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Connecting Global Tech Ecosystems: Andela Shines a Light on Africa’s Developer Talent

This is the 14th episode of HackerRank Radio, a podcast for engineering leaders interested in solving developers’ toughest problems today: Hiring the right developers. Hosted by Vivek Ravisankar (CEO & Co-founder, HackerRank). You can subscribe to us on iTunes and Google Play.


One of our favorite discussion topics at HackerRank is the widely debated talent shortage. Is there a real lack of tech talent in the market? Or are we missing qualified candidates when we source? The latter can certainly be true, especially if you limit your talent pool to your backyard. But casting a wider net isn’t always a go-to strategy for most companies.

Andela is on a mission to change that. The company specializes in engineering-as-a-service and enables organizations to accelerate their product roadmap. How? By building globally distributed engineering teams with Africa’s top software developers. It may not be the first place you think of when sourcing developer talent, but the continent is home to an up and coming, fast-growing tech scene. 

In our latest episode of HackerRank Radio, our CEO and Cofounder Vivek Ravisankar spoke with Jeremy Johnson, CEO and Cofounder of Andela. The two dive into everything from the tech talent shortage, the experimental advantage startups have, and the industry shift to building distributed teams. 

Listen to the episode or skim through the transcript below.

Jump ahead:

Vivek: Welcome to HackerRank Radio episode 14. Today’s guest is at the forefront of putting Africa’s developer talent or the map. Andela helps companies build distributed engineering teams with Africa’s top software developers. I have the pleasure of speaking with their CEO and Cofounder Jeremy Johnson. Welcome, Jeremy.

Jeremy: Thanks Vivek. It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Vivek: Good. How’s it going?

Jeremy: It’s going really well. It’s going really well.

Vivek: Okay. Are you excited to be at this podcast?

Jeremy: Yes, I’m excited. Of course. We’re big HackerRank fans in general.

Vivek: That is good. That is, by the way, for all the listeners that was not planted that was totally all Jeremy. I gave a quick intro about Adela but just like a couple of lines, maybe would love to get an overview of about you, about Andela. If you can get started.

Jeremy: Yeah, of course. So, you know, my background has been in the technology space essentially since college, I after winning a business plan competition dropped out of Princeton to start a company designed to try to facilitate the college admissions process for students from underrepresented high schools around the US. And that came out of growing up in Trenton, New Jersey, and being sort of pulled between two worlds between Trenton and Princeton growing up. I’ve stayed in and around that space for most of my life in that sort of education technology vertical. I co-founded a company called 2U after that, which we took public in 2014. 

I was invited at the beginning of 2014 in January out to Nairobi to give a talk for the MasterCard Foundation. That kicked off a series of conversations, in large part, around why there was so little business interaction between the tech ecosystems that were growing rapidly across the continent of Africa and the more established and visible ones in the US, like, you know, Silicon Valley and you know by that point New York as well. And, you know, rapidly expanding across the, across the country.

And so, as that progressed and we started to dig in we realized something that we thought was pretty profound, but also really simple, and that’s that aptitude and cognitive ability are completely evenly distributed around the world. You’ve probably heard the phrase talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not. It’s one that we’ve spent a lot of time trying to help the world see. 

When you think about what happens in the tech world over the past. you know, five to 10 years you’ve seen a pretty significant shift towards comfort with not needing everyone to be in the same location so distributed teams. Initially, it was remote and then distributed and if you believe that brilliance is evenly distributed, and you believe that you can quantify the output of engineers and therefore are comfortable with distributed teams, all of a sudden Africa becomes the most obvious thing in the world. 

It’s the youngest fastest-growing continent on the planet. You have a very large English-speaking population and you have a generation of young people that understand the impact technology can have and the smartest, most driven people wanting to be software developers. And that’s a very different phenomenon and set of circumstances than you’re going to find anywhere else in the world and it’s created I think a lot of the foundation for Andela’s success, you know, fast forward five years.

Vivek: Yeah that’s a fascinating story. And it’s amazing that the reason why we started HackerRank was based on a very similar thesis, which is what we call ‘skill over pedigree.’ What matters is are you able to do the job versus which college did you go to, or which company you worked at before. I think what matters is do you have the skills to do the job or not. So it’s based on a very similar thesis. 

