ITworld: Hackathon gold: How to win a job offer in a coding competition


Are software competitions bad? A post last November said they stifle innovation and chill the vibe of camaraderie because they offer such large prizes. But that doesn’t have to always be the case.

A lot depends on what happens during the contest itself, and who is participating and who is running the competition. Take the case of the January 2014 GlobalHack contest in St. Louis that was initially attended by several hundred programmers. The story of the contest isn’t who took away the top $50,000 prize but about the other participants who didn’t finish in the money but came away with something else that is arguably more important.

One of the contest’s biggest sponsors was a growing startup called TopOpps. After the contest ended in early February, they hired ten of the participants to build its entire development team.  What is interesting is whom they chose and how their future employees’ participation at the contest presaged their selection. There are lessons for others who might want to participate in such programming contests to take away from these experiences.

  1. Demonstrating leadership during the contest is crucial. Sam Cummings was part of one of the teams that made it into the semi-final round, although his team didn’t end up wining any of the two prize purses at the contest. When he started the weekend hackathon, he joined a team of nine other random people that had never met each other before or worked together. “I met total strangers,” he told me during an interview. “It was like being stranded on a desert island and we had to work together to build shelter and find food,” while the other teams who had come from existing co-workers were already off and coding. Cummings became the leader of his team: “I totally didn’t expect that to happen, but we needed someone to pull everything together and I guess I just fit into that role.” He had to deal with team members dropping out early on: “two guys told us that they would build our back end and we never saw them again,” he said. Interestingly, none of the other team members were given job offers at TopOpps. The more you can demonstrate leadership, the better your chances are at finding other people that you want to work with, too.
  2. It isn’t always about who wins the competition. Rick Christianson had an odd journey to the St. Louis Hackathon. He was a career IBM developer, being hired right out of college for Big Blue and working for them for 17 years from his home office in St. Louis. “I was the member of a global dev team and didn’t have much contact with any local programmers,” he told me in an interview. “I was looking to have a more social opportunity at the hackathon.” Ironically, he didn’t join any team and worked by himself for the entire weekend. “If I do another hackathon, I won’t do it by myself!” While he was able to complete a working prototype of his project, the competition judges ultimately didn’t select him.
  3. Understand why observers are present and what they are doing there. Jim Eberlin, the founder of TopOpps, came to the hackathon expressly for recruiting a development team. He was one of the contest judges but spent a lot of time observing how the various teams worked together and what they were doing. He wanted to shortcut his hiring process. “It is all about getting to know your prospects and them getting to know you,” he told me in an email. He called the experience “interviewing 3.0” and invited 18 candidates to a private networking event after the weekend was over to “see how they interact and making them more comfortable to open up and be more of themselves. Interviews at the office to me are too old school and everyone is too guarded and perfunctory.”  TopOpps is the third startup Eberlin is building: the other two have raised more than $90 million in funding apiece.
  4. Job opportunities can be better than the prize purse. Christianson didn’t really enter the contest to find another job, “I was relatively happy at IBM.” Nevertheless, now he is the engineering director at TopOpps and was glad he made the move. “It is exciting to be a part of a startup that is building something from the ground up,” he said. The experience at the hackathon changed his perspective and challenged him in ways that he wasn’t getting at his previous job at IBM. Cummings was contemplating running again for the state legislature (he lost his first campaign) and decided to take the offer to join TopOpps as a developer a week after the competition “because I got an offer that I couldn’t refuse.”
  5. Think globally and enter contests elsewhere. Another one of the TopOpps hires from the contest was living in Los Angeles and flew out to St. Louis to attend the contest. He was hired and still lives there, working remotely for the company. Interestingly, about a quarter of the hackathon participants came from outside of the St. Louis metropolitan area, including coders from Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago.
  6. The community is what you make of it. Both Cummings and Christianson mentioned that the contest motivated them to bring their A game to the weekend. “Participating in the hackathon motivated me to write better code,” said Cummings. “I understand the concern about being judged but the challenge of the competition forces you to work under pressure, and learn how to communicate and collaborate with other programmers. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had.” Those are vital life skills that you can use in your day job too.
  7. Understand the problem set domain before you come to the contest. Both Cummings and Christianson spent some time reviewing the contest rules and what kind of app they were building. TopOpps uses advanced analytics to help companies understand their sales pipeline and that was the type of app they were coding for the contest. Both men were familiar with this area: Cummings had some experience in college with SAP and database programming; Christianson was developing various Web and Java apps for enterprises.

The hackathon isn’t the only innovative effort happening in St. Louis to help hire programmers. Earlier this year we covered the Launchcode effort to train new programmers, where local nerds worked with instructors from Harvard University to take the introductory programming class known as CS50. Harvard helped put on its own hackathon in late March to help the St. Louisans taking their class with their final programming projects.

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