At hackathons, a large number of people come together for a short period of time to intensely chip away at a challenge. Such extreme, collaborative programming gatherings — codejams that drive technology innovation, and codefests that dish out ideas for large technology companies — are becoming a frequent feature in India. As their popularity rises, hackathons are evolving into a sophisticated human resources tool for the country's IT services and tech firms, which are applying them for a wide range of mainstream situations.
The fun, friendly marathon college campus coding fests are long gone; in their place are large events with hundreds and even thousands of participants. Companies are jumping in to sponsor competitions, sweetening the deal with cash prizes and glory for winners.
"Even a year ago, there were hardly any such events but now there's one or two happening every weekend somewhere in India," said Rajat Tandon, a senior director who spearheads an ambitious technology startup program called 10,000 startups at India's IT industry trade group Nasscom. Such events have spilled over to smaller Indian cities such as Chandigarh, Indore, and Thrissur, he said.
Big name IT companies are using hackdays to source and screen programmers, hire talent with specific skill sets, or even conduct talent searches amongst school and college students. Hackathons can serve to plug the skills gap, as the experienced coders learn collaboratively and the younger coders get exposure, Tandon said.
Besides helping pick out the right talent, HR departments are deploying hackathons in myriad ways, from gauging internal competency levels to promoting innovation amongst employees. Some companies are using them to draw out employees to work on ideas and projects with social impact, funnelling the vast coding potential to solve societal challenges.
Hackathons are expected to get more vital as hiring picks up in India. According to a Nasscom survey of Indian IT and back office firms, the improved global economic climate and increasing technology spend would result in a 6% rise in industry hiring over 2013. The focus is on skills rather than building capacity, the companies surveyed said. A high demand for niche technology skills across domains like analytics, cloud, and mobile, is making such events a valuable recruiting tool.
"Hackathons create a meritocratic playground where resume details such as the school you studied at or the company you worked at do not matter, only the skills do," said Vivek Ravisankar, cofounder at HackerRank, a platform for companies to hire programmers using coding contests. The San Francisco-headquartered company designs hacking contests for customers like Intel and Citrix and has most of its operations in India.
Nasscom, with over 15,000 member companies, is actively pushing technology startups to recruit through hackathons, a cost-effective route to talent discovery. HackerRank partnered with Two Roads, a data science firm based in the New Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, to host a coding event to attract skilled data scientists from across the country.
In Bangalore, IT services firms like Wipro and Mindtree are using hackathons to gauge internal skill levels. A few weeks ago, Wipro, India's third-largest IT services firm, ran an internal contest called CodeStorm, getting employees to compete against each other and showcase their coding skills. The event consisted of eight challenges with increasing levels of complexity and a tough tie-breaker. Over 4,000 employees from 22 countries sent in 22,000 submissions. "We were able to identify some serious talent within the organization, as well as plan for more such employee events," said G.S. Nathan, a general manager at the CTO's office at Wipro.
Nearly 150 software developers participated in a women-only hackday in Bangalore in August 2013. "Hackathons could be an effective way of bringing diversity into the industry," said Tandon of Nasscom.
Indian recruiters describe hackathons as modern-day career fairs, which cut out the long-drawn testing and interview process. Ravisankar of HackerRank pointed to the vast potential of hiring international candidates through hackathons with minimal investment. "It is a sustainable way to recruit talent," he said.
Saritha Rai is an India-based journalist and commentator who covers technology, business and society from her ringside seat in Bangalore.