Vivek Ravisankar is the CEO and co-founder of HackerRank, a company that is on a mission to match every developer to the right job based on skills, not pedigree. The company has raised $60 million from investors like SV Angel, Khosla Ventures, Battery Ventures, JMI Equity, and ZenShin Capital.
In this episode you will learn:
- The future of recruiting and getting hired in tech
- The two things you need to break through these challenges
- The problem with being optimistic – and why you should be anyway
- Vivek’s top advice before you start a company
- The metric Vivek says is more important than dollars raised
- How to build and scale a great company culture
About Vivek Ravisankar:
Vivek Ravisankar is the CEO and co-founder of HackerRank, a company that is on a mission to match every developer to the right job based on skills, not pedigree.
While Vivek Ravisankar was working at Amazon as a software developer, he and HackerRank co-founder Hari Karunanidhi noticed that instead of dedicating their time to coding and building new products, they often had to spend hours interviewing candidates for developer roles.
Moreover, even after the long interviewing process, companies would often have new hires who didn’t actually have the skills needed to do the job, despite having traditional markers of success that employers screened for such as high GPAs and degrees from top universities. The hiring process for recruiters was clearly broken.
To fix the problem, Vivek Ravisankar and his cofounder created HackerRank where companies can screen developers through coding assessments and developers can join the HackerRank community to practice their coding skills.
HackerRank is now a Y Combinator alumnus that is backed by tier-one Silicon Valley VCs with total funding of over $58 million.
There are close to 6 million developers in their community and have 1,500+ customers from across different industries such as Atlassian, Stripe, and Goldman Sachs who rely on HackerRank to build strong engineering teams.
Connect with Vivek Ravisankar:
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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:
Alejandro: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we have a very exciting founder. A founder that is going to teach us quite a bit about recruiting, quite a bit about engineers, and how really great companies are placing those. Without further ado, Vivek Ravisankar, welcome to the show today.
Vivek Ravisankar: Well, thank you so much for having me.
Alejandro: So originally from India. How was life there?
Vivek Ravisankar: Life is great. I love India. I love going back home. It was fun being brought up there. Life is good, but I moved here to the Bay Area for the last seven years, and the place where I live resembles India, so I’m totally good.
Alejandro: And I understand that you guys now have dual headquarters. Also, you’re still very much attached to India, but why don’t we start with how you landed in the U.S. because I understand that you had your startup going on, and then you decided to apply to YCombinator. Walk us through what happened.
Vivek Ravisankar: Sure. We started the company in India. We had a lot of different ideas on this. I wanted to come to Silicon Valley. Why? I think Silicon Valley has this magical aura around it where all great companies are created. I tried to come here through a bunch of different ways, but nothing really worked. YCombinator was my passport to come to the Valley. So we applied to YCombinator with our first idea; didn’t get through. With our second one; didn’t get through. With the third one, which seemed to have a semblance of a strong product/market fit, but it was still early. That’s when they called us, so we flew in here just for the ten-minute interview. YC’s have probably changed a lot right now seven years back, and that was our first entry to the U.S., first entry into YC. I must admit, it’s a lifechanging one, a positive lifechanging one.
Alejandro: I understand as well that you had some issues with the visa?
Vivek Ravisankar: Yeah. Immigrations always hard. I’ve yet to hear from somebody who said, “Oh, immigration and visa process, it was just super-smooth, and everything went as expected.” My co-founder, Harry, didn’t get his visa, so I had to fly in here alone. In fact, he couldn’t get his visa for about three or four years after we started the company and raised a couple of rounds of financing. So it was amazing, like half the people here in the U.S. office haven’t even met or seen Harry for a very long time. My co-founder’s name is Harry. So it was a big surprise. I think the first time he even came to the U.S. was 2017, so only about two years back.
Vivek Ravisankar: Visa situation’s always going to be complex and problematic. I don’t know if we’re moving to the direction to actually solve that, which is even more painful.
Alejandro: Oh, I hear you. I hear you, and I’ve also dealt with the Visa – the good stuff are on the visa. So I can totally relate. Just out of curiosity, and probably the listeners are also thinking, “How did you meet your co-founder?” How did you meet Harry?
