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Cracking the Code

Sonal Khetarpal

We had hired 30 engineers. That took us three years. As we scaled up, we wanted to expand to 150, not in one year, but in three months," recalls Siddhartha Nihalani, Head of Engineering, Practo Technologies, which provides technology solutions to healthcare providers. For Practo, at that stage, growth was imperative but, without quick hiring, impossible. There were no easy answers.

The reasons for slow hiring, says Nihalani, are many. One, companies give applicants coding tests on paper and then check them manually. This is time-consuming and subjective. At times, applicants have to be flown down to the office, too, says Nihalani. In such a scenario, Practo would have had no option but to lower its growth ambitions. It was then it discovered HackerRank - a tech start-up that uses software to test skills of programmers, helping companies hire quality talent. HackerRank helped Practo assess 1,500 people in three months.

With operations in Bangalore and California, HackerRank has its roots in a college project of two friends, Harishankaran Karunanidhi and Vivek Ravisankar, studying in National Institute of Technology, Trichy, who developed a software to help students evaluate coding skills. At that time, they did not know what to do with it further, and after passing out took jobs at IBM and Amazon, respectively. The next year, in 2009, they left their jobs and developed the project into a company called InterviewStreet. The idea was to set up a business around helping students get better jobs through skill assessment and mock interviews. The self assessment was a big hit and attracted 100 candidates every month. But conducting mock interviews was tough. "Recruiters felt it was unethical to give away interview questions as it would be in conflict with their day job," says Karunanidhi. The two started asking around for feedback and, through a friend, got in touch with Mekin Maheshwari, the then Vice President of Engineering at Flipkart. In February 2011, Flipkart became its first corporate client. Word of mouth got them five more paying clients in the next three months.

The big break came in June 2011, when the company was selected for Y Combinator. It claims it was the first Indian company to be shortlisted for the American accelerator programme. At this stage, feedback from mentors such as Paul Graham and Mark Jung made the founders realise that getting candidates was a bigger problem for companies than assessing them. They decided to start a web community of programmers called HackerRank, in 2012. Gradually, they changed the focus from students to companies and developed a platform called HackerRank for Work, which lets companies set up coding challenges to be solved by potential employees online. The software automatically evaluates the work and sends top results to companies. Mathias Connot, Director of Talent Acquisition at US-based cloud and virtualisation software company VMware, says the software has helped them save 75 per cent of the screening time and look for "diamonds in the rough". The 26-year-olds renamed the company HackerRank from InterviewStreet.

To expand the pool of potential hires, the co-founders hit upon the idea of strengthening the HackerRank community by setting up coding challenges every month. They also got companies on board for hiring the winners of these contests. This gave them a lot of traction in the technology world. It is now a 1.5-million-strong community of programmers, considered to be the third-largest online programming community in the world after GitHub and StackOverflow, says Karunanidhi.

"Technology is one of the biggest sectors for recruitments in India. As new programming languages keep coming in, it is important for companies to engage with the talent so that they have a database of people with the right skill sets who may not be looking for a job right now but can be hired in the future," says Archana Jerath, Business Head, SHRM India, an association of HR professionals. In contrast to resumes, which may not give the true picture of a person's coding skills, online tests are an objective way to find the right candidates, she adds.

"Technology is one of the biggest sectors for recruitments in India. As new programming languages keep coming in, it is important for companies to engage with the talent"

Meanwhile, the selection for Y Combinator helped in fund raising. HackerRack raised $3 million from Khosla Ventures, led by billionaire entrepreneur Vinod Khosla. It used the money to hire a sales and operations team in California. While the engineering team is based in Bangalore, the 140 employees are evenly distributed in the two locations.

New Add-ons

HackerRank for Work was working well for companies looking for junior and mid-level hires. But for hiring at the senior level, companies wanted to oversee the entire assessment process. So, HackerRank developed another product, CodePair, in 2013, which helps companies test coding skills in real time. "It is a Google Drive-type software with audio and video functions. The recruiter can not only see the code candidates are writing in real time but also understand their thought process," says Karunanidhi.

As the client base increased to 1,000-plus, and top names such as Amazon and Walmart came on board, in June 2014, it raised another $9.2 million from Khosla Ventures and Battery Ventures. Last year, it got $7.5 million from Japan-based Recruit Holdings' HR Technology Fund. It has received $20 million in funding till date. To beef up its top deck, HackerRack hired former Facebook ad sales executive Grady Burnett as Chief Operating Officer and Google's veteran software engineer Ahmed Aly for creating programming content. "The idea was to give senior people charge of operations so that we could focus on product development," says Ravisankar, who looks after the US operations and customer acquisition.

In November 2014, to tap the market for mobile apps, HackerRank developed DroidRank, which checks the efficiency of apps for Android. In June 2015, it launched DbRank, which tests skills of database programmers, business analysts and data scientists, as well as SudoRank (to assess systems engineers). In January this year came a job search app, HackerRank Jobs, to connect companies to software engineers. Here, too, coders have to pass a test. "Applying to a company is like sending the job resume in a black hole. We are trying to make the process transparent. The applicant will be informed if he or she will get an interview call or not," says Ravisankar. Over 20 companies such as Intuit and Quora have joined the platform.

The company does not make money from the hacker community but from companies that partner with it for assessments. The cost of an enterprise package varies from $10,000 to $25,000, which includes access to all of HackerRank's products.

HackerRank also recently partnered with Microsoft for enabling code search on Bing. It has code snippets based on commonly-searched items that can be used by programmers for learning and checking the quality of their solutions. It is also developing a platform for assessing web developers and iOS app developers, which will be launched by the end of this year.

Ashwin Singh, Senior Manager, APAC Talent Acquisition, Juniper Networks, says, "HackerRank is a vital component of our campus recruiting strategy. Through the assessment tool as well as CodePair, it has helped us uncover top-notch tech talent, while reducing screening time drastically. It is a great engagement platform for our technical community and has helped us drive our innovation agenda."

As the company keeps launching new products to tap new segments, it remains true to its tagline - making the world flat by democratising the hiring process.

Reproduced From Business Today. © 2016. LMIL. All rights reserved.