For deep-tech hires, firms cast net wide in shallow talent pool
Hackathons, training platforms help startups fill some gaps in candidate-driven market.
Mukund Jha, the chief technology officer of Dunzo, a hyperlocal on-demand delivery firm, said finalising a senior hand for areas such as artificial intelligence and machine learning was a fourmonth task, made difficult by a limited talent pool.
“We mostly go for referrals and hackathons, and conduct up to six rounds of interviews to zero in on the right specialist — someone who doesn’t just code or develop products but also fits into our culture,” he said. Data science is another domain where firms face difficulty in getting employees.
Dunzo, which is based in Bengaluru, was a participant at Bootstrap Paradox, a two day hackathon conducted by early-stage investor Blume Ventures and community hiring platform Skillenza. Such events have become very important for startups to identify and lure domain specialists. VCs which assist their portfolio companies in this search also underscored the challenges in getting professionals for deep tech, saying candidates now choose their employers instead of it being the other way around.
“It’s a largely candidatedriven market, where startups often end up approaching the same workers. This is particularly true for deep tech, a space whose potential the country is still discovering,” said Sanam Rawal, lead talent adviser at Blume Ventures. “To win over potential hires, firms use strategies such as definite growth paths, relocation bonuses, attractive open cultures, flat hierarchies, roles with greater autonomy, and ESOPs.”
Apart from hackathons, the VC fund is involved in initiatives which help founders of portfolio companies recruit former entrepreneurs who share the same passion for building something.
VC firm Sequoia conducts hackathons and community engagement programmes to get access to quality talent pool. Sequoia Hack sees participation from 12 countries. “The purpose of these hackathons is to help people experience what it’s like to fix interesting problems while being surrounded by very smart people and mentored by best CTOs from Indian startups,” Anandamoy Roychowdhary, director (technology), Sequoia Capital India, told TOI.
He added: “We found that this approach is more effective than transactional recruitment pitches in inspiring participants to work at startups. We have met some amazing teams and firms at Sequoia Hack, and Sequoia India has funded four companies founded by teams which came to the hackathon.”
Some startups tap platforms and communities which help scout for or train candidates. Pratik Agarwal, Raj Desai and Varsha Bhambhani, founders of School of Accelerated Learning (SOAL), create a simulated startup environment during a 14-week product engineering course.
“Most of the hiring heads we speak to say they often compromise on quality because of the talent shortage. We wanted to address this problem and provide startups building revolutionary tech with developers who can start coding from day one,” Desai said. SOAL graduates have landed jobs at ClearTax, Shopclues, Paymatrix and Practo.
According to Skillenza CEO Subhendu Panigrahi, hackathons provide deep tech engineers an opportunity to work with real-time datasets. “The major difference between a normal hackathon and a deep tech one is that participants tend to work with real-time data of companies. Nearly 15% of the hackathons we conduct are deep tech, where the engagement from the community is up to 10 times higher,” he said. “Such platforms give companies good access to people with top skills. For instance, they can see app developers in action instead of just reviewing their past work. Catching them live gives companies a better look.”
Product companies have different resource requirements than some other categories of firms, but they don’t have the luxury of time to sift through profiles to find the right candidate. Engineers looking to join them, for example, must relook at the tech from a coding and testing perspective to build a product, say industry experts.
Product evangelist and startup mentor Dorai Thodla said product development was a multi-stage process, from ideation, research and market-fit study to identification of minimum viable product. “Hackathons help attract builders and problem solvers to startups,” he said.
Many founders leverage the gig economy, using platforms like GitHub and Stack Overflow to rope in professionals who can work remotely, according to Thodla.
Nikhil Kumar, co-founder of API infrastructure startup Setu, believes there’s no dearth of tech professionals in India, but to build a product, you need an engineering specialist, and not just a generalist. “There is no silver bullet for finding the right professionals. The fact is you need an experienced engineer in the early days to do the heavy lifting as the product is built,” he said.
Some firms, including Setu, prefer referrals for recruitment. “We typically look for engineers who can take ownership of the product and be their own product managers,” Kumar said.
Despite the difficulties to find talent, some believe that there are enough skilled resources available.
Thiyagarajan Maruthavanan, a partner at SaaS accelerator Upekkha, said except in a few niche areas, India had a healthy pool of engineers capable of building things from scratch. “Perhaps eight to ten years ago, there was a real shortage of people with a certain level of intuition for building world-class products. But this is no longer the case today with the growth of captive centres, many of which carry out end-to-end product builds.”