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Indian IT firm’s strategy making engineers out of high school students pays off

Those who succeed then join ZU where they learn English, mathematics, software engineering skills, and programming languages. Source: Shutterstock

Zoho Corporation is running an unconventional but successful Zoho University (ZU) initiative where it trains high school graduates in India to be software programmers at its company if they do well in the programme, Quartz India reports.

Conceived 12 years ago with just six students, ZU now has 350 students at its location within Zoho’s offices in Chennai and in Tenkasi. For students, ZU’s appeal lies in the promise of a job at the end of its 24-month programme – a welcome feature in a country where IT giants are laying off hundreds as the industry becomes automated.

Anirudh R, who joined ZU after finishing school, said:

“Nowadays people don’t get jobs easily… I would like to enter the industry as soon as possible rather than wait four years.”

ZU recruits its students by going to Indian high schools and conducting tests on maths and aptitude, as well as interviews and training programmes, to see how they respond in real-world situations.

Those who succeed then join ZU where they learn English, mathematics, software engineering skills, and programming languages. Its website states the two-year training course is split equally between university study and “hands-on experience”.

“ZU students bring practical experience and other graduates are strong in theory. The training process at work is different, but there isn’t a difference otherwise,” Muthuselvi, a ZU alumna who now works at Zoho Projects said.

Zoho Corporation offers businesses cloud-based enterprise software, competing with big names such as Microsoft and Salesforce. According to Forbesthe company is estimated to book US$400 million in revenue this year.

In an interview with Forbes, Zoho founder Sridhar Vembu said ZU started as a “small experiment” back in 2004 with just one professor and six kids, after observing “people come with a college degree, but they end up learning on the job”.

ZU’s pool of recruits usually come from poorer backgrounds as middle-class students choose to go to conventional colleges. They are typically first-generation learners in their families, where parents sometimes are confused about ZU’s programme that gets their children into a software company without a degree.

These parents still subscribe to the notion the only way their children can get out of their family’s poor status is if they go to a traditional college, instead of ZU.

“They don’t want their children to suffer the same thing,” ZU faculty member Uma Maheswari Radhakrishnan.

But going to ZU appears to be a better than the usual college route – ZU students get curriculum that is constantly updated with the industry’s changes and its graduates can earn more than other college alumni do as new employees at Zoho.

“When we began in 2005, we taught PHP, MySQL, and Java. The latest batch, on the other hand, began learning Python, moved to Java with Postgres, mobile development etc,” Uma Maheswari said.

ZU’s novel structure is starting to gain traction in India, as the country grapples with further shortages of quality engineering talent from its varsities. HCL Technologies earlier this year is following ZU’s footsteps when it started its training programme to prepare 200 high-school students for entry-level software engineering jobs.

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