Vivek Ravisankar: Harry and I went to the same college. We studied computer science together. I don’t think we attended classes together because I don’t think Harry attended half of the classes and stopped in computer lab. Harry was actually one of the best hackers in our college. We just started working on a lot of the same side projects. We got to know each other pretty well. Frankly, the startup idea or the want-to-be started was like an extension of our college project. We really thought of it that way. We’ve done a lot of things together, so this is one more thing, except that it is under an umbrella of a company or a startup. But to us, when we started, it was just another project that we wanted to do.
Alejandro: What was essentially the idea that you guys applied to YCombinator with?
Vivek Ravisankar: The first time, and the way that we started this company, the company was called Interviewstreet prior to HackerRank. What Interviewstreet was, it was a platform for mock interviews. If you had an interview with Google or Amazon or any of those companies, you could come onto our site and have a mock interview with an ex-Googler or an ex-Amazon person to get an understanding or an idea as to how the real interview is going to be. Also, he or she is going to give you feedback on what you did well and what you could do better, essentially improving the odds of you getting a job at one of these great companies. That’s how we got started. So the candidate will pay you x-dollars. The interviewer will get y, and x – y will go to our pocket. So it’s like a marketplace for technical interviews. Maybe we were too early to the market because now there are a lot of mock interviews that are happening and it’s going well. So that was our first idea for a venture that we got started with.
Alejandro: Obviously, going back to YCombinator, you were actually the first Indian founder to ever graduate from YC. So really cool. How was the experience for you because this was the first time for you to jump on a plane and come to the U.S.? I’m sure that you were super shocked with everything around you. How was that culture shock for you, and also, how would you say that YCombinator really changed and then perhaps helped you grow as a founder?
Vivek Ravisankar: YCombinator was lifechanging for me, at least. I think the level of intensity that YC gives you – I mean, just think about it. You land. You do a ten-minute interview. You get a yes or no the same day, and we had like $10,000 or $20,000 in our bank account. Then three days later, you’re incorporated in the U.S. You have a bank account, and half a million dollars or something along those lines is wired. Just imagine. You were going bankrupt on the last Monday, and now you have half a million dollars with the YC backing with a company incorporated in America in one week. That’s a giant whirlwind to go through. I wish that happened every week. That would be a good growth curve to have.
Vivek Ravisankar: It’s completely lifechanging. I think the level of intensity with which we operated in YCombinator, we had a deadline called Demo Day where you present to hundreds of investors, and you need to show meaningful progress at the start of the program to the Demo Day to have a shot at it. Everybody around you, as much as they are your peers, they’re also very competitive. Everybody wants to showcase that you are the best company in the batch and that you have to invest in this company. It was intense. I learned a lot. I continue to learn a lot from TJ, Paul Graham, Sam Altman, and all the other mentors that I had. It was amazing. From a culture-shock perspective, I don’t know. I live in the southern part of the Bay Area, the peninsula, which is Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and areas beyond that. Frankly, it feels like a mini-India. So I don’t know if of anything like a culture shock. They screen Indian movies. Castro is in the downtown part of Mountainview. Every alternate restaurant is an Indian restaurant. It’s always warm like Bangalore and Geni, where I’m from. A bunch of my friends who graduated college with their Master’s, we’re all working at Google, and other places around me. I do miss home, for sure. You can’t replace your native place of your hometown, but I don’t think there was that big of a culture shock. I think it might have been if I’d landed in some other city like New York or Chicago or somewhere else. Yes.
Alejandro: Got it. So then at the end of YCombinator, what was the road ahead. What were you looking at, and what ended up being the business model that you were clear on executing?
Vivek Ravisankar: We iterated a bit. I think at a high level the vision was clear to match every developer with the right job. The underlying driver being skill over pedigree. That’s what matters. That is how the world should operate. That was clear. We iterated a lot on how we go about achieving the mission. What’s our business model? Right now, HackerRank, we matched developer to job space on their skills. We have 1,500 customers, 6.5 million developers in our community, 20% of the Fortune 100 companies. The way the platform works is, as a developer, you can come and practice on HackerRank on your skills and take an assessment for a particular company. Let’s say Uber or Airbnb or VMware wants to hire a developer; they create a customized assessment on our platform with the skills that they’re looking for. They send it out to the candidates who are applying to the company. You, as a developer, take the assessment. Get ranked on the skill sets, and get an onsite interview, and you get an offer. So it has fundamentally changed the dynamic of how a developer gets a job from looking at resumes, screening with keywords, and others to just looking at your skills.