Walk us through your early days. 

The birth of Andela

Jeremy: There were two separate streams that came together. One was that that conference and I was invited there by Christina Sass or co-founder and longtime president and I also had a friend and mentee who had gotten to know over the couple years before this, who was a young Nigerian entrepreneur, who reached out to me in the middle of my 2U days to ask for feedback on his prior startup, which was essentially trying to build a MOOC platform, a Massive Open Online Course platform, that was Africa focused. And You know, I met him for the first time in Europe was like, all right, this guy’s awesome. Well, I’m happy to help them whatever I can. And so we became friends. And when I got back from that trip to Nairobi, he happened to be coming through New York and had decided that the company wasn’t going to evolve the way that he was hoping it would. And so wanted to figure out what is going to do next and asked for advice and we sat down and I pitched him on the notion of thinking a little bit differently about how you connect extraordinary talent and potential talent into the global tech ecosystem, leveraging a very like high-quality version of education technology. He and his co-founders, the previous company were like, that sounds super interesting. Yeah, we’ll give it a shot.

And so, you know, the four of them, me, Christina decided to kick off a pilot and there’s six of us. And so it’s, it was a fascinating founding group because you one large number of co-founders, but also three from Africa and three from North America, and I think that was actually a critical part of really why Andela was able to find its footing on both continents early on. You know, two people from Nigeria one from Cameroon two from the United States and one from Canada, so it was a diverse cast of characters. 

We decided to pilot an experiment in Lagos in mid-2014 where we would see basically what would happen if you were to offer to pay people to become software developers or better software developers. And with no website, we ended up getting, through Twitter alone, 700 applicants for four spots. And we thought it was a fluke. Like what’s going on here? So we decided to run it again and this time we added in basic aptitude test and this time around, still no website, looking for 20 people we end up with 2400 applicants.

But what was even more interesting was the testing service we were working with at the time called us a couple of days in and they were like, what are you guys doing? It was almost frantic, and we said, what are you talking about? And they said, we’ve 1) Never had so many people apply for a job and 2) of those applicants 42 are in the top 2% aptitude and problem-solving of any people on the planet.

Vivek: Wow.

Jeremy: And we looked at each other and realized that this was not a fluke. And this is something we had to do that had to exist in the world. And, you know, from there, now five years in we’ve had over 150,000 applicants to Andela. We’ve accepted 0.7% and we are Africa’s most elite engineering organization. We’re a company now of a little over 1400 developers spread across six countries in Africa. And, you know, continuing to grow very rapidly.

Vivek: Yeah. Wow, that’s a fascinating story. It’s amazing. I’ve always been amazed by how really great companies start off almost as I was an experiment. ‘Oh, we’ll just try and see where it goes.’ And then it sort of like balloons because you get like so much demand inbound and then you say, ‘oh, wow, like we’ve actually created something real.’ This is very, very similar. For us, like, you know, Hari and I, my co-founder, we went to the same college and this was really like a side project that we got started. Until like companies started to use us a lot more and we decided, ‘okay, you know what we really need to quit and do this full time.’ It’s pretty amazing to see your story arc very, very similar to that.

Jeremy: Yeah, that’s the birth of many great things and I think it actually speaks to one of the key advantages that startups have is that you’re just able to test things in ways that you wouldn’t be able to in a much larger, more established organization or they’re just really structurally difficult. The bigger, you get the harder it is to experiment. And startups are able to just in some ways just kind of see how the world responds to things in a much more agile way. And as a result of it. You got the chance to test things that would otherwise sound crazy to a number of smart people and sometimes you’re right.

Hiring candidates with non-traditional backgrounds

Vivek: Yeah, absolutely. So as you continue to grow from the early hundreds of applicants to now you have like over 1400 people in staff, so you have like hundreds of thousands of applicants. I’m assuming a lot or maybe a majority of them don’t have prior computer science background or coding skills.

Jeremy: It’s a bit more varied at this point. We don’t require prior experience. We don’t require a college or high school degree, but there’s a massive amount of self-selection. I think one of the things that the traditional tech world gets, you know, fundamentally wrong, and there are a few of these, but about Africa, is just how much existing talent there already is. In every major urban area across the continent, you have significant and growing tech ecosystems that are yes young, but they feel like New York in 2008, you know it is still very exciting and bustling and they’re cool things happening. And I feel like the world generally misses that and so there is a lot of talent that doesn’t have a way to show the world just how good they are because the world doesn’t have a good way of trying to look for and evaluate them. 

