2019 highlights - how Zoho is solving its own talent problem with Zoho University

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 1, 2019
I went to Zoholics 2019 determined to dig into the secrets behind Zoho University. What I learned qualifies for my next 2019 highlights installment.

Zoho - Rajendran Dandapani

It doesn't matter if you're a midwestern manufacturer or an international software firm - most enterprises in growth mode have a talent problem. Yes, even those pushing the edge of "AI" and automation.

In some ways, that "AI edge" makes the talent problem more intense. The skills required to work amongst the machines raise the talent bar higher; meanwhile, easier-to-fill, repetitive jobs go away. Open positions languish, and the digital divide grows.

It's maddening to watch capable and diverse populations excluded from these hiring needs, while companies claim there is a talent shortfall. Zoho is one enterprise software company that doesn't offer up those tired excuses. Instead, they're working to bridge their own talent gaps through Zoho University. As Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu said in 2017:

There’s a much larger pool of people who are being overlooked by traditional recruiting methods.

And, I worry, they are being filtered out by problematic screening algorithms. Zoho University aims to change that. Some Zoho University graduates are the first in generations to earn advanced degrees of any kind. They were excluded from these programs not for motivation or talent, but due to lack of resources, family commitments, and all the other reasons we get stuck.

Like most Zoho initiatives, Zoho University started small. But it's not small today. Today, about fifteen percent of all Zoho's hires come through Zoho University. They now have four programs: schools of technology, advanced study, design, and business. And with a new Zoho University campus planned in Austin, the site of Zoho's new corporate headquarters, Zoho University is only going to expand. Their site is loaded with student testimonials like this one:

Zoho university student

But designing your own university raises potent questions:

  • How do Zoho University graduates compare with those from traditional four year degree programs?
  • How do you graduate the ideal modern engineer - with the ideal modern skill set?
  • What is the role of soft skills education and analytical skills in a school for software engineers?
  • Is it better to train your own future workforce, rather than "unlearn" those taught by legacy institutions?

At Zoholics 2019, Zoho's annual user conference, I pressed into those questions during an analyst session and subsequent sit down with Rajendran Dandapani, Zoho Business Solutions Evangelist.

Are academic degrees aligned with the modern workplace?

Dandapani got to the jugular of Zoho University quickly: 

It's basically a crusade against academic credentialism.

Dandapani told us in the early days of Zoho University, they polled all Zoho employees and asked them:

How useful do you find the college education for your current role in the company?

Some felt their degrees were "very useful," others said they were a waste of time and money. The big takeaway?

More than 50 percent of them said it was a massive time waste - the teachers were no good.

But it's not about blaming the teachers:

I think they were alluding to the fact that the curriculum was outdated, but when they saw the curriculum coming out of the mouths of the teachers, they immediately imputed it to the teachers themselves I guess.

The crux of the survey:

Almost everything that you really learn is learned on the job.

In the early days of Zoho, they were able to draw in the right candidates via word of mouth. And: Zoho didn't require college degrees (they still don't). But that wasn't going to scale.

Can we do it better?

Can Zoho University take a student who wants to become an engineer, and serve them better? It's an ambitious question. As Dandapani told us, Zoho managers raised two provocative issues.

Did this student learn anything at all in college? And how much more should I be training this person before he or she gets productive?

Even the tech skills in the conventional programs Zoho hired from were largely outdated. How many degreed programs teach Python? You're lucky if you get Java in the final year. Dandapani:

These are staple languages today for real software development.

To solve this problem, Zoho took inspiration from... Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi exhorted us to "be the change you want to see in the world." As Dandapani joked, "stop griping and ranting about it."

Can we start something of our own, and see if we can at least fix our problem? Forget about the global problem. Can we fix our problem?

Inside Zoho University

Fourteen years later, the success stories are piling up. Dandapani walked us through personal examples of Zoho University grads thriving at Zoho, from an iOS app lead to a senior quality analyst, from a web designer to a marketing and pre-sales engineer.