Alejandro: Yeah. Especially because good engineers also get bombarded. I have friends that their inbox on LinkedIn is about to explode. So for the folks that are listening, and more on the business side, why would you say it’s so hard to find really good engineers and to also convince them?
Vivek Ravisankar: I think there are a lot of factors. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. Usually, valuable problems are hard, so there’s not a silver bullet. The core fundamental thing is everybody is looking at a minority section of the candidate, which is the fundamental atomic unit of developer hiring is still mostly based on resumes. When you base it on resumes, what you’re looking for is did you go to one of the top-end schools, and did you work at one of these 50 companies that I’m looking at. By definition, top-end, top 50, or whatever you have, is going to look at a minority and is going to look at 10%. But the skill of a developer does not asymmetrically decline in the next 20 or the next 50 companies that you’re going to look at. In fact, I believe talent is distributed evenly for opportunities. The skill of developers does not asymmetrically decline, but the pool at which you look is super-highly concentrated into the small set of companies, and everybody is looking at a small set of candidates, and every company is looking at the same set, which is just driving up demand for those candidates and making it seem like there is a supply constraint, that there are enough developers in the world, that there are not enough skilled developers. But if you break free of those shackles of looking at resumes or looking at those schools and companies, and say, “Look. If you have the skill, I’m willing to hire you.” Just like opening up a giant pool. That’s what we’ve done for companies. I’ll give you an extreme example. This is not to be taken as something to do repeatedly, but there was a developer whose resume read as a dishwasher in a restaurant. He ended up meeting a challenge for VMware, and he got promoted twice within the company. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can go ahead and hire 50 dishwashers who are aspiring to be developers; this is an extreme example of that. That tells you that you have to be open to unlocking opportunities, and that’s the only way that you can meet your high-end goals and ship quality products. I think that is probably the single biggest change that the industry needs to do, and we’re driving it really hard.
Alejandro: Got it. Going back to the business itself, to HackerRank. So you got out of YCombinator, your co-founder was still in India. What would you say has been the toughest part of building this dual-headquarters type of operation?
Vivek Ravisankar: That’s a good question. Time zones are definitely challenging. India and here – the West Coast is about 12 1/2 hours, and then there’s this dumb daylight savings time that we all follow, which makes it worse. It makes it like 13 1/2 hours. It is a big-time difference for sure. The time zone difference, syncing up, and all is going to be hard when you have that difference. The good part about it is that we’re able to support customers in a global way. If you look at every single company that’s starting off in the Bay area of California, they are starting to branch off in different parts in America. That’s one, but also, every company is starting to open offices in Bangalore. Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of India. So we’re able to support these customers globally, which is very helpful and it’s a very good selling point for us.
Alejandro: Also, you get to reduce cost because now you don’t have to pay the $150,000 to $200,000 an engineer.
Vivek Ravisankar: That is true, but you would be surprised. Bangalore is getting crazy in terms of salary and developer salary. It’s obviously not close to the Bay Area. You need to look at the weight of cost. The weight of cost is the cost of communications x the cost of the developer salary. That’s the weight of cost or cost of productivity gain/loss x the cost of the developer. If you do that, I don’t think Bangalore is that far off from the Bay Area. There are many, many more internet companies, which are getting funded like crazy thanks to SoftBank, Tiger Global and a bunch of other VCs which are pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars. I think that’s a myth. It’s not true anymore.
Alejandro: Got it. Talking about the business itself, what were some of the challenges that you experienced building HackerRank? When we’re thinking about the early days.
