IIM placements: An insider’s view
Campus placements are the final, brutal test the Indian education system throws at you before you are set free
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In 2004-05, campus placements at IIM Ahmedabad was part passionate salsa dancing and part Mexican stand off between the groups of people who form the three vertices of the Campus Placement Triangle of Mutually Beneficial Love-Hate: students, recruiters and placement committee.
At any and every moment in the many months over which unfolds the excruciating, exhausting, nerve-shredding and, all too often, life-changing annual ritual that is campus recruitment, you will find two of those three groups furiously conspiring against the third one. As life on campus inches ever closer to Day Zero—the first day of campus recruitment—alliances and collaborations form and re-form rapidly and dramatically.
And then suddenly, just two weeks later, the epic comes to a sudden close.
Everyone takes off their suits and changes back into their denims and t-shirts, bags are packed, certificates are put away, phone numbers are exchanged, sceptical parents are apprised of campus romances, and the graduating class percolates away through railway stations and airports into the bright future that beckons in Delhi and Mumbai and Canary Wharf and Wall Street and wherever it is in Singapore that they do banking.
Meanwhile the recruitment circus show packs up and moves to campus after campus across the length and breadth of India, from Joka to Bannerghatta to Rau to Kozhikode, sowing frenzy and fantasy, reaping breathless headlines, changing lives.
Indian media is obsessed with business school campus recruitment. Newspapers, and this title is no exception, devote lavish column inches to the jamboree. And the stories usually fall into one of three types.
There is the statistical overview—X% got placed with average salaries of Y crores, which is Z% higher than last year.
Then there is the rags-to-riches story of 26-year old Mundane Singh Boringwala, son of Mr and Mrs Boringwala of Hickspur District, who has been hired at the exorbitant salary of several crores per annum.
And finally there is the riches-to-rags story of the seven guys and girls who have decided to give up campus placement jobs and set up their own ventures.
Each of these three varieties of stories are usually written with scant attention to details such as compensation structures, fixed and variable pay, exchange rates, cost of living metrics, basic statistics and rights to privacy. But they are invariably illustrated with photos of the fresh graduate standing on a lawn of some kind, throwing sheets of blank paper into the air. Why?
All of which serves to paint a thoroughly inadequate picture of what campus placement really means on B-school campuses.
In 2004-05, campus placement was, and it probably still is, the most bizarre, soul-sapping, hope-crushing, humanity-diminishing, uplifting, spirit-stirring, life-enforcing thing you could ever hope to be a part of.
And it all starts, like all things in India, with an election.
Some time in early 2004, the exact month now escapes me, this writer was elected head of the placement committee of the IIM Ahmedabad batch of 2005.
Campus recruitment is a big deal. For most students, and parents, it is the entire point of the time, money and energy they have invested in education for the previous decade or so.
The years spent training for entrance examinations to get into an engineering college, the four years in college trying to get into business school, and then the two years there trying to get into Lehman Brothers… all this effort boils down to one single fortnight of insanity. And you don’t want that fortnight to be run by an idiot.
The stakes are high. And for this reason the elections to the office of Placecom head is usually contested quite eagerly.
Things can get nasty. In 2004, for instance, I spent considerable time trying to allay rumours that I may show preferential treatment towards other Malayalis in particular, and “Southies” in general, once I was in office. Competing candidates had to fend off rumours that they were running for office purely out of self-interest. After all, few people got closer to recruiters at some of the most desirable employers in India, and the world even, than the Placecom guys at IIMA.
I won the elections in 2004, I think, on the strength of two qualities. Firstly, I wasn’t super ambitious myself. I really wasn’t in the market for any of the most highly sought after jobs. (I didn’t have the grades or the finance chops needed for the really lucrative banking jobs.
I still don’t entirely get finance. (But don’t tell my editor that.) That meant that I wouldn’t clock out of the job as soon as I got hired by somebody. I had skin in the long placement game.
Secondly, I had already done this job once before. At Regional Engineering College, Trichy, as it was known then, I had already spent the better part of 2000-01 running a campus placement season for hundreds of graduate and postgraduate engineers and a handful of architects. Like New York, if you can make it in Trichy you can make it anywhere.
