Adobe’s Approach on Hiring Stellar Early Talent with Prasad Rao

This is the fourth episode of HackerRank Radio, our podcast for engineering leaders interested in solving developers’ toughest problems today: Hiring the right developers. Hosted by Vivek Ravisankar (CEO & Cofounder, HackerRank). You can subscribe to us on iTunes and Google Play


In terms of skills, adaptability, and bringing in a fresh perspective, hiring early talent (aka new grads and interns) can add a lot of value to an organization. As a result, campus recruiting is a huge, critical strategy for companies worldwide. This is especially true in India where,, there are over 800,000 engineers graduating every year, according to a recent study by the All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). Companies have to iterate and stay competitive for the best talent. 

We had a chance to catch up with Prasad Kuchoor Rao, Director of Talent Acquisition at Adobe in India, who comes with a wealth of experience in recruiting early talent for companies like Google and Walmart Labs.

Listen to Prasad as he walks us through:

  • Best practices for finding the right talent on campus
  • Boosting employer brand in universities to attract early talent
  • The future of university tech recruiting

Listen to the Podcast episode here, or scroll below to skim the transcript:

 

Vivek: Hello everyone, welcome to the HackerRank Radio. I’m Vivek, CEO, and co-founder of HackerRank. As you probably know, each month we interview a top senior leader about how they’re solving one of the toughest problems today hiring the right developers.

And actually, I’m at the Bangalore office today and I’m getting an opportunity to talk to Prasad Rao, who’s the director of talent selection of India at Adobe. He’s worked at a lot of great companies before: Walmart Labs, Google, and others who are known for a high engineering bar. I’m very excited to have him on board. Welcome, Prasad.

Prasad: Hi Vivek, and hi everyone. It’s great to be here at the HackerRank office in Bangalore. Welcome back to Bangalore. It’s good to have you here, Vivek.

Prasad’s Background

Vivek: Yeah, welcome. Maybe listeners would love to probably get a little background about you, how you started and different roles that you worked in.

Prasad: Sure. I can give a quick snapshot of my background. So as Vivek just said, I’m the talent acquisition director for Adobe in India. I’ve been here for three years now. I joined Adobe from Walmart Labs. I was there for a couple of years and helped them set up the e-commerce business when they acquired Kosmix back in 2012.

Prior to Walmart Labs, I was with Google for fairly long time, close to around nine years. Six years in Bangalore, three years in Mountain View. Did a bunch of different roles not all related to staffing. I lead a couple of startups before joining Google. So I’m one of those recruiters by accident, but I really kind of got into this deep end enjoying what I’m doing today.

Vivek: Awesome. Do you remember interviewing me at Google?

Prasad: Yes and I am yet to give you feedback!

Vivek: So you joined Google pretty early, right? It says about 2005 in India. How big was Google when you joined here?

Prasad: That’s a very interesting story. So I took a lot of pride in remembering almost everybody at Google by their first name, especially Bangalore. When I joined Google back in 2005, there were probably around 15, and when I left Google, Bangalore in 2010, we were around 150 engineers – just in Bangalore. But we also grew in other areas significantly.

Yeah, those were really good days because Google was probably one of the first product companies, a true product company to set up an office in India. And I remember my first few weeks at Google was actually a culture shock. I can share some of those details, but I hope nobody is going to ping me after the podcast and asked why I said it.

But when I first presented a few profiles from some top universities, the selection criteria was just for IIT Kharagpur and IIT Bombay.

Vivek: Oh, wow.

Prasad: And everything else was not considered.

Vivek: And I remember Laszlo who just left Google actually put up a survey or some sort of a research that you guys did which said solving puzzles doesn’t correlate to higher performance.

Prasad: Exactly. I think what is good about Google is the investment they have on people and HR practices. So they have this team, the analytics team which does a lot of research in terms of what really works or doesn’t. Yes, you’re right one of the findings was they really felt that puzzles don’t really reflect or help assess the right capabilities when Google hires talent for their own company.

