Rushabh Mehta is founder of Mumbai-based cloud software solutions startup Web Notes Technologies. The company’s web-based open source application ERPNext enables small businesses to manage their accounting, inventory and customer support. Last year it rejigged its product and go-to-market strategy. Read our previous post on them. Since then it has seen significant increase in the volume and better cash flows. Mehta, a prolific blogger, writes about his recent experiences with hiring for his young company.
Akhilesh walks into our small meeting room. He is young and slim, with pimpled face, spiked hair and a earring that tells me he’s a rebel. “You got 3 out of 20 in the aptitude test. That’s the lowest so far. Even if you had answered the questions randomly, you should have got 5,” I tell him as he walks in. It’s the second day of walk-in interviews for software developers at ERPNext. Before the interview, we start with an aptitude test with standard math and logical questions.
Akhilesh is probably the twentieth or thirtieth young kid, fresh out of college, who has taken the test and the response has been disappointing so far. With my new found love for writing I have also slipped in a writing question. Akhilesh writes in his essay that whatever they have taught him in college is trash. And it is clearly showing. Just when I am about to dismiss him, he tells me that he has written an ERP application on his own. Yeah right! Most kids have not even heard of an ERP. Maybe it’s a desperate move. “Why don’t you bring it on your laptop tomorrow if you really have made such an application. I am open to seeing it,” I tell him before showing him the door.
Hiring talented engineers is the Achilles heel for small software companies in India. Most bright young engineers want to work for the best companies in the world like Google and if not those, then the best ones in India like Infosys or TCS. Even those companies are constantly cribbing about the lack of genuine talent and employable candidates. The reasons are obvious and listed on many forums. Engineering colleges are mushrooming all over India like weeds, what is taught in those colleges has no bearing on reality, the students are evaluated on rote learning (or copying) skills and the professors are those who are usually unqualified to be placed in companies. Apart from a few elite colleges, what you get in the end is a batch of disillusioned young kids who are suddenly thrown into the real world without a parachute.
There are other factors too. There is a wide gap between kids of high and low income families. Kids who come from high income families are Anglophones, very confident and aspire to work in multinational corporations. They look down upon the vernaculars, kids who come from lower income groups, speak bad English and lack confidence. The kind of candidates that are in demand are those who belong to the high income group. And we were sure that those candidates would never work in a nameless, if not faceless, startup like us. What we were looking for was raw talent, the kind that slips through the cracks. But it was turning out to be like finding a needle in the haystack. The candidates that we were getting were mostly fresh out of college and had been unable to find a job for many months.
Sunil had scored 15 in the aptitude test. The highest so far. He was tall and confident, with his combed hair and a full sleeved shirt. “Sunil, you are the brightest of the lot so far, but why did you not attempt any technical question?” I ask. He says that he is not sure about web development. But many of the questions, like how do you check if a user has entered a valid email address, were not web related, so I persisted. “Do you practice writing code in your free time?” I found this question to be the fastest way to cut to the chase. “Yes I read about code.” This is the standard answer most candidates gave. Which is like reading about riding a professional bike when you can barely balance yourself on one. “Sunil, you are such a bright kid,” I tell him, “why don’t you practice by doing some personal projects? I can’t take you unless you know how to write code.” Before leaving, he tells me that he is very keen on working and will be happy if I can spare him an hour to help him get started on code.
On the third day so many candidates come in that we have to borrow chairs from our neighbouring office. To speed up the process, we decide to ditch the aptitude test and directly take quick interviews. Anand and I sit in the cabin and ask the candidates to come in one by one. It was not unlike a television reality talent show where anyone who wants instant fame walks in front of celebrity judges. In our office, we rarely get to meet people since our customers are all online, so this was turning out to be an interesting experience.
We saw people of a wide variety come in. Some of the stark realities of India were also on display. Many girls, specially from lower income groups, were clearly suffering from malnutrition and appeared stunted compared to the boys, who seemed heftier, showing India’s preference for children of one gender. India’s lust for the Queen’s language was also in clear display. I felt for the vernacular candidates who not only appeared unsure of their answers but also scared, maybe for life.
Images Credit: Rushabh Mehta & StartupCentral