There's A New Way To Land A Job In Tech: The Collegiate 'Hackathon'

As a college freshman, Alex Wissmann spent his first hackathon without any idea what he was doing, building an app that was barely functional.

But the project he made in those 36 hours was enough to land him a summer job.

Working with three other students, Wissmann and his team created an app that chose the safest walking route on Google Maps by evaluating crime history in the area.

“It was absolutely terrible compared to anything I’d make now. It barely worked,” Wissmann said. “[But] that project was massively important, because it taught me how to use Javascript and basic web development tools.”

Two years later, Wissmann is now the co-director of PennApps, a prominent intercollegiate hackathon that started at University of Pennsylvania in 2009. Wissmann said hackathon demand really took off in 2013, after both PennApps and MHacks at University of Michigan reached 1,000 participants for the first time.

That was the same year Major League Hacking launched as the official student hackathon league. MLH Commissioner Nick Quinlan said its first fall season included five events. Now Quinlan said he’s been in touch with 67 universities interested in holding their own hackathons in 2015.

The increase of collegiate hackathons has helped students in several ways. Hackathons create a fun, collaborative environment for students to learn new coding skills and technologies outside the classroom. Plus, the finished projects bolster resumes and make students more competitive job applicants. And hackathons also provide opportunities to connect with and impress potential employers, since corporate sponsors get the chance to work with students one-on-one.

Wissmann said having that first finished product differentiated him from other freshmen when he met the co-founders of the startup Firefly. Hackathons also allowed him to meet contacts at Mozilla, where he interned the following year.

“I was really blown away by how much the spread of the hackathon scene has influenced how much companies are now coming to us,” he said.

Instant Interviews

Today recruiters are prowling hackathons pretty regularly, which can lead to on-the-spot interviews for all sorts of tech companies.

That’s what happened with James Mishra, a senior at the University of Minnesota. Mishra said he unknowingly went through a first-round interview with major tech startup, simply by talking to its representatives at a hackathon.

“It’s a total thing that they will pull you into a classroom and interview you right there,” he said.

Before he joined Major League Hacking, Quinlan was on the recruiting side as a developer evangelist at SendGrid. Quinlan recounted one instance in which a conversation with a hackathon participant turned into an informal interview.

“We start talking, and we’re coding together, and by the end of it I said, ‘Hey, you should really apply to SendGrid,'” he said. “And he applies and basically his full screen and his first technical interview just happened because I’d been there coding all night with him.”

As hackathons grow and need more funding, Quinlan said he’s seen a wide variety of companies get involved. Hackathon sponsors range from CapitalOne Bank to VC firm Andreessen Horowitz to the messaging startup Yo. According to a MLH survey, representation at a hackathon also improves students’ perception of participating companies.

Cassidy Williams, a recent college graduate from Iowa State University, attributes the rise in interest to recruiting opportunities for employers. A software engineer and developer evangelist at Venmo, Williams said she first started hearing about hackathons two years ago.

The End Of The Career Fair?

Williams, along with other company representatives and students interviewed, said she could see hackathons replacing career fairs altogether.

“There’s just a moment where companies started to realise that the best students aren’t always necessarily at the career fair,” she said. “They’re at these hackathons … and they’re intrinsically motivated to actually get something done.”

At John Hopkins University, corporate sponsors use both hackathons and career fairs as components of recruiting. Joanne Selinski, a computer science professor at John Hopkins, said the events work in conjunction, but it’s unlikely that one will overtake the other.

“Certainly we’re not going to have nearly as many companies sponsoring a hackathon event as there are that will come to a career fair,” Selinski said. “But they are very complementary events. The career fair is more broad, and the hackathon is more of an in-depth kind of thing.”

Shikhar Mohan, a computer science major at Northwestern University, said he added a hackathons section to his resume after he heard a friend’s internship application was rejected because he hadn’t attended any hackathons.

The Downside To Hackathons

But Mohan said he’s also seen dedication to hacking culture result in neglect of proper practices.

“It’s hard for people to realise recently with this whole culture, software isn’t necessarily just built in 24 hours,” he said. “You have to put a lot of thought behind it. There’s a lot of different things that go into it.”

Mohan said he fell victim to this type of thinking himself, which he discovered during a summer internship.

“I learned Javascript in a hackathon way,” Mohan said. “And when I went to Yahoo for my internship and started this code, they were like, ‘What is going on here? I can’t read this, this isn’t testable. We can’t maintain this.'”

Selinski said it can be hard to warn against this kind of thinking at hackathons, because it’s contradictory to the goal of the event — to build a quick, simple prototype.

“I don’t think the hackathon should replace good, solid coursework in computer science,” Selinski said. “I hate quickly thrown together code and all its ugliness, and it’s hard to do otherwise in that environment. So I wouldn’t want that to be peoples’ only exposure to building software. That would definitely be a bad thing.”

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