The other interesting thing that came out of this team was Google was notorious for having huge number of interviews. Sometimes people take pride, “Oh, I interviewed at Google for 15 times, 20 times.” But then there was this analysis that was done and the team came up with this finding that beyond the fourth interview, the decision doesn’t change. So Google then actually made a big change in the interview or assessment process. Back in 2008, they stopped having more than four or five interviews per candidate.

What a Candidate is Assessed on vs. What They Actually Work on

Vivek: Like you mentioned, you’ve worked at some marquee companies; Google, Walmart Labs, Adobe. So if you had to look back, what were some of the things that were common across all of these companies and what were some of the things that were sort of unique about the recruiting process?

Prasad: I think of all the companies I worked in, Google or Walmart Labs or Adobe, the unique thing is about focusing on fundamentals rather than testing for a specific skill or a specific domain experience.

Vivek: Like problem-solving skills?

Prasad: Exactly. So I think all of them being with an eye on products, so they believe that if you’re fundamentally strong, you can always come up with your own ways of inventing and figuring out things rather than just getting somebody just for a particular team. For example, at Google, the interviews are usually for Google and not for any specific location. And anybody who’s hired at Google, especially on the engineering side, they’re considered good enough to work in any offices solving any problems.

Vivek: Interesting. This is being debated a lot in the engineering circles which is we’ll test candidates on problems solving skills, on core fundamental data structures and algorithms, but that’s not exactly their work. When they come on board they do something different or it’s already been implemented. If a candidate asks this question to you since you go to a lot of universities, what is your response to this?

Prasad: Interesting question, and it’s a debatable topic. I partly agree with you, but if you actually go a few steps deeper in terms of why we really do that, just not Adobe or any other company, I think the reason they focus on some of these fundamentals is because these companies are evolving and the pace at which they are evolving. And if I have to hire somebody for the current problem, a year down the line the company’s strategy might change and I may not have the right talent to solve for the future.

While not all companies have the luxury of offering work that has been assessed in the interview process but there’s definitely a scope for these individuals to go into these problem areas somewhere down the line in their career in that organization. And that’s the reason why you want to kind of get somebody who’s a safe bet rather than get someone who is going to solve your problem for today.

Vivek: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, the rate at which new JavaScript frameworks comes up or anything in technology is just growing at a very rapid pace, so you’d want somebody who has good computational thinking or problem-solving skills you’re going to adapt to any technology in the future.

Finding the Right Early Talent on Campus

Vivek: So maybe we can just drill down a little more in your role at Adobe. I know the big focus of your role at Adobe includes campus hiring. India is known for thousands of engineering colleges across the country and of course every company has this challenge which is “I have limited bandwidth, limited money, limited resources on how many colleges I can actually go ahead and visit.” When you have thousands of colleges and you probably visited I don’t know 20 or 25, or 30, are you just losing out a huge portion of the talent pool access and what do you think could be done to make this better? I would love to know your state on this?

Prasad: That’s actually a very interesting problem. It’s just not at Adobe. Even during Google days or at Walmart Labs, despite having so many good engineering schools in India, it’s a challenge of finding a needle in a haystack. And then you also need to be cognizant of the resources that need to be invested if I had to go and visit even the top 100 schools in India.

For example, Adobe looks at hiring around 200 engineers. And if these engineers are available in the top 25 to 40 schools, why would I want to go beyond these 40 schools? But I would definitely want to have something which will help me reach out to more schools in a lesser time and with less resources. And that’s exactly where the online assessment technology comes into play.

To be very honest, it could be HackerRank, it could be any other company in the space. It has significantly helped us reduce the time taken to bring a candidate to the interview table from the time we have a resume to the time the person is interviewed. It helps us get to that pool of relevant candidates, which is very specific to what Adobe is looking for or any particular organization is looking for.

And also at the comfort of having to take these assessments at their desks or at their personal laptops. Yes, it has a fair amount of ‘how do students actually manage this without having anybody monitoring them’, but it does give a fair indication of whether the top 100 to 200 schools be good enough for me to explore versus having to go to each of these cities and interview these students personally.

