India's Got Talent
Inside ERPNext: Meeting candidates of all types during our recent walk-in interviews.
Akhilesh walks into our small meeting room. He is young and slim, with a pimpled face, spiked hair and an earring that tells me he's a rebel. “You got 3 out of 20 in the Aptitude test. Thats the lowest so far. Even if you had answered the questions randomly, you should have got 5.”, I tell him as he walks in. Its the second day of walk-in interviews for software developers. Before the interview, the candidates give an aptitude test with standard math, technical 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 its 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 heels 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 is a batch of disillusioned young kids who are suddenly thrown in to 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 multi-national 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 higher 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?”. 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?” was my next question. I found this question to be the fastest way to cut 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 myself 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 malnourished 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 not only appeared unsure of their answers but also looked scared, maybe for life.
We made sure that we conducted the interviews in Hindi, which we speak in office anyways, and tried our best to make the candidates feel at ease, by calling them by their name and slipping in the occasional joke. There were couple of candidates that would haunt me for time to come. One was a boy who was job hunting for three years. Thats right, all he did in three years was job hunting. Apart from his greying hair at such a young age, he seemed physically okay to me. I looked at his resume, and asked him whether he had got an offer for a data entry type of position at least. He said he got those offers but he wanted to be a developer. Did he do any personal projects to demonstrate his skills in those three years? No. “Rohan, promise me that once you go out of this office, you will take up the first job offer you get, no matter what position. If not for your sake but for the sake of your family.” I was hoping I had put it clearly enough to him. He smiled at me, looked at the floor and gave a small nod.
The other candidate was a girl, who again was vernacular and spoke very bad English and had a terrifying blank look on her face as she walked in. To make her feel better, I told her that its okay to speak in Hindi. That probably made her even more nervous, and she started speaking in even worse English, ignoring my attempt to rescue her. I wanted to end the interview, but it would be really bad for her confidence if I rejected her straight away, so I asked a few basic questions so she could feel a bit confident. To her credit she did answer some questions, but as soon as I asked her to write a query, she froze and her fingers started shaking visibly. I let the moment linger for a bit. I kept staring at her fingers. I did not have the heart to reject her so finally I told her to leave her resume and that we would contact her if we found her good enough.
Saurabh was the most interesting candidate of the lot. Short and stocky with thick glasses, he had a smile on his face as he walked in. He told me that he read sorting algorithms for fun, so I told him to explain one to me, which he did alright to his credit. After that I asked him what his interests were. He told me that he liked reading history. Being a history buff myself, it was indeed interesting. I asked him what he read last. “Last I read was a book about the final battle of Panipat in which the Marathas where defeated by the Afghan raider Ahmed Shah.” Which year? I asked him, as I flipped open my laptop to fire up Wikipedia. “Can’t say exactly, but it was probably 1770”. Not bad. The decline of the Marathas just before the British Empire was something I had been wanting to find out more about and this was turning out to be a good interview. “So what do you think of the British rule of India, was it good or bad?”. It was a typical bait for an emotional answer. “It was both” he replied confidently, “the British managed to unite the country and also brought in modern governance and infrastructure like the railways. But they also exploited and enslaved us and drained our economy. So in balance its a tough call.”. Not bad for confidence either. I finally let him go by promising him that I would call again for another interview and ask him to write real code.
We got some English speaking candidates too, just a handful. After taking fifty interview, you can tell a lot by the way someone walks in. These candidates were really smart, talked in great English and with a lot of confidence. But these were also candidates who were out to be project managers in large companies. They were interviewing because either they were benched or they were laid off from some of the recent e-commerce disasters. And they were over-confident. They came with the view that they are going to ace the interview. “So what did you work on your last project, Shahana?”. “I did a project for a University Management System based on Java Struts and Hibernate”. “I am sorry I don’t understand that, can you explain? Did you write any code?”. “Er, I wrote some code to map classes to objects”. “Map classes to objects? Are you sure?”. It was clear she had no idea was she was talking about.
At the end of the third day, we are really tired. I was hoping that I was not becoming snarky like the celebrity judges on television shows. Just then Akhilesh, the candidate with the spiked hair, walks in with his laptop to show his ERP. He opens his laptop and fires up the application. It starts with a smart login screen and I am already suspicious whether this is something he has made, it seems too good to be true. After login, the application seems to be quite complete. He starts showing us the menus, there are masters, customer, supplier, products and sales and purchase transactions. Anand appreciates the wooden wallpaper of the application. I ask him to enter some transactions. He makes a new product and it goes through okay. He then enters a sales transaction and the application appears to crash. Now we will find out, I think, as I ask him to debug this. He then fires up Visual Basic and starts debugging the application, deftly using keyboard shortcuts and code searches. Anand and myself look at each other in surprise. We ask him more questions and he seems to be genuine. He says, he made the ERP for the company his father worked in. Wow, he’s scored the lowest in the aptitude test, I tell myself, most companies would just throw him away. I cannot hold the excitement anymore and ask him to excuse us for a moment. As soon as he leaves the room, Anand confirms my enthusiasm and he also thinks this is exactly what we were looking for.
Like most candidates he is job hunting at the moment and is ready to join us anytime. I ask Prakash to prepare an offer letter immediately. Something about the television show setting tells me that the judgement has to be pronounced immediately, no point sleeping over this. I see that he is as excited as we are and this will probably be his first real job. I am sure that we have finally discovered raw talent and already start thinking about what will be the best way to integrate him in the real world. The raw talent needs to be polished too.
As he leaves, it suddenly strikes me that if you remove his pimples, he looks exactly like David Heinemeier Hansson, the famous hacker who created Ruby on Rails and is a partner in 37signals, our role models. Was this for real?
Post Script: We ended up hiring Akhilesh and Saurabh.
Rushabh is a software developer and founder of ERPNext. He usually writes about the startup experience, open source and the technologies he is working on.