Are hackathons effective as a recruitment tool?

From employer branding to finding unconventional talent at reduced costs, hackathons offer myriad advantages to organisations. No wonder they are here to stay, say leading HR voices

Credit - Chandigarh University

Today, organisations have increasingly begun embracing new-age recruitment tools to source talent. A hackathon is one such tool that several players, particularly in the tech and banking sectors, have begun deploying to their advantage. Generally lasting 48 hours or less, a hackathon is an event designed with the objective of devising and developing innovative solutions to a problem. Infused with the spirit of competition, the experience is typically engaging and rewarding for both candidates and recruiters.

On 7 October, 2022, American Airlines sponsored a Black Enterprise (BE) Smart Hackathon – a 24-hour non-stop coding competition – which saw the participation of scores of students from 23 Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Back in India, recently launched a Hackathon platform to provide candidates an opportunity to showcase their tech skills, while helping companies obtain the right people for open roles.

So, how is the talent being hired through hackathons different from those being brought in through the regular medium of campus recruitment? How are companies benefitting from conducting hackathons? Most importantly, are these just a passing fad or will they reshape the future of recruitment?

“As the hunt among tech companies for talent that can solve problems deepens, conventional talent may no longer be enough”

Vivek Tripathi, VP-HR, Newsgen Software

A different flavour of talent

“Hackathons create a great opportunity in a competitive atmosphere in which candidates get to showcase their skills on a real-time basis,” says Sai Suryanarayana M, chief people officer, Fincare Small Finance Bank. Speaking of the obvious advantages of hackathons, Suryanarayana explains that hackathons help and identify talent that has the potential to build relationships at a global level.

Commenting on the difference in talent coming in via campus recruitment and through a hackathon, Suryanarayana opines that candidates recruited through a hackathon typically bring hands-on experience and hard skills to the table as opposed to purely academic training and theoretical knowledge. “The event is aimed at making candidates collaborate, innovate and strategise, devising a solution within a predefined time frame. So, rather than education and pedigree, they get to display actual competencies,” he notes, alluding to the often-superior quality of talent discovered in the process of hackathons.

A similar view is offered by Anurag Verma, VP- human resources, Uniphore. “Hackathons definitely help bring in a slightly different flavour of talent,” he opines, stressing that because of their unconventional nature, hackathons frequently see the participation of unconventional talent. Such talent may not be from excellent colleges or hold impressive degrees, but are definitely exceptional at their work. “There is a significant degree of strategising and solutionising that goes on at hackathons. Recruiters get to witness a live display of skills,” he says, pointing to how hackathons help establish tech credentials beyond doubt.

Outcome-based exercise

While hackathons are widely used as a tool for recruitment, they are also conducted internally in organisations, primarily for boosting employee motivation and engagement while resolving internal issues. Occasionally, they are inspired by other causes.

Recalling a hackathon held a few years ago by his previous organisation, Verma notes that the idea, sometimes, is to find solutions to larger problems. “This hackathon was conducted to devise tech solutions to the traffic problem in Bangalore. It saw wide participation of people from different walks of life”.

“Rather than education and pedigree, candidates get to display actual competencies in hackathons”

Sai Suryanarayana M, chief people officer, Fincare Small Finance Bank

Pertinently, when it comes to the objectives of a hackathon, Verma feels that not only do they evaluate core tech competencies, but put even soft skills such as leadership and teamwork to the test. “The collaborative setting becomes an effective test of one’s teamwork capabilities. Likewise, leadership competencies are brought to the fore since a problem-solver must cogently explain and convince others of the credibility of their proposed solution”.

According to Vivek Tripathi, VP – human resources, Newgen Software, hackathons are playing a critical role in sourcing problem-solving talent from a wider pool. “Talent is becoming diverse in the tech industry; people are increasingly learning coding via different, unconventional methods,” he points out, adding that quizzing developers about concepts may be useful, but isn’t really effective in gauging their problem-solving abilities.

“Cracking a hackathon, on the other hand, is closer to the actual kind of work they will be doing. It is clearly outcome based,” Tripathi stresses.

Mutually beneficial to company & candidate

Hackathons are hailed as an effective exercise for employer branding. When a hackathon for hiring is publicised through various employment channels, social media and networking platforms, an organisation is able to maximise outreach, spread awareness, and create meaningful conversations around its brand and recruitment processes.

Supporting this point of view, Suryanarayana says that hackathons, in creating a vibrant buzz, help companies carve a positive image for their brand. “Organisations are able to attract the best of talent while boosting their image. Besides, the scale of recruitment ensures that the right people are found within a shorter turnaround time, helping companies optimise costs,” he says, highlighting the benefits of hackathons to companies.

“There is a significant degree of strategising and solutionising that goes on at hackathons. Recruiters get to witness a live display of skills”

Anurag Verma, VP- HR, Uniphore

As far as the benefits for participating candidates are concerned, he observes that hackathons present a great opportunity to candidates to learn and grow, and partner with a big brand.

Tripathi details several advantages of hackathons for companies. “Hackathons help companies crowd-source solutions to problems they may be unable to resolve internally. Placing those problems before a large audience elicits multiple inputs and diverse solutions”. He further adds that a hackathon event – while opening up a new channel of recruitment – effectively positions a tech organisation as one that is seriously into solving complex technical problems. “A company such as Google has been conducting hackathons for a long time,” he points out, referring to the effectiveness of the tool.

The future of hackathons

As far as the future of hackathons is concerned, the opinion appears to be unanimous — they are not going away anytime soon.

Verma remarks that while the existing nature of hackathons may evolve and get better, this type of recruitment tool isn’t going to fizzle out soon. “At the same time, they cannot altogether replace the standard and traditional campus placement method,” he opines.

“As the hunt among tech companies for talent that can solve problems deepens, conventional talent may no longer be enough,” points out Tripathi, underscoring how problem-solving talent discovered through hackathons signifies a breakthrough. “That’s why, they’re here to stay!”

Suryanarayana advises embracing new and useful developments — such as hackathons — on the tech platform. “I certainly feel they are here to stay. Hackathons are, after all, an investment in the company’s future,” he asserts.

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