And so a lot of what Andela ends up doing in terms of breaking down the barriers between like opportunity and brilliance, like the barriers that separate them, is relatively straightforward. Things like how do you attract incredible talent, how do you then assess really effectively? How do you then help nurture that talent and then provide the kind of support and oversight that a global team needs to be able to scale effectively? Because building and managing distributed teams is hard. You know, we make those things a lot simpler for both companies and engineers. 

So when a company is thinking about how am I going to scale? How am I going to advance this product roadmap anywhere near as fast as I need to? We just become the most effective option possible.

Vivek: Yeah no absolutely, totally get it. But when you’re getting these applicants who obviously don’t fit into the traditional mold of ‘I did my computer science degree’ or ‘I went and worked at this company’ you’re really betting a lot on their potential to grow and develop and learn which if you get it right. It’s going to be like a giant upside like a 10X upside. But if you factor it wrong, it’s going to be a disaster or a pretty bad outcome. What have you learned over the course of like five or six years on the ability to spot potential when you don’t have the relevant experience and candidates?

Jeremy: You know, it’s been an evolutionary journey. We obviously knew early on things like aptitude and problem-solving ability were going to be important. We knew that communication would matter but we certainly didn’t know how much, but we also learned a lot along the way. 

An example of something that I was really surprised by, although in retrospect makes complete sense, was looking early on, at how much people demonstrated that they just found the notion of solving problems with technology interesting. And so, not how good they were at it at the moment, but how interesting they found it. And what we realized was that over even a relatively short span of time the people that found coding interesting, even if they weren’t quite as like as high like output from an aptitude standpoint, they were, long term, going to end up being the best developers. So does intelligence matter? Of course. But whether you are in the top 2% or top 1% turned out to matter a lot less. Whether you are really interested in software development and solving problems with technology–that matters immensely. And it’s going to be wildly deterministic in terms of your overall likelihood of success. 

Another thing that we found that I also was really surprised by but in retrospect makes total sense: someone’s ability to take feedback directly corresponds to their ability to learn. So if you immediately respond to feedback with how are you going to argue against it then it, it almost doesn’t matter how smart you are. And in fact, there can be a little bit of an inverse correlation, because the smarter you are, the more you’re able to argue against feedback effectively as opposed to listening to it. And the people that actually grow the fastest are the ones that get critical feedback and think to themselves, how could that possibly be true and if it is true what can I learn from it? If you meet people like that, they are the ones that are going to be able to leverage a learning experience to dramatically alter their career path and life and it’s just awesome to see.

Vivek: Yeah that is that is definitely pretty, pretty cool. So do you do incorporate this part of this point of understanding if they will respond to feedback and others in your interview process? Have you added this to the rubric?

Jeremy: We do in all sorts of ways. We now have over 60 different assessment criteria that we’re looking at, and measuring each in multiple ways. And so it started off as a very simple, simple process and has become significantly more complex over time.

Overcoming inherent bias

Vivek: Interesting. Interesting. Now let’s maybe, maybe we can move to the other side, which is the companies. Can you talk to me about your early your first few customers? How did you convince them to say, hey, we have an amazing pool of software developers who we have vetted, we have screened. They’re working and now you need to outsource your projects, there’s going to be NDA that’s going to be like, you know, all sorts of things—confidential code. Like this probably, like a lot of challenges you might have faced until you crossed the threshold of ‘Okay enough companies use us and its pretty common.’ Can you talk to me about your early days on the company side? How did you convince them?

Jeremy: Yeah. The short version is it was really tough. In the early days. It wasn’t just convincing them that the system or concept could work. We also had to help them overcome a huge degree of bias that they didn’t even realize they had. And so, you know, for most people, I believe are inherently good. Most people want to be a force for positivity and positive change in the world. The challenge is, most people also believe what they’ve seen. Like they believe something after they’ve seen it. And that means that if they haven’t worked with a developer from Kenya before, they don’t yet innately know that there are amazing developers in Kenya and that is not them trying to be offensive, it’s not them trying to willfully deny it–it’s just a human challenge. 

