Last week, bombarded by a cacophony ranging from the Sangh Parivar’s endorsement of Narendra Modi as prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to some Muslim groups’ objection to parts of Kamal Haasan’s film Vishwaroopam , it was a delight to channelise my energy as a journalist into something very different.

It was a leisurely visit to the Zoho University in Chennai, run by software products company Zoho Corporation, co-founded by Sridhar Vembu. An alumnus of IIT Madras and Princeton University, US, Vembu thought college degrees were not essential for some kinds of code writing.

Zoho Corporation — current annual turnover of over $150 million — was set up in 1994 (as AdventNet), and anticipating that academic achievers would opt for Infosys or TCS, it recruited from lesser known colleges. Some time in 2004, Vembu realised that many of his good managers didn’t have a good academic record, some with arrears as well.

Engineering degrees came at a cost of four years and Rs 3-6 lakh; “then you hire and train them anyway. So I thought why not go directly to schools.” With an engineering college professor, then 56, coming on board and finding six students who were completing Plus Two, the Zoho University was in business. Saran Babu, one of the six, today manages a team of 10; he is 23 and gets a salary of Rs 70,000. Last year, he stepped into the shoes of a senior manager who couldn’t go to the Zoho office in Japan due to an illness. The task was for Yahoo!, which was so impressed by the youngster that it offered him a job in Japan, which Saran turned down.

“Why? Because I am doing so well here, enjoying the challenge and I think I will grow faster here,” he tells me. The tall and handsome youngster usually works 12 hours a day, has five engineers working under him, even though he has passed only Class XII from a government school in Chennai. He joined Zoho because his father, who worked in a printing press, fell ill and the 16-year-old who wanted to become an engineer, had to start earning. Now his brother too has come on board and the two of them run the house. “I have invested in a flat, pay the EMI, give Rs 10,000 to my mother every month and save through fixed deposits. Marriage? Oh, that can wait till I’m 30,” he says breezily.

Heart warming stories

At Zoho, I meet youngsters from poor and lower middle-class families, whose stories energise and warm the heart. First generation white-collar workers, the trainees, who get a Rs 7,000 stipend for 18 months of their education and training, send most of the money back home to their villages around Madurai, Vellore, Tiruchi, and so on.

Vembu is not considering an IPO “because I don’t want to be defined by the number of zeroes; I’m more interesting than that”. While in Chennai — he has offices in the Silicon Valley in California, Japan, China and a small set-up in Europe — he eats in the canteen along with his staff. The food is delicious and all three meals are available to the employees for the asking. As most of the 60 students in this batch are from poor homes and from outside Chennai, it helps to come to office and have breakfast and round off the day with dinner.

I walk into the classroom of Prof B. Rajendran, where there is a lot of laughter and camaraderie. He is 64 and has been told by Vembu “there is no retirement age for you! He is amazing, first he teaches himself code-writing and then teaches the students”!

Gunasundari, 17, nicknamed Great Guna, as she is very fast with software code-writing, is from a village near Vellore in Tamil Nadu; she has lost her father, her mother is a construction worker and she shares a room with another girl. “I chose to come here because this is different from colleges where you have to only mug up. Initially I found computer programming difficult but not now.”

Adds Vembu, “What is amazing is that till last April she wouldn’t have used a computer; now she is writing a JSP code. Within six months, all of them write codes which I’d find difficult because I’m out of touch with it.”

From Tamil medium to...

Like most students, Guna studied in Tamil medium and goes through daily one-hour English classes. She and her classmates send around Rs 3,000 to 6,000 back home every month. All of them will be absorbed by the company at a starting salary of nearly Rs 20,000.

Mohammed Afsar or Don, as he is called, comes from a government school in Chennai; his father works as a ward boy in Stanley Hospital. He didn’t make the “mistake my brother made in not joining here after being selected five years ago. He suffered after his engineering course as he couldn’t find a job for a year. But his friend joined and he is now earning Rs 60,000.” From his Rs 7,000 stipend, Afsar spends only 500; the remaining Rs 6,500 goes to his mother.

Whether it is Vijayaraghavan from Srivilliputtur, G. Aruna and Madan from Madurai, or Asghar Khalid, Saravanan, Thirumanickaraj, Maharajan, Mohammed Rafi, their stories are similar. A plus-two qualification, humble background, which makes them greatly value their stipend and save diligently to send money home. They study 12 hours a day, six days a week, and “would come in even on Sundays because of the comfortable air conditioned office, food, etc, but I insist they should take one day’s break”, says Vembu.

All of them are cheerful, crack jokes, aren’t daunted at all either by their CEO or the visiting journalist, least of all their professor, who responds to my comment on the few girls in the class thus: “They cheated me; they are practising for a dance show. I gave them an hour’s permission but they are missing from the morning.”

Selection process

Vembu explains that qualifying for the university isn’t that easy. “We screen 60,000 Std XII students to select 60. It is basic intelligence, some math skill, abstract pattern matching and an aptitude for hard work. Some — about 10 per cent — can’t manage, and drop out.

Out of the blue he pulls out a pad and dares me to solve a math problem… 7 1/4-3 5/8. The entire class bursts out laughing, Prof Rajendran says “It’s fractions, she can’t do it; but it’s okay.” I struggle for a minute and give the answer. Says Vembu, “You got it, and ought to be proud. When a poor girl cried after failing to solve this and wasn’t selected, I was troubled and gave this to my staff, including senior programmers. About 25 per cent failed, in our offices in India, Japan and China.”

I leave comforted by the lofty thought that I could have become a software writer too!

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