Hacking Hackathons: How 4,000 Events Taught Me the Four Keys
The stereotypical idea of hackathons involves hundreds of developers crammed together in cavernous rooms surrounded by empty energy drink cans and pizza boxes. There are certainly still hackathons that fit this image, but today the nature of hackathons is expanding and evolving. Given the increasing sophistication and competitiveness of the recruiting landscape, a one-size-fits-all approach no longer suffices.
Before implementing hackathons as part of your recruiting strategy, there are a couple key things to consider that can help your company achieve its desired results. Here are four steps to “hacking hackathons” that I’ve learned from powering over 4,000 coding challenges.
1. The Battle Between Online vs. Offline Hackathons
There are advantages and disadvantages to hosting online and offline hackathons, so the right choice depends on your specific goals. With coders even getting their own agent nowadays, competition to hire developers in the U.S. is fierce, and companies are increasingly looking abroad for top talent. Online hackathons are one of the most efficient and affordable ways to source global candidates. They enable attendees from anywhere to participate and thus allow companies to access a much larger pool of talent. It can surprise you where you find awesome coders; a recent hackathon by Quora resulted in Belarus, a country with about the same population as Pennsylvania, claiming top honors as the country with the most winners. Digital hackathons also scale easily and eliminate the need for physical space and amenities, such as staff, security, food, and drinks that can cause costs to soar.
That said, offline hackathons are still very popular and by building a reputation as a hackathon to participate in, you can consistently bring in some of the most driven people to your doorstep. I’ve found that offline hackathons bring together an energetic and passionate group of coders who often travel the circuit with the urge to compete against their peers and show off their coding chops.
2. Co-Sponsor Local Hackathons and Send Your Engineers as Mentors
If you’re interested in fostering a tech community, co-sponsoring a local hackathon will allow you to build relationships with local community partners. For instance, if you’re interested in hiring mobile game developers, co-hosting a hackathon in conjunction with a popular game engine could be mutually beneficial. And beyond that, I’ve seen many businesses benefit from having engineers and recruiters onsite to be the eyes and ears at hackathons. Not only will they be able to serve as a brand ambassador, but it also opens doors for finding hidden talent and serving as a mentor onsite. This allows your team to help coders finesse their code, get to the root of a problem and think through ideas.
3. Pick a Theme and Tailor the Content to that Audience
If you do organize a hackathon, select a theme and target the event to that particular audience by adapting the problems and judging accordingly. Do you appeal to seasoned serial hackers or novice ones? Are you focused on creating a community around a region or a new technology? Do you offer mass appeal and celebrity judges to draw hackers in? A clearly defined focus and mission will set your event apart. It is also important to ask for feedback. After a recent hackathon with Quora, we asked participants for advice on how to better the problems and format, and we received feedback we probably would’ve not been able to get otherwise.
Most prominent hackathons have a unique approach that distinguishes them. For example, MHacks and LA Hacks go for size by attracting thousands of developers. TreeHacks takes a more selective approach with an invite only list of 500 students.. HackBU targets novice hackers while Hackholyoke is known for its 50/50 male-to-female ratio. HackArizona is not just about hacking, but also about giving back to the Southwest community and putting spotlight on the Southwest as a burgeoning pocket of tech talent. Hack DFW features an impressive judge lineup of business celebrities, like Mark Cuban, Michel Irvin, and Michelle Miller.
The challenges themselves should also reflect the targeted audience. If you are looking to find new hires for your company, give them problems that directly relate to what they will be doing on the job. This lets you gauge their skills and piques their interest in the field’s more challenging and exciting problems.
4. Teamwork or Solo?
Lastly, an important consideration is the format of the challenges–team or solo. Depending on your goals you’ll take a different approach. If you want to foster a community, make it a team challenge. A common misconception is that coders like solitude, but hackathons can be highly social events that allow participants to learn from and build with like-minded peers. They foster senses of community and competition, just like team sports. If you go the group route, let competitors choose their team members by identifying strengths and weaknesses in order to build the most effective team. For example, finding someone who is good at problem-solving but not the strongest at coding.
Companies aiming to gauge individual talent for prospective hires should create solo challenges. Solo submissions make it easy to understand who did what and where a candidate’s skills are. They can provide an objective representation of skills, which is why it is so important to make the testing unbiased and be as neutral as possible when evaluating submissions. To this end, avoid human judges and opt for technical platforms that evaluate submissions dispassionately.