Inside ParaSoft’s Sales-Force ‘Boot Camp’

The want ad seeking “sales-minded people” is vague. But if you call and set up an appointment, you get hired.

The advertiser is ParaSoft of Monrovia, a southern California company building a niche for tools that automatically prevent errors during software development.

ParaSoft’s goal is to turn all comers—the nontechnical, the uneducated, the financially desperate, even the homeless—into people who can sell these tools to businesses such as Boeing, Reuters and IBM. Although no more than 10% of new hires survive what CEO Adam Kolawa calls “boot camp”—an intense series of interviews, training classes and tests that last for months—those who do survive become outstanding employees whose earning power at ParaSoft is unlimited.

“We’ve given a second chance to a lot of people,” says Kolawa, who holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology and cofounded ParaSoft in 1987, four years after emigrating from Poland. “They have stable lives and families and are devoted to the company … I am amazed with their loyalty. It’s like going through a fire; it’s like your buddy-in-arms.”

Kolawa’s commitment to finding low-cost and loyal talent in the nation’s technology heartland is unusual, although his tactics are not unheard of. Felix Racca, for example, sought inexperienced salespeople while building the Argentinian software vendor InterSoft S.A. during the 1980s.

That way, he says, new representatives held no preconceptions about the market. Andrew Lahn, senior vice president for CyberStaff America, a New York personnel agency, finds less experienced salespeople are better listeners. But none seem as intent on starting from the ground up, quite literally, as Kolawa.

ParaSoft’s general manager of sales, for instance, started with sales experience but no high-tech background and sold nothing his first two months on the job. Ozzie Azarian interviewed alongside people who didn’t know what ParaSoft did and trained with people whom he describes as “in hardship”—everyone, he says, was given a chance to succeed, but those experiencing hardship often have greater drive.

Some 3 1/2 years later, Azarian has risen to his current post, but at first he would work until midnight selling software to companies in Israel, India, Australia and New Zealand before ParaSoft had distributors in those regions. “They give you the tools and contacts and support you need,” he says. “[Your own success] is in your hands.”

Kolawa’s motivation is not to do good; that’s a by-product of his drive to stay in business and make money. In 1993, when ParaSoft was shifting its business from supercomputer operating systems to development tools, the privately funded company could not afford to pay the high salaries commanded by salespeople with traditional experience. Besides, Kolawa was struck by how many smart people drop out of the American school system.

ParaSoft modeled its tough-love boot camp after a system developed by a consultant Kolawa once hired who claimed to be able to teach anybody to sell anything. Most of the system is regimented, from repetitive drills on communication skills to tutorials on software development. As the training gets tougher, candidates start dropping out. ParaSoft has hired 400 to 500 people through the system, and Kolawa estimates that 50 to 60 are still working. The company employs around 250 people.

“We teach them to come in on time, and we teach them to obey. These people were never taught how to obey orders,” he says. “It’s similar to the military.”

Turning ordinary people into successful high-tech employees is a challenge; the industry requires rapid and constant learning. Lahn says predicting any individual’s success is difficult—the most highly recommended people can fail, and the slowest learners can suddenly catch on and become wildly high achievers. And although CyberStaff America claims a 35% to 40% success rate, Lahn’s task isn’t as tough as Kolawa’s—he only trains people who already have sales backgrounds.

Yet Racca says that inexperienced salespeople do well selling innovative products. Lahn says he can hire two junior salespeople for the price of one experienced one, and still come out ahead. “The junior people are more trainable, and when they come from a less expensive place they can afford to have a longer learning cycle,” he says.