Shortly after the elections, I pulled together a team of placement reps, one from each dormitory more or less, into a placement committee.
This committee then got down to work. We called up regular recruiters to refresh relationships, we called up new firms to build new relationships, we called up a video production company to get a promotional DVD made, we booked a photographer to get pictures shot of every student for the DVD, we called up an IT firm to complete an online resume submission portal, we called up Domino’s Pizza to set up an on-site oven to feed recruiters (for free) and students (for a price)... all of which sounds mundane. But it was unbearably hard. IIMs are, after all, public sector organisations.
You can spend two hours sitting in a world-class lecture on production management and lean manufacturing and then go and stand in a line at the mess for forty-five minutes because one of the chapati makers is on leave.
But engaging with the institute in combat over things such as the electricity requirements of the pizza ovens or the special room charges at the guest house for visiting recruiters was something we had come to expect. Also, this was one of the few aspects of Placecom work in which you had the backing of both students and recruiters.
Everything else was… much more complicated.
Phase 1: Inviting companies
Alliance: Student + Placecom versus recruiters
It didn’t matter that this was IIMA, the finest educational institution in the country with the most powerful alumni you could imagine, from novelists to insider traders to bankers and everything else in between.
We still spent hours cold-calling recruiters. Any student who knew anybody in a company that had yet to sign up for placements was encouraged to break ice on our behalf. Time permitting, we even did this for the one or two students who wanted very niche careers: media, publishing, human resources, airlines.
Conversion rates were low. But not hopeless. Thus we soon lined up dozens upon dozens of new and old companies.
The natural next step was for small teams from these companies to visit the campus and make presentations to interested students. Death.
Phase 2: Company presentations
Alliance: Placecom + recruiters + pizza versus students
So the hottest name in investment banking is on campus to pitch to prospective hires. People are just stampeding to the lecture hall right? You are exceptionally wrong.
In fact, filling up presentation rooms was a constant struggle. So much so that we had to devise a system of dorm-level compulsory allocations, along with fines for absconders, to make sure we filled up rooms. Soon, a secondary market for allocations popped up on one of the online bulletin boards, where people swapped presentations.
We also realised that presentations that featured refreshments afterwards (pizza), usually tended to fill up faster. Cue phone calls trying to gently persuade recruiters to have “informal Q&A” sessions afterwards over pizza and cola.
This is not so much because students don’t care, but because these presentations got very repetitive and boring very fast. And you usually got better information online.
The daily struggle to sell out presentation was one battle we could do without. Placecommers got jaded fast. I will never forget the young lady who was introducing a recruiter to a “packed audience” when she slowly realised that she had suddenly forgotten not only the name of the executive from the company, but the name of the company itself: “So I hope all of you will enjoy this presentation by a company that is in the very forefront of the field in which it operates. Now over to the team from this great company. I invite… you... to speak to our students...”
Phase 3: CV submissions
Alliance: Students versus students
Nowhere else in this vast country will you see a better example of how India often responds to the merest hint of a competitive market by enforcing a level playing field on things that really aren’t level.
For weeks upon weeks in early 2005 we were embroiled in the debate over what could and could not be allowed on student’s CVs. (Which is, when you think about life after campus, an utterly bizarre debate to have.)
Midnight meetings were held at the Louis Kahn Plaza to decide on what academic scores could be shared with firms. Obviously, the students who excelled academically wanted the freedom to put all their grades on their CVs.
Others vehemently disagreed. Companies were lazy, they said, and would just shortlist candidates based on academics and nothing else. Thus the same toppers would get shortlisted over and over. That can never be allowed of course.
Eventually some kind of compromise was reached. And then we began to argue about other CV entries such as achievements in school and college. How do we know that somebody actually came second in an inter-school shotput contest in 1993?
Soon it became clear that almost nobody trusted anybody else to draw up an honest CV. An elaborate system was developed whereby students had to run all their CVs by dorm reps on the Placecom, and then post them all online for public scrutiny.
Placecom members were subject to intense distrust. And I suspect our CVs were some of the most frequently checked online.
Of all the things that we lavished time, attention and emotion on during the campus placement process, CV checking was undoubtedly the most meaningless. But it does reflect the rapid speed with which campus placement took over life and undermined peer relationships and trust. And the nearly universal need to create a system that ensured 100% placement.
