Across the tech industry, few employees stick with a single company for very long. Career development is about putting in your time, and then moving on to the next big entry on your LinkedIn profile. Zoho is different. At Zoho, we've managed to retain many of our earliest employees for decades. These pillars of our community have mentored generations of new employees, including many who were born after those old-guard mentors first started at the company. That longevity says something important about our company culture and the impact it has had on the lives of our people.
Over the last 25 years, we've seen how important it is to provide employees with a deep sense of fulfillment through the work that they do. So how do you make work life more fulfilling? You look at employees as people to be nurtured, not assets to be exploited. You see them for their capability, not just for the measurable capital they currently produce. You provide them with meaningful, challenging work, and you give them time to build the skills and expertise they need to succeed.
Long-term investment reaps big rewards
If you look at Zoho as a whole, you can see numerous examples of people who were given this opportunity: our Chief Evangelist started in IT; our Head of HR for the US, started as a content editor; the Marketing Manager for one of our largest products started as an app developer. The list goes on. In each of these cases, we identified talented people and gave them room to pursue their passions. With time and encouragement, those passions evolved into true callings for the employees and invaluable assets for the organization.
Talent alone doesn't guarantee success. Sometimes, success is a matter of being in the right place at the right time, of knowing the right people, of being given the opportunity to showcase your skills. But over the last few decades, it seems that the only places tech companies think talent exists (or should live) is in densely populated, high-priced, traffic-jammed cities.
But great talent doesn't only exist in high rises; amazing work happens in small towns and villages around the world.
Erosion of the community top soil
The problem is that the allure of high-paying, interesting jobs draws local talent away from the very places where it is most desperately needed. To borrow a metaphor from farming, these smaller, rural communities have witnessed a wholesale erosion of the "top soil" of their talent pool.
We saw firsthand the impact this erosion had on local communities. When the people with means and vision leave rural areas for high paying jobs, opportunities dwindle and growth slows. Without that economic vibrancy, more people leave, leading to fewer opportunities for those who stay. It's a negative feedback loop that has resulted in tremendous wealth inequality and political unrest all around the world.
Bring jobs to where the talent is
We knew we wanted to do something different. We wanted to incentivize the best and the brightest to stay local, rather than luring talent away from small towns toward big cities. We wanted to help build deeply-rooted, local communities. We wanted to inspire the people around us to reach for a better future for themselves and their families.
Our approach? We build offices in smaller towns where we can make a bigger impact and where employees can buy homes, spend time with family, and enjoy a higher quality of life. We staff those offices with great, local folks who are eager to get their shot, and then give them the opportunity to succeed. The results thus far are very encouraging; in places we've opened these offices, communities have seen increasing economic opportunity, employees enjoy a higher quality of life, and towns that were once struggling are thriving again.
This has taught us something we always expected; that when done right, what's good for business can also be good for the community.
We believe that education should be practical and contextual. Unfortunately, most universities offer neither. The reality is, what's being taught in Comp Sci classes doesn't remotely resemble the challenges a software engineer actually faces. Education, especially one that costs an arm and a leg, should prepare people for what comes next, but most college programs are more concerned with theory than practice.
The classroom failed to prepare us for the real-world challenges we faced when trying to build a company. There were no courses on "how to reinvent yourself when the economy collapses" or, "what to do when customers are unhappy." We had to figure this out ourselves, and in real time.
Breaking the debt cycle
Besides leaving people unprepared for work, college also leaves them entrenched in debt. 18-year-olds sign away their financial freedom for a piece of paper that is worth less and less every day. Instead of being an asset that helps you foster growth, college is increasingly turning into a liability, creating generations enslaved to debt for decades to come.
Once we realized that a diploma is only a piece of paper, we found a lot of incredibly talented people that had been overlooked because they didn't have the right credentials, connections or GPA. We decided you didn't need to go to college to be a good engineer; what you needed was passion, enthusiasm, and a chance.
Moving beyond the diploma
In 2005, Zoho Schools of Learning launched with a cohort of six recent high school graduates who came to Zoho directly from an assortment of villages across rural India. Over the course of a year, we trained them in math, engineering, and English. Afterwards, those six students had the opportunity to serve as apprentices with our engineering teams. Every single team went on to hire the apprentices as full-time employees, and multiple members of that first batch of students are still employed at Zoho more then 15 years later.
Now, Zoho Schools of Learning has become a major hiring channel for the company, with graduates of the program making up approximately 10% of our current workforce. Over the last decade-and-a-half, we've expanded our course offerings to include dedicated tracks in technology, design, and business. We have graduated hundreds of students who have taken up every role imaginable across the company, including development, IT administration, UX design, product management, and marketing.
The fresh ideas and energy these folks bring has helped make us the diverse and dynamic company that we are.
Embracing professionalism that doesn't erase the personal
Most company culture explicitly or implicitly teaches employees to flatten their personalities in order to conform to the expectations of the organization. At its heart, that's what "professionalization" means at a lot of companies. Do you follow the rules? Do you blend in? Do you color inside the lines? When you're in the office or on the clock, you must conform to the character of the company at all costs.
But the truth is, every organization is built on personality. The personalities of the people who work there. The personalities of the customers they interact with. The personalities of senior executives. The personality of the founder. Trying to erase the personal from the professional merely stifles creativity and multiplies unhappiness.
Tapping into the power of the personal
While all jobs have their moments of tedium, we think it is imperative that people enjoy what they do, deeply and genuinely. We don't see software development as a factory line job, one where everyone on the line is interchangeable, or disposable. No, we want people with passion, curiosity, and most importantly, personality.
We hire people who stand out from the crowd, but not because of the degrees they hold or the wealth they may have attained. We'd rather have colleagues that are multifaceted in their interests and talents, and who want to put those interests and talents to use. We'd rather empower our employees to take creative risks, to try new ideas, and to bring their unique experiences to work.