How do you qualify for Zoho University? The entry test is bi-lingual, testing for "mathematics and common sense and a little English thrown in." The follow-up interview looks for one crucial thing: motivation. Dandapani:

We look for the fire in the belly, more than anything else. The passion to perform, the urge to do something different and special.

The Zoho University experience is not your typical lecture format:

  • Most of the classes are "laboratory work", where students work with their peers, and learn by making mistakes.
  • Students teach other students as well - students from one year actually take lessons from the students of the next year.
  • About ten months into the program, the student is placed into the company. In this "embedded internship," the students become a part of a specific team, sitting in on team meetings and participating in team interactions.

What are students taught?

  • Communication skills - "We teach them business English, not poetry and Shakespeare, but actually writing and reading skills."
  • Problem-solving skills.
  • The art of software engineering - which includes the math that is relevant for programming, but not the abstract math that isn't.

Zoho University stands apart in other ways:

No tuition costs - from day one, students are paid a stipend to attend. By the time they complete two years at Zoho, their salary should be on par with a four year college graduate's first role. For 45 percent of students, Zoho University is their first real exposure to computer systems. 85 percent of students are below the so-called poverty line in India.

Oh, and something Zoho University has in common with my alma mater, Hampshire College: no exams. Dandapani:

We know that these kids are smart enough to game any system. You give them a test; they will prepare the day before the test; they will do well on the test; they will forget everything the next day. So no exams. They are continuously monitored by a small student-to-teacher ratio system, but they are not evaluated, and most importantly, they are not compared to each other.

With about 90 percent of Zoho University graduates still working at Zoho, the impact of those 700+ graduates is felt throughout the company.

My take - push the limits of technical education

I had two lingering concerns about Zoho University. The first is the problem of the cubicle coder. The tech world doesn't need another wave of tech mercenaries, huddled over their genius code. So I wondered about educational issues that spill into soft skills, work style, and character.

At Zoholics 2019, I pressed Zoho University leaders on whether this was just a technical education. I was surprised to learn that students are rewarded based on how much they help other students solve their problems, and this is all tracked by instructors.

Vembu told me Zoho wants to build a different kind of engineer, one who prizes a meaningful contribution over the "transactional" employment relationship.

My bigger question comes back to a longstanding debate I've had within myself: the virtues of an accessible, practical education like Zoho University, versus the benefits of a sprawling and sometimes gloriously impractical liberal arts program (from which I hail). I got into this with Vijay Vijayasankar in Overcoming the AI, ML and data science skills gap.

Despite the flaws in liberal arts educations (elitism, esoterica), I see an increasing relevance for the creative/critical thinking skills fostered by liberal arts, as we strive to become more human amidst the machines.

It would be simplistic to say we need to fuse liberal arts and tech/math studies, but there is something to it. As I said to Vijayasankar:

You're describing a rare skills combination, a strange blend of liberal arts sensibilities and hardcore math/science sensibilities, because the ethical and sociological implications and the privacy implications aren't taught in the hardcore science curriculums nearly as often.

Another way of putting it: is there room for some philosophy at Zoho University? During my informal talk with Vembu, he told me of his own passion for philosophy. He's thought about how that might fit into Zoho University's curriculum.

It strikes me that Zoho University already excels at cultivating community-minded engineers. Perhaps the remaining piece is more on personal discovery, and the intellectual quest for your own ethical framework. If we agree that AI needs ethics-by-design, then philosophy is now a practical necessity. "Do machines have rights?" is not an abstract question either. Zoho looks for motivation and problem-solving. Intellectual curiosity is surely part of that mix.

Zoho university student

I like that Zoho is thinking about that. I'm sure Zoho will also push to go beyond their 70/30 male-female Zoho University student ratio.

But it's not just about solving their own talent problems. Zoho wants to change the role of corporations in the communities they serve. If that happens, the digital divide will finally start to blur.

Updated, 7am UK time, August 2, with additional resource links and Zoho student testimonials.

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