Are software competitions bad? Some participants say hackathons can stifle innovation and chill the vibe of camaraderie because they offer such large prizes. But that doesn't have to always be the case.
A lot depends on what happens during the contest itself, who is participating, and who is running the competition. Take the case of the January 2014 GlobalHack contest in St. Louis that was initially attended by several hundred programmers. The story of the contest isn't who took away the top $50,000 prize, but about the other participants who didn't finish in the money but came away with something else that is arguably more important.
One of the contest's biggest sponsors was a growing startup called TopOpps. After the contest ended in early February, it hired ten of the participants to build its entire development team. What is interesting is whom they chose and how their future employees' participation at the contest presaged their selection. Here are ways to get the most from a programming contest.
1. Demonstrating leadership during the contest is crucial. Sam Cummings was part of one of the teams that made it into the semi-final round, although his team didn't end up wining any of the two prize purses at the contest. When he started the weekend hackathon, he joined a team of nine other random people that had never met each other before or worked together. "I met total strangers," he said. "It was like being stranded on a desert island and we had to work together to build shelter and find food," while the other teams who came to the competion as a team were already off and coding. Cummings became the leader of his team: "I totally didn't expect that to happen, but we needed someone to pull everything together, and I guess I just fit into that role." He had to deal with team members dropping out early on: "two guys told us that they would build our back end, and we never saw them again," he said. Interestingly, none of the other team members were given job offers at TopOpps. The more you can demonstrate leadership, the better your chances are at finding other people that you want to work with, too.
2. It isn't always about who wins the competition. Rick Christianson had an odd journey to the St. Louis Hackathon. He was a career IBM developer, being hired right out of college for Big Blue and working for them for 17 years from his home office in St. Louis. "I was the member of a global dev team and didn't have much contact with any local programmers," he said. "I was looking to have a more social opportunity at the hackathon." Ironically, he didn't join any team and worked by himself for the entire weekend. "If I do another hackathon, I won't do it by myself!" While he was able to complete a working prototype of his project, the competition judges ultimately didn't select him.