Vivek Ravisankar: It’s relates at different stages of the journey. Early on, you need to have product/market fit. How do you define whether you have product/market fit or not? Are customers willing to pay? Can you get ten unaffiliated customers? Which is another way of saying are there ten people that you had no idea who they were, but they’re willing to sign and pay $100,000 or whatever the dollar value is to subscribe to your product. That was a big challenge because if you don’t get ten, then forget getting 100 or 1,000. Then the second part is, can you have repeatable attraction, repeatable sales. Can you go from 10 to 100 in a repeatable, predictable way? That’s super hard to actually go ahead and do that. Then as you start to get to 100 and 200, are you able to support these customers in a reliable way? We reached a point, and I think companies reach this point where the probability of some customer being upset is one because you have a lot of customers now using your product. You need to make sure that you can have a very strong support system internally to make sure that you can prioritize things, to make sure that you can get back to customers fast, and you need to constantly have the customer delight factor in your company or DNA. Those are different business-related challenges. Then you have organization-related challenges, which communication is going to be a big thing. When you start off with five people, everybody is sitting together at the same table, you have lunch together, and everybody knows what each of you is doing. It’s not the same when you get to even 20 people or 25 people. It starts to make them different. Now, we’re 250 people with multiple locations. It’s insanely hard to keep everybody on the same page. There are organizational challenges that you need to overcome. Then the third one is market-related things. Once you start to create a market – I think we created the market for technical assessment, the ability for companies to use a product or assess technical skills before you do an interview. Then the market starts to get crowded, so how do you invent yourself, and how do you expand the plan? How do you go beyond it and create a new category? That will exist for the lifetime of the company, I’m guessing, which it will continue to evolve and get better because you can’t have a one-trick pony that can take you all the way to a billion-dollar company. You have to figure out what’s your next one or that can build on top of whatever you build. So those are incremental challenges, but the complexity of the challenges are not incremental. I would almost say it’s square if not to a higher power – the complexity of the challenges, the square of the size of the business, the size of employees. Those are going to be challenges that you’re going to have.
Alejandro: I understand as well, that you guys have been quite successful on the fundraising side. How much capital have you guys raised to date?
Vivek Ravisankar: We’ve raised close to 60 million dollars. I wouldn’t call it 100% vanity metric, but it’s somewhat of a vanity metric in Silicon Valley to equate fundraising or the dollars based as a success of a company. I think, and I won’t be able to share with you in the podcast, the one metric that I’ve been talking about with our CFO, and he’s also very much tying into this, is revenue per employee.
Vivek Ravisankar: I think that matters a lot, which is – maybe it was Paul Graham or someone else which is like – if people are astonished by the size of the company, like wow, you guys are so small for the amount of work that you do. That is a great sign to have. Imagine if you’re 50 people doing this. “Wow, really? That’s just amazing.” What’s that was like they got acquired for $22 billion dollars, and they make 15 people or 20 people or something like that. I think that’s very how we want to think about or consider. But to your question, yes, we raised close to 60 million dollars.
Alejandro: Very cool. As a founder, the journey is not as glamorous as we would on the media list. Looking back, Vivek, what would you say has been probably the darkest moment for you and perhaps a moment where you have been able to break through and learn a lot.
Vivek Ravisankar: Yeah, it is. It’s way harder inside than what is quoted outside. My guess is – it’s probably true for every profession whether you’re an athlete, or filmmaker, or anyone else. I think people don’t know the struggles that you’re going through internally versus the outside. What has been the darkest? The darkest moments – I don’t know if I can share the exact dark moments. But the darkest moments have been when I felt like the company would die.
Vivek Ravisankar: That is a very hard thing for you to digest as a founder. It’s different if you’re a CEO, but if you’re a founder CEO, it’s super hard to alternate between those two hats. A founder has a very emotional connection to it. CEO is more business-type. It’s super hard if you’re a founder to digest the fact that the company is going to die, and it’s going to go out of business. I think what helped me breakthrough is where my co-founder and my wife – without their emotional support from those two folks, I think it would have been impossible for me to breakthrough. There is no silver bullet to breaking through except for just you’ve got to keep pushing on as long as you believe in the vision of the company, and you have good enough emotional support that you don’t just break to do that. I don’t think there’s any silver bullet to do it. Well, there is a broad lifelike realistic view of life if you have it, which is you’re going to die, and it doesn’t matter. Yeah, you can probably console yourself through that. But otherwise, I don’t know, man. It’s just brute force.
Alejandro: I hear you. That moment where you think the company is going to die, every founder goes through that moment. You were talking about digesting it. I’m sure that perhaps there are a lot of people right now listening that maybe are going through that specific problem right now that they think that their company is going to die. Let me ask you, how would you recommend them about digesting it first, but then proactively tackling whatever they have in front of them?
