Fast-tracking: Alternatives to college

How Zoho's internal program finds talent outside universities.

At Foo Camp 2010, Sridhar Vembu, CEO of Zoho, gave a talk called “Alternatives to College.” I was so excited by what he had to say that I wanted to be able to share it more widely — after all, only two people came to his talk. So I recorded a video interview (after the jump) with him.

Sridhar’s efforts at Zoho and their development center in Madras tell us something about how to develop a 21st century workforce by tapping into those who would not normally go to college. In short, his answer is not to prepare them for college but to prepare them to be productive in the workplace — and to do that preparation in the workplace.

Sridhar has a Ph.D from Princeton, having gone there after obtaining a degree from an elite engineering school in India. Yet it was watching his youngest brother succeed at programming without a college degree that convinced him that others could follow that example. As he studied the best employees in his own company, he discovered that credentials were not as important as he once thought.

Based on a few years of observation, we noticed that there was little or no correlation between academic performance, as measured by grades and 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?” *

At Zoho, Sridhar created a program, which he called a “university” but it was nothing like a normal university. He began working with kids who had a high school education and who were unlikely to attend college for economic reasons. He didn’t care if they had no previous computer experience. He didn’t care that they didn’t speak English.

Once in the program, the students were paid a stipend to attend each day. The program lasted 9-12 months and then the students entered a one-year apprenticeship program. After two years, the students were ready to be productive employees in an IT company. About 100 kids so far have been through the program.

The program offers concrete, hands-on instruction designed to follow how someone who was self-taught would learn. (The first teacher was himself a self-taught programmer.) They are expected to spend the bulk of the time learning on their own. The students are taught very little theory, avoiding computer science altogether. Instead students practice solving problems and doing real work. They learn programming, English (many only know Tamil), and math. None of the students really like math and they learn just enough. Sridhar made a comment that might shock educators and employers: “Math is the new Sanskrit, the new Latin.” He believes we overestimate the value of math as a tool to assess a student’s ability.

Sridhar believes that finding new sources of talent outside the university was important for his company to remain competitive. Now, they have employees who are passionate about their work. By discovering raw talent and developing it, and by having the same expectations of them as college-trained engineers, Zoho has created a fast-track to new opportunities for young people in India who would otherwise not have that opportunity.

With America’s own problems of high unemployment and high dropout rates, not just in high school but also college, we could learn from what Zoho has done. I’d like to hear from you if you’re interested in seeing what we can do in America to learn from this model and create fast-tracking opportunities for many more young people.

Here is the interview I recorded at FOO Camp with Sridhar Vembu.

*Link to blog post by Sridhar Vembu: “How We Recruit — On Formal Credentials versus Experience-based Education.

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