Article: In Pursuit of Talent With Niche Skills

Learning & Development

In Pursuit of Talent With Niche Skills

Aparna Ballakur shares the talent challenges facing a business that demands very niche skills to address evolving customer needs

Fun is a core value at Yahoo!, as the company believes in creating an environment where people can enjoy their work and be most productive


Growing leaders from within is a great retention tool that has led to 95 per cent of the leadership team today being homegrown


Being an Internet business that is constantly evolving makes Yahoo! an exciting workplace. Aparna Ballakur, VP-HR elucidates, “The kind of talent that is attracted to an Internet company adds to its excitement as they are dramatically different from people who want to work in a packaged software environment.” The difference lies in the fact that in an Internet company, what was super cool last year is passé this year.

Drawing parallels of Yahoo!’s business to that of high fashion, Aparna explains, “What was in season before, is no more in season now. Just as it is so hard to keep up with what is ‘in’ in fashion, the Internet business too sees things evolving very quickly. And we constantly need to focus on looking at what would be ‘in’ in the future.” At Yahoo!, they strive towards building products today, which consumers would love in 2013. This unique business need makes attracting super talented people very critical, because it takes both creativity & intellectual horsepower to change the future.

The Yahoo! culture

Fun is a core value at Yahoo!, as the company believes in creating an environment where people can enjoy their work and be most productive. The open culture allows all Yahoos (as employees are called) full access to the Internet as long as it is appropriate content. Employees are free to use social media sites outside of Yahoo!’s platforms, keeping with the new-age workforce need to stay connected and engaged.

The inclusive and fun work culture helps to effectively integrate the diverse set of people. There are minimal rules and policies at work as it fosters a culture of ‘trust’. Thus, there is no attendance system to track the number of hours worked in the office and employees are allowed unlimited sick leaves. This rests on the belief that the organization’s environment is strongly self regulated where 99 percent of the people do not abuse it. This approach aims to deal with the 1% population, who might abuse office policies instead of penalizing the 99 percent who do not. The open environment is also reflective in the internal distribution list within Yahoo!, which is self moderated, and employees are encouraged to voice their opinions on various subjects. This forms a great ongoing feedback process which enables continuous improvement.

The talent supply chain

To cater to 700 million users, there is a combination of young employees with varied experiences and experienced people from different generations. While the energy and enthusiasm of a young workforce is important to bring in new product ideas, the more experienced Yahoos make sure that the products are built to be used at a phenomenal scale of 700 million users on a regular basis.

There are three distinct sets of people hired – scientists with Ph.Ds in computer science and specialization in Internet-related technology; product development engineers; and product managers or user experience designers, who are hired in the product development group. All of these being niche skills and there being a huge shortage of scientists in India, makes talent acquisition for Yahoo! Labs a challenge. Therefore, scientists are often hired from the US universities and that poses a greater challenge in attracting talent to work in India. Most scientists worry about the quality of research done in India and are therefore reluctant to explore working here. The ‘International Intern Program’ allows prospective candidates to work in India as part of the Labs organization for 3 to 6 months and this enables them to experience the work environment in India. Many who have worked for 3-6 months, have been given an offer to work with Yahoo! India.

The unique skill requirement and the niche talent pool that an Internet company requires, has forced Yahoo! to step into a backward integration mode and work towards developing a talent supply chain that is relevant to the business. This is done through various initiatives that follow an outside-in approach towards talent development as a macro agenda.

Partnering with the academia

There is a clear intention to promote a culture of open collaboration between industry and academia in India. Some initiatives like ‘HACK U’ is a university hack day event, which encourages innovation in campuses. The Yahoo! Key Scientific Challenge Program (KSC) is a competition that encourages top graduate students globally to collaborate with the company and help invent the future of Internet. Further, the PhD Coop Program is designed to directly bridge the gap of PhDs in India by encouraging qualifying employees to undertake their PhD program by providing financial support.

Yahoo! summer school

The summer school creates an ecosystem that stimulates the exchange of ideas among industry and academia to jointly develop revolutionary approaches to shape the future of the Internet. The recent initiative was a partnership between Yahoo! India Research & Development and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) which focused on ‘Information Retrieval’.

WiT – Women in Technology

The Yahoo! Women in Technology aims to provide inspiration and support to women across the talent pipeline and enables women on campuses to successfully enter the IT workforce. This group also seeks to address the issue of decreasing number of women finding their way into the IT workforce, with particular focus on women with engineering qualifications in tier 2 and tier 3 cities. The third focus of WiT is to retain women who are going through different life stages in the workforce. Thus, the effort is on building the required support system such as a day care facility, flexible work hours and counseling services to women who want to pursue their career despite the challenges in their personal lives.

Further, keeping with the increasing focus on diversity and inclusion, Yahoo! has been a pioneer in creating websites that are fully accessible for the differently abled. These websites are created to allow plug-ins that read out the information on the webpage as one browses through it.

The talent strategy at Yahoo! stems from the belief that people are inherently good and must be trusted. The fresh recruits hired every year go through a 3 day boot camp, which does not grill them on the Yahoo culture, because they believe in them to be the right profile. The focus is not on creating a monitoring culture, but on ensuring that people deliver on their promises and commitments. As Aparna explains, “It is not about measuring efforts, but it is about measuring results. So, I may be the super brilliant person who gets it done in half an hour, but so be it, because then I have saved my time. The emphasis on growing leaders from within is a great retention tool that has led to 95 percent of the leadership team today being homegrown. This is aligned to the business, as when we are looking for talent for senior leadership positions from outside, finding the right culture fit is an even bigger challenge than at the entry-level or middle management level.”

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Topics: Learning & Development, Leadership, Strategic HR

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