Vivek Ravisankar: That’s a great question. Looking back, what I would have done differently or made it less hard on myself is – maybe two things. I don’t have the perfect way to organize what I’m going to say, so it might be a bit not super cogent, but the first thing I would say is, do you really believe in this vision of the company that you want to accomplish. It has to be super clear and super evident because a lot of times, you jump into a startup trying to have motives like, “I want to make a lot of money.” And that’s okay, but that can’t be a primary motive. Your primary motive should be, “I want to bring this to life within this world.” That’s a product or a company. That’s important because if you don’t have that – and you might lose the glamour of the mission as well because you’ve found that it’s not as important to the world, or it’s not as easy, or whatever reasons you have. I’d say that’s number one. The second is, and I’ve tried to get better at it. I don’t know how exactly to measure. Founders and CEOs are always leaning towards the more optimistic side of it, which is you have a tendency to twist the underlying truth to be more optimistic. By the way, I do believe that is the right attitude to have. But I think it’s important for you to ask the truth, the underlying truth, is something fundamentally broken? Is there something broken in every company? Yes, sure. If there’s something fundamentally broken about your company, your business model, and things on those lines, making sure that you can ask a question, answer the question, and course-correct is going to be super helpful. This is a really hard pill to swallow because you might not like the answer, “Yes, this is fundamentally broken. We have to make this giant change.” But I think that’s the only way out. Those are the two things.
Alejandro: Got it. One of the questions that I typically ask the folks that come on the show is – you’ve been at it for quite a while, so you’ve been able to really embrace the journey and the ups and downs. If you had the opportunity to have a chat with your younger self, with that younger Vivek that is about to launch the business, what would be the one piece of business advice that you would give to yourself and why knowing what you know now?
Vivek Ravisankar: I thank you for making me feel old, first.
Vivek Ravisankar: Younger self. I would say looking back, the highs are not as high and the lows are not as low. The ability to have a good temperament to manage those highs and lows is going to be supercritical. I would have liked to have taken care of myself more in the past like I’m starting to do right now, but I just did not take care of myself, which means I didn’t sleep well. I didn’t eat well. I was extremely scrappy to the point of being close to being unproductive. So taking care of yourself, managing the highs and lows, and making a good temperament.
Alejandro: Towards HackerRank, in a world where the vision is fully realized, what does that future look like for HackerRank?
Vivek Ravisankar: There won’t be any resumes at all, and every job description will have the skills based on our HackerRank rubric. Every developer will be measured on their skills based on a HackerRank rubric. The developers will work on the right set of companies, the right set of projects, and the world will have accelerated days of innovation. This means when we work with a company like Blue Origin, we’ll help them build space ships faster. Or when we work with Ford, we help them transform into a strong digital tech company to build autonomous ways faster in the market. So the world will fundamentally have a faster level of innovation.
Alejandro: Very cool. How do you think about culture because you were talking about 250 employees? What’s your biggest takeaway on culture?
Vivek Ravisankar: It’s a good question. Culture is hard to build. First, it’s important to define. I think it’s the way the company tries to make decisions. We’ve done well in documenting them and operationalizing them in interviews and making sure that people follow that when they get promotions when they through those and others. But I think it also needs to evolve with the company. I don’t think it has to be – at some level, the foundation needs to have – every company needs to be customer-obsessed, and data-driven, and all of those things. But at different phases, you need to make some explicit tradeoffs. The best way to put it is, when you’re trying to document and operationalize a set of core values and principles, which is the operating model, which defines your culture, it’s important to explicitly call tradeoffs. That’s the hardest part. It’s like, move fast and break things. That’s a tradeoff. You can’t say move fast with high stability. Then what are you trying to do? That’s very hard to do. So it’s important to explicitly mention tradeoffs because that defines it. That helps people to make decisions.
Alejandro: For the folks that are listening, Vivek, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?
Vivek Ravisankar: I’m firstname.lastname@example.org and also at Twitter @rvivek so you can tweet or email. I’ll be happy to help in whatever way I can.
Alejandro: Amazing. Vivek, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show.
Vivek Ravisankar: Awesome. Thank you so much.
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