“I don’t look like any other founder in the [Silicon] Valley. I wasn’t born and raised here,” Gradberry founder Iba Masood tells Wamda.
Five years after starting her graduate recruitment portal, Masood still feels like the odd one out. She’s proud of it though. Gradberry has recently been rebranded as the AI-powered tech project management chatbot, TARA.
Today, TARA (Talent Acquisition and Recruiting Automation) counts over 50,000 developers in its network. But it is the technology, not scale, that is driving it forward.
On the user end, TARA is a simple chatbot that assists enterprises across all stages of their tech development projects. On the backend, the TARA engine runs automated scans of a candidate’s code and assesses it based on factors such as language, complexity and runtime errors. It then matches clients with candidates.
“The human interaction takes place on the account management or sales management level,” says Masood.
Erase and rewind
TARA was initially launched out of Dubai in November 2011 under the name Gradberry, by Masood and Syed Ahmed - cofounder and now TARA’s chief technology officer. Bootstrapping and operating out of a bedroom with only $200 for web development, they wanted to tap the fresh graduate employment market.
By 2012, they had managed to clock up 8,000 registered students and a roster of over 150 employers including Google and Philips.
Gradberry has since seen several business model iterations and reboots - in 2013, version 2.0 of Gradberry offered online courses to students, and launched Smart Grad, a sourcing system they claimed to facilitate the talent search process for employers. By 2014 Masood had refocused and was looking to bridge very specific skills gaps between students and employers on its portal.
Students hoping to land a job could sign up for courses, and some promising talents could also be sponsored by their future employers to complete these courses. Counting 38,000 users and 1,500 employers in 2014 – including the giant IBM – Gradberry’s new model worked well.
“A thousand graduates were successfully employed. But there were barriers for growth. The innovation ecosystem was very nascent at the time,” says Masood.
Internsme, another graduate recruitment platform in the same guise of Gradberry, has also had to diversify in recent years.
“Originally, we started with internships. Now we’re talking about graduate jobs, people who want to employ people with up to two years of experience,” says Jugal Paryani, the company’s growth marketing manager.
While their aim remains to get young people into jobs, Paryani says Internsme has “expanded to the domain of youth rather than just the employment market”.
In time though Internsme might well hit the same roadblocks Gradberry experienced.
Masood admits to what she calls 'Middle East-specific barriers' hindering their growth in the region. “It was impossible to find investors. It was all bootstrapped and, in the Middle East, it comes down a lot of the times to who you know rather than what you know,” she says.
In the end their move to Silicon Valley two and half years ago was strategic, particularly with their ambitions set on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
In Silicon Valley, both Masood and Ahmed are on the Alien of Extraordinary Ability visa, typically granted to innovators.
“Within the Middle East, in order for innovation to really thrive, we need to come up with a similar system. Dubai leads from that standpoint because there are already so many cultures and nationalities in [the UAE],” Masood says.
Initially the pair made a move to Boston, where startup incubator Masschallenge supported their growth, and then to other markets where they participated in and won several pitch competitions.
In 2015, the backing of Y Combinator thrust the startup onto the international stage.
Another pivot and within the span of a year Gradberry transformed into TARA, an AI-powered platform that not only matched on-demand tech talent with big enterprise projects, but that also managed these projects through to delivery.
Its wider impact, as Masood would have it, would be to level the playing field and push for meritocracy in the tech world.
From helping fresh grads find full-time jobs to AI-powered software automating the recruitment of contract-based workers, Gradberry’s transformation reflects a wider global debate: are automation and AI growing at the expense of human capital?
Predictive studies seem to indicate so. Gartner forecast that by 2020 autonomous software agents outside of human control will participate in 5 percent of all economic transactions.
The moral dilemma is not lost on Masood, but she sees inevitable opportunity, not threat, in machine learning and AI.
“Think about it this way; every interaction that we have at work today takes place through a messaging interface of some sort. You can use machine learning technically to analyze all the conversation you’ve ever had and then, basically create a system that can give you recommendations – ie on how you should write your email.”
Ultimately, every project completed through TARA will generated data that makes it smarter.
“We do see the potential for software that improves existing processes [for] clients,” adds Masood. Her clients now include Cisco, Forbes, and telco Orange.
Masood says the switch from sourcing and matching people with full-time employment to finding contract-based work follows a worldwide shift toward a market of free-floating talents.
But that’s in Silicon Valley. In MENA, Internsme’s Paryani says that he is yet to see any freelance trend materialize.
In a survey it recently conducted across 1,500 university students, Internsme revealed that UAE youth still value growth opportunities within recognizable organizations, and are concerned about their employability.
“When we have large corporations on our headlines we always get feedback quickly. People want to grow and learn within a respected organization,” Paryani says.
What is changing, however, is that certain industries like oil and gas are shifting from hiring expensive, older talents to nurturing younger ones. “There was a time when you could hire an engineer for AED 60,000 (US$16,000) a month and get away with it. That’s not happening anymore,” he says.
The IT industry, TARA’s bread and butter (for now), has been riddled with human inefficiencies for a while.
A 2012 McKinsey study run over 5,400 IT projects highlighted massive losses incurred not by broken software but by human inefficiencies – $66 billion to be exact, with projects running 45 percent over budget on average. More interestingly, projects with budget overruns typically led to “black swans” of irreversible damage.
It makes sense, then, that Masood’s next goal for TARA is to build predictive analytics through its system to remove the risk of human error or inefficiency. TARA’s predictive coding engine is powered by data from existing projects. Clients can expect a quote within 48 hours for a large-scale project, and 24 hours for smaller-to-mid-sized ones.
Masood claims that projects are being quoted in about half the time and at 40 percent of the cost. The complexity would be in applying this transparency and automation to more qualitative fields, such as copywriting. “Once we believe we have enough data, we would start to apply the same system to other verticals,” says Masood.
Currently counting nine employees, Masood is aggressively staffing up the engineering and sales teams.
In the region Masood says a chunk of Tara’s customer base sits in Dubai, despite 80 percent of business coming from the US.
“A lot of the young entrepreneurs [in the region] will have the opportunity that I didn’t have when I started,” she says.
If TARA’s Silicon Valley success has any lesson for regional entrepreneurs it is that timing is of the essence: knowing when to enter a market, leave it, switch business models, drop them altogether, or jump on the next big thing.