Today Google dropped a bombshell: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2013/06/20/business/in-head-hunting-big-data-may-not-be-such-a-big-deal.html
They’ve made some significant changes to the way they recruit – no longer looking at things they were previously famous for, like asking a 30-something professional for his GPA and college transcript. Google, being Google, collected lots and lots of data and ultimately determined that these signals are more noise than signals, and have since discontinued using them.
At Zoho we reached the exact same conclusion many years ago, but how we got there was entirely different. Let me tell you the story.
When we got started with this company, I had fairly conventional beliefs about the value of college education, the importance of academic performance and GPAs and so on. I come from a large family, with 3 brothers and a sister, all younger than me. Academically, our family spanned the spectrum – I had a really stellar academic record, while my youngest brother, Mani, had a fairly mediocre one. I got to attend the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology and later Princeton University, while Mani enrolled in an unremarkable “evening college”, basically a place to go to avoid being called unemployed. School held no interest at all for him and I would wonder what would become of him.
He joined my brothers and co-founders Kumar and Sekar, as a junior technical assistant in the very early days of the company, when our development center was still operating out of our parent’s home in India. Kumar would conduct C programming classes for fresh recruits and Mani sat in on them. To our surprise, he showed deep interest in programming and picked up fairly quickly, quicker even than some of the engineering graduates Kumar had hired. He got assigned to write code in one of our early products in network management and within a couple of years he was able to lead that product to profitability. He started to display a natural talent for understanding what customers want, and before long, he was managing products by himself. Mani is shy and prefers to stay in the background, but internally he leads teams that deliver Zoho CRM, Zoho Projects, Zoho Support, Zoho Recruit (yes, all of them!) and he is the Chief Operating Officer of Zoho.com. If I get hit by a bus, the company would run fine, but Mani is absolutely indispensable to our continued product execution. People who work with Mani in our company know his contribution, yet, I doubt a Google or Microsoft would ever have hired him (and I am glad they didn’t!).
As the eldest brother, I have watched Mani closely from childhood, and his blossoming into a leader taught me to question everything I thought I knew about the value of academic performance, grades and degrees.
What do those things measure anyway? I came to the conclusion that degrees measure college-surviving skills, grades measure test taking skills and interviews measure interviewing skills. As you can see, they are not completely useless, they do measure something, it is just that what they measure happens not to correlate much with real world performance on the job. I am happy to see that Google has validated these observations with lots of data.
We believe in education, we just believe the higher education establishment is serving the cause of education poorly and expensively. We do not believe college is the only way nor the best way to get a good education. We believe it is a travesty for the academic establishment to encourage young men and women to pile up so much debt in the pursuit of a college degree. The higher education system is a bubble that deserves to burst. We believe it is the vital responsibility of employers to help young men and women avoid debt, and the way employers can help is to not ask for college credentials during hiring.
It is heartening to read that Google has a lot of employees without a college degree now. At Zoho, nearly 20% of our people do not have a college degree, and our long term goal is to get that percentage to 50% or higher. We encourage every company to try it, it really, really works. It is good for employees, it is good for society, and it is good for companies.
An overwhelming majority of our people (over 95%) join us with no prior work experience, either fresh out of college or fresh out of high school. After a period of training, which varies, they tend to start out as generalists, get exposed to a variety of functional areas and over time they tend to specialize in areas such as product development, frameworks, security, design, quality assurance, support, product management and so on. We are fortunate that our people tend to stay with us, which allows us to invest in them to develop specific skills. As an example, in the past 3 years, we have grown our mobile team from a standing start to nearly a hundred people. We have not only developed mobile software development skills and shipped cool products, we have also developed a cohesive product strategy and vision in mobile.
It is not just in hiring that we are different. We do not have formal performance reviews. It is natural for people to postpone giving bad news, and managers are people too. This means managers tend to store up negative feedback for review time and inflict negative surprises, which is deeply frustrating. Instead, we ask our managers to share any negative feedback immediately, and only keep positive surprises during pay revision time. This system has worked well, both in terms of increased employee satisfaction as well as by reducing the endless amount of review-writing that managers have to go through.
All of these ideas come from a fundamental philosophical belief: human beings are intrinsically unmeasurable. Trying to measure and classify people will ultimately lead to dissatisfaction and failure. Instead, we have noticed that small groups of people, with leaders who are directly connected and aware of the work each team member does, can achieve tremendous productivity and job satisfaction.