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For Indian SaaS unicorn Zoho, AI has grown to be an integral part of its operations. In 2011, it began its journey with data science and has now developed its complete technology infrastructure internally, spanning from data centres to AI software tools. This in-house ingenuity empowers Zoho to effectively address various business obstacles encountered by its clientele and users.
“Our goal is to democratise access to AI for businesses of all sizes, significantly lowering the entry barrier in terms of cost and the volume of data needed for training,” said Ramprakash Ramamoorthy, director – AI Research at Zoho, in an exclusive interaction with AIM.
With its headquarters in Chennai, the company recently crossed 100 million users across its expansive suite of over 55 business applications, without relying on external investments, becoming the first bootstrapped SaaS firm to achieve this milestone. This comes on the heels of Zoho’s remarkable accomplishment of reaching $1 billion in annual revenue the previous year.
Founded in 1996 by Sridhar Vembu and Tony Thomas, Zoho has evolved into a worldwide frontrunner in delivering cloud-centric software solutions tailored for both enterprises and individuals. The firm boasts an extensive portfolio of applications and services that encompass diverse facets of corporate functions, such as managing customer relationships (CRM), facilitating email and collaborative tools, enhancing office productivity software, streamlining financial and accounting processes, automating marketing endeavours, and much more.
Zoho has over 10 job openings in AI and ML across various locations. These roles require a strong knowledge of algorithms, machine learning, and experience with handling large datasets. Responsibilities include collaborating with teams to identify AI and ML applications, developing models from concept to production, data collection and analysis, using ML techniques to solve real-world problems, optimising models for performance, and staying updated in the AI field.
Both seasoned professionals with a profound understanding of data analytics, data visualisation techniques, and coding skills, as well as recent graduates eager to learn and contribute to challenging projects, are suitable for these positions. The desired qualities in potential candidates include a track record of past achievements, a forward-looking attitude towards accomplishing tasks, and a penchant for collaborative teamwork and ownership.
Inside Zoho’s Data Science Team
At the heart of Zoho’s AI efforts is its adaptable AI research team, which operates within the company’s hybrid AI infrastructure, allowing it to swiftly respond to market demands and promote innovation. The AI research team is a vital part of Zoho’s central research hub, ZLabs, which influences strategic AI, analytics, and other critical areas. Zoho collaborates closely with its central AI team and product-specific AI experts to implement tailored AI solutions.
Initially, AI was used for tasks like finding unusual patterns and understanding sentiments. Today, AI is deeply integrated into Zoho’s technology, powering various features in its products. These AI-driven features include statistical ML, computer vision, natural language processing, and predictive analytics for business users. Importantly, Zoho emphasizes user privacy when developing and using AI models.
AI, ML, and data science are not just for product development at Zoho; they also play a significant role in the company’s IT operations. In IT monitoring, AI steps in to find anomalies, anticipate potential problems, and pinpoint the origins of issues. Zoho harnesses the power of AI not only to scrutinize operational data for more accurate forecasts but also to trim costs. On another front, conversational AI interfaces grant instant access to vital organizational data, making the process of handling tickets a breeze. And Zoho doesn’t stop there; they put AI to work in bolstering security by actively detecting and preventing malware, keeping an eye on user behavior, and spotting phishing threats before they cause havoc.
Riding the Generative AI Wave
Simultaneously, the company is also experimenting with generative AI. Earlier this year, Zoho stated that it’s increasing its investment in R&D and plans to introduce additional generative AI solutions gradually between 2023 and 2024. They explore various avenues for the implementation of generative AI. Within its AI strategy, three fundamental principles—Privacy, Experience, and Value—guide its approach to integrating generative AI technologies.
Zoho has integrated its AI engine, Zia, which operates securely on the Zoho cloud, with OpenAI’s ChatGPT. As a result, a total of 13 generative AI applications and integrations, all powered by ChatGPT, are now available within the Zoho ecosystem, solidifying ChatGPT’s growing influence in the Zoho landscape.
One notable feature, “Ask Zia,” empowers users to inquire about its data, with AI providing responses based on its comprehension of the data. Moreover, “Zia Presentations” can generate statistics and reports using user data from CRM. Its use of generative AI extends to tasks such as automated translation, grammar error detection, and more.
“The collaboration with OpenAI has been pivotal in enabling Zoho customers to embrace generative capabilities by simply adding the OpenAI key to its accounts. This integration ensures that sensitive organizational context remains securely within the confines of its accounts, a crucial aspect from a privacy perspective,”
In June, Vembu said that Zoho is also preparing to build its proprietary LLM, with the company’s devoted R&D unit, where data will always be retained within the Zoho ecosystem.
Zoho relies on its own suite of products and internal tools to enhance customer performance. Initially, Java was the primary programming language, favored for its compatibility with operational procedures and Zoho’s unique infrastructure, which uses co-located datacenters rather than public cloud providers like AWS or Azure.
Over time, Java remained the choice for statistical machine learning models, while Python gained popularity for neural networks due to open-source frameworks. Zoho also maintains native models in C for on-premise and mobile integration. They use their proprietary language, Deluge, across over 55 applications, enabling tailored solutions for diverse customer needs.
The hiring process for data science roles at the company focuses on technical skills, problem-solving abilities, and alignment with company values. For entry-level positions, it includes a programming and aptitude test, multiple rounds of programming interviews, and personal interviews to evaluate communication skills and cultural fit. Lateral hires undergo a customized process based on experience, involving programming assessments, discussions on data science concepts, and presentations on past challenges.
Key skills valued by the company include a strong programming foundation in Java, Python, and C.
Upon joining the data science team, candidates can expect a positive and open work environment that encourages ownership, personal development, and creativity. Zoho expects team members to bring their best skills, commitment, and passion, fostering growth, innovation, and collaboration through experimentation and learning from mistakes.
Tips To Crack The Interview
Prospective data science candidates should approach interviews with honesty and preparation, emphasizing a strong foundation in fundamental concepts and programming skills. The company values technical proficiency, personality, values, and potential contributions during the interview process.
Key messages for candidates applying for data science jobs at the company:
- Deep understanding of fundamental concepts is essential for success.
- Proficiency in programming languages is crucial.
- Hands-on practice with real-world data is encouraged.
- Utilize available digital resources for learning and growth.
The company prioritises privacy as a fundamental right and ethics in innovation. It values qualities like curiosity, creativity, and a commitment to problem-solving in prospective candidates. Those who share these values are encouraged to apply.
Zoho’s work culture is distinct in its rejection of the hustle culture in favor of a supportive and enriching environment. It centers around two core pillars: people and research and development (R&D). The primary focus is on fostering individual growth and contributions, with transparency and an open-door policy ensuring all team members feel valued. This approach encourages teamwork and community spirit.
Furthermore, Zoho’s work culture places a strong emphasis on R&D and technical knowledge. Employees enjoy various perks like 24/7 food availability, comprehensive family health insurance, transportation benefits, and paid time-off. While ESOPs aren’t offered due to private ownership, the company has a profit-sharing plan to reward employees based on company success.
In terms of gender diversity, Zoho takes a non-traditional approach, prioritizing talent alignment with values rather than traditional qualifications. Notably, the Zoho Labs division achieves a balanced 50:50 gender ratio, showcasing the company’s dedication to diversity and inclusion.
What sets Zoho apart from competitors is its emphasis on autonomy, long-term growth, values over metrics, community commitment, privacy, innovation, R&D focus, and openness.