It’s still dark out when my alarm rings at 5:00am and I begin the familiar shuffle down the hall to the kitchen and the coffee machine. I pour a steaming cup as my computer boots up, the steam mixing with the early morning fog that’s spilling in through an open window.
Headphones on, Zoom meeting link located, and I’m still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes as I connect to the call. But almost as soon as I begin chatting with Maya Neria, Senior Product Manager at Andela, the inflection in her voice stirs me to life.
“What our founders realized is that brilliance is evenly distributed in the world,” says Neria. “And Africa has the fastest growing market of people entering employability age.”
Nairobi has quickly become one of Africa’s leading tech hubs, along with Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg, and Dar es Salaam. But it’s the people rather than the geography that led Neria to leave the US and relocate to Kenya.
“I don’t know how to say it in less cliché words, but the people I’ve met here are the most driven I’ve ever met,” she says. “I met a fisherman who had virtually nothing and taught himself to code on his Android phone before he found Andela and I just thought to myself, ‘This in incredible.’”
While most of our tech news feeds are jammed up with stories of Facebook’s most recent privacy scandal, stories like Andela’s far too often slip under the radar. But companies that you know—Gusto, Invision, GitHub, and Skillshare among them—are already building their products using Andela software engineers. And tech giants like Microsoft have taken notice, moving into Nairobi as the global competition for software engineering talent continues to heat up faster than a Sub-Saharan morning.
Founded in Nigeria in 2014, Andela was built around a simple idea—identify high potential software developers, invest in their training, then place them on global engineering teams where they begin to contribute and continue to grow. The company handles talent assessment, on-boarding, and continuous improvement of the software developers accepted into their program, supporting their mission of “catalyzing the growth of tech ecosystems across Africa.” The company has hired software developers in 17 African countries to date and recently raised a $100M series D investment. Andela’s investors include Google Ventures, Salesforce Ventures, and the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation amongst others.
Aspiring Andela engineers must first apply to the program, where they’re screened for basic technical skills, general aptitude, and learning velocity. The company has received over 130,000 applications to date, leading to the hire of more than 1,300 software engineers.
Once accepted into the program Andela engineers work for six months in simulated product environments similar to what they would encounter on global engineering teams. They build real products, contribute to code standups, learn agile methodology, and also have team skill sessions where they work on developing confidence, public speaking, and learn best practices associated with being a distributed team member.
“A lot of developers that are coming out of Andela are interested in reinvesting in Africa—they aren't being pulled out of Africa,” says Neria. “They’ve gotten broad experience in international companies, but they stayed locally the entire time so all of that money is being reinvested into the local ecosystem. They're founding startups here. They're able to mentor here, locally. And we're seeing a huge boom in the startup scene here in Nairobi.”
Searching for a partner to help assess the technical skills of a continent
While Andela’s mission is an easy one to get behind, the logistics of their operation include a wide myriad of challenges. The challenges of growing tech ecosystems in the developing world aside, Andela’s success is directly tied to a challenge much more familiar to even the best funded tech companies in Silicon Valley—the company needed to find a repeatable way to identify, assess, and hire engineering talent at scale. Sorting through more than 130,000 applications for their fellowship program was only the beginning.
In the early days, Andela relied on a combination of psychometric tests and a technical assessment tool that their internal team hacked together.
“The issue was the internal tool was always buggy, and it assessed knowledge way more than application of knowledge,” says Neria. “I also noticed that we didn't really have a framework for hiring that was consistent throughout our entire recruitment model, so we set out to create that framework.”
The recruitment model that Andela landed on seeks to assess developer candidates on three dimensions:
1. Values alignment and cultural fit
2. Output quality (the degree of excellence in which people are showing skills and producing work)
3. Learning velocity and ability to incorporate feedback
“I did a big industry review of over 100 tools, both for values fit, technical skills, and psychometric evaluations,” says Neria. “We looked at software like Codility, HackerRank, and GapJumpers and I was really trying to see whether or not they'd give us more than just the standard technical knowledge testing. The big thing that I was looking for was also if candidates were getting feedback.”
