Sept. 13, 2016, The Star
By: John Lorinc
They’ve become the tech crowd’s version of raves. And increasingly, job fairs.
On most weekends in big cities with thriving startup scenes, hundreds of young programmers, many of them still in school, will turn up at hackathons — freewheeling competitions where amateur developers race to create applications with new software platforms, hardware or data sets provided by the sponsors. For 24 or even 48 hours, they network, brainstorm and grind out code, their efforts fuelled by energy drinks, protein bars and the promise of attractive prizes.
“I think I’ve been to a hundred hackathons in the last five years,” says Helen Kontozopoulos, a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s faculty of computer science and co-founder of the Innovation Lab there. “They are crucial to our students because they are places where they meet each other, socialize and learn new skills.”
While hackathons have become a widely accepted way for companies and other organizations to crowdsource new apps or solve problems, they have evolved into essential networking venues where talent and potential employers can cross paths.
“It’s crazy hard to get good developers,” says Kontozopoulos. “If you know developers are at hackathons, you have to be there. You just go.”
Some observers, in fact, say that hackathons have become the best way for employers either to find new recruits or brand themselves as places to find a software job. The hothouse environment will also reveal how young techies perform when faced with the pressure of an intense deadline and an open-ended problem.
“The reason we invest in hackathons has little to do with idea generation,” explains Rocky Jain, director of Manulife’s RED Lab, the insurance giant’s incubator, based at Communitech in Waterloo, Ont. “It has everything to do with finding and identifying the talented developers who have the ideas.”