The Power of Hackathons – Gamifying the Recruitment Process


What’s the most bizarre thing you’ve ever done to score the job of your dreams? Flirted with your potential boss over dinner? Ben put to the test in a grueling physical challenge? Composed a song, dance, or a story, on the spot? Divulged your worst professional experience to date to a boardroom full of corporates?

Well, how about the idea of embarking of a tech-whiz-sprint-like event alongside computer programmers and other IT geniuses (interface designers, graphic designers, software developers, and so forth), working together collaboratively to create a functional software or hardware product by the end of a single sitting. We call it a hackathon. And boy are they becoming increasingly popular in the world of recruitment.

Generally hackathons or ‘hackfests’ are given a guiding theme, which could be the programming language used, the demographic group of the programmers, or an application program interface, and programmers are generally placed in teams based on skillset and interests. The competition can last anywhere from a few hours to several days – usually with participants living off pizza, energy drinks, and with the odd hour of sleep stolen here and there. Hackathons are usually organized for fun or as a novel challenge for programmers seeking to gain new skills, and there has been a lot of talk about using gamification in education as well as language learning. Hackathons can also sometimes take the form of a marketing gimmick – but increasingly so, they are being touted as a wonderful recruitment tool for those seeking top programming talent. Apparently, according to 65 per cent of recruiters there is a consistent and serious lack of ‘the right candidate’ in the programming industry. But by setting a challenge to connected, tech-savvy employees and inviting them to gather and recruit like-minded programmers who might not yet be known to the company, many an enterprise is today finding new and incredibly talented IT staff through organizing hackathons.

Through this particular kind of gamification – gamification being the application of typical elements of game playing or the use of game design to enhance non-game contexts – recruiters are finding new and novel ways to increase interest from potential employees, recruit top talent, all while enhancing company engagement, loyalty and participation. In particular, gamifying the recruitment process makes hiring WAY more interactive, worthwhile and rewarding for employees and candidates. And boy does it make things easier for the recruiters themselves. Forget about asking awkward personal questions and deliberating over the best way to assess new talent: gamification through organizing hackathons is the most effective means possible of finding keen-as-bean programmers and ensuring that the very best talent is that which shines through during the event itself. It’s an additional bonus that gamification makes hiring fun for existing employers, who are inevitably rewarded for their referral of suitable candidates and participation in the hackathon. At the most basic level: using a hackathon for the recruitment process means eliminating incapable or under skilled candidates much faster than usually possible via an ordinary interview process, with time management, innovative thinking and handling pressure in the moment all key skills for surviving and thriving in a hackathon. It helps recruiters develop a realistic understanding of what that candidate would look like as an actual employee, while simultaneously allowing the candidate to become familiar with the company, its ethics, its general approach and its IT team.

Hackathons are certainly no new phenomenon. In fact, not many would realise this but the game changing Facebook “Like” button, as well as Facebook Chat, were created during internal Facebook hackathons.

Nor is using hackathons to recruit top talent particularly new or novel.

The king of all tech firms, Google, has been a key user of gamification for recruitment purposes for almost 14 years. It launched a Google Code Jam software-writing competition as a means of finding new, capable talent for the company many years back, offering USD$50,000 to the overall winner to drive the competition to dizzying heights. Shell is another company fond of gamification as a means of recruiting top talent, and Marriott International Inc was another known to have adopted game mechanics as a means of enhancing its recruitment processes – though not necessarily for IT talent. Marriott International created a hotel-themed app which demands users to navigate the complex terrain of hotel kitchen management through game-style tasks and through solving real-world problems.

The recruiters at, a Walmart subsidiary, who were tasked with enhancing the company’s recruitment process and find more suitable candidates for online job adds, brought together talented software designers, product designers, software developers, and aspiring students to identify an algorithm to better match online resumes with key criteria in job adds. And it worked.

What is important for recruiters and HR specialists to keep in mind is the importance of doing hackathons right. Otherwise, they simply become unhealthy 36 – 48 hour marathon programming sessions participated in for bragging rights. If done properly, hackathons can offer a better return-on-investment than forking out for a recruitment company.

Firstly, ensure that you take the right approach to the hackathon. Opt for a subject, theme or angle that actually suits your company and its values – you want the candidates to have an honest introduction to the company they may one day be working for, right? Secondly, focus the majority of efforts on networking and leveraging the valuable relationships and knowledge of your existing programmers and IT employees. Lastly, make it fun. There is a reason your company has opted to reject the traditional 30-part-question-and-answer-interview process – make sure you don’t forget that.

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