What we saw was Qualified is taking a really, really interesting approach in terms of their dedication to mimicking a real work environment. So many technical tools out there basically don't—they only test theory and algorithms.
"Qualified gave us a deeper level of insight into each applicant by providing insights into things like ‘How are you applying and thinking through technical questions? And based on the curriculum that we provide, how are you applying that knowledge to answer coding challenges?’”
“A lot of our developers were self-taught and so their in-depth understanding of algorithms wasn't necessarily that high—but they could still build great products, were still mathematical, and could apply the concept of an algorithm to the way that they were building products."
That's what really drove us to use Qualified—it was a combination of a push to be more rigorous in the data that we collect from our applicants and Qualified's dedication to having people showcase the work that they would do in a real product environment. The technical skills assessments are really aligned with the real work environment which we were hoping for in order to better predict on-the-job performance.”
Learning to find, assess, and hire software developers at scale
With Qualified identified as a strategic partner to help Andela assess technical output and predict on-the-job performance, Neria’s team set out to build a consistent recruitment process capable of scaling alongside Andela’s lofty ambitions. While the process continues to be refined and improved, talent acquisition and engineering leaders would be wise to borrow from Andela’s approach.
Initial screen—After applicants receive their home study materials, they’re asked to complete an initial screening that’s delivered via Google Forms. This first cut in their recruiting funnel is used to help sort through the sheer volume of applications that they receive, by testing an applicant’s understanding of the home study materials as well as their cultural and values fit.
Qualified assessment—Applicants that pass the Google Forms assessment are then invited to take a Qualified assessment, which is designed to test their technical skills and ability to incorporate real world feedback. Currently about 15% of students who complete the Qualified assessment are ultimately hired. “Our goal is to continuously bump that up and make Qualified even more predictive,” says Neria. “Right now we’re assessing junior developers, and I think for them technical skills are less indicative of quality and it’s more about cognitive ability and learning. I think the predictive power of Qualified could be much higher for developers that have more experience.”
Six months of paid training—Applicants who are accepted into the program continue to be trained for six months, during which Andela captures thousands of data points on their relative strengths and weaknesses.
Paired with a global engineering team—After training is completed, Andela developers become a member of a global engineering team. Their skills continue to be assessed and the company invests heavily in mid-to-senior level developers that provide ongoing mentorship to junior developers.
When I asked Neria about the benefits Andela has realized since injecting Qualified assessments into the recruiting funnel, she’s quick to cite the scalability of the process.
“I think one of the things Qualified does really well is offer the entire package of ‘How do you assess software developers at scale?’ It’s not only the technology around automated assessments and customization; it’s also the pre-loaded database of questions that you can work through that are tagged and easily searchable. The keyword here is ‘at scale’ for me. When you have 4,000 developers per month applying to your program you need a system where you can pull questions, easily change or customize assessments, and see the results over time."
Our recruitment team has definitely grown less exponentially than our candidate pipeline has and a big part of that is thanks to Qualified assessments. We’ve been able to keep our overhead costs down with Qualified as a growth partner. It’s a very holistic package—I’ve seen software products that provide one piece of the puzzle, and I see Qualified as really being the full thing.”
What’s next for Andela and Qualified
While Neria’s search for a technical screening methodology that predicts on the job performance was undertaken with the recruitment process in mind, Andela has also begun experimenting with Qualified Educate to upskill their existing engineers.
“For internal leveling, the platform allows us to test learners multiple times,” says Neria. “One use case we tried was testing knowledge and behavioral reinforcements by continuously testing our developers on important use cases like certain types of testing or debugging. We wanted to make sure that developers are consistently being tested throughout our training program on those things. We saw that Qualified helped with knowledge retention, which was really promising.”
Neria also sees Qualified playing a significant role in benchmarking developers of different skill levels objectively—a need of increasing importance as the prevalence of remote work continues to grow.
“The fact that Qualified provides so much data from their community on how developers across the globe perform on different technical questions is huge. I would say that's a really big asset for anyone looking to hire more senior talent.”
Andela’s team is now nearly 2,000 strong, but their work in developing tech ecosystems across Africa is just getting started. I know it’s only a matter of time before I find myself chatting with an Andela engineer on my next early morning conference call.