Phase 4: Interviews
Alliance: Placecom versus recruiters + students
The months of preparations, logistical planning, acrimony, distrust and panic all boils down to around two weeks worth of dog-eat-dog insanity. Interviews start early in the morning, according to an elaborate “static schedule”. These are drawn up in consultation with both recruiters and students to try and enable good matches as early as possible on each day.
Static schedules help to get things started but soon break down hopelessly. This can be down to a number of reasons.
Companies can like somebody so much that they refuse to let them out of an interview room. Students can wander off to get a cup of tea. Elsewhere, students can be found shattered to pieces because the recruiter they’d been dreaming about for years threw them out after three minutes of the first interview. Many many students get broken down.
In the midst of it all, recruiters—and alumni who come back are the worst—add to the relentless chaos. There are the ex-Coke employees who will only drink Pepsi. The HSBC guy who is convinced that I am sending the best candidates to Goldman Sachs because I have a secret pact with them. And then there is the small matter of my own job.
Then there are the companies who will promise a job to a candidate, tell him to skip all his other shortlists, only to ditch him at the last moment. Every half an hour or so a voice would pop up on my walkie talkie informing me of a heartbroken student desperately in need of a pep talk. And by god I gave pep talks.
You have to keep in mind that many of these 24-year-olds have never dealt with stuff like this before. They’ve topped in school, ranked in every exam, aced every interview and won every trophy. And suddenly here they are, sobbing outside an interview room, crushed to bits by a bunch of brutal fund managers.
Boss, what do you want? Pep talk? Cigarette? Hug? A shoulder to cry on? You got it, boss. Not just out of compassion, and I am reasonably compassionate, but also to keep the process going. No student, however bright, could afford to mope for more than half an hour before companies moved on and filled up quotas.
Hour after hour, interview after interview, crisis after crisis, the system ground on. It was not at all uncommon for students to interview 15 or 20 times in a single day. And still come back without an offer. Don’t let the happy photos, large numbers and flashy bar charts in the newspapers fool you. This was hard, hard work.
Phase 5: Offers and Convocation
Alliance: Placecommers + students versus recruiters
Offers could officially be only made at the end of each day, at which point dozens of final lists arrived at a desk where only the finest, most trustworthy Placecommers collated offer lists, processed waiting lists and confirmed offers.
Forms flew back and forth. Slowly mobile phones made an appearance as students called home with good news and bad. Even here it was possible for indecision to mess things up. Students and companies coolly reneged on offers made informally over the table.
I want to talk to the director of this institute right now, some miffed recruiter would say. Yeah, that is not going to happen, the Placecommer would reply.
How dare you talk to me like that, I work for SuperDuperBank, one fellow screamed at me. Sorry about that but this is the job I have been elected to do and you shouting won’t change that I said, more out of exhaustion than bravery. OK, fine, then I am very upset and would you consider a job with us, he said.
It was madness.
Around two weeks later, shortly after lunch time, we placed the last remaining student left in our batch. Exhausted but relieved, the entire Placecom trudged into a classroom for a buffet. We ate quickly, if I recall, because that is how we had done everything for many months. Quickly, efficiently, with as little waste as possible.
The only dish I can recall eating is some kind of hideous Russian salad with peas and carrots in gloopy mayonnaise. Afterwards I lit a cigar I had been carrying inside the breast pocket of my tired suit jacket. It was horrible but wonderful.
When you live in a campus full of “alphas” not a lot of people come over and thank you for favours done.
Everyone likes to think that they, and only they, are responsible for the jobs they’ve got. And this is doubly the case in that period of campus-wide elation after a campus placement season. But some days later, during our convocation, as I went up on stage to pick up my diploma, a loud cheer went up from the students. Good job with placements, one of the dignitaries on the stage said. I smiled and nodded.
IIM Ahmedabad is perhaps the finest educational institution in the country. But at least some of that aura comes from its phenomenal placement record.
And this is true for countless campuses all over India. Far from being a celebration of the competent and a harbinger of fortunes to come, campus placements are the final, brutal test the education system throws at you before you are set free.
Behind every smiling face flinging paper into the air is a unique story.