interview. I wasn’t comfortable with traveling during these times and my parents didn’t want me to either,” says the young software engineer.
Unlike jobs in marketing or sales, where interviews can be conducted virtually, recruiters in the IT industry prefer having in-person “whiteboard” interviews with candidates. A typical whiteboard interview involves a panel who assess the code-writing skills of candidates by asking him or her to solve problems in front of them in real-time on a whiteboard.
It’s quite common for interviewers to add their own lines of code to see how a candidate approaches a problem. The idea is to evaluate how well a candidate would perform in the real world, where they would be expected to collaborate and work with code written by others.
The upfront and personal process is certainly not something that can be pulled off over a standard video call. So, when COVID-19 restrictions came into effect and made traditional whiteboard interviews all but impossible to conduct, India’s IT industry found itself struggling to hire.
Enter iMocha, a five-year-old startup based in Pune, a city in India’s west and one of its top tech hubs. The company’s founders, Amit Mishra and Sujit Karpe, have come up with an online solution that does away with the need for face-to-face assessments. With iMocha’s Live Coding Platform, candidates and interviewers can sit in the safety of their own homes and conduct the whiteboard interview virtually.
The solution is proving to be a boon during the pandemic, and not just for India’s IT sector. Of iMocha’s 200-plus medium and enterprise customers, 70% are based in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe. The origins of the Live Coding Platform pre-date the arrival of COVID-19. As the name suggests, the plan had been to build an online platform to virtually replicate the whiteboard interview for recruiters. And originally, it was slated for release in December 2020.
When COVID-19 hit earlier in the year, the founders saw an opportunity and decided to accelerate its launch. But that was easier said and done. The platform had to bring together the candidate and a panel of interviewers together on a video call. All of them had to be given access to a coding environment, where the candidate could write the code, and everyone else could see and even edit it in real-time.
The development of the platform itself would have taken iMocha’s team of engineers six months more if they had to do everything on their own, Karpe estimates.
Mercifully, they didn’t have to build everything from scratch by the virtue of being on Microsoft Azure. With built-in tools like SignalR Service, they didn’t have to bother about how they would ensure the videos, text chat, and the coding environment would always be in sync for all participants, the most critical element of the platform.
“We were able to break our own delivery records and deliver the platform in July, six months ahead of time, because of our partnership with Microsoft Azure,” says Karpe, iMocha’s CTO.
A few months ago, iMocha itself was looking to fill a coding position. The company decided to use this as an opportunity to test out their product. And 24-year-old Nikhare was the first candidate to be evaluated.
Live Coding Platform enabled Nikhare and the panel of interviewers to conduct the whiteboard round from the safety of their homes. Nikhare could choose between 16 coding languages, which are offered via a drop-down menu in the coding environment.
“I found the Live Coding Platform easy to use, which took some pressure off during the interview. I could talk to the interviewers and they could see my code,” he says.
The interviewers could see every keystroke he was typing in real-time, which is akin to seeing his thought process. “We’ve built that intelligence into the platform so that one doesn’t have to depend on gut feelings and you actually see the candidate navigate through practical scenarios. Tech hiring then becomes super-efficient,” says Karpe. “We could challenge him in between via video and text chat, and with code replay we could get a mind map of the candidate.”
“The beauty of the platform,” says Vishal Madan, the head of engineering at iMocha and one of Nikhare’s evaluators, “is that the interviewers can see what the candidate is struggling with in real time.”
Unlike traditional whiteboard interviews, candidates as well as interviewers can compile and run the code to see whether it works, which leads to more engaging conversations. Interviewers can also grade the candidate across multiple parameters while the session is on and submit their final score cards, which are tallied and made visible to the recruiter at the end of the session. Other interviewers, who were not part of the whiteboard round, can also see the code written by the candidate in the scorecard to make their assessment in later rounds.
Fortunately for Nikhare, he nailed his test and interview and landed a job at iMocha. “Given the present circumstances I really don’t know when I would have found a job if not for these features,” he says.
Since launching Live Coding Platform in July, iMocha’s customers have conducted over 800 interviews for recruiting new tech talent. The in-built video capabilities of the live coding platform, says Karpe, has been well-received by their clients. They are now busy adding new languages to the existing roster of 16 and diversifying the platform to tap other industries that might have similar requirements.
Dogfooding is not only encouraged at iMocha, but it is a way of life. Mishra and Karpe came upon the idea to launch iMocha (initially called Interview Mocha) appropriately enough over a cup of coffee. After discussing their own struggles to find good tech talent, they came up with the idea for creating a platform to help recruiters sift through resumes and test candidates for their core capabilities before taking them through time and resource consuming recruiting process.
“People can be lavish when they write resumes,” says Mishra, iMocha’s CEO. “If they’ve worked on something for a week, they’d say they were proficient in that task. In many cases the interview process just ends with good, billable hours being wasted.”
iMocha’s online platform provides recruiters with over 2,000 technical and non-technical skills assessment tests against which to assess potential candidates. Recruiters don’t have to spend any time monitoring the tests because iMocha’s AI proctoring tools guard against potential cheating. At the end of the test, recruiters get a report on the candidate’s performance and decide whether to proceed further with the candidature.
Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services APIs helped iMocha build their AI proctoring tools, including those to validate the candidate wasn’t cheating throughout the duration of the test.
When a client had a requirement to sift through hundreds of pre-recorded video interviews to shortlist candidates with good communications skills, Azure’s Natural Language Processing tools came to their rescue.
“The way Azure has evolved, the different kind of services they offer, be it different PaaS services, the systems available on Azure today, and making ML, AI, and NLP models a commodity, that really helps accelerate your development time,” Karpe adds.
With companies coming to terms with the new reality of everyone working remotely, iMocha has also emerged as a dependable platform to reskill existing employees. As Mishra and Karpe point out, 65% of the skill sets seen over the next decade will be new ones, and 30% of skills have already changed over the last five years.
“The world is facing a problem where everyone is either reskilling or upskilling to stay relevant in their current jobs or are finding new ones. People have to continuously keep learning,” says Karpe. “And just learning doesn’t help–one has to measure this knowledge and find ways of quantifying it.”
This is where iMocha’s skills library, with over 2,000 tests, comes in. All these tests, designed while keeping an eye out for emerging skillsets, are created in consultation with subject matter experts. Over the next three years, iMocha hopes to scale up to 5,000 skills. This is a mighty task, but one that is made necessary by how quickly the world is changing.
As iMocha upgrades its skills library, it’s outlining a future where a person won’t be known by the degrees they hold, but by the skills they possess. Job titles will evolve from all-encompassing descriptions such as computer engineer and marketing professional and be replaced with specific, specialized skillsets, like cloud manager, AI/ML expert or NLP enthusiast, the duo believe.
“Today there’s a COVID-19 challenge, tomorrow there will be something else. But because Microsoft’s infrastructure is laid in such a futuristic way, it’s going to provide tremendous capabilities to product companies,” Karpe says. If not for Azure, he adds, “whatever innovations we have done today would have taken us another three years to do. Today we are three years ahead of time.”
Top image: iMocha founders Amit Mishra and Sujit Karpe’s (L-R) Live Coding Platform is a boon for IT recruiters in this COVID-19 world where they can virtually conduct whiteboard interviews with candidates and gauge their coding skills from the safety of their own homes. (Photos: iMocha)
Nikita Puri is a journalist and storyteller based in the city of raintrees, Bangalore.