And so I’ve talked to senior leaders at Microsoft, Facebook, Google, who have brought their leadership teams over to Africa, and in the past couple years, almost all of them have for the first time, brought the leadership teams there because it’s such a rapidly growing important continent for the world. Each of them has said that after that trip the entire conversation changed. And it wasn’t that the facts on the ground changed, it wasn’t the data change–it was that we are all people and we believe what we’ve seen. And once they saw just how exciting those ecosystems were it changed their perception and therefore what they were able to imagine about reality. 

We’ve had to do that a lot over the years–to change that perception and in the beginning, the first companies were the ones that were generally the smallest and hungriest. So they were the ones who understood the inherent argument that brilliance evenly distributed and they were looking for the best talent they could possibly find. They recognize that that top 2% talent in the US locally was getting like basically just gobbled up by the Facebook’s and Google’s of the world and that they weren’t even close to being able to compete from a comp standpoint. They just felt trapped. And so they were the first ones to say, “well, this sounds crazy, but you know, I’ll give it a try and see what happens. My friend is working with you and he says they’re really effective to get experience. So I trust him. And let’s see what happens.” And so, you saw these pockets forming around the country of CTOs who started working with us and then telling their friends, hey, actually, it’s kind of great. I was skeptical at first, but this has been a way better experience than I anticipated and I think that’s also, you know, to your comment earlier about like the common beginning of great things like I think this is another one of those sort of universal truths. Is that a few people realize something, and they start to share it, and all of a sudden it’s spread socially because it’s a competitive advantage for those folks and they’re able to, you know, they’re able to leverage it in order to move faster.

Vivek: Yeah no absolutely no it is. It’s amazing. I got reminded of a quote from the CTO of Looker, who was actually one of our customers, that once they started using HackerRank “I finally see the candidate I wanted to see, you know, it’s similar. Which is like once you experience something which you had like a prior bias to and you see that working. I mean, like, at some level, humans are all biased. Your bias shifts towards “Oh, this actually is going to work. This is going to work pretty well.”

Jeremy: Completely. Our brains play tricks on us. So it’s why it’s so important to take a step back and really again take feedback and, you know, ask hard questions because we see the world through the lens of our own experiences and we only experience a very small chunk through the actual world.

The future of work: Industry shift to distributed teams

Vivek: Yeah no absolutely in terms of, you know, we talked a little bit about how you started off as like a company started building teams, everyone should be located at the same place, and now people started to move towards, ‘Okay I’m fine with the concept of a remote engineering team’ and now you’re starting to see it distributed, which is fine, regardless of where you actually work–which place, which country. 

The most extreme example that I’ve come across on this aspect was GitLab. I was talking to Sid, the founder and CEO of GitLab, they are about 400 to 500 people now and he’s planning to grow to about 1000 and they don’t have an office. You know, it’s completely distributed, and everything is on Zoom. I don’t know if you’ve seen the GitLab ‘About Us’ page like everything is so well documented. And it’s amazing to see how you can actually build a 1000-person company without an office. Do you think this is kind of an extreme version? Or do you think like this is what it will be in the future where like you know you fast forward, maybe like 10-15 years if you don’t have a remote or distributed presence, you’re going to be odd, as opposed to right now, if you have like a remote or distributed team, you’re probably the minority. What do you think is going to happen?

Jeremy: Yeah, I think this is one of those ones that feels really complex until you look at the trends and understand what’s driving them and then all of a sudden it becomes super clear.

We’ve gone through a couple of bumps, I’d say, in the move towards comfort with distributed, and you know there have been some high-profile companies like Yahoo and IBM, that sort of tested it and pulled back. I see that in the same way that I see sort of the adoption of almost anything that is new, and retrospect looks obvious. We are moving towards a world where We’re going to be able to have this conversation, but have it feel through you know either VR or AR like we’re in the same room and that world is not 50 years away. It’s not even 20 years away, it’s probably 10. At that point, the notion of everyone having to physically transport themselves to the same location becomes sort of insane.

