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Founder Interviews: Vivek Ravisankar of HackerRank

A Forbes 30 under 30 alum and the first Indian founder to go through Y Combinator, HackerRank founder Vivek Ravisankar is out to kill the resume and help developers land jobs based on skill.

Davis Baer: What’s your background, and what are you working on? What is HackerRank?

Vivek Ravisankar: HackerRank’s mission is to match every developer to the right job — with the underlying driver being skill. Software developers can come to HackerRank to practice and prove their skill by solving coding challenges and companies can hire technical talent based on skill.

Today, we are proud to have a global developer community of over 4 million developers — which is roughly more than 15 percent of the world’s developer population — and more than 1,100 businesses like Dropbox, VMware, Stripe, Adobe, Coinbase and Capital One that are using HackerRank to find talented developers.

HackerRank has been an incredible journey. It all started as a vision for improving the way developers find jobs.

For a bit of background, I was born and raised in Bangalore and Chennai, India. I’ve been interested in computer programming most of my life, and in college I decided to pursue a CS degree. India has one of the highest populations of developers, making the market incredibly competitive. As a result, the best tech companies tend to look for student resumes or profiles with a high GPA from elite universities.

The problem is that grades and alma mater aren’t an accurate reflection of true ability. That was certainly the case for me. During college, my friend and eventual co-founder Hari Karunanidhi and I spent hours programming and competing in (and winning!) online coding challenges for fun. We had solid fundamentals and were really strong coders, but didn’t necessarily have the pedigree that recruiters were looking for, especially in such a competitive candidate pool.

After graduation, I was fortunate enough to land a job as an engineer at Amazon. I felt incredibly lucky that Amazon recognized my potential and gave me a chance. While I didn’t go to a top-tier college, several Amazon recruiters came to my campus for a coding competition that I was participating in. Ultimately, I benefited from the fact that I was able to demonstrate my skill first-hand. I really wanted to help create opportunities for more developers at scale.

During my time at Amazon, I spent a lot of time — hours every week — interviewing technical candidates only to find out later that some of them didn’t even pass the baseline skill requirements. What’s more, for every one position we’d fill, we’d interview roughly 50 candidates. These interviews took up a ton of my time that would have been better spent building products. In fact, Amazon’s CTO Werner Vogels has said that engineers tend to spend 30% of their time just recruiting.

At this point, I started thinking back to my own job search experience and the experiences of so many others — including Hari. I realized that people who are more than qualified for a job are often overlooked because they didn’t go to a top school, don’t have a fancy degree, a high GPA or the network needed to get their foot in the door. It became clear that the model for hiring was broken. So Hari and I set out to fix it.

Our original idea was around job prep and mock interviews — we called it InterviewStreet — but it didn’t work since students didn’t want to pay for mock interview assistance. Our second idea was a tool to help match Indian students to master’s programs in the U.S. That one didn’t work out either. We realized that in order to create a viable business, we needed to rethink our revenue stream while still aiming to match every developer to the right job.

Eventually we landed on the idea of HackerRank in 2011 and were accepted to Y Combinator that year. In fact, we were the first Indian founders to go through YC! It was our third attempt — we applied with the other two ideas, but they weren’t accepted. In the final round of the application process, we were invited for a 10-minute interview in Silicon Valley. I got an expedited business visa, but Hari’s was denied. Three days later, I jumped on a plane to the U.S. for the first time in my life. I landed on Thursday and my interview was on Friday. That trip paid off — we were chosen for the YC Summer 2011 batch. But since Hari didn’t get an H1-B visa, we co-founded the company from Silicon Valley and Bangalore. Seven years later, we still run the company from dual headquarters.

What motivated you to start HackerRank?

I realized that dependance on the resume as the best predictor of ability is a mistake — frankly, it isn’t a good way to evaluate programmers’ skill objectively. I think at one point, when Hari and I did the math, we realized we were both doing about a hundred phone screens to get one offer at Amazon and IBM. That is unsustainable. Think about how not only inefficient that process is, but also all of the productivity lost by taking engineers’ time away from building new products and services.

We thought, there had to be a better way — both for developers and companies. So that’s how we got started.

What went into building the initial product?

From early on, Hari and I have strived to be very clear about our vision and goals. HackerRank’s north star has always been to level the playing field for job opportunities. We’re both developers, and we made this company to solve a specific pain point that impacts software developers and the companies looking to hire them.

As we’ve built and scaled the product, we’ve always asked ourselves “How do we guarantee an outstanding developer experience?” The developer candidate comes first — and this focus on developer experience is a competitive advantage for companies.

