Jousting for jobs: How coding contests help employers identify world-class talent

We all want to hire winners. That's even more vital when we're trying to fill key technical jobs like programmer and architect. After you've taken the time to post the jobs, work with recruiters and sift through mountains of resumes, you'll still want to verify the technical skills of the applicants. That's where a contest can be helpful.

Over the past few years, coding tournaments and similar organized tests of IT professionals' abilities have emerged as a means of identifying skilled technical staffers. TopCoder, TopCoder, InterviewStreet, Codility, Siemens and others have created a series of contests to identify talented IT specialists. These competitions take the form of predefined skills tests, timed problem-solving challenges or online tournaments. Winners can garner financial rewards, job interviews or consulting contracts. Companies in need of top tech talent can check out the leaderboards that some of these tournament organizers maintain to see who's at the top in various categories, such as UI design, bug fixing and chip design.

Student competitions such as Intel's Cornell Cup also allow companies to identify rising stars. Winners are frequently rewarded with summer jobs, internships or offers of jobs after they graduate. Most university-affiliated student competitions are face-to-face events and therefore prove to be excellent venues for recruiting and networking. And some companies that have highly specialized technical needs have designed their own customized competitions for specific positions.

Employers can reap all kinds of benefits from such contests. In addition to finding talented IT professionals or garnering creative solutions to vexing problems, a company that sponsors a tech tournament has an opportunity to present itself as an appealing workplace where employees encounter interesting technical challenges. Sponsoring tournaments can also reduce a company's dependence on recruiters and job boards.

Of course, you should be aware that contests also present challenges, including these:

• Organizing a tournament requires a lot of planning. Among other things, you must clearly define the problem that contestants will be asked to solve and break it into discrete components, each of which could become a separate competition.

• If a tournament's challenge is tied to a specific project, the competition will expand the project's timeline. If the competitors already have jobs, they won't be focusing exclusively on your problem. In addition, you'll have to spend time evaluating entries after the competition closes.

• The top performers may not really have the skills you think they have. They may have received help from friends, so you should put them through additional testing during the on-site interview. And remember that tournaments usually reward people for their technical expertise, not soft skills such as the ability to work as members of teams.

• Winners of virtual tournaments may not be U.S. citizens and might need visas to work for you. And some of the entrants may have participated just for the fun of it; they may have no desire to relocate, and they might not even be looking for a job.

• Some tournament champions may be happy to work for you as contractors but would balk at the idea of becoming full-time employees.

Technical contests can help employers identify world-class talent and find people with highly specific technical expertise. If you keep all of the challenges in mind, a virtual tournament could provide an effective solution for your technical staffing needs. Let the jousting begin!

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners, which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

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This story, "Jousting for jobs: How coding contests help employers identify world-class talent" was originally published by Computerworld.

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