Boosting Employer Brand to Attract Talent at Universities

Vivek: Got it. I mean, of course, Adobe has a luxury or enjoys the fact that everybody knows about Adobe and they probably use your products on a daily or a weekly basis. So they use Amazon’s, Flipkart, Microsoft products. So when it comes to going to universities and talking to students, what are some of the ways that actually worked for you in terms of a brand – in terms of an employer brand? How do you describe the challenges or problems that you’re going to work on and how is it unique?

Prasad: That’s again another extremely competitive space in India, especially considering a mix of big brands as well as some really good startups coming into the play. It’s always very hard to engage students and keep them excited about a particular brand. It’s not just Adobe. Even if it is Google or any other companies which are in the forefront of technology innovation, it’s very hard to sustain a brand presence at the campuses.

I think what really works, like, I’ve been in the university hiring space for close to 10 years now, and whatever realized is the engagement that you build at the universities and the student communities, how do you project yourself as a technology brand? For example, for a very long time or even today, we have a perception of being a PDF and a Photoshop company, but in reality, we have evolved significantly beyond that.

We’re talking about digital marketing, we’re talking about artificial intelligence, we’re talking about cloud technology, platforms engineering, but a lot of people and these students at the campus talk about Adobe as PDF or a Photoshop which really gets people worked up at Adobe because we’re not just that.

But then, a lot of it will we be blamed on the organizations if they don’t do enough to communicate aggressively of what they do in the organization. And we need to do more in terms of having a presence at these campuses. Now, we need to have some relevant Tech Talks, we need to identify specific domains that excites the students, and how do we reach out to them and how do we talk about what Adobe or any other organization is doing in that space.

I think in summary, it’s the engagement or it is the brand presence that makes a big difference because on the day of the interviews the students choose the company based on what they hear. Of course, there are a lot of other ways for students to access information about a company, but if we don’t our bit, it’s very hard for students to pick and choose from this whole bunch of exciting brands that are available in the market today.

Tapping Universities Less Visited

Vivek: It’s probably good for campuses where Adobe visits for a student to come up to you or somebody who’s visiting the campus to say, “I’m interested in your company. You maybe talk about the next steps and others.” But what about the hundreds of engineering colleges that Adobe doesn’t visit? How does a candidate get in touch with you? How do they apply to Adobe right now?

Prasad: To be very honest, we are not actually completely open to hiring directly from all campuses. We actually run special programs during specific times of the year. We do run gender diversity projects beyond the Top schools that we visit from.

For example, we are collaborating with this group Mission R&D, which is run by some engineers at Amazon, Microsoft, and Adobe who help students in some of the remotest colleges from Andhra Pradesh tutoring them and mentoring them. And some of them actually get some classes at IIIT Hyderabad. So we tie up with some of these forums where we tap into some talent which could be relevant to us and we provide them with internship opportunities.

We recently did a diversity hiring campaign where we reached out to more than 100 schools across India to hire some top women engineers for entry-level roles in engineering. And that’s probably something we do in pockets but there is no sustained or a scalable program to continuously reach out to these schools through the year.

Changes in the University Hiring Landscape

Vivek: In the last 10 or 15 years that you’ve been part of the university recruiting, what have you seen changing the landscape?

Prasad: Specific to the university hiring space?

Vivek: Yeah.

Prasad: I think in India, earlier, a lot of university hiring was driven by placement departments or professors, but today with the way information is being accessed by students, it’s no more through these departments. It’s usually how well can we connect with students directly? How do we actually build a brand directly in the student community? That actually has changed significantly.

So what’s changed big way is students no more think of compensation as the only factor why they chose the brand. They look for good work. And today they compete with a lot of startups despite these startups not having a big brand presence in the country.

Like this year or recently, when we have been to campuses, there were a lot of companies who probably paid less than Adobe, but they’ve still preferred them over bigger brands because it’s the opportunity to work on some really cool problems. For example, if somebody has to work at HackerRank or Adobe, HackerRank would give them an opportunity to work on some global problems.

Unlike a big brand like Adobe or Amazon or even Google, they may have to work on some areas which probably is not really exciting for them to begin with. So there are options for students to pick from and compensation is no more the only factor that actually drives students to pick a job.

Vivek: Interesting. And you think it’s mostly because of the rise in startup?