In terms of the actual code base, HackerRank was initially built using CodeIgniter, a popular PHP framework. Unfortunately, as we tried to build out the platform using that framework, we realized it was not conducive to building and prototyping quickly. So, we decided to move to Ruby on Rails, since the community was pretty active and there was a wide variety of plugins (gems), which made back end development easy and quick.

On the front end, we used Backbone.JS since it was a simple framework with a minimal learning curve, and it allowed us to build the first version of HackerRank within a week. Unfortunately, as the application grew, it became increasingly difficult to manage the codebase, which required us to move to React.

How have you attracted users and grown your company?

Attracting our first users took some time and a bit of scrappiness. We attempted several strategies, including asking my ex-manager at Amazon to beta test the product, but not surprisingly, Amazon wasn’t keen to try out a product that was just built by a couple of guys in a garage. So we had to go back to the drawing board.

We decided to create a fake resume that boasted the best of the best credentials and we put it up on various job posts. We ended up receiving a slew of inbound phone calls from recruiters interested in speaking with this “candidate.” And whenever we would receive a phone call, we would say, “Hey you know what, I’m not that person. But, if you use our product we can help you find people like this.” This strategy ended up being really successful in generating demand. We actually secured Zynga as an early customer with this approach.

As we’ve grown, we’ve prioritized making sure the platform is easy to use and can deliver immediate value to our customers. Selling to enterprises has also required us to make sure we’re able to cater to their needs, which are very different from startups. If you’re going to sign up a customer like Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg or VMware, you must give them the ability to deploy to large parts of their organization, whether that’s an integration with their existing tracking systems like Workday, Taleo, Single Sign-On or Pins Management.

What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

We are a SaaS based application that companies pay to assess developers’ skill. It’s free for developers and always will be. Our revenue growth has been a combination of organic word-of-mouth and having an inbound and outbound sales force.

What are your goals for the future?

My goal is to build a world where candidates land jobs based on merit. I want to ensure that developers around the world have a way to showcase their skill, that companies are recruiting and assessing candidates based on their ability, and that we at HackerRank are bridging the two to ensure every developer is matched with the perfect job.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

In Silicon Valley, there is a tremendous amount of emphasis placed on companies to be high growth, which has merit. But companies also need to balance that high growth with good fundamentals.

Back in 2014–2015, we were hiring really quickly. I was consumed by the idea of “hyper growth.” I learned the hard way, though, that you must establish a solid foundation that can support that rate of growth while still maintaining a healthy and sustainable business. At one point, I realized that we were growing too quickly for our own good. First, we needed to make sure we were clear on the product we were selling, whether we had a solid product road map to support it, whether we had the right team to build and scale the platform, etc. We took our foot off the gas pedal, which slowed our growth, but allowed us to really focus on building a solid foundation. Now, the company is in a much stronger and healthier state, which allows us to accelerate growth in a smart way.

Have you found anything particularly helpful along your journey? Any advice, books, habits, decisions you made that have helped you succeed?

I find it inspiring to read about how other successful and creative business leaders have built their businesses and overcome challenges along the way. I recently read “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz, which is a book that every CEO or business leader should read. Oftentimes, the external view of companies is that they are always doing great. However, the reality can be very different. I found it therapeutic to read this book, and it’s an important read for every entrepreneur because it teaches you how to focus on the road instead of the wall when there are so many things changing internally and externally that impact your company.

In addition to Ben Horowitz’ book, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham has been a great mentor. He has taught me invaluable lessons, including the importance of understanding that the highs aren’t as high and the lows aren’t always as low as they look. Maintaining that perspective is important at scale.

A third concept I’ve found helpful is this idea of being an infinite learner. It’s a concept popularized by Reid Hoffman. Every day, you have a bigger job than the previous day. It’s crucial to think about the skill sets you need and those that are missing to ensure you are continually growing in your career. By taking stock of your skills and those lacking, it is also easier to determine the best course of action to develop and master these skills.

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs just starting out?

It’s important to build a company that reflects an idea you are passionate about and driven to bring to life against all odds. If you’re building a company for the sake of building it or just to make money, you’re not in it for the right reasons. Building a company isn’t easy. You’ll inevitably come up against challenges you couldn’t have anticipated, have to make trial-and-error choices on decisions that you don’t know the right answer to and face disappointment and stress. If you are not excited about your idea, it will be difficult to weather these hurdles. On the flipside, if it’s a problem that you’re on a personal mission to solve, it’s hard to give up because you’ve fallen in love with the idea.

Where can we go to learn more about HackerRank?

If you want to learn more about HackerRank, you can visit our website: HackerRank.com. You can also reach out to me with any additional questions or comments on Twitter @rvivek and / or LinkedIn at Vivek Ravisankar.

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