I was recently interviewed on Fox Business News. The anchor Liz Claman told me one of the things that interested them about Zoho/AdventNet is our recruitment model. It is a subject I am passionate about -in fact, I spend about as much time on it as our products or technology. After all, AdventNet has about 700 people, and we are hiring at a steadily increasing pace, so recruitment, motivation and retention are important topics for us.
I was talking to a partner at a successful venture capital firm a few weeks ago (no we are not raising money!), and the subject turned to recruitment. I told him we don’t really value fancy degrees and famous schools. He was surprised – perhaps because of my own educational background. I asked him “Consider all the partners in your own firm and similar firms like yours, how many of them come from fairly unremarkable academic backgrounds?” I stressed that my argument was not that every partner comes from unremarkable background, but enough of them do, making academic background a poor way to screen for partners in venture capital. In fact, the reality of venture capital, as with any demanding field of human activity, is that most of what you learn you learn by doing. As the management philosopher Peter Drucker has observed, “Our most important education system is in the employees’ own organization.” Paul Graham has made similar observations about the academic backgrounds of founders of Y Combinator start-ups – in fact, Paul makes a stronger point that people coming from humbler schools seem to try harder to succeed.
The trouble has been that while most people understand, even readily accept that observation, they have trouble formalizing it, and more importantly, acting on it. In our own case, this observation dawned us slowly over the years – one of the benefits of being in business for a long time is you have the time to learn obvious things slowly.
Our company in India always faced trouble recruiting, because most college graduates, particularly from well-known colleges, would prefer big-brand-name firms. Simply out of sheer necessity, we started to disregard the kind of college a person graduated from, and the grades they obtained. In India, that task was made even easier, because much of the Indian industry is boringly conventional, and job advertisements that specify things like “Must have a minimum of 80% average in college” are fairly common (so if you got only 79%, don’t bother to apply). As a result, we get a lot of the arbitrarily-cut-off category applicants. What we found over time was that there is a lot of really good talent in that pool, which the industry had overlooked. Based on a few years of observation, we noticed that there was little or no correlation between academic performance, as measured by grades & the type of college a person attended, and their real on-the-job performance. That was a genuine surprise, particularly for me, as I grew up thinking grades really mattered.
Over time, that led us to be bolder in our search for talent. We started to ask “What if the college degree itself is not really that useful? What if we took kids after high school, train them ourselves?” I talked to a lot of people internally, and one of our product managers introduced me to his uncle, a college professor, who he thought might be interested in hearing me out. As I shared our observations on recruiting, he shared his own experience in over twenty years teaching Mathematics and later Computer Science. It turned out we shared a common passion. He joined us within a month to start our “AdventNet University” as we very imaginatively called it. This was in 2005. He went to schools around Chennai to recruit students. So as not to distract anyone from their existing plans, we waited till the school year ended, went to several schools to ask for bright students who were definitely not going to college for whatever reason (usually economic). We then called on those students and their parents, and explained our plan. We started with an initial batch of six students in 2005, who were in the age range 17 or 18.
That proved to be an outstanding success. Within 2 years, those students would become full time employees, their work performance indistinguishable from their college-educated peers. We have since expanded the program, with the latest batch of students consisting of about 20, recruited not just from Chennai but smaller towns and villages in the region.
One question that comes up often: if you don’t look at formal credentials, what do you actually look at? This is a surprisingly difficult question. In fact, doing full justice to it would take me a series of posts, and take me into some deeply philosophical territory, which I will attempt some other time. At one level, the answer is very simple (“go by gut feel, i.e use your human gift of judgment” – yeah, I know, what a cop-out), but at another, it is exceedingly hard. The difficulty comes from the simple observation: any formal rule-based system involving human beings is very easy to game and will be gamed. More on that later.