Prasad: Absolutely. I think it’s also because of how companies are also changing their strategy in investing in India. For example, Adobe does a fair amount of engineering work out of India. One of our legacy business is print and publishing business, which has a whole bunch of e-learning in solutions, almost 100% of the engineering framework is owned by the India engineering teams. So is Document Cloud, 50% to 60% of the global engineering work is done in India

I’m sure Amazon and Microsoft who have similar models where they do have some really good stuff to work on, but it’s the startups that actually have upper hand here because they’re able to do this a lot more aggressively and students do get attracted. Especially when you go to top schools in India, there’s no fear of not having a job. I can risk my career for the first two or three years doing some really fun interesting stuff and then go and work for a bigger brand if it is compensation that would actually drive me.

Advice to Students for Choosing the Right Company to Work For

Vivek: So given to change in the landscape where there are so many startups that have come up, probably even their compensation is close to what large companies offer, what’s your advice for students in these different universities? How should they think about choosing a company and what are some of the factors or parameters should they consider?

Prasad: It’s specific to what individuals want to do. Large companies still offer the scale that many small companies cannot offer. It’s the right balance. I definitely don’t want to rank compensation as a factor to make a decision.

As I said earlier, we look for talent who have failed or who have worked in small startups on interesting problems who want to go back and work for bigger organizations, but if somebody has to pick a company, it has to be a good balance between scale and interesting problems to work on.

Betting on the Potential of Early Talent

Vivek: Well, you’re really betting a lot on their potential, right? Yes, they would have worked, they would have had a couple of internships and they were done a lot of projects, but at some level you’re betting on their potential to be rock stars in your company versus let’s say an experienced professional who’s worked at a company for four or five years where you have a lot more data points to analyze.

When you’re betting on potential it can go either way. It can turn out to be amazing where the person is a fast riser, super high growth person, or it could just be you were completely wrong on all the signals that you had seen. So over time, when you started to interview these candidates specifically the students, what have you learned or how have you tuned your interview process to look for specific signals and ignores others as well?

Prasad: I actually contradict your thoughts on this. So most companies have a significant investment in university talent. It’s because of the diverse perspectives they bring to the table. If you take for example me who’ve been in this industry for 15 years, there are many things I am tuned to do in a certain way and blame it on my experience sometimes because I wouldn’t have stopped thinking the conventional way. But if I go speak to a bunch of university grads, they come up with some really cool, out of the box ideas. Not all of that is scalable or sustainable but you know there’s a lot of fresh perspectives coming.

And companies like Adobe who visit the top 25 or the top 50 or even top 100 schools, we can’t really go wrong in too many ways. At worst, I probably would end up with 10% of the talent who may not scale but it is still worth the investment for us to go out there and see what kind of different perspectives can we bring in to the organization.

A lot of engineering leaders value having university talent on their team. And almost everyone I’ve spoken to, they’ve always benefited from having talent from the universities probably because of the energy level and their drive and their enthusiasm to make a change. It actually is contagious. It actually spreads to the rest of the organization and it always helps us come up and develop new ideas.

Vivek: Got it. Got it. And on that note, has there been certain things that have you started to give more weight interviewing university candidates or giving others less weight too over the years or has it remained consistent?

Prasad: It’s been fairly consistent. As you said, we don’t look for a ready fit from universities. It’s very unlikely to find somebody who could come in and blend in from day one. We definitely look for potential, smart individuals with good problem-solving skills. If they are able to look at a problem in a much broader perspective and come up with their own ideas, which can be fine-tuned, it should not be a challenge. But we typically look for potential rather than trying to hire somebody who would come in and scale from day one.

University Recruiting in India vs the US

Vivek: And you’ve also spent a little more time in Google at the Mountain View campus and of course we met a lot of times when you come to Adobe in San Jose. Are there any similarities or differences between how university recruiting is done in the US versus India and are there anything that you would like to incorporate here from what you’ve learned in the US?

Prasad: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think one big change that India needs to have is allowing the students to take a decision on where they would want to hire. Today a lot of these decisions are driven by the placement departments or the authorities at school, unlike the US where students get to kind of pick a day and time to interview with the company.