And so I don’t think it’s going to like, over the next 10 years happen really rapidly. I think it’s gonna look an awful lot like ‘Well how’d you go broke. Mr. Gatsby?’ ‘Well, very slowly and then very quickly.’ Like it’s going to go very slowly, every year it’ll be a couple of percent more companies that are moving towards distributed, and then it’s going to just completely like explode and become just obvious and it’s going to seem as if the world has just fundamentally changed when in actuality, it was a slow move over time. With companies like, you know, yes. GitLab, but also Envision also Automattic, the parent company of WordPress, that are, four or five 600 person companies, bigger Automattic now, that are entirely distributed and have been for a number of years, and people will look back and they won’t seem so crazy anymore. They will seem like they were just ahead of the time ahead of the curve. And it’s, it’s hard to catch up to that if you can make it work it’s a superpower.

Vivek: Yeah, no, I, I think it’s a question of timeline versus if it’s going to happen.

Jeremy: Exactly right.

Vivek: Yeah, in order for that to happen. Do you think it’s a mindset change that is the biggest blocker, or do you think there are also infrastructure elements that need to get better? For example, right now, if you have like Slack Zoom. Is that good enough or like you do you think know there needs to be like more technological advancements that make you feel like this person is sitting next to you or working what which of these two things is probably a bigger challenge to overcome that?

Jeremy: I think it’s going to be a combination. But I think the slow growth that we’re going to continue seeing is going to be driven by things like slack and zoom.

But also, honestly, I think HackerRank plays a material role there, as well, as the more you can quantify what someone’s able to do the less you need to look over their shoulder. And so, you know, the better JIRA gets, the less you care about where your engineers are located. And so I think you’re going to see slow, steady growth until there’s an infrastructural shift where you have something that is like the Zoom equivalent for the, you know, for video conferencing, but instead for either VR or AR that just makes it feel easy that makes it feel obvious that makes it feel like of course, it would make sense for companies to do this. And I think the first early movers are going to be companies that have offices all over the place. And they’re going to become much more productive and then from there, it’s going to move into well ‘Why do we need all these offices in the first place?’ And you’re going to see large companies doing you know, doing the kinds of analyses that Stripe did when they announced that their newest engineering hub was going to be distributed where they say actually not only if we do this could we have access to a broader talent pool. But we also can, you know, cut 10% of our costs out of the equation and pay people more so now we can really, really attract better talent and as a result of that have a competitive advantage when it comes to scaling.

Vivek: Yeah, no, that was a that was like a very good move by Stripe. They’ve been continuing to open offices across the boat and you know stripe is a very engineering friendly company to see them endorse. This is definitely good. 

Building trust-based human relationships

What about the other side of distributed engineering teams, which is, you know, I’ve found that as much as it’s more powerful–you have access to talent across the world. You know, one of the core competencies of the ability to work together is bonding that you have. Working with teams does require like in-person. 

So we have an office in Bangalore, in London, for example, and one of the things that I recommend every exec in our office to do is to go and meet them in person, not Zoom. It’s amazing to see how relationships completely transform when you meet somebody in person versus talking over Zoom. What’s your thought on that? Like if you get fully distributed, do you think you would miss out on that or what are the cons?

Jeremy: Yeah, it’s a great question like, first and foremost, like, you’re right. There are material cons. I don’t mean to paint a totally rosy picture here. I think there are there are real downsides to not bringing people together in physical proximity on a regular basis. And I think you’re definitely speaking to one of them. And that’s the speed at which you build trust is actually much slower if you don’t meet in person. Because if you meet in person, the way that we’re hardwired as people is to like start, and again, this gets into the challenge of bias, but it’s to start making assumptions about like I can relate to this person. I can feel close to them. I can trust them. And the more that you can trust someone, the more you can actually work effectively like trust is actually a meaningful variable in the productivity of teams–super meaningful.

And once you realize that the answer, I think, though, is not that you, therefore, need to have everyone coming into the same office every day, but rather what companies like Automattic and I’m guessing GitLab does as well, but I don’t know for sure, is you bring people together physically every once in a while.

And so for most of the companies that have done distributed really well. They will have at least an annual, but oftentimes more frequent, get together in person. And they say, look, we’re saving all this money on offices, we’re going to spend money to get together and go on a really interesting off-site. And you get everyone together and really bond and the ones that do it really well yes we’ll focus a bit on getting work done, but they mostly focus on building trust-based human relationships. And the more that you can do that, the more you can then not have to come into the office and still get great work done because you’ve built that foundation of trust. 

