If your employees don't have the geek cred to dive into a hackathon, there are plenty of other ways you can identify hidden talent. One is by creating special noncore projects and asking for volunteers to take them on, says Umesh Ramakrishnan, vice chairman at executive search firm CTPartners.
"Announce major initiatives that have not been assigned to a team and offer them up as temporary projects," advises Ramakrishnan. "Once you have your volunteers, have them assessed by your expert and monitor their progress. The cream will rise to the top."
Kareo, a medical office software and services provider, routinely offers up special projects for its staff, says VP of Product Development Jason Leu. For example, a Kareo engineer recently volunteered to create an internal tool to answer common questions from customers. It quickly became the central system the company uses to manage inquiries about customer accounts.
"This is the type of project that would not have been prioritized through normal processes but that turned out to have a profound impact on our business," Leu says. "When employees volunteer for these projects, it highlights specific passion around an idea or opportunity or flags specific talents that often are beyond the core knowledge of our team. They open up learning opportunities, allow employees to extend their skill sets, and help make a difference for our customers and business -- all positive factors for ongoing career development."
You'll never know what brilliant ideas are lurking inside your organization -- and which employees have them -- if you don't ask, says HireVue's Newman.
"We like to celebrate new ideas, and the people who promote them are the first in line for promotions and upward mobility inside our company," says HireVue's Newman. "Actively soliciting and implementing ideas from the entire employee base helps our technical team, as well as other functions, understand that their ideas matter and brings continuous improvement to the company. That ultimately leads to higher levels of employee engagement and retention. Out of the 100 people or so we've hired in the last three years, at least 10 of them were promoted thanks to ideas and programs they had suggested."
But, he adds, you must have a corporate culture that is open to new ideas; otherwise employees will feel shut out -- and quickly shut up. Being open and transparent is the key to retaining young tech talent, says Joel Bomgar.
"At Bomgar we have monthly companywide meetings during which I share everything that's going on, good or bad, down to our corporate bank balance," he says. "During those meetings I also read and address nearly every entry in our anonymous suggestion box, so employees know their views are being heard and valued."
One of the best ways to unearth hidden talent is to find out what your staff is passionate about. This means setting aside time to shoot the breeze, says Perry Stoll, VP of engineering and operations for Cloudant, a cloud-based distributed database solution.
Stoll says Cloudant routinely schedules time for employees to bring in articles or blog posts that interest them, sit down, and talk tech, even if the conversation has nothing to do with actual work projects.
"The goal is to get insight into the real stuff people are paying attention to," he says. "You might learn someone is really into functional programming, compiler design, query optimization, or big data statistics. Or maybe they want to show off the latest advances in virtual machine performance. Whatever the case, they're going to have cool ideas on ways to build systems better."
At job-matching service TheLadders, developers watch an episode of Clean Coders' code-cast once a week during lunch, then discuss the content with the team, says Kyri Sarantakos, vice president of engineering. "It gets everyone out of the weeds and thinking about software engineering more broadly."
It doesn't have to be a formal or scheduled meeting. ExtraHop Networks encourages its engineers to brainstorm with one another in the hallway or spark up spontaneous white board sessions in a conference room nearby, says Rothstein, a software engineer himself. Because his office is right next to the engineering department, Rothstein says he'll often join in and push his team to come up with new product features or creative solutions to problems.