How Hackathons Could Improve Your Hiring

by Keerthi Surapaneni and Heather Corallo

Hiring in technology is expensive, highly subjective, often biased, and incredibly time consuming. Yikes.

It’s not unusual for companies to interview hundreds of people (with 2–25 hours of interviews per candidate) to fill a handful of jobs. In addition to hiring new permanent employees, there are also the hiring processes associated with screening and evaluating temporary workers, interns, and volunteers for a variety. It is a lot.

Couple that initial investment of time and risk with the new normal of high turnover. According to recent statistics, the median number of years a U.S. worker has been in his or her current job is just 4.4, down sharply since the 1970s.

Could we find a better, more creative way to hire? Could we save time, save energy, and find better fits without all the legwork? Enter, the “Hackathon for Hire.”

The “Hackathon for Hire'' concept could eliminate many of the challenges current recruiting teams face while improving overall candidate experience. This concept would help individuals consider new opportunities AND deliver value and social impact to the communities we all live in. That’s a win, win, win, win.

What’s so special about hackathons?

For today’s candidates, there is a pronounced intrinsic motivation to help others and positively impact the world through their professional work. That’s why “social good” hackathons are included as part of the value proposition when considering an organization for employment. For today’s companies, there is a desire to give back and a need to be part of the community around them. They do this through corporate foundation work and straight-up sponsorship, but offering pro-bono work on technical challenges for public schools, local government, and other non-profits is another way to engage employees.

In addition to the community impact of social good hackathons, we also know that social good hackathons tend to be incredibly supportive and collaborative environments for problem solving and brainstorming. Due to the nature of the event, there is a baseline atmosphere of psychological safety, creativity and collaboration. Because of the free-form set-up of a hackathon, where all kinds of solutions are considered viable, opportunity for confirmation bias is reduced, and more innovative ideas can be embraced. In addition, participants navigate through this environment with a shared set of values, (codes of conduct, mission-statements, etc.) which returns high engagement, personal and team satisfaction.

The structure of a hackathon supports everyone doing their best work, something that the tech industry has struggled to create in their recruiting experience for years. So we ask, why not use this same framework for internal hiring of experienced Technical candidates?

So how does this work exactly?

Hiring teams in technology need to work together to develop this type of hiring practice. If we approach this in an Agile way, the recruiting process could lead to much better and more efficient end results; hiring with shorter time-to-fill, more technically capable candidates, and higher acceptance rates from candidates who now hold a much deeper and more positive understanding of company culture. The idea is not to complete the hiring process during a Hackathon For Hire but rather to create a powerful funnel of candidates for further engagement that would replace much of the time-consuming initial phases of the recruiting process. These candidates would also feel more strongly attached to the company and would be more likely to accept a future offer, or refer a friend for a role.

How to get started on your Hackathon for Hire

Step 1: Find your social community groups in need of hackathons.

By partnering with local government agencies, non-profit groups, spiritual communities and more there are many ways to find organizations to support with your social impact hackathon.

Step 2: Build a communication strategy that allows for the candidates/participants to understand what they are getting into by joining in a hackathon for hire. They will be evaluated on:

  1. How they collaborate
  2. How they communicate with others
  3. How they use creative problem solving techniques (i.e. design thinking, user research, etc).
  4. When coding, how comfortable are they to be pairing or even mob programming?
  5. How and when do they think about quality in the stages of building software? Yes they are building an MVP, but are they thinking about scalability, health of the code, testing?
  6. When in the process do they start thinking about the customer/end user? Does what they are building deliver value? In most social good hackathons the goal is to deliver some immediate value to the social group that you’re helping as quickly as possible. Do your candidates translate that ask easily?

These expectations should be clear and available to everyone participating. You’re not trying to sneakily trick folks into showing their colors, but rather telling them explicitly what skills you are reviewing.

Step 3: Train your internal hackers/evaluators in the skills necessary to create the right hackathon environment. There are many ways to run a hackathon, so it’s best to make sure you’ve got a shared understanding of what you want the experience to be for all who participate. Next, make sure your “interview training” relates to evaluating candidate participants in a dynamic working “hack” environment rather than a traditional static question/answer format.

From an interviewer/evaluator perspective, think about questions that would help you understand them as a potential team member, and look for qualities in their hackathon work that you would want in their day-job work. For example:

  • Do their solutions make people feel awesome?
  • Do they experiment quickly and learn from early mistakes?
  • Do the solutions deliver something of value to the customers/end users?
  • Have they agreed to make safety a prerequisite?

Why this works

The key concept around this approach to Hackathon for Hire is to let jobseekers and/or volunteers form small teams through self-selection, then let them experiment, implement, and iterate. Meanwhile, you and your team of evaluators are observing not just the finished products, but the work styles of the participating job-seekers.

Instead of showcasing their skills on a whiteboard in a time-sensitive and stressful technical interview, with a senior engineer looking over their shoulder, you get to see people in action working on real problems, with real follow coders. They won’t just have to tell you how they communicate, they will show you, in real time, with real code.


Here are some examples of flavors of hackathons/competitions from across the globe:

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