Should Employers Use Hackathons to Find Tech Pros?

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Pop quiz: What’s the best way for employers to find suitable tech pros?

A.) Post a job, sort through resumes, and interview candidates.

B.) Host a hackathon, and interview those individuals who do well at it.

Staffup Weekend is a startup (“it might evolve into a nonprofit, a shareholder corporation, or even a benefit corporation,” its website helpfully offers) devoted to a variation on Option B. It works like this: An employer presents a small project, which candidates tackle in groups; those groups then present the results of their work to the employer, who interviews individuals or groups for potential employment.

Staffup Weekend positions this as a more efficient option for employers than traditional job interviews; it also argues that, although the candidates did unpaid work, they still had the chance to network with both the employer and others in their industry.

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In a new post on Medium, Deborah Branscum describes attending one of the Staffup Weekend gatherings, and finding it effective from a networking standpoint. “A few attendees I spoke to were keenly disappointed that the event didn’t provide concrete feedback about the work they’d done,” she wrote. “Others expressed great satisfaction with the overall experience, even if it had not led to an actual job interview.”

Branscum also used the piece to complain about the traditional hiring process. “I’d like to propose a new event: Smartup Weekend, a new event designed to connect hiring managers to reality: They know less than they think,” she wrote. “Great candidates are out there but managers don’t see them. Because they haven’t gone to the right college. Are too old. Unemployed. Or play hoops.”

Hosting a hackathon to discover the right job candidates isn’t a new corporate innovation in the quest to find the top tech talent. Not all developers who attend company-sponsored hackathons are actively looking for a job, however, which makes the format a bit problematic as a recruiting method.

“While you are hacking, [you] may even be unpleasantly interrupted to hear the sales pitch on joining the company,” HackMatch founder Dave Fontenot wrote in a posting on Hackers and Hacking in early 2014. “There’s almost a sense of entitlement that the company deserves your attention at will because they bought you free pizza and caffeine.”

In that same posting, Fontenot broke down the problems with corporate hackathons into several categories: They often force developers to build atop a single platform, the judging can be questionable, and the interests of corporations and independent developers are often severely misaligned. Instead, he continued, corporations interested in talking with developers should sponsor college hackathons, where they can generate substantial goodwill for a sliver of the cost of hosting their own event.

While it seems unlikely that the majority of hiring managers will rush to embrace hackathons as a hiring tool anytime soon, the format does offer companies the ability to vet multiple candidates quickly. The big question is whether those candidates are open to tackling a project for free, all in the name of (maybe) landing a job.

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One Response to “Should Employers Use Hackathons to Find Tech Pros?”

  1. The biggest problem I see with hackathons is it tends to draw “cowboy programmers” who are looking for quick solutions to problems rather than building solutions that have long-term benefits. If that’s what you want in a programmer, great…but know that there’s a good chance that programmer will move on to greener pastures when the next hackathon rolls around…oh, and leave you with mostly unusable code as you have to refactor it to meet your ongoing needs.

    Of course, these hackathons are fun and can be a good release for just getting out of the daily grind, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into good employees for your company.