And so when we start working with a new partner company, we work with a couple hundred companies around the world. But, you know, the majority 80 to 90% are in the US. And that means that, and most of them are, as you can imagine, not fully distributed. And so when we start working with a new partner company we actually subsidize the cost of the Andela engineers traveling to the headquarters of the company, whether that’s you know New York or San Francisco or Austin or Salt Lake or, you know, London or Cape Town.

And we do that because that in-person time for a couple of weeks during onboarding is so useful for building trust and rapport and it meaningfully improves the overall effectiveness of the team. 

Vivek: Yeah. No, that’s so you did it. You do this across all companies whenever they have like projects?

Jeremy: Yeah. That’s exactly right. I mean, we don’t really do. It’s less project-based when our engineers work with companies, it’s typically you know you’re typically working with them for a year or two. And so it’s a longer-term kind of relationship and therefore that trust is even more important.

Got it. No, I fully agree that’s, I mean like at the end of the day, every decision is going to be a trade-off on what you would like to do more than others. Nothing is like perfect hundred percent, but it’s good to see how you’re actually building trust by bringing people on site. There’s another company in my YC batch. It’s called Zapier. I think you might have probably heard about them.

Jeremy: I know them well.

Vivek: Yeah, so they’re also fully distributed and we stopped and he does an offsite definitely once a year, maybe like twice a year, he brings the entire company together and I was asking how do you fund this, like they’re the bootstrapped, they’re growing. He had a really funny answer. So he said, like whatever you’re spending on office space. I’m just putting it towards the off-site.

So yeah, definitely the trust factor or like building a team component is super important.

What’s next for Andela?

Vivek: All right, so we’re probably towards the end of the podcast. You know, you’ve been continuing to grow pretty well. You’ve also raised funding from pretty strong investors. What is next for Andela, like when you look maybe over the next two or three years. I know everybody asks what do you want to do in like 10 years and it’s super, super hard for me to answer that. But maybe like in the next two or three years?

Jeremy: That’s a wise question. I think that you know we overestimate what we can do in a year, as people, but we dramatically underestimate what’s possible and 10 it’s just so difficult to predict what’s going to happen with compounding interest that far out. But two or three is reasonable. You know, the core problem that Andela is trying to solve is the fact that it is fundamentally true that brilliance is evenly distributed around the world and opportunity isn’t. And so that isn’t just a challenge for people looking for opportunity. It’s also a challenge for companies looking to hire. So I see us as being very much, sort of, fellow travelers actually with HackerRank. Working to break down the barriers that prevent brilliance and opportunity from finding one another. 

And real impact requires real scale. So I anticipate that you’re going to see us over the next couple years, not just continuing to grow, you know, the sort of overall like at scale and impact of like how we are operating and where we’re operating, but also to we’re more and more building out the internal tools and really data behind how do you make distributed teams work effectively. And a lot of folks when they’re coming to us they’re yes, looking for talent and yes, understand why we are in somewhat of a unique position in terms of what we’re able to offer, but they’re also hearing oh, and it just seems to work when you guys do it. people working with you just feel like you know what this is just this is the thing I can, I can manage.

In some ways similar to, you know, you hear people talking about Zoom and they say, it just seems to work. And so we want to lean into that as much as we possibly can, you know, we believe that’s what our customers, our partners are asking for and we believe that’s the best way for us to break down the barriers that prevent brilliance and opportunity from connecting.

Vivek: Yeah absolutely. Maybe, maybe you should use Andela’s developers to build a tech infrastructure that you’re dreaming of.

That’s right. That’s exactly right. Yeah. Exactly right.

Yeah. Awesome. Well, thank you, Jeremy, for taking time and congrats on all the success super inspiring mission. It’s very inspiring to see what you’ve done. What you’ve grown and you’re completely changing the landscape of how companies think about talent building teams.

So congratulations on all your growth. And thank you for joining our podcast.

Jeremy: Of course it was such a pleasure Vivek. It’s great to great to catch up as always and look forward to talking soon.

Vivek: Awesome. Thanks, Jeremy.

Jeremy: Take care, bye.

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