I’m not a big fan of these campus hiring drives where there are tons of companies visiting on day zero or day one. They are not really doing justice to evaluate talent. It could be a positive or a negative decision, but having to walk away from a campus and not being convinced that we did the right job of assessing the candidates is not a great feeling for any organization.

Vivek: They’ve probably also put an artificial constraint on students?

Prasad: Exactly, right? And there’s a lot of pressure on students to actually prove themselves or perform. And many a time we may not end up hiring some really good talent out there. And just not Adobe, it could be any organization.

Building Connective Tissue with Hiring Managers

Vivek: Interesting. And given you have been again in campus recruiting, how many hires will you have done? Hundreds, five hundred, thousands?

Prasad: Probably few thousands.

Vivek: Wow, wow, that’s crazy. So you would have worked with maybe hundreds of hiring managers maybe or thousands of hires?

Prasad: Yeah.

Vivek: What are some of the things that you have figured out on because that relationship is super crucial, right? The recruiting and the hiring manager making sure that you are on the same page. What are some of the things that you have figured out or you’ve learned over time on what works and what doesn’t?

Prasad: It’s been an interesting journey for me in the recruiting space. I’ve been hiring for the last 15 years now. What’s changed significantly from the days I started off in a recruiting is recruiting used to be more reactive. So there used to be a bunch of open roles. You go on LinkedIn or you go on some job board, search for specific skill sets and then present a bunch of resumes and then the hiring managers would go through it.

There are a lot of efforts going on in silos. What’s change today significantly in being effective in the strategic role recruiters play. For example, platforms like HackerRank has helped me give a lot of valuable time back to the interviewers or back to the hiring managers. I’m able to take more informed decisions based on some of these platforms. Or it could be any of the platforms which are driven by a lot of these new technologies like AI where it helps me, give me more relevant candidates.

The collaboration has significantly evolved from what it was earlier. It’s more of a trust that actually has to be built with the hiring manager and a recruiter for having a very effective way of hiring. For example, at Adobe, it’s a collaborative process for us. It’s just not about recruiters getting a bunch of open positions and then we close it. There’s a very active participation from the hiring managers in making a successful hire.

So to begin with, there is a fair amount of collaboration between hiring managers and recruiters today. Wherever you come across some good recruiters, they actually communicate a lot more often with the hiring managers. I always believe that there has to be probably an overdose of communication. There’s nothing wrong with it because hiring managers will always look for updates from recruiters and what’s happening with the open positions.

The other thing that has changed significantly in this landscape is the kind of insights you provide to the hiring managers. You have to be very candid telling the hiring managers what is the realistic possibilities of hiring for a particular role and what does it take for us to not able to hire for a particular role. So there has to be a lot of communication, there has to be a lot more information shared with the hiring managers, which in turn helps us to build a strong relationship which eventually helps us hire a great talent.

The Future of University Recruiting

Vivek: Got it. How do you imagine campus recruiting to be within the next five years or ten years?

Prasad: That’s something that everybody’s trying to kind of figure out – how is this landscape changing. What I’ve seen in the recent past is how do we leverage technology, how do we use data, how do we use concepts like AI to reach out to more schools.

Right now because of the constraints of having to be at the universities to meet the hiring decisions, we are actually constrained of not being able to visit more than 25 to 30 schools in a year. But if we can leverage technology in the right way, we probably can go to around thousand schools in a year and still hire the top 200 from the 1,000 schools. I think technology will play a big role in helping us evolve this landscape

The other aspect is how do we get much closer to the student communities. Right now a lot of these colleges or universities are limited to not being exposed to what’s happening in the industry. How do we take some of these interesting problems back to the schools and get the perspectives before we go to these campuses for hiring? Hiring year-round engagement with the students’ communities will play a bigger role.

Vivek: Thank you, Prasad. Thank you for your time. I definitely hope the future how you predicted comes through soon and you continue to use HackerRank.

Prasad: Thanks, Vivek. We have always been a big fan of HackerRank and I look forward to leveraging HackerRank to reach out to those schools that we have not been able to reach out so far.

Vivek: Awesome. Thank you so much.

 

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